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Unprincipled pleasures

A look at our inability to keep our quest for immediate gratification in check — and why we just can’t help it

Daniel Akst argues, quite convincingly, that people lacking self-control possess a diminished appreciation of the future. Daniel Akst argues, quite convincingly, that people lacking self-control possess a diminished appreciation of the future. (Vincent West/ Reuters)
By Michael Washburn
Globe Correspondent / January 2, 2011

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Alcohol, spending beyond your means, fatty food, reckless sex, and drugs. These are America’s shadow pastimes, and the night before last you, dear reader, may have fallen prey to at least one such toxic pleasure. It’s OK. On New Year’s Eve, why not submit to your baser demons? You have, after all, resolved to hit the gym, to scissor the credit card, to eat a salad. But will you now and forever honor your commitment to reform? Can you? Unlikely, argues Daniel Akst in “We Have Met the Enemy.’’

Our modern lives are an orgy of abandon, Akst says, a thoughtless pursuit of immediate gratification, despite our desire to do better. Our pleasure predilection is bad, yes, but it isn’t so much that, say, our cupcake craving threatens to imminently destroy our health — though the list of activities at the start of this review are responsible for nearly half of US deaths — as that weakness of will undermines “the thing that makes us most distinctly human, which is our ability to disobey our impulses in favor of some larger purpose.’’

A clever blend of scientifically informed polemic and morally minded jeremiad, “We Have Met the Enemy’s’’ guiding assumption is that in our age of affluence the “ideology of temptation’’ has changed. A constellation of powerful forces, from the accessibility of fast food and casual sexual encounters to the weakening of community ties and capitalism’s exhortation to consume, have outpaced common sense. Since forgiveness comes more naturally to us than condemnation, we pathologize excess. We’re all not guilty by reason of disease. As Akst writes, “That it’s now possible to be addicted to cocaine, shopping, or sex is evidence of how far we’ve moved beyond the constraints of budget, custom, and embarrassment.’’ A goal of Akst’s in writing this book “is to reinflate the narrowed arena of the elective, reclaiming most excessive behaviors from the realm of disease.’’

Akst defines self-control as “deciding which of your desires you really want to espouse and then upholding them against the challenge of the competing desires that you like less.’’ Basic but difficult. Akst argues, quite convincingly, that people lacking self-control possess a diminished appreciation of the future. From mental phenomena such as “time inconsistency’’ and “melioration’’ (“the frustrating way our preferences change along with our state of desire’’ and the tendency to ask “what’s a few more minutes surfing the Internet?’’) to environment and heredity, Akst’s convincing archive, ranging from Plato and Locke to neurolaw and studies that correlate childhood willpower with adult addiction, argues that we don’t so much have a persistent free will as we have a sporadic “free won’t.’’ Even our minds are structurally at war. The neocortex, with its appreciation for an abstract future, vies for dominance with the limbic system, which demands that you get while the getting’s good. Culturally our will is weak; biologically it may be nonexistent.

Despite what some of his evidence suggests, Akst views most self-control issues as behavioral. Akst finds hope in precommitment. “Precommitment,’’ he writes, “is about limiting our own choices while we’re safely distant from the temptations we suspect we can’t otherwise handle.’’ Odysseus, tied to his ship’s mast in order to withstand the sirens’ destructive song, is the book’s precommitment hero.

Unfortunately, Akst applies this simple solution to complex issues such as addiction. Akst writes, “An addict’s behavior, it seems clear, can be influenced by incentives, while the symptoms of cystic fibrosis cannot. . . . A gun pointed to the head, after all, will not banish the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.’’ This dichotomy reveals more about how Akst conceives of rationality than self-control. For Akst, self-control is more or less the same; you have it or you don’t. Perhaps desire and self-delusion are better companions than desire and self-control. Self-deception can keep you from fully appreciating your own best options and desires. One can’t precommit to a life without delusion; if you’re Don Quixote, you already think you’re Odysseus. And this doesn’t bring clinical understandings of addiction-as-disease into the issue.

Likewise, Akst reveals a similar blind spot with obesity. Akst challenges readers to locate an anorexic in Africa, and writes: “In general the affluent are better at deferring gratification. . . . Perhaps that’s why well-to-do Americans, for whom food is relatively cheapest, are paradoxically least likely to be overweight.’’ Sure, intelligence, affluence, and self-control are enmeshed, but this analysis of poverty and obesity leaves numerous factors — access to healthy, fairly priced food in poor neighborhoods, for one — out of the equation. For an argument about self-control and society, Akst often neglects much of the social world.

Overall, though, Akst’s call for more responsible living rings true. “We Have Met the Enemy’’ doesn’t dwell entirely in such dark precincts as addiction and gluttony. Procrastination and our seeming inexhaustible ability to “act on rational calculations from intervals that are irrationally short’’ bedevil everyone, and Akst has a light touch with these foibles. Time inconsistency and melioration are Zeno’s paradoxes gracelessly updated for the Twitter age, and we should all be aware. Tennessee Williams wrote “the monosyllable of the clock is ‘loss, loss, loss.’ ’’ Tomorrow is here. In fact, look at the date at the top of this page: Tomorrow was yesterday.

Michael Washburn is a research associate at the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics at the Graduate Center, CUNY. He can be reached at www.michaelwashburn.org.

WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY: Self-Control in an Age of Excess By Daniel Akst

Penguin, 303 pp., $26.95