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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Grasso

The Root of Rational Resolutions

In his paper “Rational Resolve,” Richard Holton raises two questions about resolutions: first, the descriptive question of how they work, and, second, the normative question of whether it is rational to persist in them. Holton answers the latter, concluding that rational resolution can indeed make it rational to think less, to make ourselves arational. He leaves the former question alone, assuming that resolutions work. However, central to Holton’s account of rational resolve is the idea that resolutions entrench a previous rational resolve, that any rationality in obedience to resolutions gets its rationality from some previous source. Because Holton assumed the descriptive account of this previous source, the origins of his argument remains blurry. From what foundation does Holton’s structure arise? What does his argument for rational arationality rest on? The aim of this paper is to outline the foundation Holton assumed, and to give a descriptive account of how and why resolutions work.

In order to give this account, I will argue that Holton is wrong to claim that resolutions add no extra features of rationality and will instead propose that resolutions add a multiplication or magnification feature, one dependent on the reason the resolution is employed. I will argue that this extra feature of resolution works by an agent knowingly entering into a test of will—a test of will that I will show cannot be escaped.

Holton and the Work of Resolutions

What work is done by resolutions? How can a resolution give an agent a reason to act? After considering the nature of practical rationality, Holton immediately turns to the bootstrapping problem. The bootstrapping problem surmises that if resolutions are just a special kind of intention, then they should not be able to create extra reasons to act that we would not have otherwise.[1] If I have no reason to jump in a lake (to save someone drowning, I desire to go for a swim, etc.) then certainly intending or resolving to jump in a lake will not furnish some new rationality for doing so. In “Rational Resolve,” Holton sees two ways out of the bootstrapping problem: either resolutions do create extra reasons or we embrace a two-tier account of resolutions. While Holton admits he finds something attractive about the former approach, he ultimately rejects that resolutions are able to provide extra reasons on their own. Instead, he endorses a two-tier method; if resolving is rational, it is because it was rational to resolve in the first place and the rationality of the original resolving is conferred onto the persistence. Holton claims that on the two-tier account resolutions do not create reasons but merely “entrench” the original rationality through a transfer prinicple.[2] Holton’s account is therefore dependent on what I will explore: an account of resolutions and why they work in the first place.

To push back on Holton’s entrenchment account, we may ask: why do resolutions entrench reasons? Why do they not merely rest on the surface, blown away with other intentions when new desires and reasons arrive? Resolutions are types of intentions usually made because temptation is foreseen, and in the face of temptation it may be rational for our judgement to shift.[3] Why does this entrenchment work to stop rational judgement shifts and why do they often fail? Faced with the enticing Sirens, Odysseus prevented his own suicidal action by tying himself to the mast. Odysseus was held by rope, but with what do resolutions bind us? While Holton endorses an account of entrenchment, he fails to explain its power. At its most clear, we can read the idea of entrenchment as a transparent transfer principle, one that simply passes along rationality from the original deliberative process to the action thereby resolved. However, entrenchment presumes some sort of extra strength or durability is present. The rationality from the original intention is “dug in” a bit; it is somehow more protected than if it were not entrenched. So, how can a resolution help protect the original intention more than one non-resolved, especially if Holton denies resolutions create any extra reasons? What is this trench and how does it work?

Resolutions as Self-Promises

If a resolution did furnish extra reasons, then the bootstrapping problem would be irrelevant and there would be no real mystery. To clarify, consider the contrast of resolutions with promises. If I resolve to myself to jump in a lake with no real reason, there is no extra reason created by my resolution.[4] However, if in the same situation, I promise you I will jump in a lake then we do think that I have created a reason, even though I had none before. Say the defender of resolutions responds to our skeptic, “Fine, I don’t resolve to jump in the lake, I promise myself to do it.” After all, aren’t resolutions just forms of self-promises, a promise entered into with yourself instead of another party? If resolutions really are just self-promises then they would create reasons. This would address the first horn of the dilemma and avoid the bootstrapping problem; anything we resolve (promise ourselves) to do would immediately become rational. This seems wrong; so, our skeptic will have to attend to self-promises next.

While labeling resolutions as self-promises seems enticing, the structure of what I will call a “standard promise” (a promise made between two separate parties) renders self-promises impotent. In a standard promise there are two separate parties involved and two distinct roles: the promisor and the promisee. The promisor has created a new reason by virtue of making a promise—the promisee is now owed an obligation. Even if I regret my whimsical promise to you, to jump in a lake, I still have a reason to do so, for you have the right to hold me to my promise. However, the reason generated by my promise can be terminated. In this particular case, it can be terminated in two ways: by my jumping in the lake and fulfilling my promise or by your clemency, i.e., you, the promisee, releasing me from my promise. Through both ways the reason created by my promise has been eliminated; either way, I am no longer beholden and have no reason to think or feel that I am. Here lies the absurdity of a self-promise. If I am both the promisee and the promisor, how can a self-promise bind me in the face of temptation and the possibility of a rational judgement shift?

Resolutions are typically made to bind us to reason in the face of foreseen temptation. However, if resolutions are merely self-promises, what is to stop me (the promisor) from releasing myself (the promisee) from my promise? If this was all that was in play, we would expect resolutions to have no impact on us, akin to the way I am no longer impacted by a fulfilled promise. For example, imagine I resolve to eat only two slices of pizza for dinner due to my digestion. I resolve this specifically because I know I will want to eat more, yet I now judge it would be an overall better choice to stop at two. Later, in the face of foreseen temptation, my judgement shifts as I expected. After two slices, I now desire more pizza, and think to myself it’s best to eat more. At this junction, why can’t I release myself from my resolve in the way a promisee can release a promisor?

If resolutions are merely self-promises, creating extra reasons, then we should be able to release ourselves from them, the extra reasons would be eliminated, and we’d feel no remorse. I should be able to eat a third, fourth, or tenth slice without any mental dissonance. However, this is not the case. Somehow resolutions remain entrenched and continue to hold psychological and emotional sway over us in a way that fulfilled promises do not. It seems where we can resolve promises we can only break resolutions. A broken resolution is not the same as a resolved self-promise.[5] How is this possible and how does it work? I will argue that resolutions, unlike promises, have what I will call a “one-way feature” that, once lowered, cannot be lifted off. This one-way feature will provide the descriptive account of why resolutions work, the description that grounds Holton’s normative account and provides the explanation for entrenchment.

In order to describe how this entrenching one-way feature works, I must first show that while resolutions do not create extra reasons, they do add something. This something may be vaguely described for the time being as some amplification of mental grief, a feeling of dissonance. While this is currently vague, it is clearly felt through example; consider two would-be joggers. On Friday night, both Sarah and Cara think that they should awake at 7 AM sharp tomorrow and run four miles—that this would be better than sleeping in. At that moment, both think it would be the overall best judgement and set their alarms for 7 AM. However, Cara thinks ahead. She knows she will experience a judgment shift when she is comfortable in bed.[6] To counteract this, Cara not only intends or plans on running but she resolves to run—Sarah does not. When 7 AM arrives, both Sarah and Cara face temptation; they both have undergone a judgement shift and neither wants to run anymore.

Here Holton in “Rational Resolve” would consider what is rational for them to do. Is it rational to be arational and not think about it, or is it better to reconsider, since your judgement has shifted? We are not concerned with this path; instead, we ask, if both Sarah and Cara turn off the alarm and go back to sleep does Cara feel an extra weight, as if she has something to wrestle with that Sarah does not? Does Cara’s broken resolution add something; does it cause extra dissonance? This question is not so simple. I will now spend the rest of this paper explaining how and why resolutions generate this extra feature; when we are done, I can show why we cannot yet answer in this particular case about Cara.

How Resolutions Work: A Dependent Extra Feature

Holton was tempted to recognize some extra feature of resolution, but he ultimately rejected it. I will argue that the force of some extra feature was felt because it exists. However, it is a subtle feature, one that is present in every resolution but its effect not always noticeable. The extra feature that makes a resolution’s entrenchment resilient is not the creative feature of promises, but more likely closer to what Holton had in mind when he mentioned extra reasons “even though these are not reasons that the agent will consider” when in the face of temptation.[7] Holton thinks this is plausible, and it is where we begin.

Consider three people: A, B, and C. A wakes up and is struck by the desire for a crisp garden salad for lunch. The whim strikes them and they resolve to order one at lunch. When lunch arrives, A realizes their appetite has changed and that a hamburger is actually preferred; they order the hamburger instead. What work has this resolution done? Since A made their lunch resolution based on nothing but incidental whim and, as we have seen, resolutions do not create reasons, this resolution is empty. A will not feel any dissonance; they will not feel any extra weight due to their resolution. The obstinate resolver aside, it is more likely they will brush off the idea as exactly what it was—a whim. Yet, I’ve said resolutions furnish some extra feature; so, where is it?

B is in a different situation. B has been told by their doctor that their cholesterol is far too high. If B wishes to live a longer, healthier, and an overall better life, they are told they must eat a salad each day for lunch and avoid red meat. Let’s assume B believes this assessment and in fact does want to live a longer and overall better life; at a distance from temptation B understands and agrees they must eat the salad, even though they loath it. B wakes up and, considering this diagnosis, resolves to eat a salad for lunch, knowing that they will be tempted to order their habitual hamburger instead. B arrives at lunch and breaks their resolution. The resolution itself was not strong enough to hold B back and they order a hamburger. Will B feel dissonance? In this case, because the original reason to order the salad was strong, the resolution will add to his dissonance. Not only will B feel the weight of knowingly harming their health, B will also feel the extra weight of breaking their resolve, of being weak willed.

Now consider C. C is in the same situation as B, but with one crucial difference. C does not resolve to eat salad for lunch, and it is not out of ignorance. Just like B, C believes the doctor and thinks it is best to eat the salads, but, unlike B, they have not resolved to eat salad.[8] Unlike B, C is in a vague middle ground, knowing what they must do, believing in why they need to do it, and desiring the results of the action, yet still avoiding committing to it. Avoiding taking a stance, C is in a position akin to Harry Frankfurt’s “wanton,” the “essential characteristic of a wanton is that he does not care about his will.”[9] When C orders a hamburger instead of the salad, they will feel and think different than B. While C may still understand what they are doing is irrational, they will not have broken a resolution. They will not feel the extra weight of weakness that comes with explicitly failing a test of will; instead, they are more likely to continue thinking: “Yes, I should get the salad, and when I really want to I will.” Unlike B, C is poised to remain in self-denial; without resolution, C can slowly begin to bury their head in the sand, moving further from rational action.

Between our three characters we can examine the subtle extra feature of resolutions. Resolutions are not some powerful extra reason that overwhelms the agent, for B failed at his task just like the unresolved C. Yet, there must be something additional within resolve or else B and C would have an identical psychological and emotional response. The answer lies in case A. Even though A resolved just like B, we don’t think A should feel any dissonance—A’s resolution was null because their rationality was null. A’s resolution was made on a whim with no real reason to commit the act to do, the same act B has very good reason to do. The extra feature of a resolution is not a creative one, one that creates reasons ex nihilo; it is a multiplication or a magnification feature, one dependent on the reason it is employed. A’s resolution was ineffective because his reason was empty; it was zero, and, no matter how large the multiplier, the result will always be zero. No matter how powerful the microscope, nothing will be seen if there is no specimen on the slide.

This explanation addresses many difficulties surrounding resolutions: why are they effective for some but not others; why do they work in certain situations but not others; why do they seem to be on a sliding scale of importance, working only sometimes? This extra feature of resolutions is not a silver bullet, one that immediately steels the will against temptation; instead, because of its dependence on rationality, it helps transfer the strength of the reason that is determined through rational deliberation. Like Holton suggested, the decision in sticking with a resolution gets its rationality from the rationality of the original resolution, and this original resolve gets its rationality from the agent’s deliberative process. This account, seeks to meet rationality and the resolutions that flow from it at the most basic level— decisions made in the face of reality.[10] If we return to the would-be jogger Cara, we can see that until we know why she decided to jog, we cannot answer how she will respond to her resolution. We must know what the resolution is magnifying before we know what affect it will have.

I have sketched the extra feature of resolutions, an extra factor that magnifies or multiplies the rationality of the original deliberative process. If the original reason for making the resolution is believed rational by the agent, then resolution is effective. If it is not rational, for example it is made on a whim, then the resolution is still present but its effect is not seen because of its dependence on the original rationality.[11] Likewise, the stronger the reason the more effective the resolution. By “effective” I do not mean successful. The effect of a resolution is not to infallibly steel the will so that the action or non-action is achieved; the will is vital, but it is separate from the feature of resolutions I am discussing here.[12] Instead, effective here means that the resolution is activated, that is does have an effect on the situation.

Resolutions have a function more akin to sight; they orient the agent, clarify their problem, and hold it in magnified focus, setting the stage for the agent in calling down a challenge on themselves to achieve this clear task. By magnifying the rationality of the original decision, resolutions clarify and multiply the motivational force of the original rationality, this extra clarification and force enlarging the dissonance felt through failure. Like Holton said, this is an entrenchment, a transfer of knowledge and rationality, but the trench is deeper or shallower according to the rationality of the original resolve. Now we can turn to the final question: how does this trench get dug; why don’t rational judgment shifts in the face of temptation release us from resolutions; in short, why do resolutions work?

Why Resolutions Work: A One-Way Feature of Knowledge

If what I have argued is correct, then resolutions really do add an extra feature, a kind of amplification of mental or emotional dissonance which is perpetrated through a magnification of the original rationality. We have all broken resolutions and felt a sense of guilt, not only about the failure to do what was rational but about the failure itself. This becomes clear if we consider a continual breaking of the same resolution. If I resolve to quit smoking every day and fail every day, after a month or two, I am more likely to quit resolving than to quit smoking. If I must be weak willed then at least let me be honest about it; I no longer wish to be a hypocrite when so clearly that is all my resolution is making me.

I feel this way exactly because the resolution has played its role well. Each time I resolve to stop smoking I enter into a test of will that I cannot escape. Each time I smoke another cigarette I have failed the test. I quit resolving instead of smoking because I no longer wish to be a failure or at least to so clearly see myself as one. If I continue to smoke, knowing it is irrational to do so, but do not resolve to stop, then I have not entered into a test of will; therefore, I cannot fail it. I may be slowly ruining my health and implicitly weak willed but at least I am not explicitly weak willed. Like C in the example above, I may still feel or even know smoking is irrational but until I declare I am really trying, I can live in an uncommitted vagueness—one where I try without resolving, one I can hide in when I fail. At the very least, a position of non-resolution is a set up for self-denial and wantonness, a position that resolution fights against.

Resolutions pull us from vagueness and this non-committal attitude. They magnify and clarify the situation and the rational decision made to address it. They acknowledge the problem, decide on a solution, hold it in focus, set clear and definite rules of the test, and, finally, get our agreement to enter into this test of will. We quite literally see in better definition and sharpness; a vision that makes our commitment unequivocal instead of amorphous and vague. This may still seem the how of the work of resolutions, but it is the nature of how resolutions work that explain why they work. The one-way feature of resolutions, the reason that a resolution cannot be escaped like a self-promise, is that of knowledge. Resolutions work by an agent’s knowledge of entering into a test of will, one that is based in rationality.

To describe this one-way feature of knowledge, consider a typical resolution. If I resolve to quit smoking (assume this a rational and overall best decision), I am entering into a type of test. There are only so many ways to exit this test: I can quit smoking and pass; I can smoke and fail; or I can quit the test, claiming it was bunk—that my judgment was off earlier or that it is more rational now. Unless there was a substantial change to justify the judgment shift, the test of resolution remains.[13] Pass, fail, or quit, we are still affected by our rational resolutions because they measure us, show us our failings, and we know it; we ask them to judge us and they do. We cannot be released from them like a self-promise for the reasons shown previously, and we cannot worm out of them through a foreseen judgement shift for this is exactly why we asked them to judge us in the first place. But if we were to try, where would we look?

Consider the most ambiguous exit from the test of resolution—that of quitting. This seems to be the best way out; after all, why can’t I quit a test I set up and I am grading? If I am the test-taker and the test grader, why not tear up the test and walk out? The answer is that you can. You can claim the test was bunk and walk away, but I argue that you cannot “forget” your weakness, the action of quitting your resolution. In normal cases, a proper rational resolution, one that fulfills the characteristics I outlined above: clarifying, defining, etc., cannot allow an agent to dive totally back into self-deceit without dissonance or shame.[14] The act of resolving is clarifying your reasoning and agreeing to it; to then decry the test because you no longer like it is to try to escape back to vagueness, to a place where denial is easier.[15]

I am not claiming that self-denial is impossible after a resolution. I am merely claiming that in standard cases (no hypnosis, drugs, etc.) an agent cannot immediately and indefinitely pretend that the resolution was irrational to avoid the dissonance of the one-way extra feature of a resolution.[16] This self-denial may certainly take place over a longer period of time. I may convince myself that my deadly habit of smoking is not so bad after all, but it will not be instantaneous to dodge a feeling of guilt or dissonance at the acceptance of my weakness of will. There may be other types of forgetfulness that complicate this account, but I will have to leave these objections for a different place.[17] The test of resolve is powered by the one-way feature of knowledge; it is a trap that once we enter into, we have no escape. We have only to pass or fail—or know we were too afraid to find out which of the two we’d score—its own admittance of failure. Like the proverbial apple, the price of knowledge is that it is not so easily forgotten.

So, Holton’s original intuition of some kind of extra feature of resolutions was correct. Resolutions are entrenchments, but in order to explain why the entrenchment works we have embraced a subtle extra feature of resolutions, a feature that is subtle due to its dependence on the particular situation and its rationality. This feature clarifies and magnifies the rationality of our original resolve, multiplying the justificatory and motivational force it finds there. This multiplication factor amplifies the dissonance of failure in unresolve due to the extra clarity and force it brings. I have described this extra factor as a one-way feature; one-way because once it is entered into it cannot be so easily escaped. This one-way feature is plausible because resolutions are powered and sustained through knowledge—the knowledge that we are asking ourselves to judge ourselves—our resolutions acting as our own indelible rulers, mirrors reflecting acts we’d rather not see, instruments in the arduous call to know thyself.


Frankfurt, Harry G. "Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person." The Journal of Philosophy 68, no. 1 (1971): 5-20. Accessed December 12, 2020. doi:10.2307/2024717.

Holton, Richard. "Rational Resolve." The Philosophical Review 113, no. 4 (2004): 507-35. Accessed December 12, 2020.

Korsgaard, Christine (1997). “The Normativity of Instrumental Reason.” In Garrett Cullity & Berys Gaut (eds.), Ethics and Practical Reason. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


[1] Richard Holton, "Rational Resolve." The Philosophical Review 113, no. 4 (2004): 513. [2] Holton, 515. [3] Holton, 507 [4]An objection may be the character of the obstinate resolver, a person who prides themself on always keeping their resolutions no matter what. While this character may exist, Holton argued this was not a rational approach and that it was not strength of will, but obstinacy, something he did not endorse and neither will we. We set it aside for now. [5] One may say we can quit resolutions but I will show how this is not an escape route later on. [6] Holton might argue that it may not even be rational to run anymore once it is reconsidered at 7 AM because of the change of circumstances. The judgement shift of staying in bed is strong enough to make the choice to stay in bed rational. This is why he concludes that it is in fact rational to be arational in certain cases, that a previous rational resolve confers rationality onto the non-reconsidering. Or at least when the resolution and circumstances meet his rules of thumb: one is faced with the very temptations that the resolution was designed to overcome and if one’s judgement will be worse than it was when the resolution was formed. [7]Holton, 514. Holton turns from here to what he calls unreflective dispositions. If there is an extra feature of resolution it is that it gives us a reason to be unreflective and arational. [8] Note that this is not a case of someone who judges that a short life lived on red meat is better than a long life lived on vegetables. [9]Harry Frankfurt, "Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person." The Journal of Philosophy 68, no. 1 (1971): 11. Like the wanton, C does not want to decide his will. They want to remain in a place characterized by indecision and lack of second order will. This may not be case for C currently, but a position of non-resolution certainly sets C up for wantonness. [10] This account meets the standard that Holton says extra features of resolve don’t—that they are not descriptively accurate. Holton was concerned that though we prefer to be resolute rather than weak, this preference is not strong enough to outweigh temptation in which it would be rational to persist. I agree; this account can account for this, allowing for both dissonance in failure and yet failure all the same. [11]It is also plausible that a resolution made without a reason is not a resolution at all but simply a whim or passing fancy. But this is a peripheral contention and can be put aside for now. [12]There is an easy conflation of resolutions as I am discussing and resolve as will power. I offer a quick metaphor. If you were driving in a downpour, the side of resolutions I am investigating would be the headlights and the windshield wipers, but the will is the transmission of the car. Resolutions help you see where you are going, but no matter how clear the sight, without the transmission (resolution in the sense of willpower) you go nowhere. The interaction of the will and resolutions is worthy of much examination elsewhere. [13] See above for Holton’s rules of thumb for legitimate judgment shifts. [14] A weaker claim would be no rational agent could escape; I think even non-totally deluded irrational agents will still not escape scot-free. When they return to their rationality later on the feeling will be waiting for them. I’ll discuss some more extreme irrational cases below. [15] This is assuming a case where there is no legitimate judgment shift. In this case the change of mind is most likely from the exact temptation that the resolution was made to avoid. [16] Normal cases of self-denial in the face of a rational resolution are not immediate. To bury one’s head in the sand of denial is a very real possibility, but it is a process and not done in one swift act. There may be abnormal cases of agent’s particularly practiced at self-denial but I set them aside. It is more likely that an agent is skilled in rationalization; in which case they may slip the bounds. In fact, the study of when it is rational to stop rationalizing is the aim of Holton’s “Rational Resolve.” But here we would transition from a descriptive account of resolutions to an account of when they are rational and tricks of how to persist in resolutions—something outside our purview. [17] There may be a version of legitimate forgetfulness, not one of cognizant self-denial, but of perhaps busyness. Consider Jeremy from Christine Korsgaard’s footnote story in The Normativity of Instrumental Reason. Jeremy makes a positive resolution like: “I resolve to study for my exam tonight.” Restless at the moment, he goes for a walk. He stumbles into a friend who invites him for a drink; Jeremy can afford the time for one so he goes. Jeremy is then bounced from place to place until the night is gone and he hasn’t studied. Has Jeremy forgotten his resolution in a way that escapes the test of resolution? I’ll follow Korsgaard in suggesting this a problem of an inactive will. I imagine that when the resolution is remembered, when Jeremy awakes the next day, he will find not only the consequences of not studying waiting for him but also an extra dissonance at being so weak willed as to not even remember his resolution. I suspect the answer lies in how resolutions interact with the will, that if an agent is so forgetful of resolutions then the problem rests in their will power, not in the structure of resolutions. However, this type of forgetfulness of a resolution does add an interesting case worthy of longer treatment elsewhere.


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