Acting against one’s better judgement.

The following seems to be entirely possible.

A man judges that his happiness is best served by not allowing his sexual appetite to dominate him. He truly believes he should lust less after women. He’s addicted to it, but he resents his past. And yet, maybe he proceeds to give in to his libido anyway. He retains the judgement that he shouldn’t, but he carries on fulfilling his desires regardless.

Another analogous case seems to be that someone may judge it wrong to download music illegally. Again, they may truly believe this. Nevertheless, once more they proceed to contradict their evaluation and continue all the same.

Perhaps it is only once a philosophical disposition has been cultivated that this strikes one as a puzzle. So just in case, let me spell out why this seems to be such a mysterious phenomenon.

We seem to think, then, that we choose how to act based on our decisions about what is good. We go through these type of assessments every day. And these conclusions, or judgements, seem to be motivating. It is, after all, we that do the deliberating. They are our judgements. So if we make them, they must surely cause us to act.

And yet if the unwilling addict and regretful thief are sincere, this is clearly not the case. For we have hypothesised that they make judgements which they act against. They contradict their own assessments. They seem to suffer from what we can call a ‘weakness of will’, or what the Greeks labelled akrasia.

How are we to solve this paradox? How can these inconsistent thoughts – that our judgements move us to act, and yet we can act against our judgements – be reconciled?

Socrates’ solution was, rather polemically, to bite the bullet and deny the reality of the evidence. He suggested what we observe could not possibly be true. That is, he did not accept that the sex addict genuinely condemned his own actions. And this is because he was committed to the thesis that our judgements conclusively and necessarily motivate us. So by definition the ‘weak-willed’ person could not possibly contradict his own will. Whatever he did, he willed.

If you’re unconvinced, you certainly don’t stand alone. In a way, whichever option we take in a dilemma this deep will inevitably disappoint and smell fishy, but it just seems that we need to accommodate the evidence outlined in a better way than this. And Aristotle claims, at least, to be with us. He suggests that the Socratic thesis ‘contradicts appearances’, and it is the common appearances that he sets out in his books to vindicate. Common opinions are like signposts for him, and he does not think the truth will ever stray far from them.

So we should hope, at least, for a better answer from Aristotle. But when it arrives it in fact turns out to be shockingly similar. Aristotle tries to demystify the phenomenon by making a distinction between what he calls ‘using’ knowledge and ‘failing to attend’ to it. And it turns out that what he means by this is not our ability to make a judgement but then forget about it, failing to actively consider it and apply it at the moment of action. He accepts, in fact, that the weak-willed agent may recite his judgements and justifications at the time of acting akratically. And yet the akratic is nevertheless alleged to not ‘attend’ to his knowledge because he only speaks of his judgements in the way an actor or a drunk person does: without really meaning it. On Aristotle’s account, the weak-willed man is so swept up by his desire for pleasure that the desire impedes his ability to think clearly.

So Aristotle offers a more sophisticated story of what goes on, but he reaches the same counter-intuitive conclusion as Socrates: weak-willed action where a judgement is made, sincerely believed and yet acted against is impossible. He agrees that the sex addict, at least at the time of acting, does not genuinely believe his own judgements.

And the problem with Aristotle’s account is that the reasons he gives for the weak-willed person’s failure to follow his will is that he is always overcome by passion for pleasure. And this simply seems to be false. It may be true of a lot of akratic people, but all of them? How about the man who judges it right to tithe, but fails to live up to his charitable standards? It need not be because he’s too busy blowing his cash in casinos. It need not be, that is, because he is overcome by pleasure. But according to Aristotle, a man acting against his judgement cannot be sincere, and it certainly can’t be for any reason other than a desire for pleasure. And if this seems as implausible to you as it does to me, you’ll have to look elsewhere for a solution to the problem of akrasia.


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