Freedom and Self-Command

FREEDOM WITHOUT SELF-COMMAND is an absolute disaster. Following the great economist and philosopher Adam Smith: Self-command is the wherewithal to do the right thing, temptations to the contrary notwithstanding. Here are two simple examples: (1) A married person exhibits substantial self-command in not having sex with someone whom she/he finds ever so sexually attractive. (2) A person who is so well-off financially sees a $100 bill fall out of a person’s pocket, but rather than pick up the $100 bill and keep it, the person picks up the money and returns it to the individual out of whose pocket the money had fallen.

Indeed, self-command can be a considerable factor as a way of making a person feel at ease. I shall always remember the instance when I walked out of my apartment rather well-dressed. Indeed, carrying my briefcase and wearing a silk vest and tie. Well, there was an older white woman walking down the very sidewalk that I was standing on and she freaked out upon seeing me, the black man. My blackness mightily trumped my attire. I could certainly have ignored her utterly unwarranted sentiment about me and her horrifically unwarranted fear that I was going to rob her. But my thought was that more good would be done if I simply walked to the pavement on the other side of the street. And that is exactly what I did. And in so behaving, I left her ever so morally puzzled; for that was the very last thing that she expected me to do.

The self-command that I exhibited in simply walking to the other side of the street produced a thoughtfulness on the woman’s part that I could not have brought about had I not done so.
As the example suggests, the very idea behind self-command is doing what is appropriate even though what one actually prefers to do is quite different. Thus, the very nature of self-command is not at all about merely acting in accordance with one’s desires. Nor it is about following what it more convenient for one. Quite the contrary, it is very, very, very often the case that an act of self-command involves both setting aside what one desires to do and doing what is less convenient for one.
And there is no respect at all in which exercising self-command constitutes a form of inferiority. Crossing to the other side of the street in order to put someone at ease does in any way entail a sense of inferiority.

A quite significant truth is the reality that on any given day there are countless many individuals who will unexpectedly find themselves in the position where a measure of self-command is necessary if they are to do the right thing. Indeed, I think that more often than not, it is the case that the need for self-command unexpectedly presents itself. On the block where I live, the last thing I expected when I walked out of my apartment was a woman who would freak out upon seeing me. I had seconds to recognize what would be the appropriate way in which to respond.

Although having freedom is surely quite majestic, it is also the case that having a deep, deep measure of self-command is also ever so majestic, it being understood the majesty of one is not at all diminished by the existence of the other. Indeed, I hold that in order to have a complete life both freedom and self-command are absolutely necessary. For it can and will happen often enough that a person must have the wherewithal to perform a certain action or to refrain from performing a certain action. We may rightly think of self-command as having both the moral and psychological wherewithal so to behave, temptations to the contrary notwithstanding.

A quite interesting question is the following: Is modernity enhancing or diminishing the depth of self-command that we have? If modernity is diminishing our self-command, then human beings may indeed become one another’s worse enemy. On the other hand, if modernity is enhancing our self-command, then human beings will achieve a moral and intellectual excellence that is ever so majestic, affirming, and psychologically rewarding.

© 2017 Laurence Thomas

About Laurence Thomas

Laurence Thomas is Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Department of Philosophy at Syracuse University. His most recent book is The Family and the Political Self and his most recent article in French is "Juifs et Noirs: Au-delà du Mal" in Trigano (ed.) Juifs et Noirs: du Mythe à la Réalité. Thomas has published numerous essays on the topic of friendship. The essay "The Character of Friendship" has appeared in volume on friendship, entitled Thinking About Friendship, edited by Damian Caluori and the essay "Friendship in the Shadow of Technology" has appeared in the anthology Moral and Moral Controversies edited by Steven Scalet and John Arthur. His most recent essay--entitled "Being Moral and Handling the Truth"--is about circumstances under which it is morally permissible to lie. Indeed, an example is given in Section IV of a lie being morally virtuous.
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