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Akrasia

Akrasia

Akrasia (ancient Greek ἀκρασία, "lacking command (over oneself)"), occasionally transliterated as acrasia, is the state of acting against one's better judgment.

Classical Approaches

The problem goes back at least as far as Plato. Socrates (in Plato's Protagoras) asks precisely how this is possible - if one judges action A to be the best course of action, why would one do anything other than A?

In the dialogue, Socrates attests that akrasia is an illogical moral concept, claiming “No one goes willingly toward the bad” (358d). If a person examines a situation and decides to act in the way he determines to be best, he will actively pursue this action, as the best course is also the good course, i.e. man's natural goal. An all-things-considered assessment of the situation will bring full knowledge of a decision's outcome and worth linked to well-developed principles of the good. A person, according to Socrates, never chooses to act poorly or against his better judgment; actions that go against what is best are only a product of being ignorant of facts or knowledge of what is best or good.

Aristotle on the other hand took a more empirical approach to the question, acknowledging that we intuitively believe in akrasia. He distances himself from the Socratic position by locating the breakdown of reasoning in an agent’s opinion, not appetite. Now, without recourse to appetitive desires, Aristotle reasons that akrasia occurs as a result of opinion. Opinion is formulated mentally in a way that may or may not imitate truth, while appetites are merely desires of the body. Thus opinion is only incidentally aligned with or opposed to the good, making an akratic action the product of opinion instead of reason.

Contemporary Approaches

Donald Davidson took his stab at the problem by first criticizing earlier thinkers who wanted to limit the scope of akrasia to agents who despite having reached a rational decision were somehow swerved off their “desired” tracks. Indeed, Davidson expands akrasia to include any judgment that is reached but not fulfilled, whether it be as a result of an opinion, a real or imagined good, or a moral belief. “[T]he puzzle I shall discuss depends only on the attitude or belief of the agent…my subject concerns evaluative judgments, whether they are analyzed cognitively, prescriptively, or otherwise.” Thus he expands akrasia to include cases in which the agent seeks to fulfill desires, for example, but ends up denying himself the pleasure he has deemed most choice-worthy.

Davidson sees the problem as one of reconciling the following apparently inconsistent triad:

  • If an agent believes A to be better than B, then he wants to do A more than B.
  • If an agent wants to do A more than B, then he will do A rather than B if he only does one.
  • Sometimes an agent acts against his better judgment.

Davidson solves the problem by saying that, when people act in this way, they temporarily believe that the worse course of action is better, because they have not made an all-things-considered judgment, but only a judgment based on a subset of possible considerations.

Another contemporary philosopher, Amélie Rorty, has tackled the problem by distilling out akrasia's many forms. In her article, "Where does the akratic break take place," she contends that akrasia is manifested in different stages of the practical reasoning process. She enumerates four types of akrasia: akrasia of direction or aim, of interpretation, of irrationality, and of character. She separates the practical reasoning process into four steps, showing the breakdown that may occur between each step and how each constitutes an akratic state.

Another explanation is that there are different forms of motivation which can conflict with each other. Throughout the ages, many have identified a conflict between reason and emotion, which might make it possible to believe that one should do A rather than B, but still end up wanting to do B more than A.

The word ἀκρασία occurs twice in the koine greek New Testament. In Matthew 23:25 Jesus uses it describing hypocritical religious leaders. The Apostle Paul also gives akrasia as a reason for a husband and wife to not deprive each other of sex (1 Corinthians 7:5).

Weakness of Will

Much of the philosophical literature takes akrasia to be the same thing as weakness of the will. So, for example, a smoker who wants to quit - yet cannot - acts against her/his better judgment (that quitting smoking is best) due to a weak will.

However, some have challenged the link. Richard Holton, for example, sees weakness of the will as a tendency to revise one's judgment about what is best too easily. So the smoker might one moment feel that she should give up, but at another that the joy of smoking outweighs the risks, oscillating back and forth between judgments. Such a person has a weak will but is not acting akratically.

Under this view, it is also possible to act against one's better judgment, but without weakness of will. One might, for example, decide that taking revenge upon a murderer is both immoral and imprudent, but decide to take revenge anyway, and never flinch from this decision. Such a person behaves akratically but does not show weakness of will. However, this view on akrasia falls victim to a normative view on ethics that does not account for someone's judgment leading him to pursue a "bad" course of action. Although the person holds certain "moral stances" (meaning normative ethical views based on western systems of belief) in high esteem--as, say, murder is wrong or revenge is wrong--at base the person holds other beliefs more strongly, such as doling out moral deserts or staying true to one's friends. With this in mind, the moral conceptual framework of the individual must be evaluated to determine the nature of the act. To show strength of will implies a pre-determined decision-making process that may or may not seem to be in conflict with generally accepted moral beliefs.

See also

Notes

References

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  • Davidson, D. (Donald Davidson), "How is Weakness of the Will Possible?", reprinted at pp.21-42 in Davidson, D., Essays on Actions and Events, Oxford University Press, (Oxford), 1980. (Essay originally published in 1969.)
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