Friday, December 21, 2007

Socrates' point of view on Akrasia

According to Socrates (470 BC-399 BC), akrasia (also see) is practically impossible for an agent cannot knowingly take an action against her better judgement. This is particularly manifest in Protagoras 345d-e:

“[S]imonides was not so ignorant as to say that he praised those who did no evil voluntarily, as though there were some who did evil voluntarily. For no wise man, as I believe, will allow that any human being errs voluntarily, or voluntarily does evil and dishonorable actions; but they are very well aware that all who do evil and dishonorable things do them against their will.”

Socrates believes that moral weakness cannot occur in the presence of knowledge. In his opinion, a knowledgeable person wouldn’t comply with anything other than her knowledge. According to Aristotle, Socrates “[thought that] it would be strange if when knowledge was in a man something else could master it and drag it about like a slave.” (1) Hence, the agent who acts against her better judgement only proves her ignorance. According to Socrates, the person who engages in actions which are clearly contrary to her best interest must have mistaken beliefs. That is to say, the agent intends to act, in a sense, according to her best choices but she is simply mistaken about what is best for her.

Jack is in his exams period. In ten days he has to hand in four final papers; every hour is precious to him. Alice, his beautiful classmate, calls and invites him for a glass of wine to her cozy apartment. Jack accepts her offer without any hesitation because he finds it quite pleasant to have a glass of wine with the prettiest girl in his class.

Socrates’ analysis: Socrates would probably say that although Jack is a mature university student, he only has a short vision when it comes to pleasure. He doesn't have an accurate grasp of what is truly good for himself. He chooses the immediate pleasure over the long term pleasure because the short term pleasure is, probably, more accessible to him. Jack knows that every hour counts for him and that he really should have stayed home to study. He, nonetheless, engages in Alice’s project. In Socrates’ view, had Jack really known what was best for himself, he would have stayed home.

Conclusion: In the above example Jack is, theoretically speaking, aware of his actual situation in a sense. However, he lacks practical wisdom or phronesis (φρόνησις). Note that lack of knowledge in practical wisdom, according to virtue ethics, necessarily involves ignorance of what is truly good. After all, Socrates would say, Jack’s act comes from his ignorance. Hence, we cannot really say that he voluntarily engaged in wrongdoing. A natural assumption, then, is to conclude that Socrates’ remedy for such individuals as Jack is to acquire phronesis to prevent future undesirable state of affairs.
(1) Aristotle, NE, 1145b 22-25


Anonymous said...
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