XXIX. The Will
Atkinson considers the will to be the faculty of mind that decides - which includes not only the decision to take action but also the decision to continue to persevere in the face of difficulty. It is often a very simple matter to identify the right choice among options, somewhat difficult to make the selection and abandon all others, even more difficult to initiate the action based on that decision, and rather excruciating to see the action through to completion when victory is not immediate.
The first phase of will is desire. It is often purported to be logic, but men are not inspired to take action according to logic. Logic will help to match choices against desires - and if our desires are corrupted, so will be our decision. Instead, willpower lies in having emotional connections to the right and proper things, such that when logic presents us with an option, our emotions give us a sense of dedication to a particular one.
Desire can be seen as basic human instincts. We are not programmed as are animals to react automatically, but our thoughts and feelings guide us to make choices. The objective is the same - to avoid pain and pursue pleasure - but the means by which we recognize dangers and opportunities is different.
We must, first, recognize what is in our own best interest. In human beings, this involves a longer vision. We do not react immediately upon perception, but deliberate over which course to take. Desire precedes and follows this deliberation (we recognize some opportunities without much deliberation after reflecting on our past experience).
As a result of learning from experience, human desire is not a wild force of nature that sets upon us, but a learned reaction that is both emotionally engaging and rational. Ideally, we train our desire to seek the greatest benefit over a period of time rather than an immediate opportunity that we will later regret having pursued.
Just as we must sense something before we can perceive it, so we must desire something before we can consider it as a possible course of action. As such, once something has come to our attention because we find it desirable, we then proceed to the next phase that weighs and balances our feelings of desire.
Deliberation is the second phase of will, and is generally regarded as a more intellectual than emotional process. However, while intellect plays the leading role, this does not mean that deliberation is devoid of emotion - and as with desire, our emotional reaction is a learned response that can support or undermine the correct logical decision.
Particularly when deliberation is done very quickly, without much conscious thought, there is the potential for emotions to lead us astray - though wen properly attuned, our emotions can also lead us in the right direction and we find that our "gut instinct" (which is emotion and not instinct, strictly speaking) agrees with the dictates of logic.
That said, deliberation is often a conscious choice. We recognize the potential impact (positive and negative) of a given option and purposefully put our minds to work, evaluating whether a single option is worth pursuing or identifying and comparing a number of options. And it stands to note that we are generally at our best when we identify and assess multiple options rather than making a single yes-or-no decision for a single option.
There is a brief mention that we are subject to the "clamoring desire of the moment." A man will quickly put himself in a worse situation if he is attempting to avoid one that causes him pain - and tends to hesitate when making any decision that does not seem to be exigent because he is not presently in pain. It is also true that we tend to put our own welfare before that of others, and to seek immediate rather than long-term benefits, when we fail to put sufficient deliberation into our decisions. This is the cause of most, if not all, of our worst decisions.
That said, the first concern of deliberation is whether a given option is likely to achieve the outcome we desire - and this is a prerequisite to considering the cost. We do not do many things that we are capable of doing because we do not see the point in doing them - there is no benefit, hence no motivation.
The second concern of deliberation is the cost of an option, which ideally considers both the resources that must be expended in order to take a given course of action as well as the negative side-effects that may often occur, though the latter is frequently forgotten.
The third concern of deliberation is whether there are other options that might achieve our desired goal, which may be implemented more cheaply and with fewer side effects. This step is also often skipped by those who are so impulsive as to act upon the first plausible option and invest no further time in considering other means to achieve our ends.
The fourth concern weighs desires against one another to consider the most pressing. There are many things we can undertake at any given moment, and choosing one option means abandoning others - and therefore we must consider which desire is most deserving of our attention and effort at a given moment.
A fifth concern is that of urgency: whether it is necessary to take a given action right away, of if it may be delayed. Delay is not always harmful and can only rightly be considered "procrastination" if there is some penalty we may suffer for lack of acting quickly. In many instances, an action may be delayed and we are none the poorer, especially when there are better uses for our time and resources in the present.
He also mentions that it is wrong to consider intellect to be the opponent of desire - but instead it is the means by which desires are achieved. Because there are infinite options for our time and resources, intellect seems to be a naysayer because it approves of one and denies the rest - but a well-tuned intellect helps us to achieve the best of our desires, and abandon the many that would lead us astray.
The final phase of the will is known as action, the process by which the decisions we have made through a process of deliberation are acted upon, and our bodies are set in motion to the achievement of the goals we have envisioned.
There are many who recognize desire and deliberate, but never summon the courage to act, and this is to be considered a significant weakness. But it is hindsight alone that determines which axiom is to be applied: that he who hesitates is lost, or that fools rush in.
But ultimately, if the "motor element" is not engaged, all the desire and deliberation accomplish nothing. So in his perspective "The few persons who promptly follow a decision with vigorous action are those who accomplish the world's work."
There is also the matter of sustaining the action to completion. To fail to see an action through to its completion is in many ways worse than to have done nothing at all, for the effort and resources expended in an abandoned effort are not available to or ruined for any other purpose.
(EN: Unfortunately, the author stops his consideration there. Lack of commitment to a decision remains among the most common shortcomings of character, and there is very little guidance in the sustenance of will - whether it fails in the face of adversity, the goal loses its shine, or whatever causes will to fail.)
Types of Action
Discussions of action and decisions tend to focus on the actions into which we put considerable time and effort - but not all actions are thus. Every day, we make countless decisions with very little effort, and trust in our will to make them quickly and accurately. We reserve deliberation for the "big" decisions that have major consequences, but the will can be seen even in minor considerations. Consider these:
- Reflex action - There are very few actions that are performed purely by reflex, and reflexes tend to be defensive. We blink when a sudden gust of wind strikes our faces, or jerk an arm away when we are unexpectedly touched. Reflex actions are fast and unplanned, and respond to sensation without analysis.
- Habitual actions - Habitual actions are also done without thought, but not because of an innate neurological reaction but because we have become accustomed to acting in a given way. A boy must be taught to remove his hat when he enters a house, but it very quickly becomes an action he preforms without thinking.
- Impulsive action - These actions are performed without thought. They are not the same as reflexes because they involve actions of a longer duration. To laugh at something funny is an impulsive action, as it is to gaze upon something we consider beautiful. The emotions poise us to take such actions, but there is the opportunity to make a different choice, and we choose to act upon impulse. It has been suggested that we do so because we expect our actions will diminish the pain or increase the pleasure of the moment, with little thought to any long-term effects.
- Instinctive action - Animals act upon instinct: a creature chooses to flee or fight, a bird chooses to build a nest, the caterpillar chooses to weave a cocoon, etc. Atkinson mentions these as animal behavior and stanchly denies heir existence in man. Man has habits and impulses, but no instincts.