The Philosophy Resource

Teaching resources for philosophy students and teachers

Another approach to akrasia

Do you remember what the general commitments of an Aristotelian view were?

  • Thinking something is right is a bit like wanting it to be done, and thinking something is wrong is a bit like wanting it not to be done (because wanting something to be done is a bit like thinking it’s right, and wanting something not to be done is a bit like thinking it’s wrong).
  • Desires can be something like true or false, and can be right or wrong in something like the way that thoughts and beliefs are
  • There are moral truths (so, as long as they’re not too difficult to work out, there can be moral knowledge)
  • If you know something is right and fail to do it, or know something is wrong and do it anyway, then you have something like a contradiction between your beliefs (as if you both think something is right and think it is not right at the same time).

But does the Aristotelian think akrasia is possible?

Well, what does akrasia strictly involve? One or both of these two things:

  • Knowing that something is right and failing to do it, or else knowing that something is wrong and doing it anyway
  • Thinking that something is right and failing to do it, or else thinking that something is wrong and doing it anyway

Aristotle himself seems to have thought these were both equally difficult to explain. This seems to have been because he was at least strongly tempted by Ordinary Jo’s view that the same person can’t possibly have competing desires or contradictory beliefs at the same time. Although the interpretation of the key text is very controversial, it looks as if Aristotle tries to make sense of akrasia by saying that one or other of the contradictory states is suppressed or inactive.

An alternative Aristotelianism

There is an interesting alternative view, which agrees with the Aristotelian view in its main points (the four first listed above). Note this one again: If you know something is right and fail to do it, or know something is wrong and do it anyway, then you have something like a contradiction between your beliefs (as if you both think something is right and think it is not right at the same time).

On a generally Aristotelian view, akrasia involves something like a contradiction, which is why it’s irrational. But someone might think that you can’t have contradictory beliefs and count as really knowing: the irrationality involved here might be thought to undermine your claim to real knowledge. You might think about it in terms of methods of acquiring beliefs. Suppose you had a way of measuring things which produced contradictory results: it showed the same table as being both 1 metre wide and 1.5 metres wide, say. (Think of a method which might do this: walking across the room from a metre rule holding your hands what you think is the right distance apart.) You wouldn’t think that was a good system of measurement, and you wouldn’t trust any results reached on the basis of it. So now think of a method of forming value judgements which regularly leads you to think both that something is good and that it’s not good. (It might be just: going with what you feel like.) You might well think that this method of forming value judgements can’t lead to knowledge of what’s right and wrong.

If you think that, you’ll think that knowing that something is right and failing to do it, and knowing that something is wrong and doing it anyway is impossible.

But that doesn’t stop it being possible to think that something is right and fail to do it, or think that something is wrong and do it anyway (provided you also accept that someone can have contradictory beliefs or desires at the same time): that’s just what happens if you follow the bad method of forming value judgements. If you follow this line, you’ll accept that it’s possible for someone to think that something is right and fail to do it, and to think that something is wrong and do it anyway. So you can accept that akrasia or weakness of will, as we ordinarily experience it, happens all the time.

Of course, this means that if you think something is right and fail to do it, or think that something is wrong and do it anyway, you have something like a contradiction between your beliefs (as if you both think something is right and think it’s not right at the same time). That explains what’s specially bad about akrasia: it’s irrational, because it involves having contradictory beliefs.
Those last two points will make your view attractive, since it fits with the things which strike us as most obvious about akrasia – namely, that it happens all the time, and that it involves some irrationality.

So, you’ll also think that if you think something is right and fail to do it, or think that something is wrong and do it anyway, you have something like a contradiction between your beliefs (as if you both think something is right and think it’s not right at the same time). That explains what’s specially bad about akrasia: it’s irrational, because it involves having contradictory beliefs.

Those two points will make your view attractive, since it fits with the things which strike us as most obvious about akrasia – namely, that it happens all the time, and that it involves some irrationality.

But you’ll still think that it’s impossible to know that something is right and fail to do it, or know that something is wrong and do it anyway. And that allows you to think that virtue might perhaps be a kind of knowledge, since once you really know what’s right, you’ll be bound to do it. Who might have had a view like that?

Go to…

Step One

Go to…

Step Two

Go to…

Step Three

Go to…

Step Four

Go to…

Step Five