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How to Keep a New Year’s Resolution

MELBOURNE – Did you make any New Year’s resolutions? Perhaps you resolved to get fit, to lose weight, to save more money, or to drink less alcohol. Or your resolution may have been more altruistic: to help those in need, or to reduce your carbon footprint. But are you keeping your resolution?

We are not yet far into 2010, but studies show that fewer than half of those who make New Year’s resolutions manage to keep them for as long as one month. What does this tell us about human nature, and our ability to live either prudently or ethically?

Part of the problem, of course, is that we make resolutions to do only things that we are not otherwise likely to do. Only an anorexic would resolve to eat ice cream at least once a week, and only a workaholic would resolve to spend more time in front of the television. So we use the occasion of the New Year to try to change behavior that may be the most difficult to change. That makes failure a distinct possibility.

Nevertheless, presumably we make resolutions because we have decided that it would be best to do whatever it is that we are resolving to do. But if we have already made that decision, why don’t we just do it? From Socrates onwards, that question has puzzled philosophers. In the Protagoras, one of Plato’s dialogues, Socrates says that no one chooses what they know to be bad. Hence choosing what is bad is a kind of error: people will do it only if they think that it is good. If we can teach people what is best, Socrates and Plato seem to have thought, they will do it. But that is a hard doctrine to swallow – much harder than eating the extra slice of cake that you know is not good for you.