Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Will as Practical Reason and the Problem of Akrasia

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

The Will as Practical Reason and the Problem of Akrasia

Article excerpt

THERE IS A PHILOSOPHICAL TRADITION, still strong, of identifying the will and practical reason, or of requiring a close and intelligible motivational connection between them. (1) Weakness of will, or akrasia, (2) has been widely discussed because of the difficulties it evidently presents for such a view. Certain cases of akrasia seem so aggressively contrary to reason that it is hard to see how they could have any motivational connection to it at all. Yet they also seem to be voluntary and properly informed human choices and actions, and thus absolutely central instances or expressions of human will.

We all know how the common examples go: You have an occasional urge for a certain vice. You have thought about it a lot and know that indulging it would mean risking or sacrificing something of obviously greater value than any satisfaction the indulgence would bring. You have resisted the urge many times before, so you do not seem to be compelled by it. But you have given in before too, always with regret or remorse. You do it anyway, against your better judgment.

It seems to me, as I believe it will to many of my readers, easy to fill in the specific, real-life details of acts that match this sketch. There seem to be many indulgences like this, against which we have, for example, strict doctor's orders, and so on. Indeed, this type of example is hackneyed by now. Nevertheless, if there are akratic acts like these, and if they are as they appear, they could not possibly be understood as expressions of practical reason. They could not have reason as a motivational source, for they are known by the agent to be contrary to correct due deliberation. Yet, inasmuch as the acts are also intentional, they have all the marks of an utterly central instance of agency or will; for, again, if things are as they appear, the acts are uncompelled.

That is the heart of the argument from (let us call it) aggressive akrasia, against the view that there must be a close and intelligible motivational connection between will and reason, let alone an identification between them.

Before I go on to develop the argument and discuss its significance for contemporary views of will and practical reason, let me note that there have always been important critiques of this rationalist tendency in theories of the will. Humean views of the will have developed important criticisms of the tendency, of course, but the criticisms I present do not depend upon the broader, systematic philosophical commitments of Humean or other non-rationalist theories of the will. Except for the conclusion, the theoretical commitments of my main argument are relatively uncontroversial, I believe. The argument assumes (i) that whatever is both voluntary and properly informed is a central instance of will, (ii) that what is voluntary is uncompelled and intentional, (iii) that "all things considered," judgment is sometimes truly better or best, and thus, is rational judgment, and (iv) that any particular reason for action or choice is something that counts, or at least seems to count, in favor of doing the action or making the choice. This last assumption reflects the idea that practical reason is a normative capacity, and that it is expressed in reasons for action that are therefore normative, or at least seemingly so.

There is not much to resist in these minimal assumptions about will and practical reason. (3) Moreover, judging by the literature on weakness of will or akrasia, the main objections are in fact directed elsewhere. They are directed against the very possibility of fully knowing and fully voluntary choice or action against better judgment. While many philosophers accept that akrasia is voluntary in some respects but not others, or knowing in some respects but not others, the tradition is one of skepticism about what I am calling aggressive cases of akrasia, skepticism about unqualifiedly knowing and voluntary cases. This sort of skepticism seems to go back at least to Aristotle, (4) and it is still a common idea. …

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