Moral Weakness and Moral Virtue

by Steve W. Lemke
A paper presented at the 1999 Southwest regional meeting of the American Academy of Religion



Socrates, Plato, and Paul: Framing the Question

One of the crucial issues in moral development is how to overcome moral weakness, or more positively, how to develop self-control. From ancient philosophers such as Socrates and Plato to modern philosophers such as Donald Davidson and R. M. Hare, many thinkers have struggled with the issue of why we do what we know is not the moral ideal. Socrates and Plato were among the first to attempt to wrestle with the question of "akratic" action--that is, why people believe they should do action x, but do action z instead. The term "akratic" is derived from an adjectival transliteration of the Greek word akrasia, often translated "incontinent." Contemporary philosophers have used terms such as "weakness of will," "lack of self-control," and "moral weakness" to describe this phenomenon. Unfortunately, these translations are interpretive, and may raise other issues not implied in the original Greek nomenclature.(1)

This issue of moral weakness was voiced classically in the Christian Scriptures by the Apostle Paul in Rom. 7:12-25, who lamented that he knew what was right but could not bring himself to do it. Variations of the actual word akrasia was used eight times in the New Testament, mostly in the epistles of Paul.(2) In this paper, I will survey the major philosophical approaches to this issue, and propose an answer from a Christian voluntarist perspective which takes the Augustinian view of the will very seriously.(3) From this perspective, akratic behavior is not a matter of poor judgment but of a sinful will. To address akrasia, the paper will advocate an approach to moral education built upon a baptized version of virtue ethics.(4) The approach to virtuous behavior I will advocate is a concursive act of divine grace and human cooperation.

For Socrates and Plato, akratic action presented something of a dilemma. Their rationalist paradigm assumed that given the right information, people will do the rational thing. But in akratic action, persons appear to act against their best judgment. In his dialogue with Protagoras, Socrates denied that true weakness of will exists, because he believed that no one willingly pursues evil. He also found it an absurd explanation that agents fail to do what they believe is best because they are overcome by passion.(5) Socrates recognized that this doctrine was contrary to public opinion, but his belief was grounded in a firm conviction of the correctness of psychological hedonism. Socrates could not conceive of someone intentionally doing what they believe will be painful.(6) His explanation, then, for apparently akratic behavior was ignorance--we are misled by appearances to form the wrong beliefs about the situation. We might see pleasure in the short run in drinking alcohol, for example, but we fail to see its long-term painfulness.(7) So, for Socrates, akratic action essentially did not exist.

Plato (or, as some would have it, the later Plato) offers a somewhat more sophisticated psychology and action theory than had Socrates, in which he essentially endorses the Socratic doctrine concerning akrasia with some important qualifications.(8) Plato describes Leontius as being akratic when his strong desire to observe those who had just been executed overcomes his recognition that this act is shameful and inappropriate. Plato finds this phenom