I look forward to 2012 with relish as I cannot imagine a worse year than 2010-11. So far, the year is going well – after 10 months of harsh but successful treatment for breast cancer.
Complacent, I am not. Typically, I have made my new year resolution with a ferocity and determination hitherto unknown to me or my family: to eat a caveman diet, drink no more than 142ml of red wine a day five days a week, and exercise hard every day for half an hour. Last year, I quit smoking (albeit in March) after 30-odd years of experimenting with every therapy and device invented. After a serious blip when it was discovered that I hadn't had a heart attack, simply over-dosed on nicotine gum (I was chewing the equivalent of 200 Silk Cut a day), I finally packed it in with the aid of what every smoker knows is the only thing that works: will-power.
Guilt accrued by the long-term failure to keep a resolution or stick to any life-enhancing activity has been assuaged by my favourite Beckett quote: 'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better'.
Augustine, the 4th-century father of the church, once prayed in enlightened self-awareness: 'God, make me good, but not yet'. Surely he must know a thing or two about weakness of the will? Actually, he provided a particularly effective explanation of our failings: human beings are damaged goods, humanity a botched project. Our intellects are fine and we know what we ought to do; but our wills are sick, diseased, or otherwise corrupted due to original sin, so we choose to ignore the right path or what we know is good for us. Not surprisingly, the doctrine of original sin is ignored by most contemporary philosophers.
So how do philosophers account for weakness of will or akrasia (Greek) as it is known in the literature? It has been a problem for philosophers ever since Socrates claimed it impossible for anyone ever knowingly to act against their own interests. This paradoxical claim is based on the idea that no one ever acts without a reason, and without some perceived good as a goal. For example, my husband once took to eating raw tofu and jam sandwiches. This unusual behaviour he explained by citing medical research which claimed that tofu is good for the heart, and that eating the stuff with jam was the easiest way of getting this tasteless gunge into his diet. His reasons explained why he acted as he did.
According to Aristotle, when we act contrary to our best interests it is as though we are mad or drunk, in states when our intellectual faculties are on hold, and impotent to fight against our desires.
But this kind of explanation doesn’t work in cases of akrasia. Smokers, caught between the long-second-order desire to be a non-smoker and the first-order desire for a fag, know full well the reasons for quitting the habit. The health benefits alone should be enough to motivate us to stop – if not the money, smell, and dreadful example we set for the younger (particularly female) generation. But smokers do not quit once they are aware of the reasons for doing so. What explains their behaviour? Addiction is not a necessity, so cannot be held entirely to blame. The question is: how is it that an otherwise rational person freely and intentionally chooses a course of action that, according their own considered judgement, is not in their best interest?
Some philosophers have tried to explain this weakness as an illusion. According to this line of thought, if a person says he or she believes that a course of action is the best thing to do, but then fails to act accordingly, one should suspect hypocrisy. For example, if you claim to believe that second-hand smoke is a serious carcinogen, and yet you continue to smoke in the car while running the kids to school, you must expect people to doubt your sincerity. Either you don't really believe second-hand smoke is a threat, or you don't care about the risks as much as you claim – weakness of the will has nothing to do with it.
There is something to this illusion theory, but it doesn't convince those who experience guilt and distress because they have repeatedly failed to act as they know they should. Perhaps, then, we should say that they are not free. Some philosophers argue that cases of akrasia show that we are not really in control of our behaviour at all: behaviour, personality and character are all formed by forces beyond our control, and although we think we are free to choose, in fact we could not have acted otherwise. This argument can alleviate guilt (I have resorted to it myself at times) but at the cost of saying that we are never responsible for our actions.
Perhaps a more attractive line to take is to say, with Plato and Aristotle, that when we act contrary to our best interests, we do so because we have, at the crucial moment, lost sight of our best interests. Smokers know that they ought to give up smoking. But is that knowledge at the forefront of minds at the moment of temptation? Do our desires and needs not cloud our perceptions of what is important at our moment of greatest weakness? According to Aristotle, when we act contrary to our best interests it is as though we are mad or drunk, in states when our intellectual faculties are on hold, and impotent to fight against our desires. It is only later, when the brain re-engages, that our unclouded vision returns, and remorse sets in.
So there it is – original sin or madness. When you read this I should be lying on a beach in Fuerteventura, having run up and down for half an hour, eaten a few grains and looking forward to my 142ml of Rioja tonight...On second thoughts, maybe I'll fail better next time instead.
Eileen Reid is head of widening participation, Glasgow School of Art,
writing here in a personal capacity.