Bombe Disposal

In a footnote to ‘A Plea for Excuses,’ J. L. Austin wrote the following:

Plato, I suppose, and after him Aristotle, fastened this confusion upon us [the confusion involved in collapsing succumbing to temptation into losing control of ourselves], as bad in its day as the later, grotesque, confusion of moral weakness with weakness of will. I am very partial to ice cream, and a bombe is served divided into segments corresponding one to one with the persons at High Table: I am tempted to help myself to two segments and do so, thus succumbing to temptation and even conceivably (but why necessarily?) going against my principles. But do I lose control of myself? Do I raven, do I snatch the morsels from the dish and wolf them down, impervious to the consternation of my colleagues? Not a bit of it. We often succumb to temptation with calm and even with finesse. (Austin 1956: 146 (reprint))

Austin appears partly to be motivated here by the idea that losing control of oneself must involve total, or near total loss: failure to govern oneself in accord with one’s views or intentions concerning what is to be done. If one allows that any failure in self-governance, any slack between one’s views about what is to be done and that which one in fact does, counts as a loss of control, then the proposed distinction between succumbing to temptation and losing control becomes less clear. However, Austin seems right to claim that one can act in accord with one’s then operative views about what is to be done, and to that extent count as fully in control of oneself, whilst counting as having succumbed to temptation, due to the fact that one’s then operative views about what is to be done conflict with what is in fact to be done, or with what one’s principles permit. There is, as ever, more to say here. However, I wish instead to consider a distinct case of bombe disposal.

Consider the following case. The bombe has been distributed fairly so that each diner has had a segment, but one segment remains. You desire the segment, and set about deliberating on the question whether to take it. You have the following views:

(V1) You are permitted to take the final segment of ice cream only if you are entitled to the final segment of ice cream.

(V2) No one who would decide to take the final segment of ice cream is entitled to the final segment of ice cream.

According to (V1) and (V2), it would go against one’s principles to take the final segment of ice cream on the basis of having decided to take the final segment of ice cream. By (V2), anyone who decided to take the ice cream would thereby lose their entitlement to take the ice cream; and by (V1), one is permitted to take the segment only if one is entitled. However, in advance of your deciding to take the final segment, (V1) and (V2) seem to leave open that you may take the ice cream. And they thereby seem to leave open that you can decide to take the ice cream. So, can you decide to take the final segment of ice cream? More precisely, can you decide rationally to take the final segment without giving up, or losing track of, your standing commitment to (V1) and (V2)?


J. L. Austin (1956) ‘A Plea for Excuses.’ Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supp. vol. Reprinted in his Philosophical Papers. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

  1. V1 Seems a bit dodgy. Specifically, it sets up entitlement to the segment as a criterion of permission to take the segment. But that’s basically saying you’re only entitled to take it if you’re entitled to take it. After all, it would be odd to change the rule so that you only had permission to take it if you weren’t entitled to it. That would only make sense if the authority granting permission was different from the authority granting entitlement (“If he says you’re not entitled to it then I grant you permission to take it”). But here there’s only one authority involved (the person who desires the segment), so it’s hard to see how permission to take can hinge upon entitlement to take.

    There are numerous ways one might finish the sentence “X is entitled to take the slice because…”. But “he is permitted to” is not one of them. Unless, of course, you’re saying “just because”.

  2. Thanks. V1 wasn’t supposed to be doing anything clever, but merely to articulate slightly more fully the demands you are supposed to accept as part of the case, so it’s fine if it’s trivial. Unless it were inconsistent, or rendered the case impossible, it’s not really an appropriate target of criticism. (Compare: spelling out as part of the case that the subject is to accept the validity of modus ponens.) However, I don’t think I agree that it is trivial. I might well take myself to be permitted to do things that I don’t take myself to be entitled to do. That is, I might allow myself to act against my views about what I’m entitled to do. Anyway, as I say, it doesn’t matter if V1 becomes a “just because”; that would merely focus attention on V2, at no loss if we assume that V2 is trivial.

    • Hmm. I’m not sure V1 (as you have it) can be left aside quite as harmlessly as that. But perhaps the more important question is: whose rules are we talking about? Let me reword the argument slightly in a way I hope doesn’t misrepresent it:

      1. I can grant myself permission to take x only if I’m entitled to take x.

      2. If I decide to take x I’m not entitled to take x.


      3. If I decide to take x I can’t grant myself permission to take x.

      But now the question is: what’s the difference between deciding to take x and granting myself permission to take x? It’s hard to see how I can decide to do something while at the same time refusing myself permission to do it.

      The problem disappears if we change 3 to “If I want to take x I can’t grant myself permission to take x”. That’s just good old fashioned self-denial. So the problem here is actually with the move from “granting myself permission” in (1) and “deciding to take” in (2). They create a distinction without a difference and then build a paradox upon it.

      If you leave out (1) all you get is a case where someone decides to do something they shouldn’t. This happens all the time. We want to do x, but feel we shouldn’t. Then we say “to hell with it” and do x. And then (quite often) we feel guilty.

      Or is it like this:

      1. The established rules don’t permit me to take x if I’m not entitled to take x.

      2. These rules state I’m not entitled to take x if I decide to take it.


      3. If I decide to take it then the rules refuse me permission to take it.

      I don’t see any problem with this version. The established rules amount to something like “Don’t take; wait until you’re offered”. Here, deciding to take x doesn’t involve a contradiction. I’m deciding to break the rules, that’s all.

  3. tougis said:

    Since V2 refers to “deciding”, it seems we never should have started “deliberating” on the matter. See it, want it, eat it. No decision, hence no violation of “entitlement principles.”

    • Yes, that might well be a way of getting to eat the segment, although one might worry that it would involve some sort of reneging of self-governance, perhaps also a loss of control. However, if the segment is sufficiently delicious, it might be worth it.

  4. Thanks. I think my worry would be with this bit of what you say: “But now the question is: what’s the difference between deciding to take x and granting myself permission to take x? It’s hard to see how I can decide to do something while at the same time refusing myself permission to do it.” That’s sort of the point, I guess. In the case, you’re supposed to hold fixed views about what you’re permitted to do that preclude you from permitting yourself to both (decide to take the segment) and (take the segment), although they don’t preclude your taking the segment absent decision. The question is whether you can rationally decide to take the segment in those circumstances, without changing, or setting aside, your views about what you’re permitted to do. The point of the post is in effect, as you say, that it’s hard to decide to do something while at the same time refusing permission. However, you are permitted to take the segment, just not on the basis of decision. Obviously enough, if one changes the case, some problems arising in the initial case will disappear. But that would only be forced if the initial set up were impossible. If it’s not, then perhaps your point is just that decision is impossible in those circumstances (or that it’s hard to see how it can be possible). I’d be happy with that outcome, which I find reasonably interesting.

    • Sorry to keep gnawing away at this, but it’s interesting.

      First, I think there’s something misleading about the rule as it stands: “You’re not entitled to take x if you decide to take x”. This seems to create a division between deciding to do something and actually doing it which I don’t think is tenable in this type of case. Suppose I decide to take x as soon as I’ve finished doing y, but by the time I’ve finished y (a few seconds later) I’ve changed my mind. There’s something absurd about the idea that I wasn’t entitled to x for those few seconds but then became entitled again – as if entitlement was a kind of ghostly aura, constantly coming into being and vanishing with the fluctuation of people’s intentions.

      Instead, isn’t it like this: (1) “If I take x on the basis of a decision, then I’m doing something I shouldn’t”?

      OK, back to the earlier question: can I decide to do something without granting myself permission to do it? This comes down to: can I decide to do something I consider unacceptable? The difficulty here is that “deciding” is typically linked to reasons, and where it isn’t, its status as a decision is questionable. I cannot (conceptually) decide to do something for reasons which, at the time of my decision, I consider bogus. And if I consider them valid even when set against the reasons for deciding against doing something then it follows that I don’t consider my actions unacceptable. Again, that’s a conceptual link.

      So suppose I adhere, generally speaking, to rule (1) above. But today I missed lunch and I’m especially hungry, so I decide it would be OK to take the final segment. I’m allowing an exception to the rule (without abandoning it in general terms). This might be seen as amending the rule, or it might be seen as clarifying it (“The rule was never intended to stop starving people from taking the last segment”).

      But now suppose I don’t have any reasons – I just can’t resist the final segment. Here I fall below my own standards and am not justified before myself. Did I decide to take the segment? Yes and no. That is, we might call it an instance of deciding, but it’s not like deciding in the previous scenario. If someone asks me why I decided to take the segment, I might reply “I just did”. Or: “I didn’t decide. I just acted. I couldn’t help myself”. This latter phrase underlines a distinction between my motivation in the present case and what’s normally called “deciding”.

      In both scenarios I’m still answerable for what I did, but the nature of my responsibility differs in the two cases. In the first scenario the focus is on my reasons. Were they good ones? Was I just rationalising greed? Etc. In the second scenario I have (it might be felt) displayed a lamentably weak will. Someone might say “a decent person would’ve shown more restraint” (and that someone might be me).

      I’d better stop now.

  5. Thanks.

    First, I don’t think there’s anything absurd in one’s entitlements, or–since that’s what’s at issue here–one’s believed entitlements, fluctuating. And I certainly don’t think it makes them ghostly. The goalkeeper is entitled to handle the ball when, but only when, they are in the box: now they’re in the box, now they’re not, now they are again. Not puzzling.

    Second, the point of V1 and V2 is to home in on the idea that certain sorts of decisions, or being the sort of person who makes certain sorts of decisions, might be conceived as bad. Compare here not wanting to be a member of any club who would want to have me as a member. In this case, the operative thought is something like: people who’d decide to take the last segment are the sorts of people who shouldn’t be allowed to have the last segment. But your (1) seems okay to me, although I preferred to spell things out slightly more. As I said earlier, I don’t think there’s s significant issue here, unless you think talk of entitlement is entirely inappropriate in this context. In that case, it may be that you have a technical meaning in mind.

    Third, it’s certainly a question whether I can decide to do something while holding that doing that thing is unacceptable. I guess I think one can, but perhaps only by deciding non-rationallty. (That may connect with your later points.) But it’s not obviously the same question as the one I raised, since in that case, doing the thing per se is acceptable; it’s just that deciding to do it and then doing it is held to be unacceptable. Perhaps, as an earlier comment suggested, one can do it on a whim, without decision, and yet, from one’s own perspective, perfectly acceptably.

    Fourth, you suggest some conceptual links between decision, reasons, and acceptability. I don’t doubt that such links obtain, though I think spelling them out is a delicate matter. I’m inclined to think that–whatever they are–such links are operative in making it (seem?) impossible rationally to decide to take the segment. That was the point of the example, it’s interest turning on the fact that nothing precludes simply taking the segment without doing so on the basis of decision. So, at this point, I’m inclined to think we agree on the substantive issues, perhaps disagreeing about the interest of the case, and perhaps also disagreeing about the fine details of the links between decision, reasons, and acceptability that operate in the case.

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