There is a phenomenon we are all familiar with, and it has been discussed by philosophers since the time of Plato and Aristotle. The term used in Greek philosophy is 'akrasia'. Distinguished translators and commentators translate the Greek word as 'incontinence', but early in my lecturing career I learned that this translation was better avoided. I shall speak of 'weakness of will'. How is it to be identified?
I shall begin by saying what it is not. Celia is clear that Albert is a better prospect for marriage than Zak, but she accepts a proposal from Zak because (as she says) she really fancies him. Celia may or may not have made a wise decision, but she does not show weakness of will. Hamish wants to learn the piano but gives up after a couple of months. Declining interest coupled with discouragement is not weakness of will. Weakness of will proper is illustrated in the case of Bloggs MP. He has made a principled commitment to give up alcohol, but can't say 'No' to a drink at a party at No.10.
Plato denied that weakness of will as illustrated was possible. His argument is that if someone really and truly believes that they ought not to do something then they will not do it. It is not possible, he thought, to act against a sincerely held principle. Thus, if having said that you had adopted a principle you none the less act contrary to it, that just shows that you had not really adopted it.
Certainly what Plato is claiming is not unfamiliar. We can declare a New Year resolution while knowing, perhaps unconsciously, that it will not survive till March.
Aristotle offers a more sophisticated account of the phenomenon. His account is one part of his more general approach to ethics so I shall simply select a few general points out of the wider context of his moral philosophy.
For example, you might adopt a principle of avoiding foods which lead to weight increase. But you accept an ice-cream not realising that it will lead to weight increase. This is what Aristotle would call ignorance of the minor premise. The position could be set out in a syllogism:
I ought to avoid weight-increasing foods;
Ice-cream increases weight;
Therefore I ought to avoid ice-cream.
But you might not know the minor premise. For Aristotle, this apparent weakness of will is a form of ignorance. But he also considers another type of case:
Ice-cream is sweet;
I like sweet foods;
Therefore I ought to eat ice-cream.
In other words, different pieces of knowledge can move us in different directions. But do they count as weakness, or just as confusion over the facts?
There is much more to be said about ignorance of the minor premise. I once read of a slater who was hurling discarded slates from a roof into the street below. He was aware that slates could injure people but claimed he had not realised that there might be people walking along the street. Ignorance of obvious fact, as in this case, is no excuse, but it is not weakness of will.
Aristotle makes the interesting psychological point that, to be effective in influencing conduct, a principle (a major premise) must be as it were embedded, or become part of the way we see ourselves and our conduct. The principles adopted at New Year don't have that kind of solidity; they are not part of us. Hence, when events turn up which tests them, they are easily ignored. Our friends may remind us: 'I thought you said that you would never again do X'. 'Oh, I forgot,' you might reply, thus turning apparent weakness into a case of lack of knowledge.
Aristotle restricts akrasia or weakness of will to cases of bodily temptation – weakness regarding food and sex. But surely he is wrong on that. Weakness of will can be shown in other spheres too. Hamlet, for example, seems clear that he ought to revenge the murder of his father and he clearly sees that as a principle. But he dithers and can be portrayed as a weak character. This is not a case of lack of knowledge but a lack of will to do what he thinks he ought to do.
Contemporary discussion of the issue has switched to a feature of moral language not stressed by Aristotle – namely, that moral language is action-guiding. A leading moral philosopher of the 1950s-60s – Richard Hare – agrees with Plato and Aristotle that weakness of will is not possible, but he comes to that conclusion by a very different route.
Hare claims that a person's evaluative judgements are infallibly revealed by his actions and choices:
If we were to ask of a person 'What are his moral principles?' the way in which we could be most sure of a true answer would be by studying what he did… It would be when… he was faced with choices or decisions between alternative courses of action, between alternative answers to the question 'What shall I do?', that he would reveal in what principles of conduct he really believed.
Note that Hare is saying that it follows
from a person's having done X that he judged X best from among the options open to him at the time. On this view, then, akratic or weak-willed actions, as we understand them, are impossible. There could not be a case in which someone genuinely and in the fullest sense held that he ought to do X (where X was within his power) and yet did Y.
people always do what they think they ought to when they are physically and psychologically able? I think that this is simply not always the case, even if it is usually
For Hare, however, any apparent case of akrasia must in fact either be one in which the agent is actually unable
to do X, or one in which the agent does not genuinely evaluate X as better.
No doubt there are cases of the two types Hare describes; but they do not seem to exhaust the field. There is the odd murderer overcome by irresistible homicidal urges but horrified at what he is doing. But surely not every case in which we might be tempted to act against our better judgement involves irresistible psychic forces. Consider, for example, the following case memorably put by another distinguished Oxford philosopher, J L Austin:
I am very partial to ice cream, and a bombe is served divided into segments corresponding one to one with the persons at the High Table. I am tempted to help myself to two segments and do so, thus succumbing to temptation and even conceivably going against my principles. But do I lose control of myself? Do I raven, do I snatch the morsels from the dish and wolf them down, impervious to the consternation of my colleagues? Not a bit of it. We often succumb to temptation with calm and even with finesse.
Austin wrote that in 1957 before he realised that it might become grounds for a murder requiring Morse or Lewis. But it does illustrate that while it is true that principles are usually action-guiding, the connection between principle and action is not a necessary one. Alas, we are weak-willed creatures, and the weakness can be on a scale from the endearing to the murderous.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow