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Socratic paradox and weakness of the will


To: Michael D.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Socratic paradox and weakness of the will
Date: 30 September 2004 10:38

Dear Michael,

Thank you for your letter of 15 September with your first essay for the Moral Philosophy program, 'Socrates' Paradox and the Problems of Will'.

What you have set out to do in this essay is show how difficult to find the right way, from a moral standpoint, and how at different stages of the process things can go wrong. The problem of weakness of the will is just one such challenge. Another which you refer to is the problem of moral dilemmas. Another is the question how we decide when an apparently 'moral' action - either undertaken by oneself or by someone else - is genuinely motivated by moral considerations, or by secret motives of self-interest. I will concentrate on the first of these two questions, as that is the topic for this essay.

Common sense says that we can fail to do what we know is the right thing to do because we lack the will to implement our decision. Hence the term, 'Socratic paradox'. Aristotle, in his discussion of 'the problem of Akrasia' (=weakness of the will) in his 'Nichomachean Ethics' rejected the position taken by both Socrates and Plato in favour of the common sense view, and many philosophers have followed his example. Today, it is a perfectly respectable philosophical position to take: we can know what is the right, but fail to act on our knowledge.

Why did Socrates hold such a paradoxical doctrine?

For Aristotle, an inquiry into morals is concerned with inquiring into the conditions for the 'Good life'. We are moral because we see that it is the best way to live, and for no other reason. At least in our better moments, we have a 'pro' attitude to morality. The more one concentrates on the benefits of living morally, the more this pro attitude is strengthened. But human beings are psychologically complex (a fact to which Aristotle showed great sensitivity). Under certain circumstances - for example, 'the offer you can't refuse' - other feelings take precedence, for example, the desire to preserve one's life at any cost.

From our perspective, this account has the hallmarks of subjectivism. This is admittedly not nihilism or scepticism, but a robust explanation of what it is to be a human being, to live a human life. Yet it is ultimately subjectivist, because the bottom line is what this or that person wants. Our hypothetical amoralist, faced with Aristotle's choice, is free to reject the rosy picture which the philosopher paints of 'the Good life'.

For someone who takes an objectivist line, by contrast, knowledge of the relevant considerations must *suffice* for action. Arguably, that is the only way that the gap between facts and values can be bridged. If it were possible coherently to say, 'I agree that it is right to do X, but in this case I prefer to do what is wrong' (in the same sense as one might say, 'I agree that it is cheaper to take the bus but I prefer the more expensive train') then 'right' and 'wrong' reduce to mere descriptions of facts - like 'what people generally approve of', or 'what the Bible tells us' - which have no necessary consequences for action, and morality once more becomes subjective. On the subjective view, the moral person is the one who takes a pro attitude to what is 'right'.

In the program, I deliberately set out to describe weakness of will in a non-moral context, in order to draw conclusions which can be applied to the moral case. For example, the man who disobeys doctors orders. You know you shouldn't, but you do. It certainly looks as if this is a case of 'knowing what you should do but lacking the will to implement this knowledge'. However, as I argue, other descriptions are available. 'Knowledge' isn't something you either have or lack. There are lots of shades in between. There are all sorts of ways in which we contrive to get ourselves off the hook, or allow our vision to become clouded.

Something I didn't consider in the program, however, are the examples of torture, or the acute physical craving of the drug addict. We admire persons who are able to withstand torture. There is a case for saying that the ability to withstand torture depends on being able to keep one's values and objectives in clear view. However, it is surely understandable, to take an extreme example, that if the doctor who is operating on you without anaesthetic tells you to lie still and you pull away as the knife goes in, this hasn't anything to do with *knowledge*. You know with complete clarity that you ought to lie still, but you simply *cannot*. There is no lever that your mind can pull that will keep your body from flinching from the knife. (In the days before anaesthetic, of course, patients were forcibly held down and not just told to lie still!)

What could be said here, in defence of the Socratic view? If moral courage is about keeping one's values and objectives clearly in view, i.e. a case ultimately of knowledge rather than the power of the will, then it seems that we will be forced to complicate the picture by admitting another form of courage - I'm not sure of the appropriate term, call it 'physical courage' - which is the ability to physically endure, an ability which some persons have to a greater degree than others. This cannot be acquired in the way we acquire moral knowledge, but depends rather on physical training - hence the gruesome exercises undertaken by Paratrooper and SAS recruits.

One confirmation that this are the well documented cases of very evil people who possess physical courage.

In one of Plato's dialogues, there is a description of Socrates marching in open sandals in the bitter cold during the war between Athens and Sparta. Socrates' capacity to endure physical hardship was legendary. No doubt, the strength of his moral convictions helped, but it was his physical courage that others admired on this occasion.

If the account I have given is correct, then combined with the arguments which I gave in unit 2 that would be a defence of the Socratic doctrine that virtue is knowledge.

All the best,