Sometimes an agent reaches a rational choice--a judgment of what it is best to do given his situation--and fails to act on it, not for any good reason nor because of external interference, but because he does not want to do it or wants to do something else more. This is the phenomenon of moral weakness or incontinence (akrasia). We all know that this often happens; thus we know that it can happen. We are also naturally drawn to describe it in terms like those just used. Yet some philosophers have declined to accept the phenomenon at face value, or have refused to accept at face value the coherence of the description. Some, headed by Socrates, have argued that incontinence is impossible, so that what we call 'incontinence' must be something else if it is anything. Others, Aristotle among them, not surprisingly have found it necessary to respond to this challenge by arguing that 'incontinence' does make sense after all.
Aristotle's treatment ( NE VII.1-10) of this troubled topic presents peculiar difficulties. 1 In the first place, it would be a mistake to think that there is such a thing as the problem of incontinence. 2 Whether a problem exists in this connection depends on what model we adopt of the human mind so far as it relates to action; different models set different problems. The difficulty addressed by Aristotle differs from some of the difficulties appearing to other philosophers; thus his solution may be misunderstood unless these differences are identified. Part of our task therefore is to distinguish what is from what is not his problem. At the same time, however, we cannot avoid considering why and with what right Aristotle passes over these other problems, and whether their failure to touch him shows strength on his part or narrowness. And even when his problem has been identified and his solution assessed, there remains the question of the interest to us of his discussion and its relevance to our own thinking. Thus his problem about incontinence may seem generated by culturally based assumptions or local linguistic usages which carry no interesting philosophical lesson. Alternatively, our own insensibility to some of the influences influencing Aristotle may reflect prejudice on our side.