Monday, May 21, 2007

Evil and Akrasia in the Context of Authenticity

Davidson claimed to have been the first to separate the problem of weakness of will, or akrasia, from the moral context in which the problem is traditionally taken up. He is right to make this separation, though it is a separation that needs to be carried out consistently. Davidson’s interest is in separating out akrasia as a distinctive problem for philosophy of action. But it seems equally important from the standpoint of moral philosophy to separate the problem of akrasia from that of evil. Akrasia is not equivalent to evil, and here I want to suggest a way of distinguishing the two in a vaguely Heideggerian language.

Heidegger characterizes our being as a being thrown into the world into the midst of pre-given possibilities. Some of these possibilities we will live through; others we will bypass entirely. Some we will take up as authentic, as genuinely our own. Others we will see as foreign to our selfhood. Akrasia seems to me to involve acting on possibilities that we are living inauthentically, but which are opposed to other, authentic possibilities. For example: Let us say that I am a student and see studying as the authentic possibility of my life. Occasionally, instead of studying, I go out clubbing and drink until 5 in the morning instead of getting any work done. Let us say (there is obviously no necessity in this) that I do not see this partying as authentically my own. In other words, I see a certain kind of behavior as defining of my self, as genuinely mine, and yet I am capable of taking up a behavior that I see as foreign to who I am, to my self, and to my will. How is this possible? This, I take it, is a way of characterizing the akrasia problem.

But the problem of evil involves something different: it involves the question of how I might choose to act contrary to a law that I see as the law supremely binding on me. This law—and I am here using the Kantian model of morality—is a law that is genuinely my own insofar as I am a person. Sometimes I may be tempted to break this law, and I do so. It is, of course, possible that what is involved in my breaking the moral law is nothing but a weakness of the will; in cases of that kind we have to look for an explanation along the lines mentioned in the previous paragraph. But the more interesting question of evil is that of an evil that is specifically chosen as evil; that is, I am both aware of my obligation according to the moral law and of the fact that the choice I am making explicitly violates that law. Yet at the same time I make this choice, and do so not through any weakness, but in a fully intentional way.

The way to characterize the second problem, I think, is by seeing it as a conflict not between an authentic and an inauthentic possibility, but as a conflict between two authentic possibilities. Both the moral law and the incentive to deviate from it belong to my self. This seems like a correct characterization of moral conflict: the difficulty is not simply that I am not strong enough to act on my judgment of what is morally right, but that I myself have made the other incentive powerful enough to oppose the moral law. I have done this by making the incentive into an authentic possibility for me. Kant does sometimes imply that moral conflict boils down to a case of akrasia, which is why he defines virtue as the strength to resist non-moral incentives. But it is also clear that, for Kant, we are responsible for having chosen those non-moral incentives as powerful enough to need resisting. That the incentives opposed to the moral law are, in fact, incentives we have made our own is the pre-condition for a theory of virtue as strength.
Obviously this rough account is not sufficient to explain moral conflict: we will need, among other things, an explanation of why morality should be seen by us as authentic at all. My goal here was only to suggest a framework within which akrasia and evil can, I think fruitfully, be distinguished. Only by seeing evil as involving a choice in favor of a certain view of one’s own self, rather than a simple fleeing from the self-conception implied by the moral law, can we start to understand the sort of responsibility involved in a violation of morality.

No comments:

Post a Comment