Invention of the Irresistible
December 1, 2013
Rev. Douglas Taylor


An old favorite Calvin and Hobbes comic strip has the mom and dad talking in the kitchen about their concern for their son Calvin. In particular, they are discussing the impact of the ads he is seeing on TV. In the last panel of the comic Calvin runs into the kitchen with panic in his eyes: “Mom, Dad, I just saw an ad for the most amazing thing that I absolutely cannot live without but did not know existed two minutes ago.”

Black Friday, our national holiday in honor of the God of free markets, has an irrational impact on our society. The theory from the perspective of the marketing agents is: people need to buy things for Christmas. If we get them in our store because of our great deals, they will be so tempted by the deals that the shoppers will buy more than they intended to buy and we, the store, will make more money. A fundamental purpose of a store is to make money selling a product. A fundamental purpose of Black Friday is for the store to make extra money from shopper making impulse purchases, collateral spending, if you will.

This is one way the concept of the irresistible comes into play. The allure of the irresistible appears in the commercials, courtrooms and psychology classrooms. It is tangled up in at least five of the seven deadly sins: gluttony, sloth, lust, greed, and anger can all be seen as the collapse of self-control in the face of irresistible temptations.

The reading (from Daniel Akst’s We Have Met the Enemy) suggests that we, like Odysseus, must take heroic precautions to secure ourselves from temptation. The irresistible ever beckons to us, ever calls us to stray from our own best intentions. If we could but rid ourselves of these pesky irresistible temptations in life then all would be well with the world.

Fernando Savater is a modern Spanish philosopher and professor of ethics who offers a different perspective on this. When I was 25 years old I discovered a slim book of his published a few years earlier entitled Ética para Amador. It is a book of ethics written for his son, Amador. I was a young man considering the ministry when I found the book. I have uncovered notes about this book that I wrote down in my journal – it had an impact on me.

Here is one significant passage that I wrote down from his book into my journal. He was talking about personal responsibility and society’s response to temptation.

Anything bad that happens is blamed on circumstances, or the society we live in, or the capitalist system, or character (“It’s just the way I am”), or bad education, or television commercials, or having been spoiled, or all the temptations on display everywhere, pernicious and irresistible. …

Savater goes on to suggest, tongue in cheek, that the goal of modern society seems to be to help create a world free from all the troubling traps that lead us into temptation. “Lead me not into temptation, I can find my way there just fine on my own.”

But consider all the silly warning signs and safety measures found on product packaging. Why would I need to be warned that the hot coffee I just purchased is hot? Not because the company really cares or thinks I don’t know that already. It’s because someone sued the company and won. Here are a few liability warnings on products from just a few years ago. There is a label on Nytol sleeping pills that warns: May cause drowsiness. It was apparently necessary to include the warning “Do not use while sleeping” for the Vidal Sassoon hair dryer and “This product moves when used” to the packaging of the Razor scooter. And consider this one: “The Vanishing Fabric Marker should not be used as a writing instrument for signing checks or any legal documents.”  That’s clever.

Savater goes on to say:

Think of the huge relief in knowing that if any loose temptation comes along, the responsibility for what happens lies with those who failed to wipe it out in time, not with those who succumb to it. What if I told you that this Irresistible is nothing more than a superstition conjured up by those who are afraid of their own freedom?

This isn’t just about silly product labels and the courtroom decisions that allow individuals to not be responsible for their actions by shifting the blame to the product for not giving enough warning of potential danger. Product liability is small potatoes to me when compared to rape culture and the way people are not held responsible for their violent behaviors. Are people culpable for their actions or can they plead that some temptation was irresistible?

We are thankfully seeing a shift in the courts away from allowing the “provocation” defense stance. It used to hold up in court that it was reasonable for a man to be provoked beyond reason by, for example, the sight of his wife in bed with another man. The difference between murder and manslaughter is premeditation rather than a fit of passion. The instances of rapists being let off because the victim was too tempting is also waning thankfully. The question of culpability and personal responsibility in the courtroom is still open to interpretation but with more female judges and lawyers, the misogynist results are in decline, though not eradicated.

“What if I told you that this Irresistible is nothing more than a superstition conjured up by those who are afraid of their own freedom?” I found and still find these ideas from Savater captivating. I’m not sure I can wholly agree without reservation but it is compelling to consider Savater’s statement: “We are not free not to be free … we have no choice but to be free.” As an ethicist, Savater comes down solidly on the side of Free Will.

Historically Unitarians and Universalists come down heavily on the side of Free Will against the opposing theological argument of predestination that claims the list of those saved is preordained and set. Well, Universalism had a unique response, but Unitarianism was a strong and vocal opponent to the idea that God already knows the few who will be in heaven, according to the doctrine of predestination. A major result of this doctrine was the implications people took for life here on earth, believing that we could tell my looking at a person’s life if they were one of the elect. The theology slipped from determination of the afterlife to determination in this life with predestination basically affirming that you are not free – every choice you think you have is already known and experienced in the mind of God.

Those who favor free will, such as me, see no freedom or responsibility in such a perspective. If God preordained my life, then am I really responsible for my actions against other people, against society, against the earth?

But in many ways, I find fewer people are interested in the theological side of this conversation and more interested in the sociological, psychological, and biological sides of this issue. There is a game we play at the New UU workshop each season. It is the theological continuum game. It asks us to line up from one side of the room to the other based on the answers to questions like Do you believe in God, yes or no – with the acknowledgement that the answer is not necessarily ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, there is a continuum possible.

So, one of the questions is “Do you believe in Fate or Free Will?” Most people find themselves somewhere in the middle, allowing for Free Will and choice, but also acknowledging chance, circumstance, genes, and past choices to have some say … not exactly fate, but not unfettered free will either.

In all the years I have done this game there was only one person I found standing at the wall in favor of Fate with minimal room for Free Will. He was a biological geneticist. He stood there for scientific reasons rather than religious reasons. He was saying, so much of what we consider our choice is preset by factors beyond our control such as on which continent you were born or in which century. The geneticist was taking the cosmic view. Even narrowing it down to the determination of your own personal life: you had no control over your race, nationality, biological sex at birth, or family of origin.

There has been quite a bit of research into the biological and chemical aspects of decision making. Not surprisingly, there is a lot of research done in the name of marketing – how to get people to buy more and want more – particularly as it relates to food. There are studies that demonstrate how people are unwittingly influenced by the number of people sitting around us, our potion size, our plate size, the portion size of other people around us, the lighting in the room, and the music. One study showed that people ate “dramatically more M&Ms simply by [having] ten different colors into a bowl instead of the usual seven.” (Ibid, Akst p165) These studies undermine the notion that we are not free to not be free because choices are being made below our level of consciousness so can we really call them choices anymore?

Addictions lead us down another refutation of free will. Alcoholics and opiate addicts are not in control of their behavior in relation to the drug. It is irresistible. But interestingly the argument of addiction lends itself directly into the middle path I am looking for this morning. This is the path that does not say free will is all there is and our vices and destructive behaviors are choices we make freely and knowingly or we are fooling ourselves otherwise. This middle path also does not say free will is a sham and that our lives are determined by God or genetics or slick marketing tricks – one way or the other we are not in control of our actions. Instead, this middle path says yes the temptations are real and are hard, but they are also resistible if we know what we are doing and if we have help.

I remember Michael Dowd, the evolutionary evangelist proclaiming the good news of evolution and religion as two understandings of life that are complimentary rather than competing. He talked about the impact of our evolution on choices we make today. Look at our proclivity as humans for sweet foods high in fat. That was evolutionarily valuable early on when high fat food was rare. Now we manufacture it and make it available whenever we want it, and we always want it because we are hardwired to want it.

The same is true of the Bill Clinton phenomena or the Tiger Woods phenomena. Or name the phenomena for whichever male celebrity figure is in the news lately for sexual infidelity. The root of it, evolutionarily, is that men receive a boost of testosterone when they accomplish something of significance. We feel more powerful and virile, yes: more sexually potent. This is one of the layers of natural selection: more successful individuals are more attractive as mates to perpetuate the species. It has little to do with fidelity or morality; it is a base desire to perpetuate the species.

I also remember Michael Dowd saying that this knowledge of our evolutionary impulses should not be considered license to obey those instincts that are no longer leading us to success as a species. Instead it is an opportunity to understand where the urges come from so we can overcome them. We can point to our evolutionary predisposition for high-fat food and say “see, I can’t help myself,” or we can say “see, that’s why it is hard to control.” In a way, I am suggesting we have a choice: we can either pretend we have no choice or we can admit that we are all still responsible for our actions.

Which brings me back to Odysseus. In the Greek story, Odysseus knows the temptation of the Sirens will be strong. But he doesn’t say, “Oh, well – that’s just it’s my nature to succumb.” He also doesn’t say, “By sheer will power I will resist the temptation.” Instead he has his men bind him to the mast so he cannot comply with the temptation when it comes.

Daniel Akst, the author of our reading this morning (We Have Met the Enemy) offers a similar example from the children’s story series Frog and Toad, by Arnold Lobel.

In the story “Cookies,” Frog and Toad can’t stop themselves from eating a mass of freshly baked cookies, so Frog tries putting them in a box, tying it with string, even using a ladder to place the box out of reach. But each time, Toad points out, they have the ability to undo these weak forms of precommitment … Finally, Frog takes the cookies outside and gives them to the birds, who eat every last crumb.
The moral of the story is that, ideally, a precommitment should be binding. If it is to work, it has to be genuinely coercive – but the coercion is one we impose on ourselves.
[note: precommitment is when we choose to ‘constrain ourselves against the foreseeable strength of some later desires.”]

Our goal is not to be morally perfect, even if I were bold enough to suggest what that would look like I refuse to set it as our goal. Our goal is not to create a world free of temptation so we can blissfully follow every desire without counting the cost. Instead our goal is to align with our own best intentions, to accept our own personal responsibility but not assume we can accomplish our goals without support.

We are who we are and there are parts of us that are beyond our control – that’s just the way we are. However, we all have the capacity to become our best selves, to live in alignment with our best intentions. In the final analysis, even acknowledging chance and genetics predispositions, we are all still responsible for our actions and our responses to the vicissitudes of life. We are not free to not be free. Rather than claim something is ‘irresistible’ as an excuse to avoid personal responsibility let us claim that something is hard, and that we all occasionally need support resisting the temptation. Like Odysseus, we can acknowledge that it is best not to face the Sirens without a plan, or, for that matter, alone.

In a world without end
May it be so