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Educating Ethical Behavior: Aristotle's Views on Akrasia

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Deborah Kerdeman

University of Washington

"Can the teaching of ethics really help cleanse the business world of shady dealings?" Asked by Newsweek magazine during the height of the recent Wall-Street scandals,1 this query resonates with perennial concerns about whether or not virtue can be taught and how such instruction might best be effected. The problem, Newsweek declares, is not that students lack ethical standards or are incapable of distinguishing wrong from right. The challenge for educators rather lies in helping students act on the virtues they espouse. "Even in today's complex world, knowing what's right is comparatively easy," Newsweek concludes. "It's doing what's right that's hard."

Why do people act wrongly, when they know full well what right conduct demands? This phenomenon, known to philosophers as incontinence or akrasia, receives extensive treatment in Book Seven of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.2 Like Newsweek, Aristotle holds that akrasia presents a special challenge for moral education. How does Aristotle conceive this challenge, and what might contemporary educators learn from Aristotle's analysis? To appreciate Aristotle's insights into akrasia and moral instruction, it is helpful to begin by looking at popular views of the akratic's dilemma.

Popular beliefs about incontinence are varied and often contradictory, Aristotle contends.3 Two, however, bear scrutiny. Aristotle summarizes them as follows:

(1) The continent person seems to be the same as one who abides by his rational calculation; and the incontinent person seems to be the same as one who abandons it.

(2) The incontinent person knows that his actions are base, but does them because of his feelings, while the continent person knows that his appetites are base, but because of reason does not follow them.4

In short, popular opinion concludes that with respect to akrasia, feeling overpowers reason; the individual, as a consequence, is seduced into acting irrationally. This conclusion, in turn, is marked by two deeper suppositions: a) feeling (or appetite) is distinct from reason; b) reason can be disciplined, but feelings cannot.

Although voiced in ancient Greece, these common beliefs about akrasia are held no less widely today. Like Aristotle's compatriots, we tend to divorce reason from desires and appetites. The latter we regard as urges we cannot help but feel; reason, by contrast, bespeaks a capacity for considered control. When we act against our better judgment, it is because we cannot hold our feelings at bay. We lose control and behave irrationally.

This entire set of assumptions is wrong, Aristotle insists. Akrasia cannot be explained as the seduction of reason by appetite. Nor can we say that akratics have lost control. On Aristotle's view, akrasia is a form of practical judgment. More precisely, it is a form of practical judgment that has gone astray. In what respect is akrasia a kind of reasoned evaluation? How does this judgment represent a conflict between knowledge and action? To answer these questions, Aristotle takes a closer look at the two popular beliefs about akrasia.

According to Aristotle, the first belief, that akratics "abandon logical calculation," derives from Socrates. For Socrates, knowledge of (or correct reasoning about) the good naturally leads to correct action. "No one, (Socrates) thought, supposes while he acts that his action conflicts with what is best; our action conflicts with what is best only because we are ignorant of the conflict."5 Insofar as akratics act wrongly, then, they either a) are ignorant of the good; or b) know the good, but choose to discount this knowledge. In so doing, they act irrationally.

While Aristotle acknowledges the appeal of Socrates' position, he feels that it does not really capture the akratic's situation. "It is evident," Aristotle writes, "that before he is affected the person who acts incontinently does not think he should do the action he eventually does."6 The empirical world, in other words, attests to the fact that incontinents do possess knowledge of the good. Inasmuch as akratics manage to achieve correct knowledge, they must be exercising reason. The first belief is thus mistaken: akrasia connotes neither ignorance nor irrationality.

The second popular belief, that feeling overtakes the akratic's knowledge of the good, is mired in contradiction. According to advocates of this position, "When the incontinent person is overcome by pleasure he has only belief, not knowledge."7 This view, in other words, assumes that pleasurable feelings overwhelm or dissolve knowledge of the good, converting it into opinion or supposition. It is impossible, therefore, to simultaneously possess both knowledge of the good and strong feelings of pleasure. Contrary to its manifest wording, then, this position assumes that incontinents cannot know that their actions are base.8

For Aristotle, in sum, popular opinion is wrong (1) to define akrasia as an abandonment of reason, and (2) to assume that it occurs in the face of appetite or pleasurable feelings. Nonetheless, Aristotle declares, these common beliefs should not be discounted: while neither is entirely correct, each does contain a key insight regarding akrasia. The second premise is right to maintain that appetite is central to incontinence. What it fails to consider is the possibility that appetite is central to continence as well. In an of itself, in other words, appetite is not the villain in the drama of akrasia. Its role must be explained in some other way.

For its part, the first premise is right to assume that correct reasoning leads to correct behavior.9 However, it fails to entertain the possibility that reasoned judgment can conflict with a person's actual conduct. Indeed, it is precisely the conflict between reason and behavior which makes akrasia so puzzling. "Though persuaded to act otherwise, (the incontinent) still acts wrongly," Aristotle declares. "The incontinent person thinks it is wrong to pursue (the pleasant thing at hand), yet still pursues it."10

Exploring common beliefs about incontinence thus leads Aristotle to ask a series of questions which brings the dilemma of akrasia into sharper focus. How (pace Socrates) is it possible for the akratic to arrive at correct conclusions, yet still act wrongly? What role do feelings and appetites play in the puzzle



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