Continence, temperance, and motivational conflict: Why traditional neo-Aristotelian accounts are psychologically unrealistic

Philosophical Psychology 35 (2):205-225 (2022)
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Abstract

Traditional neo-Aristotelian accounts hold that temperance and continence are distinct character traits that are distinguished by the extent to which their bearers experience motivational conflict. In this paper, I formulate two pairs of necessary conditions—which, collectively, I call the conformity thesis—that articulate this distinction. Then, drawing on work in contemporary social and personality psychology, I argue that the conformity thesis is false. Being highly self-controlled is the best, psychologically realistic candidate for continence. However, our best evidence suggests that highly self-controlled/continent people do not experience more or stronger desires that conflict with their evaluative judgments than others, and they are not particularly good at directly resisting these desires. In this way, actual continent people exhibit motivational harmony that is more similar to the traditional picture of temperance. On the other hand, they achieve this harmony because they are able to effectively employ indirect strategies for handling motivational conflict. These strategies are correctly associated with continence. Recognizing that temperance and continence are overlapping character traits puts us in a better position to understand, and design interventions to improve, the neuropsychological capacities that enable humans to intelligently manage their desires.

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Matthew Haug
William & Mary

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