Akrasia

enough rope to shoot yourself in the foot

Akrasia [uh-kray-juh] (ancient Greek: ‘lacking command [over oneself]’) is the state of acting against one’s better judgement. The adjective form is ‘akratic.’ The problem goes back at least as far as Plato. Socrates 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 ‘Protagoras,’ Socrates attests that akrasia is an illogical moral concept, claiming ‘No one goes willingly toward the bad.’

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 his appetition (longing). 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.

American philosopher Donald Davidson attempted to solve 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: 1) If an agent believes A to be better than B, then they want to do A more than B; 2) If an agent wants to do A more than B, then they will do A rather than B if they only do one; and 3) Sometimes an agent acts against their 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. 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. Psychologist George Ainslie argues that akrasia results from the empirically verified phenomenon of hyperbolic discounting, which causes us to make different judgements close to a reward than we will when further from it.

Much of the philosophical literature takes akrasia to be the same thing as weakness of the will. So, for example, smokers who judge that it is best for them to quit smoking, but don’t quit, act against their better judgment and therein display weakness of will. That is, their being weak-willed consists in their failing to do what they think is best. However, some have challenged the link. Richard Holton, for example, argues that weakness of the will involves revising one’s intentions too easily. Under this view, it is possible to act against one’s better judgment (that is, be akratic), but without being weak-willed. Suppose, for example, Sarah judges that taking revenge upon a murderer is not the best course of action, but intends to take the revenge anyway and holds to that intention.

According to Holton, Sarah behaves akratically but does not show weakness of will. Another view is that although the person holds certain moral views in high esteem—such as, say, murder is wrong or revenge is wrong—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.

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