Recently, I was talking to a colleague who told me about her need to see a financial planner. Here’s what her reasoning was. When she has money, she is disciplined about saving. When she doesn’t have as much money – when she needs to spend the money she has on other things – she’s not so disciplined. She needs someone to hold her accountable all the time and make sure she’s disciplined about saving.

And, she said, the low-income people she works with need the same thing: someone to make sure their disciplined about saving.

And that struck me as a weird way to use the word ‘discipline.’

Imagine two pieces of rich decadent chocolate cake. One piece is in front of someone who has just had a big meal: an appetizer, house salad, a 16-ounce ribeye, fried, and some asparagus. A feast. That person has eaten so much she feels a little queasy. She says no to the cake.

The other piece is in front of someone who has just been rescued after getting lost on a hiking trip. He hasn’t eaten in three days and is absolutely starving. He gobbles down the cake in what seems like a matter like seconds.

Is either of these people acting on discipline? Is the first person showing discipline? Is the second person showing a lack of discipline?


The difference between the first person and the second person isn’t discipline; it’s need. Of course we’re good at saying ‘no’ when we’re living in abundance. It’s easy to refuse some chocolate cake when we’re full or to put some money into savings when we have extra. And we’re much worse at saying ‘no’ when we’re facing scarcity. It’s hard to refuse the cake when we’re starving or to save money when almost every dollar is going to some necessity.

This is true for my colleague and the low-income families she serves. It’s easy to save when we have extra money. It’s hard to save when we don’t. It has little (if anything) to do with discipline.

What’s particularly fascinating here is the moral dimension to this. We usually understand discipline as a virtue and a sign of good character. People who are disciplined are good. Conversely, we understand a lack of discipline as a sign of poor character. People who don’t show discipline are bad. That’s problematic enough as it is, but there might be some truth in it. Some people might really be undisciplined. And they might be more virtuous if they were able to control their impulses better.

But we make it worse when we confuse discipline and need. If we think that the person who hasn’t eaten in three days is undisciplined because he eats the cake, and we think that being undisciplined is morally suspect, then we eng up saying that being hungry (even after a prolonged period of not eating) is morally wrong.  Similarly, if we think that the person who has just had a feast is disciplined because she refuses the cake, and we think that being disciplined is a virtue, then we end up saying that she it virtuous because she’s had more than enough to eat.

In other words, we end up saying that having very little is a sin and having a lot is a virtue. And I don’t think that any of us want to make that claim. At least, I hope that none of us want to make that claim.

So we need to be careful not to confuse discipline with need.