Akrasia has traditionally been defined as “incontinence” or “weakness of will” and occurs when an agent, endowed with certain rational and volitional faculties (deliberation and free will), chooses a poorer course of action. Akrasia has wide-reaching implications for topics such as motivation (what causes akratic actions?), impulsiveness (how does one prevent akratic actions?), moral accountability (is akrasia similar enough to addiction or compulsion to warrant lesser moral culpability?), and the like. As scholar George Ainslie points out, the practical application of akrasia has been, and is currently being, studied by scholars coming from numerous disciplines including philosophy of mind, sociobiology, economics, neurophysiology, and cognitive psychology (Ainslie 7). The importance of understanding the concept and what it means for human beings should not be understated.
Akrasia in contemporary times has been divided by moral philosopher Daniel Thero into two distinct versions: strict and weak. These different versions of akrasia share several necessary conditions:
(i.) the agent responsible for the action must be acting against his/her normally “best judgment”;
(ii.) the agent must intentionally be committing an action;
(iii.) the agent responsible for the action must be acting from the viewpoint of his/her own “values, principles, beliefs, and objectives”;
(iv.) either during or after having committed the action, the agent must experience guilt or remorse, for if there is no presence of guilt or remorse, the person is most likely wicked or immoral rather than akratic (Thero 84).
As for strict akrasia specifically, it shares all of the traits of weak akrasia but with one important addition:
(v.) the agent responsible for the action must believe (or know) at the moment that the action is committed that he/she is choosing the inferior alternative among two or more choices (Thero 104).
To give a garden variety example of this formula in action, hyperbolic discounting may occur when a person is on a diet, trying to lose weight or improve food quantity/quality consumption so as to ameliorate potential or actual health conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and the like. An akratic agent will understand that he/she should not consume many foods with high amounts of saturated fats or calories or sugars. Rather, he/she should choose healthier, less processed foods and implement a physical fitness regimen to achieve the desired results.
Yet on the way home from work one day, there is a dessert cafe nearby. He/she thinks about how hungry he/she is and how well he/she has been doing in adhering to the aforementioned regimen and decides, on the basis of minimally rewarding him/herself for the progress achieved thus far, that one pastry will not have drastic consequences. Yet there is another desire that tells him/her not to consume the pastry, that eating the pastry may cause his/her health problems to worsen, that he/she will feel guilty for consuming it, and that, ultimately, it is not in his/her best interest. Despite the conflicting desires and the processing of this relevant information, he/she decides to purchase and consume the pastry in question.
What complicates the picture even more is the fact that akrasia can be considered a personality trait, something that is more or less static to external pressures and influences, or as one particular action or set of actions that may not repeat in any easily predicted pattern. This dualistic conception of akrasia is upheld by the empirical observation that some people make the same akratic decisions repeatedly while others only do so within particular contexts or types of situations (Thero 3). Thus, an action (or a person) can be properly designated as akratic.
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Tagged: Addiction, Akrasia, Aristotle, Daniel Thero, Ethics, George Ainslie, Meta-Ethics, Moral Psychology, Morality, Weakness of Will, Will Power
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