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Davidson on weakness of will

Updated: May 23



Many people have difficulty identifying instances of weakness of will and understanding a definition of it, so in this post I'd like to summarise what it is, and what Davidson's view is.


What is weakness of the will?

An agent’s will is weak if he acts and acts intentionally counter to his own best judgment. Think here of the person who has to start work early in the morning, but still stays out late with friends. Despite her better judgment that going home early to get a good night's rest, she decides to stay out late, ultimately losing sleep to wake up early for work. In such cases, an agent lacks the willpower to do what she knows, or at any rate believes, would be better, all things considered. For ease of reference, Davidson calls actions of these kind incontinent actions.


What is a general conception of incontinent actions?

Traditionally, an incontinent action includes only those actions performed despite the agent’s knowledge that another course of action is better. Davidson dismisses the claim to knowledge and counts actions as incontinent those that depend only on the attitude or belief of the agent. Davidson’s analysis concerns evaluative judgments, even use of words such as belief is perhaps to special. Comparative judgments suffice for incontinence.


Davidson’s definition of incontinent actions:

“In doing x an agent acts incontinently if and only if: (a) the agent does x intentionally; (b) the agent believes there is an alternative action y open to him; and (c) the agent judges that, all things considered, it would be better to do y than to do x” (Davidson 2001, p. 22).


What is challenging about incontinent actions is that they fly in the face of other self-evident claims such as the claim that when an agent acts intentionally he acts in the light of some imagined good. This can be spelled out in two principles more clearly.

  1. If an agent wants to do x more than he wants to do y and he believes himself free to do either x or y, then he will intentionally do x if he does either x or y intentionally.

  2. If an agent judges that it would be better to do x than to do y, then he wants to do x more than he wants to do y.

  3. It is false that there are incontinent actions. (from 1, 2)

The argument, for Davidson, seems to show that incontinent acts are impossible. The traditional problem of akrasia shows why 1 or 2 is untrue because one would decide to choose y, when x would be more optimal. Some have dismissed the problem altogether. Davidson believs that no amount of tinkering with P1-P3 will eliminate the underlying problem. Davidson asserts, “What I hope rather is to show that P1-P3 do not contradict one another, and therefore we do not have to give up any of them… I shall offer an explanation of why we are inclined to think P1-P3 lead to a contradiction; for if I am right, a common and important mistake explains our confusion, a mistake about the nature of practical reasoning” (Davidson 2001, p. 24).


What are the ways in which philosophers have sought to cope with the problem of incontinence?

First, some have proclaimed that the real problem behind incontinence is a matter of an agent having a bad character trait; someone who decides to do y instead of x, which he has more reason to do, acts incontinently. Such a person may have developed a character that disposes him to act in such a foundationless way. It is also likely that someone habitually acts incontinently. The person has cultivated a character that acts against their own best judgment. When we return to the example of staying up late despite having to work early in the morning, we are likely going to uncover that that person acts in similarly incontinent ways in other parts of life. They may go on a diet, only to succumb to the desire for something dense in calories. Aristotle denied this since habitual action involves a principle in accord with which one acts, while the incontinent man acts against such a principle.


Second, incontinence is sometimes described as intending, deciding, or choosing to do some act which is incontinent. None of the instances of incontinence entails that at the time the agent acts that he holds that another course of action would be better, all things considered. It is entirely possible that at the time of acting the author uncovered overwhelming evidence that intentionally doing y is better than doing x. Given the discovery of new evidence, the author freely chooses to undertake y, despite having earlier reasoned that doing y is less optimal. When we are presented with new evidence, even up until the time of action, we may choose to act on that intention.


Third, 2 is a mild form of internalism, but the confusion with such a view lies in the distinction between making a judgment and the content of a judgment. There seems to be no reason to say that there is a simple connection between the problem of incontinence and any particular ethical theory.


Fourth, some have attempted to reject 2. There may be an easy way to reject 2, but there is an equally good way of accepting 2 as true. For instance, if someone really believes he ought, then his belief must show itself in his behavior.


Fifth, some have depicted the akrates as overcome by passion or unstrung by emotion. One can be overcome by something he knows not what. In other words, some actions are involuntary. One is unable to restrict such an action from happening. There is something impulsive about the action. Related to this view is Aristotle’s notion that passion, lust, or pleasure distort judgment, thus preventing an agent from forming a full-fledged judgment that his action is wrong. These seem to be characterizations of the real crux of the problem of incontinence. There is no way to prove that such actions exist and, equally so, there is no way to prove that such actions do not exist. Austin rightly points to the collapse of succumbing to temptation with losing control of ourselves, but there does seem to be a clear distinction between the two types of action. On the one hand, there are plenty of cases where we act against or better judgment and, on the other hand, these types of action cannot be described as succumbing to temptation.


Usual accounts of incontinence tend to confuse two points: (1) desire distracts from the good, or forces us to the bad and (2) incontinent action always favors the beastly, selfish passion over the call of duty and morality. Davidson wants to divorce the problem of incontinence entirely from the moralist’s concern (egoism, hedonism, etc.). He uses the example of toothbrushing before bedtime as something which constitutes the problem of incontinent acts with intentional action that has nothing to do with moral concerns.


The force of 1 and 2 lies in the fact that they are derived from a very persuasive view of the nature of intentional action and practical reasoning. When a person acts with an intention, the agent sets a positive value on some state of affairs; he believes that an action, of a kind open to him to perform, will promote or produce or realize the valued state of affairs; and so the agent acts, he acts because of his value or desire and his belief. One’s desire can be conceived as a principle of action. In the case of wanting to know the time, such a principle would of a form like ‘Any act of min that results in my knowing the time is desirable’. This type of principle accords with Aristotle’s major premise in a syllogism. Propositional expression of the agent’s belief corresponds to the minor premise. In this case, ‘Looking at my watch will result in my knowing the time’.


A problem of moral reasoning: it is better not to perform this act than to perform it, and, it is better to perform this act than not to perform it. These are in flat contradiction on the assumption that better-than is asymmetric. Two solutions are usually proffered. First, one might accept that there is only one single ultimate moral principle, or, two, they make a distinction between the prima facie desirable and the absolutely desirable. These conclusions seem problematic. The first solution seems wrong for the simple reason that principles or reasons for acting are irreducibly multiple, and the second solution does not make it easy to see how to take advantage of such a distinction between prima facie and absolute value.


The problem of incontinence usually involves two players, passion v. reason, but there is a third way of construing the information. One could conceive of the problem of incontinence as involving passion, reason, and the person who lets desire get the upper hand. The third actor could be called the ‘will’. Davidson writes, “It is up to the Will to decide who wins the battle. If the Will is strong, he gives the palm to reason; if he is weak, he may allow pleasure or passion the upper hand” (2001, p. 35). Here, I do not believe Davidson has exhausted all possibilities. For instance, a person may somehow work in both, reason and desire, or neither, reason and desire. The will’s freedom to act consists primarily in the ability to defer choice in the absence of a compelling reason to act one way or another.


Davidson asserts the second image, one that includes the Will, is correct, but the problem remains how can the agent execute the decision? How can the Will judge one course of action better and yet choose the other? Davidson believes there is a third argument we should now consider as a piece of practical reasoning in moral conflict.


The agent, accdg to Davidson, goes against his better judgment, but ‘better judgment’ has two meanings. On the one hand, it might mean any judgment for the right side (reason, morality, family, country, etc.) or, on the other the hand, it might mean the judgment based on all relevant considerations known to the actor. The first case is really irrelevant to the analysis of incontinence. But, the third practical syllogism is no syllogism at all because the conclusion does not follow from the premises (by logic). We still result in a contradictory conclusion. At this point, it is worthwhile to reintroduce ‘prima facie’ concept in certain places.


The real source of difficulty is now realised, according to Davidson: “If we are to have a coherent theory of practical reasoning, we must give up the idea that we can detach conclusions about what is desirable (or better) or obligatory from the principles that lend those conclusions color” (2001, p. 37). The trouble is with the tacit assumption that moral principles have the form of universalized conditionals. The blunder in the syllogism has to do with detaching the modality from the conclusion and attributing it more correctly to the connective.


Davidson proposes to apply such a pattern to practical reasoning. A moral principle cannot be treated as a universally quantified conditional, but should be more like instantiating the concept of prima facie. The concept of prima facie relates propositions. In logical grammar, the concept of prima facie is not an operator on single sentences but on pairs of sentences related as moral judgment and ground. The logical difficulty with incontinence thus vanishes since a judgment that a is better than b, all things considered, is a relational, or pf, judgment, and so cannot conflict logically with any unconditional judgment.

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