The Philosophy Resource

Teaching resources for philosophy students and teachers

What is akrasia?

Akrasia is lack of self-control or weakness of will.

It’s normally understood to involve one or other of these two things:

  • Knowing that something is right, and not doing it
  • Knowing that something is wrong, and doing it anyway

So for an example of 2 here, think of someone who knows it’s wrong for them to have another drink, because they’ve promised they wouldn’t, but can’t resist getting one anyway. Most people think it’s obvious that akrasia is possible—indeed, most of us think we’re all akratic (weak-willed) quite a lot of the time. We probably don’t normally think there could really be a philosophical problem about akrasia.

What Ordinary Jo thinks about akrasia
  • Akrasia is possible – that is, you can know that something is right and fail to do it, and know that something is wrong and do it anyway
  • Akrasia is possible because knowing what’s right and wrong is a different kind of state from the wanting or desiring which actually affects your action, and makes you fail to do what you know is right, or do what you know is wrong
  • If knowing what’s right and wrong were not a different kind of state from the wanting or desiring which actually affects your action, akrasia wouldn’t be possible

 
This means that Ordinary Jo must have a certain view, not only about akrasia, but about the nature of morality and the nature of desire.

What Ordinary Jo thinks about morality and desire
  • There are moral truths (because, after all, you can only know something if it’s true)
  • Desires aren’t true or false, or right or wrong in anything like the way that thoughts and beliefs are

 
It looks as if Ordinary Jo thinks your knowledge of what’s right and wrong is just overwhelmed by your desire (or disinclination) – as if by some powerful force.

This is a problem for Ordinary Jo, how can he explain what’s irrational about akrasia? Obviously, it’s best to do what’s right, and not do what’s wrong – but what’s specially bad about not doing what you know is right, or doing what you know is wrong?

Click here to follow one solution to Ordinary Jo’s problem

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