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Neurobiological perspective on weakness of will


To: Michael S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Neurobiological perspective on weakness of will
Date: 28 October 2004 12:08

Dear Mike,

Thank you for your email of 20 October, with the first of your five essays for the Moral Philosophy program, entitled, 'Weakness of Will: A Neurobiological Perspective'.

It is interesting to see what Kant says about knowledge and judgement. Kant calls rules and principles the 'go-cart of judgement' and emphasises that there is no list of rules or principles that could substitute for the capacity for judgement.

If virtue can be defined, as Socrates claims in the Meno, does it follow that virtue is knowledge of statable rules and principles concerning how one ought to act? Why?

Consider Kant's famous first formulation of the Categorical Imperative: 'Act only on that maxim that you can will to be a universal law.' That simple formula gives the essence of what it is to act morally, but the formula alone, as Kant fully realized, will not help you make moral decisions in the real world if you lack judgement, the kind of judgement that recognizes which rule a thing, or a case falls under.

What Kant arguably failed to recognize, in making a sharp division between actions motivated by reason and actions motivated by emotion, is that emotion is embedded into our ability to make judgements. This is illustrated by the cases Damasio quotes, but Damasio is wrong in implying (if he does - I have not read the book) that it took these experiments to bring Descartes' 'error' to light. (One book that comes to mind is John MacMurray 'Reason and Emotion' written in the 30's, but I am sure that he was not the first to question the traditional view.)

Elizabeth Anscombe is one philosopher who has argued that emotions have 'formal objects'. For example, it is conceptually impossible (for me, say) to feel proud of the Indian Ocean. If the emotion of pride was just a feeling that 'happened' to you, and did not imply judgement, then I could conceivably wake up one morning with a warm glow of pride for the Indian Ocean. ('I seem to be proud of the Indian Ocean, but I have no idea why!')

So the 'knowledge' of the virtuous man or woman is a capacity for judgement in the full sense, not just knowledge of rules, and this capacity for judgement embodies an emotional response. Reason and emotion are inextricably linked.

My claim that we are 'rational through and through' is intended as a rebuttal of Plato and Kant. However, something does have to be said - and this a serious lacuna in the discussion in unit 2 - about the connection between the notions of 'rationality' and the notion of 'self-control'. Someone who 'loses it' and starts throwing things around, or attacks someone in a frenzy, would be described as acting irrationally. Equally, someone with a phobia (on TV the other day was the interesting case of a young man who was afraid of baked beans). But there are other cases where a lack of 'self-control' is not describable as irrationality. In the days before anaesthetic, patients had to be held down when being operated upon. With eye operations, on the other hand, the surgeon told you to 'hold still' and you just had to do what he said, or the operation would be botched. Consider someone who just *cannot* avoid flinching as the blade goes in. This isn't a failure that can be remedied by even the clearest judgement that it is necessary to hold still. The patient lacks the requisite self-control.

When troops from the SAS and the Parachute Regiment train on Dartmoor one of the things that they are meant to acquire, in addition to survival techniques, is an enhanced capacity for self control in adverse conditions. This is something that can only be trained and not taught.

Where there are cases of weakness of will which come under the heading of 'lack of self-control' in this purely physical sense, then I would not claim that the 'virtue is knowledge' principle applies. This isn't in any way a retreat from the view I am defending. The patient who cannot avoid flinching would not be described as suffering from 'weakness of will'.

Equally, when someone 'loses it', this is not a challenge to the 'virtue is knowledge' principle. The challenge that we are considering is where someone calmly, apparently in full control of their actions, not suffering from brain damage or under the influence of drugs, chooses the worse option. My claim is that this can be explained as a failure of perception and judgement at the crucial moment. We do not need to posit an inner 'emotional self' which overrules the judgements of the 'rational self'.

All the best,