Discussion Question 6

Read: Aristotle, Metaphysics, Books I, VII (7-9), Physics  I, II (1-3), III (1-3)
(This may seem like a lot of pages when you open the pdf, but the font is quite large so it is less than it appears.)

One thing we missed on Tuesday but we will discuss on Thursday is akrasia, or weakness of will. These are cases where you know or believe that some option is worse than another but do it anyway, e.g. I believe I ought not to eat the cupcake but I end up giving into my desires and in a moment of weakness I eat it anyway.

One way to think about the problems related to the existence of weak-willed action is with reference to an inconsistent triad of premises that we have from Donald Davidson, a modern philosopher. Imagine a case where Joan knows she ought to be working on a paper but ends up giving into weakness and going to a party instead. Take the following three claims (slightly altered from Davidson’s):

(1) Joan believes that writing is better than going to the party (i.e. she believes that she ought to write her paper).
(2) Whenever anyone believes that A is better than B, and voluntarily chooses between A and B, she does A.
(3) Joan voluntarily chose to go to the party.

Each of these individually seems to be true. For (1), Joan would report throughout the whole night that she ought to be writing her paper and that it was the better choice. For (2), it seems like a general truth about motivation that if I voluntarily choose between two options, I will always pick the one I think best – why would I ever choose to do the worse when I could just as easily pick the better? For (3), we want to say that Joan chose to go to the party and that she is responsible and blameworthy for her choice.

The problem is that when taken all together, the three are inconsistent – not all three can be true at the same time, so we must give one up and explain why it seems to be true even though it is not. We’ll talk in class about how our historical figures might respond to the triad, but at first glance, which of the three would you give up? Is it that Joan is just lying when she says that writing is better, so that (1) is false when she goes to the party? Or is it that sometimes we can freely decide to choose an option, make that choice, and then somehow end up doing something else entirely? Or is it that when we are weak-willed, we are forced to act by our appetites so that we cannot say that Joan voluntarily chose to go to the party – she was “overwhelmed by desire”? Explain your thoughts.



8 thoughts on “Discussion Question 6

  1. I believe the fault lies in claim (3). The human brain can be impulsive, and so will choose what it knows not to be good for it in spite of knowing it’s the wrong choice because the choice provides either immediate pleasure or the least discomfort. The frontal lobe in the human brain controls decision making, and humans are not infallible. Although doing her homework is the correct move, it results in a negative payout of happiness in the present moment, as the essay is written. Getting the bad grade later in favor of partying now has shifted her negative emotions from the present to the future, as she enjoys the party first and suffers the consequences later.

    It is this association of pain vs pleasure that causes humans to fault themselves in claim 3. People will typically favor the immediate pleasure over pain, but the pain is only delayed. It is using our advanced decision making capabilities that we must decide to take the more difficult choice first, to be able to reap the rewards later.

  2. I think that she understood that writing the paper would’ve been better than going to the party, however, unconsciously she knew that writing the paper wouldn’t have given as much pleasure as going to the party, and that the paper didn’t have enough stakes to them. We, as people want to do the thing that will give us the most chemical rush of pleasure. Which, is why even if her conscious understood what to do, her unconsciousness kept telling her to do otherwise. She then most likely weighed the two against each other, considered the pros and cons then decided, at least to a degree that would’ve permitted her to go, that not doing the paper didn’t have enough consequences to outweigh the pleasure of going to a party.

    Another reason to explain why she weighed the pleasure she’d get from the party, is because young people, especially those in their early teens, don’t have as fully developed amygdala as their adult counterparts. Because of this young people simply don’t have as much fear as adults, or would at the very least consider the reward and the pleasure to be greater than when they’re adults.

  3. The claim I would give up is (1), as others may have said, the definition of “better” is much too broad to truly define which choice is the “right” one. Though writing the paper is the smarter choice, the more enjoyable choice would obviously be going to the party. Obviously, we probably all intuitively agree that writing the paper is presumably what one means when picking the “better” choice, it can be argued that the experience of going to a party with one’s friends is actually the “better” choice if short-term happiness, as well as life experiences, is prioritized over academic success.

  4. Given Donaldson’s inconsistent triad of premises, it would seem that premise (2) is the weakest, since it states that choosing the best option necessarily follows from being granted a free choice. It is an overly general statement that fails to reflect the actual complexity of our decision-making processes, treating decisions as automatic and a product of strictly binary thinking. Emotional and intellectual factors, such as matters of desire and will, and considerations of an ethical, moral, or strategic nature are not addressed, nor are modalities such as possibility or likelihood incorporated.

    Although premise (2) appears quite simple on the surface, we may find many instances in our own lives that contradict it. Procrastination–of which we are nearly all guilty at one time or another–is a classic counterexample. We may know very well that a deadline is looming, and possess ample evidence that completing a task before the deadline occurs will bring nothing but benefit to us. We are also well aware of the negative consequences of failing to meet the deadline. But we find ourselves avoiding what we know to be the “better” choice of completing the task as soon as possible. The mechanisms of procrastination are not well known, but many hypotheses point to our fears (such as a fear of failing at a task), or desires (such as increased self-esteem from successfully completing the task in a compressed time frame). It would seem then that the matter of akrasia remains as pertinent and troublesome today as it was in the time of Aristotle.

  5. I would give up statement (1), because the word “better” has a broad and thus vague meaning. It is perhaps true that she believes she ought to write her paper, probably because it is due soon or of some other reason. Writing paper is better than going to the party in the sense that she can complete her assignment earlier, and therefore with plenty of more time. On the other hand, going to the party can also be better in the sense that Joan will gain more happiness tonight. Therefore, even though she believes that she ought to write the paper, she may not see it as a better choice for her––she may view happiness more important than responsibility/discipline.

    One may argue that Joan is not gaining more happiness in the long run, because perhaps after the party she will have to rush to complete her paper, which may lead to terrible quality of the work and a bad mood. However, we must consider Joan’s individual ability; she may not have the foresight that she is not at any advantage in the long run––perhaps she cares only about living the moment, and thus to her subjective view, going to the party is a better option. This is in accordance with Socrates’ view that if a man smokes, it is not that the man knows the harm but still does it––the man simply does not understand the harm.

  6. Although I believe one could argue against any of the three claims, I shall direct my arguments toward claim 1, examining the claim in and of itself and as it stands in relation to the predicament (and the two other claims that describe it) as a whole.
    I will concede that there is a sense in which Joan understands that writing is “better than going to the party.” Joan recognizes that one activity is more productive towards a goal she strives for – or that just writing in general is a more edifying activity than partying. However, I take issue with the terms ‘believe’ and ‘better.’ Of course, I have just acknowledged that Joan understands the merit of writing (viz. over partying) and that she understands writing is ‘better’ in that it is more productive. However, ‘understanding’ and ‘believing’ are different. Joan ‘understands’ the relative superiority [the concept of better-ness I avoid here, as it will be broached later on] of writing over partying in that she grasps the implications of both activities. Nevertheless, Joan must either believe that going to the party is, in some, unmentioned way more beneficial to her than writing, or that writing is not superior enough (in terms of its costs and benefits) that she will choose to write over going to a party. These are the only possibly explanations for Jane choosing the party over writing.
    Now, as for the term ‘better’: yes, writing is in many societally-valued ways a more productive activity, but this does not make it ‘better’ irrespective of circumstance. Would you think it healthy to write without cease and never socialize? Of course not! The superiority of an activity is circumscribed to a niche of circumstance. Now, writing may often be more productive than partying, but it still may not be called unqualifiedly ‘better’ without consideration of any mitigating factors.
    So, in conclusion, no: Joan does not “believe that writing is better than going to a party.” She may understand that writing is often more productive and edifying of an activity, but claim one is false.

  7. (3), however, seems to be a really puzzling choice for us to understand Joan’s action. Though she firstly thinks that writing paper is better than going to a party, her choice is going to the party. To begin with, we must figure about the judgment here. The question is that the word “better” is based on which standards. On one hand, Joan is a kind of person who believes “carpe diem”–party could bring her more happiness or pleasure than writing a paper as it is a relaxing activity for her to enjoy the process interacting and having fun with friends. However, the process of party is truly happy for her as she does not worry about academic pressure. When she considers about the outcome she would face after the party, she would not be happy as she has not finished her paper. Then, the stress comes, which means that she will bear the risk of anxiety and scrupulosity of not working the paper, even engendering the change of attitudes from her friends and professors.

    The conclusion is that the judgments could be built by two wills–the first is about the internal ideas, or we can say characteristics of a person; the second is about the external force about how others think. The reason for Joan to make (1) and (2) assumption is that she might regard what others mostly suggest her as the better choice. People are always likely to assess the total merits for making one choice, such as concerning more about the outcome (eg. responsibility rather than pleasure) and calculate the opportunity cost. Even though writing a paper is not enjoyable for everyone, Joan must finish it as it is her duty. Thus, doing a paper weighs over going to the party because the pleasure seems to have short continuity. And this creates the image in Joan’s mind that she should do what others put expectation on her. It is not her true willingness. When she returns back to the reality, the fact that she needs to write paper will not change. However, Joan may argue that she will take the risk of not finishing paper to attend the party as the pleasure is really valuable for her and she suffers a lot from study, so the weakness of will forms.

    Thus, weakness of will could be caused by the ephemeral happiness and desire depended on one’s assessment on future happiness and present happiness. This could cause the inconsistency between the thoughts and action. Neither we can say one is better than the other choice nor force anybody to follow our advice, as everyone has his or her different measures and concentrates on different perspectives.

  8. I think some of the inconsistency within the situation can be attributed to definition. To clarify, in this case, the true definition of the word ‘better’ is never truly stated. There are many ways by which a subject can be ‘better’ than another, and it’s difficult to determine which aspect of ‘better-ness’ (for lack of a better clarifier) should take precedence over another. For example, Joan believes that the essay is ‘better’ in that it allows her to be responsible, and do her work on time. Instead, she chose to go to the party, and given the three claims:

    1. Joan believes writing > party
    2. Believing A > B and choosing A
    3. Going to the party

    It’s easy to say that if Joan believes 1 and 2 must follow, then 3 makes no sense—however, it doesn’t apply to any other outside factors (i.e., she knows that writing the essay is better in terms of being productive, but she went to the party because she believed she had a ‘better’ time). Therefore, in this specific situation, claims 1, 2, and 3 could technically be true, but in different facets. In this case, there does seem to be a disconnect between reason and desire (reason in the case of 1, and desire in the case of 3), and in that case, we could potentially attribute the inconsistency to a variety of outside factors, the prior example given just one of many.

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