Sunday, December 7, 2008


J. C. B. Gosling

Socrates questioned whether one could ever deliberately, when able to follow either course, choose the worse, because overcome by fear, pleasure, etc.—i.e. whether akrasia could occur. In his view any deliberate agent must consider that what they are doing best fits their objectives (what they take to be their good). If seriously overcome, they would not be acting deliberately. What we deliberate (reason practically) about is always what we consider will be the best way to achieve our good. The apparent conflict between reason and passion is rejected: passions are unstable, untutored judgements about what is best; knowledge is necessary and sufficient for bringing stability to our judgements. This sets the problem as (i) how can we act against what reason dictates? And (ii) how can we act against our view of what we take as good? Socrates answered that we cannot.

Aristotle and others following him thought Socrates ignored the obvious facts. They contrasted reason and pursuit of the good with motivation by passion. This involved denying the Socratic view that all deliberate action is aimed at what the agent considers best: I can take a meringue because I want it, without thinking taking one the best thing for me to do. There grew up a tendency to ally virtue with the exercise of reason, in opposition to passion with its relatively short-term considerations: and to see akrasia as a moral problem, the question of its possibility as one for ethics.

In the Middle Ages account had to be given of how the Devil, without passion, could deliberately go wrong. Aquinas tried to account for this as an error of reason, Scotus saw it as a case of the will freely choosing a good, but one which it should not choose. Passion-free akrasia was on the map.

In the twentieth century R. M. Hare saw a problem arising because he considered that in their primary use moral judgements express the agent's acceptance of a guiding principle of action : if they are not acted on, how are they guiding? To account for akrasia he tried to devise a notion of psychological compulsion compatible with blame. Donald Davidson sees the problem as more generally one in philosophy of action: can we give an account of intentional or deliberate behaviour which allows of deliberate choice of an action contrary to what deliberation, whether moral or not, favours? The limitations to morality and conflict with passion have been dropped, but the contrast of reason with something less long-term or comprehensive retained.

Davidson retains the assumption that akratic behaviour is irrational in being contrary to what in some sense the agent considers at the time that reason requires—contrary to an all-things-considered or better judgement—and in contravention of a principle of practical reason, which he calls the principle of continence, which enjoins us always to act on such judgements. These judgements, which always have ‘more reason’ on their side, also are generally seen as contrasted with a narrower and more short-term view. Attempts to characterize such judgements have not been successful. There are insuperable problems with all-things-considered judgements; but talk of better judgement only secures the tie with reason if it collapses into talk of all-things-considered judgement.

In fact the puzzle, if there is one, arises even where a contrast between reason and something else is hard to make out: Hamlet is an interesting case. It arises because the agent seems in a way to favour a course which he then does not take, without apparently ceasing to favour it. Neither passion nor short-term considerations are an essential factor. What is puzzling is unforced action against apparently sincere declarations of opposition to it.

The views mentioned earlier treat the problem as one of how we can act against reason. A difference between animals and humans has been thought to be that the latter have a natural tendency towards what they reason to be their good, enabling them to resist passion. This is a rational faculty, the will , which is either always responsive to reason, in which case weakness is always a defect of reason; or always aims at some good, but is able to reject the one reason proffers, in which case akrasia is seen as weakness of will.

That reason does not always dictate intentional action seems to follow from the fact that if there is no common standard for judging between two objectives, or there is, but reason cannot determine that one is to be preferred to the other by that standard, then the agent (the will) must be free to choose either way. If, in the case of wrongdoing, there is no overarching standard for choosing between the moral good and some other objective, then the will has to choose between standards, without the help of reason. The will may be overcome by passion (be weak), but in the absence of passion is just evil when it chooses the worse course.

This view of the will can be demoralized by attaching it to long-term objectives generally, or to reflective choice. Yet there are many problems in the whole project of postulating such a rational faculty, which is an unstable structure built too rapidly on some familiar idioms and supposed requirements of experience.

Mr J. C. B. Gosling "Akrasia" The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford University Press 2005.

*Also see this, this, and this on Akrasia in this blog.

No comments: