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Philosophical problem of weakness of the will


To: Frank Z.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Philosophical problem of weakness of the will
Date: 9 January 2007 13:07

Dear Frank,

Thank you for your email of 29 December, 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 the will.'

Thank you for pointing out the similarity between the Socratic maxim and Christ's 'Lord, forgive them for the do not know what they do.' It had never occurred to me to consider this in the light of Socrates' principle that virtue is knowledge.

If I consider what I originally thought was the meaning of Christ's statement on the cross, it would be something along the lines of, 'They don't know WHO I AM.' If the soldiers who nailed Jesus to the cross had known who he was, they would not have done what they did. No-one would knowingly kill the son of God. However, this is lack of factual knowledge, rather than lack of moral knowledge.

That's the first thought. However, it does seem to me on reflection that much of the language of the New Testament reflects the Socratic idea that knowing what is the morally right thing to do and doing it are one and the same. I would suggest that it is not altogether implausible that Jesus knew more than a little of Greek philosophy.

I like what you say here: 'The subtle truth may be hard to accept or even understand. At times, such statements may also seem to be logically impossible.' This is a good point to make. Socrates was not saying something obvious, and he knew this. Plato's 'Republic' describes the arduous journey which the philosopher must take in order to perceive the light of the Good. Everything that we believe from day to day or for practical purposes is just opinion, nothing more, just useful maxims for living in our darkened cave. Knowledge is something very rare and special. Very few people have moral knowledge, most only have moral opinions (which may, nevertheless be true, an important point).

Following this line of thought, only the philosopher does right out of moral knowledge. The majority of us learn the rules of our society (a society which according to Plato would ideally be ruled by philosophers).

However, there remains the wider issue which does not necessarily relate to ethics or morality, as I try to show in unit 2. We regularly 'do wrong' to ourselves, we are 'imprudent'. And this is harder to explain. How is it that an individual can know, e.g., that a certain action would have very bad consequences for him or herself - and yet still do it?

There are two lines of explanation: either doing this action (e.g. accepting the cigarette) is simply irrational, something that we feel mentally compelled to do despite all reason; or, there is a more subtle account to be given in terms of knowledge and self-deception. I incline to the view that one should posit irrationality only as a last resort. For example, in the example of the cigarette, there is an overwhelming desire to smoke, but also the clear memory of what the doctor said ('I predict that with your emphysema if you carry on smoking, you will be on an oxygen machine in two years.') It is madness to smoke. And yet the person does it. At the moment of accepting the cigarette, the subject genuinely believes that 'It is only one cigarette, I can stop any time I like.'

How does this come about? Knowledge is a much more complex thing than we commonly suppose. You can know a fact (e.g. that you have incipient emphysema) and yet not really *know* it, that is, appreciate it for what it is. Or you can know how bad you are at keeping to your resolutions, and yet fool yourself into thinking that in this case you are not 'really' breaking your resolution.

Getting back to morality, I don't accept that 'the truth is morality is egoistic and conditional'. What is true, in my view, is that each person has to make moral judgements for him or herself. There are no general rules, each case must be considered on its merits. History has shown repeatedly how the 'general rules of a particular society' can be wrong (e.g. slavery, human sacrifice). But judging for oneself is not the same as being egotistic.

If there is any objective basis for morality (as I will argue there is) then, just as in the example of Plato's Cave, if you know and appreciate this fact clearly then you cannot act in an egoistic way. Cases where an individual 'yields to temptation' and does something which he or she 'knows' is immoral are like the smoking example: a trick that one plays on oneself, a form of self-deception.

All the best,