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Sanudo on Akrasia

Sanudo on Akrasia

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Published by: Mehdi Faizy on Jan 09, 2013
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Akrasia Martha Sañudo (1172 words) Contemporary discussions of ethics and moral education often use the Greek

term akrasia (literally, lack of strength) to denote weakness of will or, as it is sometimes translated, “incontinence.” It applies to an agent who knows of a better option, but decides not to choose for it because he or she feels inclined toward the lesser option. Plausible examples are easy to imagine: consider Claudia, a good student who knows that she ought to study for her exams, but instead chooses to go out to the movies. However, it is much more difficult to explain why such examples are so plausible: how could Claudia make such a choice when she knows better? This morally nuanced use of the term akrasia was introduced by Aristotle while criticizing Plato’s equation of wrongdoing with ignorance (Nicomachean Ethics, Book VII; see Nussbaum, 1986). Whereas Plato had taught that knowledge of the good logically implies the willingness to do the good, in Aristotle’s account knowing the good does not necessarily mean willing to do the good. His explanation of this apparent opposition between intellect and will was that humans are motivated to act not only by reasons, but also by emotions. Aristotle went to great lengths to show that a virtuous life consists in learning to feel in the right way as well as to think correctly. He argued that moral virtue is a disposition of character, developed by the acquisition of certain habits, to have appropriate feelings. Since the crown of a virtuous life is happiness, it follows within the Aristotelian account of moral education that raising a child properly must involve educating the emotions. As the child grows and encounters different situations, he or she will often need to employ good judgment, and so over the course of time will develop the intellectual and moral virtue of practical wisdom. Since rational deliberation and mastery of the appropriate emotions are marks of human flourishing, the alignment of reason and emotion produces a happy life. However, this alignment does not develop automatically, and typically involves conflict. For instance, deliberation may show an agent that certain actions ought to be taken while at the same time he or she is under the sway of a particular emotion (e.g., pleasure or anger) to act differently. At this point the agent may resist the emotional sway and become “continent” (enkratês), or else yield to emotion and become “incontinent” (akratês). As noted above, Aristotle discussed akrasia to show that Plato distorted human phenomena, since we do in fact frequently act akratically, i.e., knowingly and voluntarily, and hence are morally responsible for our actions and liable to praise or blame. For this reason Aristotle went on to discuss why wrongdoers may be motivated to act in a morally inferior way even when they know better. To develop his point Aristotle described different traits of character that can be set along a continuum, ranging from those characters capable of actions displaying total knowledge and voluntary action to those who act out of ignorance and thus are not liable to blame; the continuum goes from heroic excellence, excellence, strength of will, weakness of will, badness and beastliness (Aristotle reserved this last term for brutish men who hardly know what they are doing). The akrates falls in the middle of this continuum, where the agents who fall under the “weakness of will” description act wrongly because (a) they are often misled by pleasure, and (b) because they have carved a character that is easily swayed by pleasure. It is this willful negligence in the formation of character that makes them blameworthy in their actions. Aristotle’s subtle description of the varieties of moral character is extremely enlightening even now, 2300 years after it was written. For instance, he also distinguished between a thoroughly selfindulgent person (akolastes) and the weak-willed akrates. The former yields as a matter of course to desires for pleasure, such that his or her actions do not aim at a good end; in this way the self-indulgent person shares with the bad person (kakos) a misconception of what counts as a good end. But, Aristotle asserted, the akrates does have good ends, and does know how to aim at them. The problem with such

or deceives herself. “Strength and Weakness of Will. It is therefore not the case that Claudia acts out of ignorance or irrationality. By placing herself in a particular situation she may forget or be self-deceived about what sort of person she is.” in The Nicomachean Ethics.” in Aristotle’s Ethics. . Further Reading Aristotle. “Akrasia and Pleasure: Nichomachean Ethics Book 7.O. 1980. 1980. and acts accordingly. Instead of acting they react. A. The general point that Aristotle wants to make here is not that pleasure is to be avoided. In our opening example of the akratic Claudia. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Amélie O. Claudia forgets. At the end of Aristotle’s discussion of akrasia we see that the English expression “weakness of will” may not be the best translation for what he has in mind. about her responsibilities as a student and goes out to enjoy the cinema. foresees the consequences of placing herself in a situation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. It is rather a failure of character: our Claudia has created for herself a character that is made up of habits that allow her emotions to blind her reason and to be the primary motivation for both proper and improper actions. Oxford: Blackwell. and passion quickly blinds their intellects to their proper intentional ends. J.” in Essays on Aristotle's Ethics. but that she acts impulsively. Martha C. “Book VII. misperceiving the danger of the situation she is entering into or misjudging the relationship between her general principles and the particular case. To expand the example we may contrast the akratic character of Claudia with Sophie.persons is that they put themselves into a situation where they will be so affected by pleasure that they set aside their knowledge of what is best. but that akratic persons misplace what is pleasurable about what they do: they quickly and impetuously find pleasure in the wrong activity. and for that reason fail to remember how her actions should be aligned to her ends. 1999. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing. Rorty. Nussbaum. Self-Deception. 1987. 1986. Urmson. 1986.” in The Fragility of Goodness. but that by agreeing to go to the movies she has put herself in a situation in which she may easily fail to attain the good of doing well in her exams. Mele. weighs appropriately the varieties of pleasures at her disposal. Irrationality: An Essay on Akrasia. a prudent student who precisely judges the situation. Berkeley: University of California Press. Akrasia is not a failure of will nor a lack of knowledge nor an excessive love of pleasure (as in the case of the thoroughly self-indulgent person). Translated by Terence Irwin. Self-Control. 1988. Then later they regret their actions. “The Protagoras: A Science of Practical Reasoning. what is important it is not that she ignores the fact that she needs to study.

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