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Eugene Chislenko (Temple University), "Virtues of willpower"
Making Philosophy out of Burnout
In college and grad school, I had periods of incredible burnout. For five or six days, anything with paragraphs in it would be too much for me. I needed longer summer breaks than I was supposed to take. Then I’d get fresh and rested and stun myself with how much fast, effective, concentrated work I could do. And then the burnout would hit again. When I was burned out, I would think: this is so intense, I have to figure out how to handle this. And I would think: this seems really philosophically interesting—can someone make philosophy out of this?
Both thoughts got stronger as I saw my students burned out and overwhelmed. Reading around, I learned more about the political aspects of these phenomena—most systematically in Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine, about the deliberate use of shock and overwhelm. I found some more philosophically oriented discussions of burnout in specific areas, most developed in the literature on nursing and care fatigue. As I thought more about burnout, what I saw most of all was a culture of pushing through, with roots in a Protestant ethic of hard work. So many people push through and then collapse in private. My paper “Virtues of Willpower” grew out of a dissertation in moral psychology, but I think really I wanted to write something against pushing through. I wanted to work out a different, healthier picture of responding to burnout and fatigue—something that would make philosophy out of burnout, and then help with handling burnout.
Many philosophers’ response to willpower is: let’s not talk about it. The will is out of fashion as a faculty, and the idea that it has a special sort of power seems hopelessly obscure. The replication crisis in psychology makes willpower seem even more spooky. Meanwhile, many other people’s response to volitional struggles is: use more willpower. I think both these responses are way off. We need help dealing with the struggles that are talked about in terms of “low willpower,” such as burnout, discouragement, and addiction. And powering through often backfires, leaving us miserable, unproductive, and even more burned out. What would be the alternative?
In “Virtues of Willpower,” I develop a conceptual framework for thinking about good responses to volitional struggles in terms of three interrelated virtues or traits. Only one of these is the disposition to exercise willpower—what we might call determination or strength of will. One I call “volitional modesty”: moderation in how much volitional strain one takes on (rather than in how one responds to it). The third is “volitional confidence,” or proper inattention to the possibility of volitional failure.
A multiple-virtue conception of willpower systematizes popular wisdom and empirical research about the importance of rest, help, and avoiding temptation—for example, staying away from bars rather than just resisting drinks. It also helps us distinguish healthy willpower habits from related reactions such as hope, which attends to the possibility and value of an outcome and can set us up for disappointment. And it helps us distinguish and identify our own areas of struggle. For many people, the problem is not lack of determination but overcommitment, or self-blame and anxiety about failure.
Thinking in terms of multiple virtues of willpower makes us clearer about the real source of many of our own struggles. It also paints a picture of health and rationality centered on having flexible attention, rather than on strength or on keeping all relevant considerations in mind.
In the course of the paper, I explore some closely related issues about belief, courage, and virtue individuation. But my biggest hope is to turn more philosophical attention to phenomena such as burnout, rather than relegating them to the self-help aisle. When a Protestant work ethic is running us into the ground, philosophy, and virtue ethics in particular, can offer something better: a detailed and practically useful picture of good responses to volitional challenges, in which determination plays only one part.
“Virtues of Willpower,”
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