Friday, December 21, 2007

Aristotle's point of view on Akrasia

Aristotle believes that akrasia (also see) is one of the three moral states that should be avoided. (1) Aristotle construes akrasia as a sort of softness which is neither identical with virtue nor wickedness. The akratic person is aware of the fact that what she does is bad and blameworthy, she nonetheless does it as a result of passions. Contrary to Socrates, Aristotle asserts that there are people who have some knowledge and judge rightly, they nevertheless behave in an undesirable manner. (2) Aristotle finds Socrates’ claim against observed facts and draws a distinction between two kinds of knowledge to tackle the Socratic stance. Aristotle asks: “if [the akratic] acts by reason of ignorance, what is the manner of his ignorance?” (3) He attempts to answer Socrates by creating a fine nuance in the definition of knowledge. Aristotle further mentions that the akratic person had, before committing an akratic act, an ethically correct dispositional belief about that situation. (4)

Aristotle continues his discussion of akrasia by dividing it into two general categories: impetuosity [προπέτεια] and weakness [σθένεια]. (5) The appetite or strong desire for anger and pleasure may lead respectively to impetuosity and weakness. Note that the strong desire for pleasure and anger are among the passions that Aristotle employs to exemplify akrasia in Book VII of Nicomachean Ethics. Hence, Aristotle recognizes that the akratic is under severe influence of his passions. This is particularly manifest in this passage:

“But there is a sort of man [the akratic] who is carried away as a result of passions and contrary to the right rule-a man whom passion masters so that he does not act according to the right rule…” (6)

The person suffering from impetuosity doesn’t usually reason nor deliberate before her akratic act. Aristotle describes such individuals by way of analogy:

Anger seems to listen to argument to some extent, but to mishear it, as do hasty servants who run out before they have heard the whole of what one says, and then muddle the order”. (7)

One who suffers from weakness, in contrast, reasons correctly and deliberates before acting, however he doesn’t perform according to his better judgement. George, in my first example, appears to suffer from this kind of akrasia.

Thus far, in this section, I have roughly explained how Aristotle construes akrasia. I also mentioned that passions play a motivating role in akrasia. According to Aristotle, although passions cannot overpower knowledge, they may result in a ‘simultaneous intellectual failure’. (8) The akratic agent, in effect, fails to grasp the ‘minor premise’ of the practical syllogism.


(1) Aristotle, NE, Book VII, 1145a 15-17. The other two moral states that Aristotle mentions in this passage are vice and brutishness.
(2) ibid, 1145b 21
(3) ibid, 1145b 29
(4) This is in accordance with George’s situation. (page 4 of this paper, lines 6 to 9)
(5) Kraut briefly talks about this in 'Aristotle's Ethics', The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
(6)Aristotle, NE, Book VII, 1151a 20
(7) Aristotle, NE, 1149a 25
(8) M. C. Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge, p. 79. The content of the next section is mainly based on Nussbaum’s arguments in her book.

1 comment:

Man from Flushing said...

Well said. Don't you, too, find a tension between the claims that i) the akratic, motivated by passion, intentionally breaks a rule; and ii) the akratic "fails to grasp" the minor premise of a practical syllogism?

There's something instructive about (ii) -- somehow the akratic fails to particularize the general rule. In some cases of akrasia, we catch ourselves making excuses, denying that this occasion is an instance of the rule. Perhaps in other cases we fail to catch ourselves in the act of denial....

But more generally, we should say that the akratic's failure is not any kind of failure of reasoning. In the typical case, the akratic has recognized this present occasion as an instance of the rule -- and yet, overcome by passion, he fails to perform the action described by his good sense.