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A crisis of commitment

A reasonable line of thought can give rise to a crisis of commitment. Many a commitment requires persistence or willpower, especially in the face of temptation. A straightforward example is the decision to quit smoking; another is the promise to be faithful to someone for the rest of one’s life. However, when we consider making such a commitment, we are often in a position to anticipate that we will be exposed to temptation and to realize that following through would require persistence or willpower. But this means that we may not be in a position to predict that we will follow through.

Yet if we are not in a position to predict that we will follow through, then—so the reasonable line of thought goes—we are not entitled to make the commitment. After all, if we cannot say that we will persist, then how could we make the commitment to do it? And what would making the commitment consist in, if not at least in saying that we will persist? This line of thought is especially pressing if in making a commitment we invite others to rely on us. For example, the promise to be faithful might be part of an invitation to share one’s life with another—to have children, a house, and a thirty-year mortgage. It seems reasonable to think that such a commitment would require the prediction that we will follow through.

Cigarettes by Sipa. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.
Cigarettes by Sipa. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

It might be replied that we often are in a position to predict that we will follow through. Yet simple reflection should lead us to realize that in very many cases, this is not the case. One reason is the prevalent statistical evidence about human failure to uphold commitments of various kinds; another reason is that when we make commitments, we usually don’t gather evidence about our chances of success, or about the success rate of similarly situated people. Thus even if the empirical evidence is not against us, it seems that we don’t bother to gather evidence that speaks for us—but a prediction that is based on little or no evidence is unfounded. Furthermore, if we understand that we will be exposed to temptation, and we understand that temptation exercises a pull on us (as is in the nature of temptation), we will understand that we cannot predict that we will resist it. To make such a prediction would require predicting that we will feel no pull. Finally, experience with others and ourselves simply tells us that we often tend to fail to live up to substantial commitments to resist temptation.

Nonetheless, I hold, such a crisis of commitment is unfounded (though, of course, we might have reasons for a different crisis of commitment). That is because it rests on a mistake: making a commitment does not require being in a position to predict that we will follow through. That is because our commitments concern our future actions. And as agents, we have a distinct view of our future—insofar as it is a future that we determine through our agency. More precisely, to the extent that our future is up to us, to that extent we can settle the question of what we will do as agents: we can settle what will happen in light of reasons that show it worthwhile to make it happen—viz. reasons to act.

But these are practical reasons, not evidence, which would be the basis of a prediction. And we can have practical reasons that show doing something worthwhile, and so make our commitment rational, without thereby being in a position to predict that we will follow through. This implies that being in a position to predict that we will follow through on a commitment is not necessary for making the commitment, nor even for rationally making it. To be an agent consists not only in the freedom to make something happen, but also in the authority to settle the question of whether to do so in light of reasons that show it worthwhile to make it happen.

That is not to say that following through on a commitment is easy, or that we should think that it is easy. If we anticipate temptation we need to be mindful of the possibility of failure. But being mindful means making smart choices—choices that may help us steer clear of temptation—not predicting that there is a good chance that we will fail or even planning for failure. Also, being mindful and steering clear of temptation is not enough. In the end, we must resolutely resist temptation. And resoluteness starts with the right mindset—the mindset of decision rather than prediction.

Featured image credit: “Wedding rings”, by Allan Ajifo. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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