Listen to this article
Philosophers get themselves in a tizzy about the simplest of things. Two examples are particularly indicative of their professional blind spots. First is weakness of will. There can scarcely be a more common and easily understood phenomenon than this. We all know what it is like to resolve to do something and then fail to do so. For philosophers, however, this is baffling. How can it be that we want to do something and yet don’t do it? That would seem to involve both wanting and not wanting at the same time – a hopeless contradiction.
Second is self-deception. I think we all know what it means to kid ourselves. But, once again, this is beyond logical comprehension. How can the deceiver fall for his own deception?
In both of these examples we appear to be disagreeing with ourselves, a paradoxical-sounding state of affairs if ever there was one. But it is only baffling if you have a naive conception of an individual as a unified, univocal self, all of whose desires and beliefs form a neat whole. The reality is quite different. Within each of us is a number of different voices that achieve just enough harmony to sing as one melodious choir – most of the time. Self-deception and weakness of will are just two familiar ways in which the divisions within the unit come to the fore.
We might ask scoffingly why philosophers are so dim-witted as to miss this obvious fact and treat disagreement within the self as though it were an insoluble paradox. But it is perhaps better to ask why the rest of us tend to make the same mistake. Despite being reminded all the time of our inner divisions, I think most people believe that they and others are simple, single selves who speak with one voice, inner and outer.
Given that, it should be clear that we must disagree with ourselves. Only by managing those disagreements can we maintain the integrity of the self. If we do that well enough, we might just forget the divisions within us, and so, like philosophers, find ourselves baffled by our contradictions.
When we’re stuck on the see-saw of ambivalence, with pros and cons piling up on both sides of a decision, we can torment ourselves with a constant inner debate about whether to stick to some plan or let it go. For instance, should we push ourselves to leave our job and travel round the world even though it entails a certain amount of financial insecurity or should we prioritise building our career?
At times like this, we tend to go endlessly but fruitlessly through the advantages and disadvantages. Thinking about all we might gain immediately evokes thoughts of all we might lose. So we decide. We undecide. One day we are confident that adventure and challenge are the priority; the following day it’s the other way round.
Is there a way of making progress before life takes the decision away from us? Apart from giving up the chimera of the perfect, completely risk-free decision, I have found the idea of the all-things-considered judgment useful.
Let’s go back to weighing our options. The question is whether this process can yield a verdict. If it doesn’t, then things are probably just too evenly balanced – it’s no wonder you’re changing your mind all the time. But more often, after carefully taking into account all the potential gains and losses, we come up with a decision that we are satisfied is the best of the lot.
This all-things-considered judgment won’t automatically eliminate the competition. If there are genuine reasons in favour of both sides, these are unlikely to suddenly lose their attraction. So if the following day you start having cold feet, it doesn’t mean you have to ditch your decision, as it’s probably just the other side demanding your attention. Instead, start thinking of strategies to make yourself stick to the plan. You need to remind yourself that believing in the choice you have made does not require overcoming all ambivalence. Being aware of that enables you to move on despite disagreeing with yourself.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England
To suggest a question, email email@example.com
Illustration by Laura Carlin
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published