You are on page 1of 3


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
"Acrasia" redirects here. For other uses, see Acrasia (disambiguation).

Akrasia (/əˈkreɪzɪə/; Greek ἀκρασία, "lacking command (over oneself)"), occasionally
transliterated as acrasia, is the state of acting against one's better judgment. The adjectival form
is "akratic".[1]

 1 Classical approaches
 2 Contemporary approaches
 3 Weakness of will
 4 See also
 5 Notes
 6 References
 7 External links

Classical approaches

Portrait in marble of Socrates, who was an early investigator of akrasia

The problem goes back at least as far as Plato. Socrates (in Plato's Protagoras) asks precisely
how this is possible—if one judges action A to be the best course of action, why would one do
anything other than A?
In the dialogue Protagoras, Socrates attests that akrasia does not exist, claiming “No one goes
willingly toward the bad” (358d). If a person examines a situation and decides to act in the way
he determines to be best, he will actively pursue this action, as the best course is also the good
course, i.e. man's natural goal. An all-things-considered assessment of the situation will bring
full knowledge of a decision's outcome and worth linked to well-developed principles of the
good. A person, according to Socrates, never chooses to act poorly or against his better
judgment; actions that go against what is best are only a product of being ignorant of facts or
knowledge of what is best or good.

Aristotle on the other hand took a more empirical approach to the question, acknowledging that
we intuitively believe in akrasia. He distances himself from the Socratic position by locating the
breakdown of reasoning in an agent’s opinion, not his appetition. Now, without recourse to
appetitive desires, Aristotle reasons that akrasia occurs as a result of opinion. Opinion is
formulated mentally in a way that may or may not imitate truth, while appetites are merely
desires of the body. Thus opinion is only incidentally aligned with or opposed to the good,
making an akratic action the product of opinion instead of reason. For Aristotle, the antonym of
akrasia is enkrateia, which means "in power" (over oneself).[2]

The word akrasia occurs twice in the Koine Greek New Testament. In Matthew 23:25 Jesus uses
it to describe hypocritical religious leaders. The Apostle Paul also gives the threat of temptation
through akrasia as a reason for a husband and wife to not deprive each other of sex (1
Corinthians 7:5).

In Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, book II, Acrasia, the embodiment of intemperance
dwelling in the "Bower of Bliss", had the Circe-like capacity of transforming her lovers into
monstrous animal shapes.

Contemporary approaches
Donald Davidson (1969/1980) attempted to solve the problem by first criticizing earlier thinkers
who wanted to limit the scope of akrasia to agents who despite having reached a rational decision
were somehow swerved off their “desired” tracks. Indeed, Davidson expands akrasia to include
any judgment that is reached but not fulfilled, whether it be as a result of an opinion, a real or
imagined good, or a moral belief. “[T]he puzzle I shall discuss depends only on the attitude or
belief of the agent…my subject concerns evaluative judgments, whether they are analyzed
cognitively, prescriptively, or otherwise.” Thus he expands akrasia to include cases in which the
agent seeks to fulfill desires, for example, but ends up denying himself the pleasure he has
deemed most choice-worthy.

Davidson sees the problem as one of reconciling the following apparently inconsistent triad:

 If an agent believes A to be better than B, then they want to do A more than B.
 If an agent wants to do A more than B, then they will do A rather than B if they only do
 Sometimes an agent acts against their better judgment.
Davidson solves the problem by saying that, when people act in this way, they temporarily
believe that the worse course of action is better, because they have not made an all-things-
considered judgment, but only a judgment based on a subset of possible considerations.

Another contemporary philosopher, Amélie Rorty (1980) has tackled the problem by distilling
out akrasia's many forms. She contends that akrasia is manifested in different stages of the
practical reasoning process. She enumerates four types of akrasia: akrasia of direction or aim, of
interpretation, of irrationality, and of character. She separates the practical reasoning process into
four steps, showing the breakdown that may occur between each step and how each constitutes
an akratic state.

Another explanation is that there are different forms of motivation which can conflict with each
other. Throughout the ages, many have identified a conflict between reason and emotion, which
might make it possible to believe that one should do A rather than B, but still end up wanting to
do B more than A.

Psychologist George Ainslie argues that akrasia results from the empirically verified
phenomenon of hyperbolic discounting, which causes us to make different judgements close to a
reward than we will when further from it.[3]

Weakness of will
Much of the philosophical literature takes akrasia to be the same thing as weakness of the will.
So, for example, smokers who judge that it is best for them to quit smoking, but don't quit, act
against their better judgment and therein display weakness of will. That is, their being weak-
willed consists in their failing to do what they think is best.

However, some have challenged the link. Richard Holton (1999), for example, argues that
weakness of the will involves revising one's resolutions too easily. Under this view, it is possible
to act against one's better judgment (that is, be akratic), but without being weak-willed. Suppose,
for example, Sarah judges that taking revenge upon a murderer is not the best course of action,
but makes the resolution to take the revenge anyway and sticks to that resolution. According to
Holton, Sarah behaves akratically but does not show weakness of will.

Another view is that although the person holds certain moral views in high esteem—such as, say,
murder is wrong or revenge is wrong—the person holds other beliefs more strongly, such as
doling out moral desserts or staying true to one's friends. With this in mind, the moral conceptual
framework of the individual must be evaluated to determine the nature of the act. To show
strength of will implies a pre-determined decision-making process that may or may not seem to
be in conflict with generally accepted moral beliefs