Document Type



Master of Arts



Date of Defense


Graduate Advisor

Eric Wiland


Eric Wiland

William Dunaway

Jon McGinnis


A Relational Account of Self-Constraint: Resolution as Reacquaintance

Resolutions and self-promises are two much discussed tools of self-constraint in the face of weakness of will. However, the discussions often begin from a negative and alienated direction, emphasizing self-compulsion, fear of irrationality, or binding ourselves through self-obligation. Jorah Dannenberg has suggested a more optimistic agent-centered account of how to bind ourselves through self-promises. His account has much kinship with the influential Sartrean approach from Berislav Marusic. These more positive agent-centered accounts are appealing as they appear to answer three of the major puzzles of self-constraint: 1. How is self-restraint supposed to work? 2. Is self-constraint rational? 3. Can self-constraint avoid bad faith arguments?

I find these agent-centered accounts hopeful; however, I argue they are open to at least two major concerns:

1. Can these accounts provide a fuller descriptive account of how to live within a state of anguish without falling into bad faith?

2. Can they avoid an implausible amount of doxastic care? What are the limits of our own ability to continually care at will?

I sketch a “relational account” that builds on these optimistic agent-centered accounts of self-restraint. I aim to answer the three puzzles of self-constraint listed while avoiding the two concerns I’ve raised. I do this by giving an account of resolutions that alleviates anguish through a kind of refreshment through a virtuous cycle of smaller daily actions.

In short, the cycle looks like this: I act because I identify with the value I act towards, and, being reacquainted with this value through action, I am reminded why I care for it. In this manner, I constrain myself to care about my values in an agentially focused and rational manner. I describe how taking smaller instrumental actions towards the larger telic goal can help alleviate anguish.

Importantly, I also go beyond recent agent-centered accounts and posit a necessary requirement of not only faith in yourself but a rational faith in your values. I draw on Harry Frankfurt and William James to emphasize the necessity of some external calling in what we find valuable.