Ruling Our Selves: The Right Kind of Regime Change

"Almost everything worth having or doing in life—every kind of professional, social, or personal achievement—requires a degree of self-mastery, command over one’s desires and inclinations. We all have desires and inclinations that tend to prevent us from achieving our goals—to procrastinate, break commitments, or indulge addictions. Even from a purely rational, utility-maximizing perspective, self-mastery is a difficult but necessary challenge. Philosopher Jon Elster, in his studies Ulysses and the Sirens and Ulysses Unbound explicates the implications for the rational actor of such problems as “time inconsistency” and “weakness of will.” Some of our momentary desires and tendencies obstruct us from our long-term goals, requiring a degree of foresight and “precommitment” to master.

Wise teachers of the past connected the quest for personal self-rule with the good of order in society. In The Republic, Plato inquires what good governance of a city looks like via analogy with the governance of a human soul. Like a city, Plato suggests that the human soul has more than one part: reason, emotion or passion, and appetites together form the person. In a properly-ordered soul, the rational part rules the emotional and the appetitive. Elster has carried on the tradition of connecting personal self-rule with political self-government, analogizing constitutional constraints to individual strategies for attaining self-mastery such as precommitment."