Sunday, January 24, 2010


As much as I try to pretend I'm not, I am a fairly impulsive person. I'm not blindly impulsive--I usually do have a head for consequences and implications of my actions--but I like to be able to make decisions based on the circumstances at any given moment. I like to be infinitely adaptable.

This is a quality that drives James (as well as others, I'm sure) crazy, perhaps with reason. I can imagine how it's difficult to deal with an impulsive person. First of all, there's just the unpredictability of it all. Will I come home after work, or will I decide at the last minute to take the super long way home that keeps me away for an extra hour or two? I know I said I would make dinner tonight, but now that it's nice out, I'm feeling like a trip to the farmer's market might be in order instead. Like I said, I try to keep consequences and implications in mind--I don't want to impulsively hurt someone's feelings, or destroy someone else's plans--but I can see how it would still be frustrating, especially because it's really easy to put myself and how I feel at any given point way ahead of anyone else.

Secondly, there's the theory that when I act impulsively instead of taking my time to puzzle out the right course of action, I'm more likely to make a wrong decision. That could be a wrong decision simply in the sense that it leads to an undesirable outcome, or it could be a wrong decision in the morally wrong sense, like if a decision I made impulsively led me to, oh, I don't know, contribute to the deforestation of Brazil or something.

That theory isn't actually all that compelling to me, though. An occasional undesirabely-outcomed decision is, I think, a totally reasonable pride to pay for the freedom of decision making. And as far as the morality of impulsive decisions, I think it falls into the same realm as keeping consequences in mind when making decisions. If I'm clear on what my morals are, I won't impulsively make a decision that violates them.

Even though I often feel like I shouldn't be, I think I'm basically a huge fan of impulsiveness. I think it keeps me on my toes, keeps things interesting, keeps me from falling into too much routine. In some sense, impulse is a childish thing, and it helps me feel like I haven't lost that sense of wonder, experimentation, and joy that kids have and that gets beaten out of them as they get older. I only feel bad about it when confronted with that unwieldy real world voice, the voice that tells me to grow up, be responsible, think of my obligations, blah, blah, blah. It's the same nagging voice that tells me I can't be a real grown-up without having set plans and patterns and goals and routines.

And honestly, I'm not sure how those two voices--the impulsive and the responsible--play together. I don't think they're mutually exclusive, but I feel like they're often seen as such. Which is (I think) why people are so threatened by impulse.

I say embrace it, though. Figure out what you will and won't do, and then give yourself as much freedom to make as wide a variety of decisions as you possibly can.


DocSocrates said...

"Impulsive" has a negative connotation. I generally use it to describe someone who is constantly putting their own needs over others, without regard for them. I think you should call it "spontaneity" instead. That makes it sound better. A spontaneous person is one who acts without great premeditation.

Who would you rather be with? Someone who is "impulsive" or someone who is "spontaneous?"

You could probably find a happy medium if you just planned a bit — like making a phone call before you skip out on making dinner. ;-)

James Ofsink said...

I think that for me personally, it's about the volume of moral decisions that one is making. Impulsiveness, or spontaneity seems like a description of transitory emotional states and, in my mind, if you want to be confident that you're making the "right" moral decisions (whatever those are) then you should be using logic/rationality to determine the "right" course of action. (The right course of action being determined by your individual values (which may be emotional at root)).

If the decisions you're talking about are truly morally neutral ("Should I wear the brown shoes or the black ones?" "Should I go around the block to the left, or to the right?" etc) then I think that maybe spontaneity, or impulsiveness, or coin-flipping, or divination, or anything else would be an acceptable factor in your determination. However, as you indicated in your post, I wouldn't imagine that many people would be comfortable using a coin flip with respect to their moral decisions. (eg"Should I have an abortion?" "Will I give to charity this year, or use that same money to purchase a larger television for myself?" ________ {insert other moral examples here. It's easy, just imagine that ones actions might impact others and then think about what you would want those effects to be.})

To me, for better or worse, I see the vast majority of decisions that I think about (and many of the ones that I don't ever realize I should be thinking about) as moral decisions. Everything from my immediate impact on the people that I love, to the kind of example that I'm setting for others, to the most abstract and causally-removed of repercussions of my actions is considered in my calculation of what the right thing to do is. I may not always be able to get all the way through the analysis, but I at least attempt to make moral decisions as considered and thoughtful as I can.

So, I don't disagree with your sentiment that people should be themselves, and maybe for some people that means reveling in spontaneous decisions, or as Bush the Younger famously touted "going with your gut," but with respect to moral actions, that seems like not a wholly reliable/reproducible way to do the right thing.

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on what exactly your moral responsibilities are. Not to request a tome in response to a fourteen word question, but I've been recently engaged in a debate about what effects of one's actions one is responsible for. If I pull the trigger to kill someone am I responsible? If I convince someone else to kill someone (vis-a-vis my pointed persuasive skills ;-) or just by hiring them) am I responsible still? What about if I'm a part of a military command that issues orders to kill a thousand people? Or if I'm the secretary that types and disseminates the order to kill a thousand people? What I'm trying to get at is whether you think that we're responsible for the secondary or subsequent impacts of our actions. If you do think so, then I'd imagine that it quickly shifts the balance as far as volume (or percentage) of decisions that have moral implications. The person I was talking to took the position that we are not at all responsible for the subsequent effects of our actions. If that's the case, then it certainly limits down the amount of moral decisions we're making and increases the realm where impulse could be a deciding factor.

Ricardo said...

Follow the impulse. Be aware of the consequences, but do not be their prisoner. Above all else, keep it in perspective. Your fate will not be decided by whether you choose to take the bus home or walk and get lost in Ladd's Addition... though I suppose today it might have been. :)