We need to know three things to form a habit – knowledge, skill and desire. We need to know what to do, how to do, and we must have a desire to do. We often lack the desire to do. For example, eating right kind of food can’t be so difficult, but we eat junk food knowingly and unhesitatingly. We know smoking is injurious to health, and we also know that getting rid of this habit is not such a big deal, but we continue doing it. Our willpower often becomes so weak that we can’t resist the alluring temptations of vice or bad habit. It is generally believed that people with high self-control can resist temptations more effectively than people with low self-control. But studies tell that people with strong self-control are less likely than others to resist desires they come across in their daily lives.
Roy Baumeister’s studies suggest that people with good self-control avoid temptations and problem situations, rather than battling with them. Self-control works most effectively by means of controlling habits, than by using willpower. Self-control, or lack of it, can make or break good habits. We acquire habits. Habits are formed with repeated practice. Habits can be helpful in conserving willpower. So, don’t waste your self-control over mundane matters; preserve them for the time when you encounter more serious situations.
Virtuous habits are extremely helpful in conserving willpower, as these habits prepare us to deal with temptations. The sources of temptations are both inside and outside. It could be due to external objects. It could arise entirely from inside the mind. In the situations of maximum temptations, one will almost certainly require willpower. In these situations, habits may not be of
much help. Virtuous habits are more effective to avoid temptations than to resist it. It is not easy to eliminate desires, particularly sinful desires. “Virtue is not the absence of desire for sin, it is the absence of sin, despite the desire to sin.” Baumeister says that every day virtue is best achieved, not by such heroic feats of willpower, but rather by avoiding such situations in the first place.
What are the possible temptations that direct us to take routes that are not straight? We don’t like to follow straight lines even when we know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Our desires are always greater than our necessities. In our eagerness to fulfil desires we often forget what line or curve we are following. Niccolo Machiavelli said, “Men are so simple and so ready to obey present necessities that one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.”
Economic compulsion is one of the major reasons that takes us to wrong paths. When we come across situations where there is possibility of making bad money, we often slip. We often can’t resist the temptations. We love to follow the path of least efforts to achieve the maximum. In many cases we get cheated, because we try to follow shortcuts. The situational contingencies lead us to behave inconsistently. When we come nearer the problem, we falter, especially when the problem affects us personally. “Idealism increases in direct proportion to one’s distance from the problem.”
Beware of ‘not-so-straight line’ walkers. You can recognise them from their gestures and modus operandi. They use emotionally toned words to get undue attention. They emphasise the trivial and ignore the important to let down an opponent. They contradict and misrepresent an opponent’s position by diverting his attention to irrelevant issues. They use pseudo-technical jargon to confidently present false credentials. They use questions to draw out damaging admissions, angering an opponent deliberately so that he argues badly.
Misconceptions about the self and about the world surrounding us lead us to wrong paths. Creating controversy is another kind of crooked thinking. Arthur Schopenhauer’s strategies for creating controversy include: claim victory despite defeat; interrupt, break, divert thedispute; meet the opponent with a counterargument as bad as his, make him exaggerate his statement, appeal to authority rather than reason.
One should know the rules of the game. If you know the rules, it doesn’t mean you should apply them on others. But if you know the rules, others will find it difficult to apply them on you. It is also handy to remember that straight-line solutions are not possible, if problems are bigger than logic. It is difficult to teach a crab to walk straight. So, either, beware of the crabs, and if that is not possible, learn the ways of the crabs.
Why do we go the wrong way when we know it is the wrong way? It is because we don’t want to confront problems that are likely to create further problems for us. It is because we are afraid of being misunderstood. We don’t like to be scrutinised by others. We have an unconscious tendency to simplify the world. We often can’t see things when we look at them from within the system. Often, we have to go out of the system to see things in proper perspective. Often, we don’t see things we should have seen. We often see things with closed eyes. We keep our eyes closed as we deem it fit. We are good at transferring our responsibilities to others, by convincing ourselves that it was not our job. We easily convince ourselves that the problem would resolve by itself, and any kind of intervention is not needed to resolve the problem.
When we don’t want to discuss an issue, we simply try not to discuss it. The matter is as simple as plotting points on a graph paper. If the points that are not as they should be, either we try to ignore them, or try to explain the deviation. It is easier to ignore than to explain. Why bother to find out if it was due to experimental error, or due to some new phenomena that was responsible for the deviation from the expected norms. Either way, it is additional work, so why bother. Says a management consultant, we make two kinds of mistakes when an undiscussable issue is raised: one, we fix blames in ways that escalate stress and conflict, and two, we use ambiguous language that enables people to avoid the problem. When companies have a culture in which managers are more interested in hiding things than solving them, there is little one can do. It is useful to know that we the humans are designed to make blunders. We are subconsciously biased. We are overconfident about our abilities and that leads us to go the wrong way.
The problem of allegiance is more in small groups. In small groups, it is also more troublesome. In small groups, it is important to maintain cordial relations with the colleagues. “The cosier and the more close-knit the group, the less incentive you have to stir the waters.” Loyalty often tends to overprotect, and often that tempts us to go the wrong way.
Is fairness enough to go the right way? Fairness is generally admired. When we meet someone, we try to behave and react as per the expected intentions and behaviour of that person. We try to be fair even in situations that are going to cost us for being fair. Perhaps, we pretend to be fair, while secretly hoping for a fair deal for the self. One hypothesis assumes that we are ‘exclusively’ motivated by our material self-interest. Some people, however, don’t agree. They say people care for the well-being of others. There are people who are strongly motivated by fairness and reciprocity, and are willing to reward other people at a considerable cost to themselves.
One way to maximise our own payoff is to closely monitor the payoff of others. In a war, gauging the strength of enemy is equally important. Teams can be given a level playing field, but all teams can’t win nor can play equally well, given the inherent differences among the teams. Equality of opportunity is not enough. It is also the efficiency that decides the winner. If I drive carefully, it is not enough to avoid an accident. We often relate fairness to norms. If something is acceptable as a norm, it is accepted as fair. On the basis of norms we also call something unfair. Norms can be highly effective at the group level, but individuals within the groups often have a strong incentive to break the norms.
Generally competition teaches distrust. Competition makes people selfish and vicious. Competition puts people under great pressure to break the ordinary rules of decent conduct. People first misbehave and then try to rationalize misbehaviour. Such rationalisations corrode moral character. Competition force people to make false promises. Such promises make people immoral. Competition causes corrosion of the moral character. Some say, it depends. Globalisation is prime example of competition. Some believe that globalisation is not a deterrent to social and ethical agendas. They say, globalisation leads not only to the creation and spread of wealth but also to ethical outcomes. Self-restraint and altruism is possible even when one is surrounded with riches. Competition is inevitable. It can give rise to cooperation. Competition teaches us to take risks and forge alliances.
The question of morality vis-à-vis competition can only be answered by comparing realistic alternatives, and by understanding how different systems promote divergent human character, thinks John Gray. Some traits that competition may bring in a person are not liked by ‘conservative moralists’. Risk-taking actions help people survive and prosper in free-market economies, but risk-taking behaviour is not necessarily compatible with traditional values.
Corrosion of moral character depends upon our perception of good life. It depends upon how much we value personal autonomy and personal choice. It is said that in a competitive situation, people with the most highly developed survival skills and the fewest moral scruples do the best. One cannot have everything. Greed and envy are vices, but they are also economic stimulants. It depends upon how much one is willing to sacrifice in order to live a ‘good life’.