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'No-one ever does wrong knowingly'


To: David G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: 'No-one ever does wrong knowingly'
Date: 11 March 2005 12:47

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 5 March, with your first essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, ''No-one ever does wrong knowingly.' - Why is that a paradox? Explain the philosophical problem of weakness of will.'

The question is looking for an explanation of how the problem of weakness of the will raises difficulties for the Socratic maxim, 'No-one ever does wrong knowingly.'

You have approached this question well. Socrates' statement is paradoxical, you say, because it 'takes away a person's free will', and also because 'at first glance most people would not agree with the statement that knowledge of a moral [moral claim, moral rule, moral duty] is enough to stop an action from occurring.' Let's look at each of these objections in turn.

'If I really know what is the right thing to do then I must do it. I have no free choice in the matter.' This contradicts our intuitions that we do have a choice, even when we do know. As I explained in unit 2, the problem arises in the non-moral sphere too. I know I must give up smoking because of the dangerously high build-up of cholesterol in my arteries. I fully agree with the doctor when he shows me the test results. Yet the very next day I find myself lighting up. How is that possible?

You suggest a line of argument which could be used here. There is a difference between knowledge and awareness: 'It is not knowledge that is lacking but awareness.' How would this work in the smoking example? I know I must stop because the doctor told me and I believe him. At the time when he told me, I was fully aware of the significance of this knowledge. So what happened the next day to undermine my resolve? My answer - essentially along the lines that Socrates would give - is that a day's difference is enough to lessen the reality of my predicament for me, sufficiently to permit the thought, 'one more cigarette won't matter'. I still know what I know. I haven't forgotten the doctor's words. But this knowledge has somehow become less substantial, less real.

From what you say about the moral case, I am not clear whether you would fully go along with this.

The alternative explanation is that it is not my knowledge or awareness which is at fault but my 'will power'.

I think there are cases of failure to do what one knows one must do where it would be extremely implausible to blame the failure on lack of knowledge/ awareness. I am thinking of cases of raw, physical courage, the kind of thing that Marine and SAS recruits train for on Dartmoor. For example, in the days before anaesthetic, patients had to be held down on the operating table while the surgeon inserted the knife. But what if there wasn't anyone to hold you down? The surgeon just says, 'Whatever happens, DON'T MOVE!' Many people, perhaps most, would be incapable of preventing the natural physical reflex to extreme pain. With the appropriate training, however, we might learn the 'trick' of doing this. (Although one shudders to think what kind of training that would be.)

Could the smoking case be like that example? 'Some people just find their hands reaching for the offered cigarette, and there is nothing they can do about it, because their will power is just not strong enough.' I am not convinced.

The second objection relates to the claim that moral reasons by definition override all other considerations. You say, 'Knowledge of morals may have a motivating factor, but it is possible that morals are not an overriding factor but simply one more consideration amongst many that need to be evaluated and weighed. Sometimes morality is in the forefront and at other times economic or security issues are stronger.'

I disagree with you when you describe this as a case of 'weakness of will'. It looks to me more like plain confusion. The person who says, 'I know that the right thing would be to hand in the wallet but I need to pay my gas bill' has not thought things through. Or, perhaps what they mean is only, 'I know that others would say that the right thing would be to hand in the wallet but I don't agree because at this moment in time my need is the overriding factor.' That makes perfect sense. We have a duty to ourselves and those we care for, and this is one of the considerations to be taken into account in the overall reckoning. (Suppose I was starving and I found a loaf of bread.) But then that is not a case of moral considerations being overridden by other considerations.

I don't want to give the impression that this is cut and dried. A famous nineteenth century moral philosopher, Henry Sidgwick, concluded his work 'Methods of Ethics' with a problem which he found impossible to resolve, the clash between moral considerations and our right to consider our own interests. You will see as the program progresses why I disagree with Sidgwick's narrow definition of 'moral'.

All the best,