Weakness of the will

In my paper Emotion as System I railed against the explanation of weakness of the will as an irrational choice, that is, a choice which the agent makes while holding the belief that he would be better off if he made a different choice. So why, in this (admittedly semi-formal) emotional history of my last year plus a little do I seem to be explicitly appealing to the more traditional sense of weakness of the will? Perhaps my opinions on the subject have changed, or perhaps they are inconsistent. In any case, it is time for an analysis of the subject, since it bears heavily on my life.

Since I'm taking a course on ancient philosophy and the Nichomachean Ethica is still fresh in my mind, and since Aristotle deals with precisely this issue, we shall start with him. According to Aristotle, Socrates claims more or less what I claimed in Emotion as System, i.e., that weakness of the will (which Aristotle refers to, at least in my version of the text, as “incontinence”) does not exist. (He does not go on to give my analysis of how that apparent phenomenon could be explained, however.) Aristotle observes that this does not accord with common sense (Athenian common sense, of course—it is unclear (and the subject of a different work than this one!) whether common sense is culturally relative).

He then goes on to give his own explanation. Weakness of the will is a case when someone knows something to be bad (Aristotle somewhat glosses over the seeming lack of meaning of a good or bad divorced from an agent, but he at least defines happiness as good relative to an agent, and that will be enough for now) but does it anyway. In order to understand this we must analyze the usage of the term “know”. Aristotle claims that there are two relevant senses of the term in this case. The first refers to mere containment of information—in this sense, an encyclopedia might be said to “know” that birds fly, that the American Declaration of Independence took place in 1776, that F is the sixth letter in the alphabet, and so on. (I am extrapolating a bit here, but bear with me.) However, the second sense involves actively attending to the knowledge. This is similar to, but not the same thing as, the difference between knowing-that and knowing-how.

In the case of weakness of the will, Aristotle claims that the person involved knows that what he is doing is bad, but only in the passive sense. He is not actively attending to that knowledge. Thus, the knowledge is a kind of phantom which has no (or not enough) effect on his behavior. Aristotle goes on to claim that, in contrast to the self-indulgent man (who truly believes that seeking his immediate pleasure is the good thing for him to choose), the man suffering from weakness of the will is not in a state of vice. He is bad, in the sense of doing things which are harmful, but he is not blameworthy.

My previous analysis of weakness of the will was somewhat different. I started from the premise that it is impossible for an agent to take an action he believes will make him less happy than another action. That is, the tie between believing something to be the best course of action and choosing it is a priori. I then examined a particular class of belief that might cause one not to choose what seemed to be a better course of action. This class of belief involved the agent's feasible set, that is, those actions the agent believes himself capable of taking. It seems to be part of the definition of choice that an agent cannot choose what he does not believe he can do. So what if weakness of the will is a manifestation of irrational self-doubt by the agent of whether he can actually take the action he believes to be better at all?

The principle difference between my account and Aristotle's seems to be that Aristotle needs to postulate a new kind of mental state by splitting knowledge into that which is being attended to and that which is not. My beliefs about feasible sets derive from the genus of belief, which presumably is already part of our mental taxonomy for other reasons. Therefore, all else being equal, my account is simpler, and thus to be preferred. However, is all else equal? The principal argument that it is not—and this argument would have to come from psychology, and I am hardly a psychologist—would be that the mechanisms in the case of weakness of the will are very different from those operating in the general case of belief.

It may be (in fact, probably is) true that there are no known set of physiological signs associated with belief in and of itself. In fact, since the mental lives of every intelligent agent are assumed to be permeated with beliefs, it would be remarkable indeed if there were some easy way to pick out parts of the physiology of the brain as representing particular beliefs. But there may be a more specific telltale set of physiological signs associated with weakness of the will, or at least associated with those who are especially prone to it or especially able to avoid it. If this is the case, then there is some legitimacy to classifying weakness of the will separately.

But when we consider the vast range of things about which we say that people have beliefs, again, it would seem strange if there is one mechanism explaining them all. So it seems natural that there would be subtypes of belief with different physical manifestations, and this in no way impacts their classification as beliefs.

Now to touch on Aristotle's last claim, that weakness of the will is not blameworthy. I believe that weakness of the will can be blameworthy. First of all, note that I claim weakness of the will is a particular kind of false belief. Not all kinds of false beliefs are blameworthy, for sure; sometimes we will declare that an honest best effort to arrive at the truth has been made, and in cases like the evil deceiving demon or the brain in a vat, few and far between are those who will blame the person thus afflicted for failing to discover his true state. But some kinds of false belief certainly are blameworthy. (At least, our culture holds them to be such.) For example, if I honestly believe that God will punish me if I do not murder schoolchildren, and if I take action on this belief, society will condemn me. Furthermore, if I hold this belief but fail to act on it (suffering from a bout of weakness of the will, albeit in regards to something generally considered as bad), I will still be condemned.

In the case where an agent holds irrational beliefs, I would claim that weakness of the will is neither blameworthy nor praiseworthy, though it may be beneficial or detrimental (since acting on irrational beliefs can bring about with indifference either good or bad results). However, suppose that a man believes he should rescue a child from danger if he can do so with no danger or cost to himself, but through “weakness of the will” he fails to act on this belief. We will certainly find blameworthy one who acts in such a manner. To determine which part of him is blameworthy, observe that if he had not suffered from weakness of the will, he would have saved the child, and that this appears to be the smallest possible change in his mental state that would produce the desired effect. If we were giving this man advice on how to improve his character, the change we would be most likely to suggest is to work on his willpower.

Aristotle claims furthermore that the weak of will are less bad than the self-indulgent because the first principle of correct action is still present in the former. While this may be true, and we generally expect the weak of will to be easier to cure, weakness of the will can become a corrupting and horrid state just as much as can any other vice. I am all in favor of considering motivation in its proper place, but I think it is given far too much consideration in the common sense of today. The most important thing is the action. If someone arrives at praiseworthy actions through methods that seem opaque to us, we should be cautiously approving; if he arrives at blameworthy ones through methods similar to our own, we should perhaps begin to examine the methods we use, but we should not pardon him.

Kenn Hamm
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Last modified: Sun Jan 13 17:46:02 2002