Wed | Jul 18, 2018

Peter Espeut | Discipline, self-control and good habits

Published:Friday | January 6, 2017 | 12:00 AM

I thought I would further explore the issue of indiscipline this week. Discipline is synonymous with self-control and self-restraint. Without discipline, we humans would simply follow our base desires, doing whatever we feel like doing at the time. Discipline, then, is suppressing our base desires because our higher faculties inform us of a better course of action.

Our species, Homo sapiens (humankind, the wise) has the ability unique among all in the animal kingdom, to be able to step back from our desires and to think and reason - the ability to weigh two (or more) possible courses of action and decide which is preferable. Of all the animals, only humans can have values and can set goals for themselves. Lower animals are driven by their base desires for nourishment, pleasure, and security. The essence of being human is the ability to deny oneself nourishment, pleasure and security as a route to attaining some higher good. To be truly human, then, is to be capable of self-denial, of self-discipline.




This is the time of year when we humans make New Year's resolutions, promising ourselves to lose weight, or to keep fit, or to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Without self-discipline, we will fail to follow any of our resolutions no matter how serious we are when we make them.

We are not born with self-discipline; we have to learn it, and we have to practise it to be good at it. Students have to learn the discipline of study, which means denying themselves television and social media. We have to learn how to deny ourselves the pleasure which comes from eating good food, otherwise we will eat ourselves into obesity (I speak to myself here, as much as to anybody else). We have to learn how to deny ourselves chemically induced pleasure which comes from consuming recreational drugs; for some people, alcohol is harmless in moderation; for others, even one drink will tip them over the edge and deprive them of self-control. The drugs some people use for recreation are best avoided altogether.

In Greek, the word for 'habit' is 'ethos'; ethics, according to Aristotle, is not just doing the right thing, but it is the habit of doing the right thing. That is what good 'broughtupsy' is about: developing in one's children (and in oneself) good habits.

The life process of coming to maturity means learning how to win the internal battle between our base desires and our rationally derived goals and values. Some people never really grow up or become mature, but remain controlled by their feelings and urges.


Sexual discipline


Only human beings can make promises or enter contracts and agreements. Only mature people are able to keep their word, are able to successfully deny themselves when contrary options are presented.

One of the most important contracts humans ever make is when they enter into marriage, where they promise to be faithful to each other in good times and in bad. Immature people cannot make serious promises like that. Being married does not mean the absence of temptation; it may, in fact, mean the opposite. Having made one's choice and a commitment to one's significant other for life, it takes self-discipline and sometimes heroic self-control to turn down all other offers and opportunities.

The breakdown in family life in Jamaica and elsewhere can be traced to sexual indiscipline. When one lacks good parental role models at home, in school or in church, from whom will our young people learn the good habit of sexual discipline? And when popular music teaches: "If it feels good, do it", and "Do it 'till you're satisfied", and "Don't stop 'till you get enough", what do we expect our young people to do?

Reason - backed up by the disciplines of psychology and sociology - tells us that a child is best raised by both a father and a mother. Often, the pursuit of sexual pleasure leads men and women (and often boys and girls) down a road which leads to pregnancy and childbearing before they are ready for this important vocation. This is why common sense leads us to seek to restrict sexual activity to within a committed long-term relationship.

Advocating sexual intercourse only within marriage is not prudish behaviour, and is not solely linked with religious belief; it is common sense. The solid application of reason and a clear understanding of modern scientific thought lead us to this conclusion.

Adolescence is a time when young people learn about themselves and each other and share ideas as well as their dreams. It is a time when they learn self-control and good habits. Where our dominant culture encourages self-gratification instead of self-discipline, we are far down the road to sexual abuse, poor academic performance, and a culture of larceny.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and a Roman Catholic Deacon. Send feedback to