From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Weakness of will)
Jump to: navigation, search
"Acrasia" redirects here. For other uses, see Acrasia (disambiguation).

Akrasia (/əˈkrzɪə/; 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]

Classical approaches[edit]

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[edit]

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 one.
  • 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[edit]

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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Although this philosopher's technical term is usually employed in its Greek form (i.e., akrasia/akratic) in English texts, it was once the philosophers' English language convention to use the precise English equivalent of akrasia/akratic, incontinence/incontinent. However, it now seems that the correct, widely established convention is to use the term akrasia.
  2. ^ http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/#Akr
  3. ^ Ainslie, George. "Picoeconomics". Archived from the original on 27 April 2009. Retrieved 2009-03-27. 


  • Adler, J.E. (July 2002). "Akratic Believing?". Philosophical Studies 110 (1): 1–27. doi:10.1023/A:1019823330245. 
  • Arpaly, N. (April 2000). "On Acting Rationally against One’s Best Judgement". Ethics 110 (3): 488–513. doi:10.1086/233321. 
  • Arpaly, N., Schroeder, T. (February 1999). "Praise, Blame and the Whole Self". Philosophical Studies 93 (2): 161–188. doi:10.1023/A:1004222928272. 
  • Audi, R. (May 1979). "Weakness of Will and Practical Judgment". Noûs 13 (2): 173–196. doi:10.2307/2214396. 
  • Bovens, L. (October 1999). "The Two Faces of Akratics Anonymous". Analysis 59 (4): 230–6. doi:10.1111/1467-8284.00174. 
  • Cameron, M.E. (1997). "Akrasia, AIDS, and Virtue Ethics". Journal of Nursing Law 4 (1): 21–33. PMID 12545981. 
  • Campbell, P.G. (June 2000). "Diagnosing Agency". Philosophy, Psychiatry, and Psychology 7 (2): 107–119. 
  • Chan, D.K. (April 1995). "Non-Intentional Actions". American Philosophical Quarterly 32 (2): 139–151. 
  • Davidson, D. (1980) [Essay first published 1969]. "How is Weakness of the Will Possible?". Essays on Actions and Events. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 21–42. ISBN 0-19-924626-2. 
  • Gilead, A. (September 1999). "How is Akrasia Possible After All?". Ratio 12 (3): 257–270. doi:10.1111/1467-9329.00091. 
  • Haggard, P., Cartledge, P., Dafydd, M., Oakley, D.A. (September 2004). "Anomalous Control: When ‘Free-Will’ is not Conscious". Consciousness and Cognition 13 (3): 646–654. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2004.06.001. PMID 15336254. 
  • Haji, I. (Fall 1996). "Moral Responsibility and the Problem of Induced Pro-Attitudes". Dialogue 35 (4): 703–720. doi:10.1017/S0012217300008581. 
  • Hardcastle, V.G. (2003). "Life at the Borders: Habits, Addictions and Self-Control". Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Artificial Intelligence 15 (2): 243–253. doi:10.1080/0952813021000055612. 
  • Hartmann, D. (May 2004). "Neurophysiology and Freedom of the Will". Poiesis & Praxis: International Journal of Technology Assessment and Ethics of Science 2 (4): 275–284. doi:10.1007/s10202-003-0056-z. 
  • Harwood, Sterling (1992). "For an Amoral, Dispositional Account of Weakness of Will". Auslegung a Graduate Journal of Philosophy 18 (1): 27–38.  reprinted in Harwood, Sterling, ed. (1996). Business as Ethical and Business as Usual. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing. pp. 378–384. 
  • Henry, D. (September 2002). "Aristotle on Pleasure and the Worst Form of Akrasia, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice" 5 (3). pp. 255–270. 
  • Hodgson, D. (January 2005). "Plain Person's Free Will". Journal of Consciousness Studies 12 (1): 3–19. 
  • Holton, R. (May 1999). "Intention and Weakness of Will" (PDF). The Journal of Philosophy 96 (5): 241–262. doi:10.2307/2564667. JSTOR 2564667. 
  • Hookway, C. (2001). "Epistemic Akrasia and Epistemic Virtue". In Fairweather, A., Zagzebski, L. Virtue Epistemology: Essays on Epistemic Virtue and Responsibility. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 178–199. 
  • Jiang, X.-Y. (April 2000). "What Kind of Knowledge Does a Weak-Willed Person Have? — A Comparative Study of Aristotle and the Ch’eng-Chu School". Philosophy East & West 50 (2): 242–253. 
  • Joyce, R. (1995). "Early Stoicism and Akrasia". Phronesis: A Journal for Ancient Philosophy 40 (3): 315–335. doi:10.1163/156852895321051874. 
  • Martin, M.W. (June 1999). "Alcoholism as Sickness and Wrongdoing". Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 29 (2): 109–131. doi:10.1111/1468-5914.00094. 
  • Mele, A.R. (September 1992). "Akrasia, Self-Control, and Second-Order Desires". Noûs 26 (3): 281–302. doi:10.2307/2215955. 
  • Mele, A.R. (December 1989). "Akratic Feelings". Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 50 (2): 277–288. doi:10.2307/2107960. JSTOR 2107960. 
  • Mele, A.R. (April 1986). "Incontinent Believing". Philosophical Quarterly 36 (143): 212–222. doi:10.2307/2219769. JSTOR 2219769. 
  • Mele, A.R. (June 1986). "Is Akratic Action Unfree?". Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 46 (4): 673–679. doi:10.2307/2107677. JSTOR 2107677. 
  • Mele, A.R. (March 1997). "Real Self-Deception". Behavioral and Brain Sciences 20 (1): 91–102. doi:10.1017/s0140525x97000034. PMID 10096996. 
  • Metcalfe, J., Mischel, W. (January 1999). "A Hot/Cool-System Analysis of Delay of Gratification: Dynamics of Willpower". Psychological Review 106 (1): 3–19. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.106.1.3. PMID 10197361. 
  • Owens, D. (July 2002). "Epistemic Akrasia". The Monist 85 (3): 381–397. doi:10.5840/monist200285316. 
  • Peijnenburg, J. (2000). "Akrasia, Dispositions and Degrees". Erkenntnis 53 (3): 285–308. doi:10.1023/A:1026563930319. 
  • Rorty, A.O., (1998). "Political Sources of Emotions: Greed and Anger". Midwest Studies in Philosophy 22: 21–33. doi:10.1111/j.1475-4975.1998.tb00329.x. 
  • Rorty, A.O. (July 1997). "The Social and Political Sources of Akrasia". Ethics 107 (4): 644–657. doi:10.1086/233763. 
  • Rorty, A.O. (1980). "Where Does the Akratic Break Take Place?". Australasian Journal of Philosophy 58: 333–46. doi:10.1080/00048408012341341. 
  • Santas, G. (1969). "Aristotle on Practical Inference, the Explanation of Action, and Akrasia". Phronesis 14: 162–189. doi:10.1163/156852869X00118. 
  • Santas, G. (January 1966). "Plato's Protagoras and Explanations of Weakness". The Philosophical Review 75 (1): 3–33. doi:10.2307/2183590. JSTOR 2183590. 
  • Searle, J.R. (2001). Rationality in Action. Cambridge: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-19463-5. 
  • Shand, A.F. (October 1895). "Attention and Will: A Study in Involuntary Action". Mind 4 (16): 450–471. doi:10.1093/mind/os-4.15.450. 
  • Stroud, Sarah (2008). "Weakness of Will". In Zalta, Edward N. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall ed.). 
  • Valverde, M. (1998). Diseases of the Will: Alcohol and the Dilemmas of Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-62300-6. 
  • Walker, A.F. (December 1989). "The Problem of Weakness of Will". Noûs 23 (5): 653–676. doi:10.2307/2216006. 
  • Wallace, R.J. (1999). "Three Conceptions of Rational Agency". Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 2 (3): 217–242. doi:10.1023/A:1009946911117. 
  • Wegner, D.M. (1994). "Ironic Processes of Mental Control". Psychological Review 101 (1): 44–52. doi:10.1037/0033-295x.101.1.34. 
  • Wegner, D.M. (2002). The Illusion of Conscious Will. Cambridge: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-23222-7. 
  • Wegner, D.M., Wheatley, T. (July 1999). "Apparent Mental Causation: Sources of the Experience of Will". American Psychologist 54 (7): 480–492. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.54.7.480. PMID 10424155. 
  • Williams, B. (1990). "Voluntary Acts and Responsible Agents". Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 10 (1): 1–10. doi:10.1093/ojls/10.1.1. 
  • Zheng, Y.J. (June 2001). "Akrasia, Picoeconomics, and a Rational Reconstruction of Judgment Formation in Dynamic Choice". Philosophical Studies 104 (3): 227–251. doi:10.1023/A:1010361710316. 

External links[edit]