Here is a thesis that occurred to me over the weekend as I mused about success and failure, about weakness and willpower, about competing selves:
Could it be that... once you KNOW what you should do... moral behavior, or "good" behavior, or "healthy" behavior (take your pick) is nothing more than the setting-up of the right incentive structures for oneself?
Figuring out what situations, or habits, give you strong incentives to succeed and strong disincentives to fail, and staying in the success-producing ones as much as you can; creating and modifying the incentives in the pre-existing arenas where your life's story unfolds; stepping back one level and creating meta-incentives to lure your self into the places where you feel the power and the desire to do the right thing, and away from the places where you feel weak, where you do the things you hate yourself for doing.
This is a big topic, and I need to think more about it. But I just want to say that, as psychobabbley as that sounds, there is certainly precedent for it in Catholic moral teaching. Remember "avoiding the near occasion of sin?" That's the idea that you should stay away from situations that strongly tempt you to sin, or activities that have been the precursor of sin in your past.
It's really rather remarkable that so much writing on willpower, on avoiding temptation, is framed in terms of a kind of splitting or separation of the self.... there's the "me" who wants to lose weight keep my weight down and the "me" who wants to eat entire sleeve of saltine crackers; a college kid has a "self" who wants to get good grades and a "self" who wants to party tonight... a drinker may have a "self" who decides to go to AA and a "self" who hates every sober minute. Last month's Atlantic had a thought-provoking article that explored this phenomenon (of one "self" deciding to tie the hands of the other, untrustworthy "self"):
We used to think that the hard part of the question “How can I be happy?” had to do with nailing down the definition of happy. But it may have more to do with the definition of I. Many researchers now believe, to varying degrees, that each of us is a community of competing selves, with the happiness of one often causing the misery of another. This theory might explain certain puzzles of everyday life, such as why addictions and compulsions are so hard to shake off, and why we insist on spending so much of our lives in worlds —like TV shows and novels and virtual-reality experiences—that don’t actually exist. And it provides a useful framework for thinking about the increasingly popular position that people would be better off if governments and businesses helped them inhibit certain gut feelings and emotional reactions....
The multiplicity of selves becomes more intuitive as the time span increases. Social psychologists have found certain differences in how we think of ourselves versus how we think of other people—for instance, we tend to attribute our own bad behavior to unfortunate circumstances, and the bad behavior of others to their nature. But these biases diminish when we think of distant past selves or distant future selves; we see such selves the way we see other people. Although it might be hard to think about the person who will occupy your body tomorrow morning as someone other than you, it is not hard at all to think that way about the person who will occupy your body 20 years from now. This may be one reason why many young people are indifferent about saving for retirement; they feel as if they would be giving up their money to an elderly stranger.
and then of course there's Romans 7:
What I do, I do not understand.
For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I concur that the law is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not.
For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want. Now if (I) do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand. For I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body?
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore, I myself, with my mind, serve the law of God but, with my flesh, the law of sin.
Boy, if that doesn't describe a sense of competing versions of the self, nothing does.
So my question is... is that all there is to it? Is the "answer" to overcoming temptations of all kinds really for the "inner self" -- the one who "takes delight" in moral or correct or healthy or Godly behavior -- to set up the kind of structure around the "members" that cajoles them to behave? To offer to the weak flesh, in return for good behavior, the short-term goodies it craves?
And if so... knowing what I have done and how I did it...
...what else am I capable of overcoming?