Agora Speaker Series 2023 - Professor Jeanette Kennett

The Privilege of Self-Control.

People living in poverty are subject to a range of stigmatizing social myths linking their poverty to a blameworthy lack of individual self-control that is taken to justify denying them access to central elements of a good human life. Indeed, a recent survey indicated that only 39% of respondents thought everyone should be able to pursue a hobby and only 27% believed those on any income should have the chance to go out socialising. (Britons have become so mean that many of us think poor people don’t deserve leisure time | Frances Ryan | The Guardian)

Do poor people lack self-control? In this talk, I argue that important forms of self-control – those that support what Michael Bratman has called planning agency – rely significantly on social, rather than individual, resources. I first outline a standard account of self-control as the capacity to delay gratification. I then show how diachronic or proactive forms of self-control are integral to the kind of planning agency that provides access to important human and social goods. I argue that the resources required for the confident exercise of planning agency are mostly unavailable to people living in poverty in our communities, who are restricted by their circumstances to reactive forms of self-control and self-management. Moreover, these forms of self-management – when exercised by poor people - often go unrecognized or are interpreted as failures of self-control. I conclude that planning agency and proactive self-control are largely the preserve of social privilege.