Self-control is not like the other three cardinal virtues (justice, courage, and wisdom).

Self-control presupposes that something about you needs to be controlled. And why would something about you need to be controlled? Only if something about you was evil.

This is not the case with the other three cardinal virtues. They all stand on their own merits. But self-control's goodness is contingent on you being bad.

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    For the stoics, there're other things neither bad nor good morally, but nonetheless have fitting value which are unavoidable even for any good rational agent and thus may still need constant self-control even without any bad contingencies, which is also extremely rare... Dec 27, 2022 at 21:19
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    The natural polarization raising the necessity of self-control is that of emotions vs. reason, which is sustained by multiple philosophical disciplines and religions. While emotions can lead to irrational desires (eg. capital sins, Buddhist attachment, political corruption, etc.), virtues represent the consistency between reason and needs (taking into account that needs are not the same as desire).
    – RodolfoAP
    Dec 29, 2022 at 6:14

4 Answers 4


Time Contraints

A primary context for self control is time frame. A thing that may give pleasure right now will sometimes be less than optimal over the longer term. Examples abound.

  • Eating too much.
  • Consuming alchohol or other intoxicants to extreme.
  • Continuing some pleasurable activity when one should be sleeping.
  • Spending all the money on hand for amusing activities.

There are, of course, huge numbers of other examples. Each of them has the aspect of a short-term pleasure at the cost of a long-term problem.

Self control will be what you use to participate only to a reasonable degree in such activities.

You must eat, for example. And choosing something pleasant to eat will add to your enjoyment of life. Yet you must modify this desire by staying in limits, and choosing food that is actually healthy. No matter how much you like donuts, you can't eat only donuts.

Self control is what keeps you from becoming self destructive in such things. Your self control keeps you from trying to subsist on some type of food like donuts or pizza or whatever food tastes best to you. It guides you to think of your long-term health, not just what is pleasant right now.

This is a factor that is very nearly universal across all of humans. Our ancestors had times when resources were scarce. If food was available and not eaten, then it probably was either wasted or eaten by somebody else. Or some non-human organism ate it. So there was survival value in eating all food available. And it was rare that there was enough food to produce long-term health problems from eating too much. So humans have appetites that push us to consume anything available.

With modern technology it is relatively easy to procure enough food to satisfy your requirements. But your appetites are driven to keep consuming well past what is in fact good for you.

Similarly for many appetites other than for food. Intoxicants, sex, amusements of some kind, etc., will have a strong tendency to cause us to over indulge. It is our self control that allows us to stay in limits of healthy consumption.

Emotional Control

An additional aspect of self control is emotional control. Interacting with other humans will frequently produce some degree of irritation. Even if it is innocent, such as when another person does something entirely by accident. They bump into you when they walk by. They drop something. They use the wrong word.

If you permit your emotions to hold sway, you may have violent outbursts at tiny provocations. Becoming violent because somebody picked up the wrong fork is going to produce troubled family dinners. And it will very likely result in you getting ostracized.

It is self control that allows the response to be held to a reasonable level in keeping with the size of the offense. And also in keeping with social norms for such situations. And so permits you to have relationships.

  • Yes, the interesting thing is that self-control is actually a kind of "effective selfishness" that is far more productive. People who do not act well have simply failed to be selfish enough to get what they really want. They need to up their game!
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 29, 2022 at 14:48

The underlying basis is: You are not pure good. There are bad things in you.

If one is convinced he has nothing bad in him he will never agree on any kind of control on him, self or external.

Once its decided that there are bad things in one it follows that they and by extension him must be controlled. Bad things must be controlled is self-explanatory. They are bad, duh.

Now the only question that remains is: Should it be controlled by the person himself or by external forces? I mean, what else is there? There is no third option.

There are two reasons self-control is better:

  1. It prevents harm (to the person, to the environment, to other people).

  2. It saves resources.

Prevention is better than cure. All that can be done once damage is done is prevent further damage and repair / replace whats damaged / destroyed. The damage that already happened cannot be undone. The arrow of time cannot be reversed.

Getting other people involved consumes greater resources to achieve same result compared to one single person doing his controlling himself.


Self-control is required because the creation/preservation of value requires specific actions

In virtue ethics, goodness/morality is a kind of creation and preservation of value, whereas badness/evil is the destruction of value. If you look around at how the world works, you will see that the former is very narrow and the latter is very broad ---i.e., if you want to create and preserve value then this entails some very specific forms of planning and action, but if you want to destroy things then most courses of actions will do this. As an example, think about how specific a course of action you need to create and store a delicious turkey sandwich, compared to the variety of ways you could let the ingredients rot or never come together in the first place. Even something as pedestrian as this requires immense amounts of planning and action; almost everything you could do right now will not result in a turkey sandwich.

This explains why "self control" is a virtue and why the lack of self-control would be destructive of value. A person who lacks self-control does not have the discipline required to fulfil long-range courses of action that create and preserve value. They might be able to start off a process to create value, but their lack of self-control manifests in diversion to other actions and processes for other things. In a sense you are correct that the default mode of action of a person is bad --- unless they are taught and practice performing specific courses of action that lead to value, and unless they develop the discipline to see these processes through to completion, their actions will tend to be destructive.

One major flaw in your reasoning here is when you say that some of the virtues "stand on their own merits". To the contrary, you will find that virtues only work when they are practiced in conjunction with one another --- e.g., a person who exercises the virtue of justice but not wisdom cannot produce justice, a person who exercise the virtue of courage but not justice will produce destruction, a person who exercises the virtue of wisdom but not courage will be impotent, etc. Apropos the present virtues, let's imagine one of the virtues you mention being practiced by a person who lack self control. Consider a judge who has a keen sense of justice but lacks self-control. His sense of justice impels him to believe that he should be objective and fair with the parties in a case he is judging; he is incorruptible, etc. However, he is invited to a party the night before the hearing and he decides in the moment that it would be fun to get wildly drunk instead of going home early and doing his preliminary reading for the hearing. What kind of justice is he able to administer when he turns up to the hearing the next day without having read the material and with an awful hangover causing him to feel severe nausea while he is listening to the arguments in the case?

  • Why is it the case that with regards to humans that almost all of our actions are destructive? This is not the case with animals. Animals don't need self-control and they are not destructive (unless you provoke them to be destructive).
    – Fomalhaut
    Dec 29, 2022 at 1:55
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    I don't think that's true even of animals. Even a tiger requires a specific course of action to hunt, eat, care for young, etc., and animals that build nests have more complicated actions. It is true that the courses of action pursued by animals are less complex than those pursued by humans and yet they survive --- this occurs because (a) animals that have not gone extinct tend to have more effective inbuilt tools than humans for basic survival; and (b) even with this, they enjoy a significantly lower standard of living precisely because they are limited to simple processes of action.
    – Ben
    Dec 29, 2022 at 2:11
  • Re (b), to take my answer further, the limited complexity of actions available to a tiger means that it can eat a raw turkey (sinew, feathers and all) but it cannot produce a turkey sandwich.
    – Ben
    Dec 29, 2022 at 2:15
  • My understanding of animal beings is that when an animal chooses to do a specific course of action, it does so because it feels an inexplicable burning desire to do so and it taps into an inborn knowledge to carry it out. It doesn't use self-control like humans do.
    – Fomalhaut
    Dec 29, 2022 at 2:17
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    That sounds implausible to me. I don't view animals as automatons and I think it is more likely that their cognition is similar to ours but with substantially less capacity for abstraction. In my view, animals make choices, and if an animal were to fail to exert self-control it would suffer destructive consequences in a (somewhat) similar way to a human.
    – Ben
    Dec 29, 2022 at 2:29

In my humble opinion, when self-control is referred to, though it may insinuate to the control of bad habits, it actually means to have a restrain or control over one's emotions and desires.

Emotion-driven acts are usually irrational and detrimental, so having control over one's self enables to be clear minded enough to restrain from emotional acts. This make one to be able to act rationally under duress and sudden circumstances.

So, it is the result unrestrained emotional acts that are always foolish and sometimes evil.

The solution for bad habits is self-discipline.

The aim of self-control is self-mastery.

  • "Emotion-driven acts are usually irrational and detrimental" <- Why is it logically necessary that emotion-driven acts be irrational and detrimental?
    – Fomalhaut
    Dec 29, 2022 at 2:01
  • Self-mastery is indeed the aim, it is a further good on top of already good tendencies.
    – Scott Rowe
    Dec 29, 2022 at 14:42

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