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 phenomenon not to be an isolated event, for "we often see this elsewhere, when his appetites are forcing a man to act contrary to reason, and he rails at himself with that within himself which is compelling him to do so."(9) Plato accounts for the phenomenon as somewhat of a civil war within the soul between the reason, spirit, and appetite. In at least one reading of Plato,(10) each of these faculties is relatively independent, capable of forming opinions or beliefs and acting on them. Each of the three parts of the soul has its own pleasures, desires, and motivations. So the non-rational elements of the soul have their own goods, but these are often only apparent goods rather than the all-things-considered good demanded by reason. Plato, then, retains the essential elements of the Socratic doctrine, especially the commitment to a rationalistic paradigm.

Aristotle and Akrasia

Aristotle was obviously aware of the Socratic/Platonic doctrine and affirmed it to some degree.(11) But if it was Socrates and Plato who raised the question of akrasia, it was Aristotle who offered the most robust examination of the subject. Aristotle offered more precise definition of the various expressions of the akratic phenomenon, and offered some careful refinements of the Socratic doctrine.(12) Aristotle defined akrasia in general as a person who, "knowing that what he does is bad, does it as a result of passion."(13) He compared it to a person whose paralyzed limb goes right instead of left as the person intended,(14) or like a city which enacts good laws and then disregards them.(15)

A fully akratic behavior, in Aristotle's perspective, must meet all four requirements of what might be called the akratic set. Actions which meet some but not all of these requirements are off-color varieties of akrasia which may be called akratic only in a qualified or analogous way. The akratic set consists of the following requirements:

(a) The Rationality Requirement. To fulfill the rationality requirement, an agent must hold the right beliefs about the situation,(16) and reason appropriately through the practical syllogism,(17) including grasping the correct universal (first) principle relevant to this situation, which becomes the first premise of the practical syllogism.(18) An akratic person grasps and affirms the universal premise (to some degree), but fails to carry it out. Angry or impulsive agents are not fully akratic because they do not take time to comprehend the universal principle.(19) Aristotle views an angry expression of akratic behavior as being less disgraceful than simple moral weakness because anger is less controlled by appetite and more by reason than incontinence. Anger listens to reason but mishears it, like the servant who runs out before hearing his instructions, or the dog who barks before she knows who is at the door. Appetitive moral weakness is more unjust than angry incontinence, Aristotle believed, because excessive anger is more natural than excessive appetite.(20) Angry incontinence, however, is a qualified kind of incontinence because its rush to judgment may fail to meet the rationality requirement fully.

Aristotle found impetuous or excitable akratic people (oi melagcolikoi)(21) less blameworthy than people who were deliberately morally weak, because the impulsive ones never pause to utilize their reason. Excitable people are thus more curable than those who deliberately act against the good. In a sense, the excitable akratic people fail to meet the rationality requirement for akrasia, because they never deliberate about what they should do. Those who deliberate commit moral weakness proper, and are less curable because they do not abide by their deliberations.(22) Theodore Scaltsas describes impetuous weakness (propeteia) as nominal or weak akrasia, because there is no meaningful deliberation before the act; while deliberate moral weakness (astheneia) he calls strong akrasia.(23)

(b) The Voluntaristic Requirement. In order to meet the voluntaristic requirement, agents must be cognizant (not ignorant) of the situation at hand,(24) have libertarian freedom (the power to do otherwise), and be capable of changing habits.(25) That which is done in or of ignorance is simply non-voluntary, but if the agent feels pain or regret for the action it is counted as involuntary, but not akratic.(26) Agents under compulsion are not truly akratic.(27) Mixed cases of compulsion, which involve at least some action on the part of the agent, may be akratic. Since it is easier to change one's habits than one's innate nature, Aristotle argued that habitual weakness of will was easier to change than when the moral weakness was grounded one's human nature. Someone could be taught new habits.(28) Brutish and morbid weakness are the extreme or excessive expressions of those who are incompetent to make moral judgments by nature or ingrained habit, living virtually as animals, and hence not truly akratic.

(c) The Hedonistic Requirement. To fulfill the hedonistic requirement, the agent must have an appetitive object, must feel (in some sense) psychological compulsion to do the best action,(29) and must act excessively compared with most people.(30) Aristotle considered akrasia proper to apply only to appetitive pleasures, such as sex, hunger, thirst, and other such basic needs. Other areas, such as money, gain, honor, or anger, were moral weakness in merely a secondary way.(31)

(d) The Nonappropriation Requirement. The agent meets the nonappropriation requirement when, despite meeting the criteria of the rationality, voluntaristic, and hedonistic requirements, she acts against the universal principle in a given situation. The morally excellent agent must understand the appropriate act (the conclusion of the practical syllogism) not merely in the abstract, but its relevance to this situation. The akratic, however, fails to grasp or appropriate this conclusion in a way that results in the right action being performed. Aristotle distinguished two "enormously different" ways of knowing--having an abstract kind of knowledge which we do not use, and appropriating knowledge which we put to use. The agent with merely potential knowledge is thus like those who talk in their sleep, or quote famous poetry while drunk, or rave like madmen, or quote other people's lines as actors on stage.(32) The unexercised knowledge is merely potential, but the exercised knowledge is actualized. Potential knowledge can hardly be counted knowledge at all. The akratic person fails to make this transfer from unconscious to conscious knowledge.(33)

Desire/Belief Psychology

More recently, thinkers such as Donald Davidson,(34) Michael Bratman,(35) and Graeme Marshall(36) have offered proposals similar to the classical paradigm which base action on the best all-things-considered judgment of the agent.(37) For Davidson, alleged weakness of will violates two principles which he holds inviolable:(38)

P1 -- 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.
P2 -- 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.

Sometimes described as the orthodox or traditional approach, this perspective presupposes rationalistic prescriptivistic internalism.(39) Stan van Hooft summarizes what he calls the "rationalist paradigm" in five key assumptions:(40)

A1 -- It sees its primary task as that of showing how action might be explained.
A2 -- It understands acting intentionally in terms of the action being causally explainable by
reference to relevant beliefs and desires.
A3 -- Accordingly, it seeks to subsume all relevant antecedents to action under the
categories of beliefs or desires.
A4 -- It applies the Rationality Principle to intentional action: that is, the assumption
that a person will always act rationally under some description.
A5 -- It assumes the transparency of consciousness.
A6 -- It understands the elements of intentional action in non-durational terms.

Another prescriptivist approach to this problem substitutes the greatest desire for the best judgment as the strongest motivation for action. R. M. Hare(41), David Wiggins,(42) David Charles,(43) Gary Watson,(44) David Pears,(45) and Stephen Schiffer(46) take this approach. From this somewhat Humean perspective, a rebellious desire "takes over" the will in an act of executive irrationality, whether compulsively (Hare and Watson) or non-compulsively (Pears).(47)

A Voluntarist Critique of the Classical Paradigm

Before offering a voluntarist alternative account, I would like to mention four critical weaknesses in the classical rationalist and desire/belief accounts.

(a) The primary concern is the failure of the rationalist account to account adequately for volition in anthropology. One glaring absence in both the classical rationalist account and the greatest desire account is the agent--more specifically, the agent's will. Even if these accounts were correct, who chooses the greatest good or strongest desire, and who effects the intention to fulfill them? Obviously, neither a belief nor a desire could perform either of these functions. Judgments are not the same thing as choices. What is required is the aspect of personal agency known as the willf.(48) But neither desire nor belief are sufficient alone to cause an event; there must be a corresponding intention (i.e., willd).(49) The greatest desire view also suffers from the problem of accounting adequately for conflicting desires of approximately equal strength, and conflicts between incommensurate best judgments and strongest desires.(50) A convincing account of psychological motivation for action is missing in the rationalist account, particularly evident in Aristotle's explanation of practical reasoning.

Second, even if one were to grant one of Aristotle's universality premises made absurdly broad, a leap in logic takes place between the logical entailment of the syllogism and the psychological motivation required for an act. Even if an appropriate universal premise could be found that applied in every situation, it does not follow that a person would be psychologically motivated to act in that way. As Norman Dahl comments, "it looks as if a person can draw the conclusion of a practical syllogism and yet not act on it."(51) Even if, for instance, some pill were designed which had universally healthful benefits, a person who had lost her will to live might have rational reasons for refusing to take the pill. Aristotle, unfortunately, assumes that rationality requires action. Milo attributes this move to a lack of clarity: "There is . . . good reason to suspect that Aristotle never clearly distinguished between logical and psychological necessity, between the logical and the psychological 'must' . . . ."(52) R. M. Hare has suggested, however, there are some "off-colour uses of the word ought."(53) "Ought" does not necessarily entail "must," "ought" does not entail "want," and "want" does not entail "ought"; it is the will that decides. Richard Reilly reminds us that "answering the question, 'What is it that I now ought to do,' is not to answer the question, 'What shall (will) I do now?' "(54)

One might suggest many examples of those who knowingly (not ignorantly) violate what they consider the best course of action. For example, consider the radiologist who smokes or the overweight dietician. Each knows, after many years invested in academic preparation, reinforced now by almost daily in clinical experience, the dangers of such behavior. They daily advise their patients against such behavior. But they do the behavior anyway. They know that such behavior is self-destructive, and do not intend to perform it, but they do will to perform it. So their behavior is not out of ignorance, but nor is it irrational in the sense that it lacks justification. Indeed, the dietician and physician daily rationalize their behaviors with reasons to justify the individual instance of the behavior to themselves.(55)

The rationalist account fails to account adequately for volition in an intuitively compelling action theory. Greater emphasis on the faculty of will, I think, would rectify Aristotle's account.(56) In the absence of a stronger role for volition, akrasia became something of a tar baby for Aristotle. That we are morally weak, that we yield to temptation, that we fall short of our ideals, is indisputable. But this human moral fallibility is not merely because of ignorance, compulsion, desire, belief, or insufficient resolve. We are morally weak because we will to do so. The problem is not a weak will, but an evil one. It is primarily a voluntaristic issue, not merely an intellectualistic one. From the voluntaristic perspective, what is amazing is not that people sometimes act akratically, but that they ever act enkratically.

(b) The rationalist account weakens moral accountability Aristotle's definition of compulsion blurs the distinction between habitual behavior and compulsion. Habit would seem to fall under the "mixed" category, which is nearer voluntary than involuntary but takes account of external pressures. At its worst, blurring the distinction between compulsion and habit opens the door to the possibility of excusing oneself for a wicked deed simply by asserting that this act was the result of a habit for which one could no longer really be held accountable. .

Cases of compulsion that I believe should be ruled out from being considered as weakness of will can be grouped under two categories: psychological compulsion (including clinically diagnosed irresistible psychoses and phobias of mental illness such as obsessive compulsive disorder, multiple personality disorder, narcolepsy, and kleptomania), and physiological compulsion (such as surgical brain stimulation, forced physical movement of limbs against one's will, chemical imbalance which causes mental illness, and drug-induced states caused by drugs given against one's will). Each of these involve judgments which should be made by professionals to distinguish a milder resistible case from an irresistible case. Most people face milder examples of each of these three categories. For example, most people experience lesser forms of psychological compulsion such as mild depression from time to time in their lives, but they are still held accountable for their actions. But even the person being held at gunpoint has a choice to do or not do what he or she is being pressured to do, even though the alternatives are very unpleasant. We feel pity for the person who is victimized by being forced to submit to compulsion against his or her will, but we blame the person who could have resisted. Any resistible case cannot be counted as compulsion. There is no middle ground, I believe, between compulsion and choice; in the final analysis one either wills or one doesn't. The will is functioning just fine; it is simply willing evil things.

(c) Aristotle's "normal pleasure standard" is too relativistic to be very useful in
determining an appropriate action. A number of problems arise in comparing my action with those of others. Agent A might be a person who is characteristically self-controlled, but has a weakness in a particular area, or characteristically weak but very self-controlled in one area. One must therefore distinguish an akratic act from an akratic person. One could be an enkratic person (in character) who committed an akratic act.

But by what universal principle or norm shall we judge agent A? Like Aristotle, Gary Watson applies the rather vague and relativistic moral standard that a weak person is one defeated by a temptation "that most people could have resisted," or when "one has failed to meet standards of reasonable or normal self-control" of more temperate persons. But in the same context he acknowledges that "weakness is relative to expectations and norms, and it is conceivable that a whole community could fall short of these."(57) These appear to be two standards which could easily conflict with each other. Who is to determine whether agent A should be judged by what "most people" would have done, or if the "whole community" has fallen short of the standard? What if agent A grows up in a drug-infested ghetto--should she determine her behavior by assessing the typical behavior of the people around her? Who determines what are "reasonable" standards? Indeed, agent A felt her choice was reasonable, because she had compelling reasons for her choice.

By these standards, who can be precise, for example, about what is incontinent eating or drinking? Should we determine the national average of weight or daily caloric intake? But what if agent A were a marathon runner, or a football lineman, or a diabetic? What if agent A had a low metabolism rate, such that she could eat less than agent B (who has a high metabolism rate), but still gain weight? Likewise, what if agent B can "hold his liquor," while agent A gets drunk after a couple of beers? Would much greater self-control in eating and drinking be required of agent A than agent B? Or, ironically, if agent A were overweight because of a lack of self-control in her eating, her body weight would allow her to drink more alcohol without getting drunk, and thus her lack of self-control in one area made less self-control necessary in another area. Is it not the case, then, that standards of self-control are person-specific? Such relativistic standards will never provide an adequate objective basis for distinguishing akratic from non-akratic acts, much less appropriate moral behavior.

(d) The rationality account is too optimistic in its anthropology. As Ronald Milo asserts, it is a "fantastic exaggeration of human rationality" to presuppose that people "are so rational as never to do what is unreasonable."(58)

A Voluntaristic Alternative

Space does not permit a complete presentation of the voluntaristic alternative which I propose, but the following assertions offer an outline of its presuppositions:

(a) The universe is ultimately moved only by divine or human agents. Divine agency is the ultimate cause of all things, but not the proximate cause of all things.

(b) Personal selves (perhaps including some or all conscious beings) share to some degree in the creativity and agency of the Creator Agent, but never absolutely. This agency is expressed in a creaturely libertarian freedom.

(c) The willf (not mere rationality or desire) performs the primary executive function
within the psychosomatic unity that is a personal agent.(59) Decisions are irreducibly volitional, not reducible to other states. This view is not oblivious to the givens and influences of life, but in the sense that the willd is the ultimate determinant of action. While they may be vaguely predictable, human decisions are ultimately not ruled by nomic causal determinism, even a law of nature, and may not be reduced to genetics, sociology, or psychology. On the other hand, human choices are not random accidents, but willful determinations. As Leibniz put it, an external event "inclines the will without necessitating it."(60)

(d) While the emphasis of this perspective is voluntaristic, it is not irrational. Agent A
could offer a teleological personal explanation for why she chose a particular course of action, drawn from a complex nexus of often mutually competing desires, motives, needs, beliefs, convictions, and a plethora of other competing influences. Decisions are made which are rationally justifiable to the agent. But deliberation is not an endless activity; it always ends in a decision (even if that decision is not to act right now).

This account of human agency affords almost unlimited potential for evil choices. All people have ethical ideals which they violate and will not be realized because of they willd + r to do evil (sinfulness or immediate desires) rather than good. We live in an evil environment so pervasive that choosing righteousness consistently is extremely difficult, and in fact virtually impossible. Temptation is a powerful force in perverting and blinding humans to desire and to choose less than their ideals. But the temptation is resistible.

The Apostle Paul's statement in Rom. 7:14-25 that he could not resist doing some evil and that he could not make himself do some good is cited by Hare and others to suggest that he could not do otherwise (in Hare's terms, "ought but can't"). But Paul's statement must be read alongside his affirmation in 1 Cor. 10:13 that no temptation is irresistible. Read in this light, Romans 7 should then be understood as affirming that Paul would like to be more moral, but he does not yet willc to do his willi. Standard accounts understand one primary meaning of Paul's frequently used term "flesh" as being virtually equated with his selfish will. His claim, then, was that his will was immoral, at least until God could recreate a more moral will within him. But while working out one's salvation with fear and trembling in sanctification, there will be an inevitable conflict between the immoral selfish will and the sanctified spiritual will. Indeed, Paul's remorse and regret are incomprehensible if he could not genuinely resist his sins, for then he would not be accountable for them. Only if his sins were resistible would regret and remorse be appropriate.(61)

Sometimes repeated evil choices can result in a silenced conscience, a depraved mind, or sinful nature, which is expressed in what an external observer might describe as foolish, irrational, and self-destructive choices. Ordinarily, however, moral weakness involves choosing short-term prudential reasons over long-term moral reasons.(62)

Moral weakness is expressed in the dynamic between character traits and individual actions. Characteristically self-controlled persons can exhibit lack of control in certain areas, and characteristically incontinent persons can exhibit great self-control in certain areas. But whereas we ordinarily act consistent with our character, we can deceive ourselves even about our own character. Chekov's concept of moral slavery reminds us that we can engage in self-deception by thinking better of ourselves that we ought based on the fact that we refrain from socially condemned sins, ignoring our persistent practice of daily acts of selfishness, anger, lying, and disloyalty.(63)

That we are morally weak, that we yield to temptation, that we fall short of our ideals, is indisputable. But this human moral fallibility is not merely because of ignorance, compulsion, desire, belief, or insufficient resolve. We are morally weak because we will to do so. As James reminds us, "For him who knows to do right and does it not, to him it is sin " (Jas. 4:17).

Akrasia and Moral Education

So, if akrasia is due primarily to our own sinful wills, what approach in moral education would best help us to overcome our moral weakness? Certainly, every major Christian ethical theory (at least, all those which are based upon the truth of Scriptural norms) has its own proposed program of moral education to address akrasia. Situational or contextual ethics based on love would argue that love is the most compelling motivation to change the sinful will. Narrative ethics would tell stories which are designed to elicit positive responses from the will. Community based and relational ethics would probably insist that individual wills would submit to communitarian standards. Deontological, rule based, and prescriptivist approaches would argue that the will should be forced to subject dutifully to the moral law. Teleological, self-realization, pragmatic, utilitarian, or consequentialist ethics would assert that appeal to good consequences, self-fulfillment, or vested self-interest would be most effective in addressing a sinful will.

Each of these ethical approaches offers valuable insights, but each also has at least one of three crucial weaknesses with regard to overcome moral weakness -- overly optimistic anthropology, failure to maintain Biblical ideals, and weak motivation.(64) While situational, narrative, and relational ethics might have strong appeal because of the motive of love, they do not take seriously enough human fallenness. If humans were so oriented to do loving deeds, akrasia would not be a problem. Varieties of deontological ethics uphold high moral standards, but the motivation of duty is insufficient for most people. The key dilemma of akratic behavior is not that we do not know what our duty is, but that we do not want to do it. Teleological ethics take human fallenness more seriously, thus offering stronger appeal to the sinful will. But these approaches tend to place human ends and goals above divine imperatives, thus failing to maintain Biblical standards.

An acceptable approach to moral education that would help overcome moral weakness must take human fallenness seriously. We must confess with Victor Worsfold that in reality, "Akrasia is ineliminable!"(65) Second, an acceptable approach to moral education must not be merely rationalistic, for the primary mark of akrasia is not a lack of knowledge or rational justification but of compelling motivation to do the right thing. Third, an acceptable approach must not compromise the high moral ideals advocated in Scripture, and thus consistent with a perfectionistic, prescriptivistic ethic.

The approach to addressing akrasia advocated here is from a perspective of Christian virtue ethics.(66) This approach finds Scriptural support not only in the general tenor of Scripture, particularly wisdom literature, but also in the lists of vices and virtues found primarily in the Pauline material (Rom. 13:12-14, Gal. 5:19-25, Eph. 4:21-27, Phi. 4:8-9, Col. 3:12-17, 2 Ptr. 1:5-9). In most cases, the virtues advocated in these passages parallel those in other classical accounts; however, there are distinctive Christian virtues such as agape love. There is consistent encouragement in Scripture for the believer to acquire certain virtues or habits as part of developing a godly character.

One must emphasize, however, that a Christian virtue ethic differs from other virtue ethics in at least two ways. First, a Christian virtue ethic must take seriously the spiritual dimension of moral conflict. The battle with moral evil is not merely against flesh and blood, but against spiritual wickedness in high places. Moral choices are not made in a vacuum, but in an environment conducive to sin and under the strong influence of a personal Satan. Overcoming moral weakness therefore requires spiritual resources which go beyond the individual (Eph. 6:10-18). A Christian virtue ethic must be theocentric and Christocentric in affirming the absoluteness of divine commands as well as the necessity of divine forgiveness and empowerment.

Second, a Christian virtue ethic must account adequately for the necessity of God's grace for virtue acquisition and character improvement. The fruit of the Spirit are in sharpest contrast with the works of the flesh precisely by their source (Gal. 5:19-25). The fruit of the Spirit are produced by God in the life of the believer; the works of the flesh are produced by human effort. The Bible clearly denies that mere unaided human effort can achieve a virtuous character (Isa. 64:6, Matt. 7:15-23, Rom 3:10, Heb. 11:6). Christian character is the product of God's indwelling Spirit in the life of the believer. Nonetheless, believers are not exempted from their responsibility to strive for character formation, but are held accountable for our actions (Matt. 25:1-46). Paul's encouragement to "put on" godly virtues implies that we are expected to participate in the concurrent working of the grace of God in our lives. The admonition in 1 Corinthians 15:33, "Do not be misled. Bad company corrupts good character," makes no sense apart from the acknowledgment that our own choices inevitably influence our character. We are accountable not only for our actions, but also for our habits and our character.

Human beings are creatures of habit. Intentional cultivation of virtues helps morally weak humans (all are humans in that class, although our temptation for any particular sin is not equal) develop resistance to sin. Cultivation of a good, virtuous habit helps bend the will, diminishing the likelihood of falling prey in a specific moment of weakness. The family which waits until Sunday morning to decide whether or not to attend church will usually find reasons not to attend. But the family which makes a commitment to attend church every Sunday does not have this struggle.

Character and habit have a significant role to play in weighting of potential moral choices. There is something of a hermeneutical spiral in the decision making process whereby character and act are interrelated. Character becomes a hermeneutical filter for new actions, but new actions can play a role in reshaping character. Although not determinative, character and habit provide a default tendency in behavior. Aristotle proposed the famous analogy that becoming good is just as much a craft as developing a skill -- virtuous dispositions and a skillful craftsman both require persistent practice.(67)

M. F. Burnyeat is not entirely wrong, then, in what I would call his hedonistic virtue ethic which advocates providing early ethical instruction for children which incentivizes virtue.(68)
Long before children are capable of reflective judgments about behavior, Burnyeat asserts, parents should be sure that pleasure and virtue are linked in the children's minds in a kind of behavior modification token system. Before children can distinguish good from evil, they can distinguish pleasure from pain. In Burnyeat's view, parents should exploit the children's appetite for pleasure and instinct against pain to instill ethical habits in their children. Those of us who know the application of a switch to our posteriors know this approach well.

Burnyeat has no illusions that this training is anything more than a beginning point for moral development. Right acting is just the first step; at this stage the child is no more virtuous than, in Aristotle's examples, an actor or drunkard reciting Empedocles' words without understanding them. At a later stage in the children's moral development, they must be taught the value of the virtues. By personally affirming the virtuous life, ethical conduct is internalized as a virtuous character. Or, in the words of the Biblical admonition, "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it" (Prov. 22:6).

Burnyeat's approach is based on a very realistic anthropology, one which takes human fallenness very seriously. I must confess that I am troubled by the use of hedonistic incentives to achieve ideals. Utilizing such a hedonistic methodology might seem to be a tacit affirmation to the child that pleasure is, after all, the ultimate good. An approach in which moral ideals were presented as self-evidently valuable would seem to be a purer means. But such an idealistic methodology fails to take human moral weakness seriously enough. We must begin with small steps before we can run. I find myself incentivizing good behavior in my own child. Perhaps the deuteronomic promises of prosperity in exchange for faithfulness were a similar move by God with His children.

The solution being offered to moral weakness is, then, a tenuous one. It is not an easy answer. It understands human moral weakness to be not an anomaly, but an unavoidable fact of human existence. Moral weakness can be overcome only through human cooperation with the grace of God through the development of godly habits and character.

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1 The vocabulary problem is compounded by the many meanings of "will." One might distinguish at least five senses of "will":

wf = the faculty of will--the mental faculty uniquely possessed by the psychosomatic unity we might describe as an "agent" or "person."
wd = a decision at a time--an expression of volition after deliberation (be it lengthy or virtually instantaneous) which is influenced but not determined by antecedent events, states, beliefs, or desires; a punctiliar act of intention formation which may be reversed by later decisions.
wr = will as resolve--the resolve and commitment to carry out an intention over time.
wi = the ideal will--choosing to do what one judges to be the perfect, ideal, morally best thing to do in ideal circumstances.
wc = the circumstantial will--choosing to do in an actual circumstance what one wills to do in this particular situation, usually guided by prudential or pragmatic considerations.

2 The New Testament references to various grammatical forms of akrasia are in Matt. 23:25 (incontinence as a trait of the pharisees), Acts 24:25 (self-control a virtue advocated by Paul in his speech before Felix), 1 Cor. 7:5 (incontinence as a threat to marriage vows), 1 Cor. 9:25 (the self-control of athletes as an analogous example of a virtue becoming for Christians), Gal. 5:23 (self-control as a fruit of the Spirit), 2 Tim. 3:3 (incontinence as a trait of people in the last days), Titus 1:8, 2:2 (self-control as a qualification for eldership, and 2 Ptr. 1:6 (self-control as one of eight virtues). I will not attempt to exposit these texts in this paper, but will attempt to be faithful to them in my proposal.

3 In particular, Augustine's views as are voiced in books 1 and 2 of On Free Choice of the Will.

4 I will here assume rather than argue the legitimacy of virtue ethics for an evangelical Christian ethic which takes Biblical ethics seriously. The Christian virtue ethics I would advocate, however, would make several important revisions to classical virtue ethics. The variety of virtue ethic which I would endorse would have affinity with but not identical to those advocated in Joseph J. Kotva, Jr., The Christian Case for Virtue Ethics (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1996); and Robert B. Kruschwitz and Robert C. Roberts, eds., The Virtues: Contemporary Essays on Moral Character (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1987).

5 Socrates argues, ". . . then the argument is absurd which affirms that a man often does evil knowingly, when he might abstain, because he is seduced and overpowered by pleasure; or again, when you say that a man knowingly refuses to do what is good because he is overcome at the moment by pleasure." Protagoras, 355-256. All quotations from Socrates and Plato are from the translation by B. Jowett, ed., The Dialogues of Plato (New York: Random House, 1937).

6 "Then, I said, no man voluntarily pursues evil, or that which he thinks to be evil. To prefer evil to good is not in human nature; and when a man in compelled to choose one of two evils, no one will choose the greater when he may have the less." Protagoras, 358-359.

7 The principal passages in the Socratic dialogues are in Protagoras 352-359, Meno 77-79, and Gorgias 468-469. For this purposes of this paper, the hermeneutical issue of how much of Plato's views are written into Socrates' views will be bracketed. For further discussion of Socrates' denial of akratic behavior, see William Charlton, Weakness of Will (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988), 13-33; Justin Gosling, Weakness of Will (New York: Routledge, 1990), 7-20; Richard E. Hughen, "Some Arguments in Support of the Socratic Thesis that There Is No Such Thing as Weakness of Will," Journal of Thought 17 (Spring 1982):85-93; Ronald D. Milo, Aristotle on Practical Knowledge and Weakness of Will (Paris: Mouton, 1966), 71-83; Gerasimos Santas, "Plato's Protagoras and Explanation of Weakness," Philosophical Review 75 (January 1966):3-33; and James Walsh, Aristotle's Conception of Moral Weakness (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), 4-27.

8 For further discussion of Plato's views, see Charlton, 13-33; Gosling, 20-24; and Glenn Lesses, "Weakness, Reason, and the Divided Soul in Plato's Republic," History of Philosophy Quarterly 4, no. 2 (April 1987), 147-161.

9 Republic, 4. 440a-b.

10 I am following Lesses in this interpretation. He bases this reading of Plato primarily on the Republic 4. 439-444, 505, 580-581, and 602-604.

11 NE 7. 1. 1145b22-1146a9; NE 7.3. 1147b6-17. All Aristotelian quotations are from the translations in Jonathan Barnes, ed., The Complete Works of Aristotle, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984). NE will be used as an abbreviation for Nicomachean Ethics. Helpful discussions about Aristotle's view of akrasia include Steve Buckler, "Moral Weakness and Citizenship in Aristotle," Polis 10 (1991):65-95; T. D. J. Chappell, Aristotle and Augustine on Freedom: Two Theories of Freedom, Voluntary Action, and Akrasia (London: St. Martin's, 1995); Charlton, 35-58; Norman O. Dahl, Practical Reason, Aristotle, and Weakness of Will (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984); Gosling, 25-47; Fred D. Miller, Jr., "Aristotle on Practical Knowledge and Moral Weakness," in The Georgetown Symposium on Ethics (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984), 131-144; Milo, 9-113; Richard Reilly, "Weakness and Blameworthiness: The Aristotelian Predicament," Philosophical Studies 24 (1976):148-165; Theodore Scaltsas, "Weakness of Will in Aristotle's Ethics," Southern Journal of Philosophy 24, no. 3 (1986), 375-382; and Walsh, 60-188.

12 Robert Audi, "Weakness of Will and Rational Action," Australasian Journal of Philosophy 68, no. 3 (September 1990), 273-278, and Theodore Scaltsas, "Weakness of Will in Aristotle's Ethics," Southern Journal of Philosophy 24, no. 3 (1986), 375-382. The primary passages in Aristotle are in the Nicomachean Ethics, 1109-1152.

13 NE 7. 1. 1145b12.

14 NE 1. 13. 1102b15-21.

15 NE 7. 10. 1152a19-24.

16 NE 7. 3. 1147a24-36.

17 Anthony Kenny and Norman Dahl have made a sustained attack on the notion that Aristotle actually accepted the Socratic paradigm, especially the rationality requirement. Their ingenious arguments are based on a close reading of Aristotle, giving significant attention to issues in textual criticism such as textual variants and alternative translations. Despite their interesting approach, which to refute would take more than the present effort can afford, this paper will follow the majority of scholars in a more straightforward reading and traditional interpretation of Aristotle's doctrine. See Dahl, 156-226; and Anthony Kenny, "The Practical Syllogism and Incontinence," Phronesis 11 (1966):162-189. To be fully enkratic, the agent must also grasp correctly the particulars that apply in this situation, which become the minor premise(s) in the practical syllogism, but not to do so is not necessarily akratic.

18 In On the Movement of Animals, 701a10-25, for example, Aristotle suggests three very
different practical syllogisms:

1--(a) Every man ought to walk, (b) I am a man, therefore (c) I ought to walk;
2--(a) I ought to create a good, (b) A house is a good, thus (c) I ought to create a house; and
3--(a) I need a covering, (b) a cloak is a covering, therefore (c) I need a cloak and thus should build it.
See also Aristotle's dry food syllogism in NE 7. 3. 1147a5-10; the chicken example in NE 6. 8. 1141b15-25; and the sweets example in NE 7. 3. 1147b25-31. Milo describes Aristotle's practical syllogisms as "to say the least, very peculiar." Milo, 46.

19 The lower animals cannot be incontinent because they cannot comprehend the
universal principle. NE 6. 8. 1142a25-35; NE 7. 3. 1147b1-5.

20 NE 7. 4. 1148a9-11; NE 7. 6. 1149a24-1149b26.

21 In common usage, this word meant "crazy" or "hotheaded." In ancient medical science it was thought to have been produced by the heating of black bile. Later, Galen used it to mean "sanguine" or "choleric." A contemporary analogue might be "anxious." See John Burnet, The Ethics of Aristotle (London: Methuen, 1900), 322.

22 NE 7. 7. 1150b15-29; NE 7. 10. 1152a15-31.

23 Scaltsas, 375-382.

24 NE 3.5. 1113b23-1114a4.

25 The agent is responsible for voluntarily developing good habits and character. Persons are not responsible for their innate characteristics or nature, but they are responsible for the character they develop over time. Aristotle believed it is possible, however, for a habit or character trait to become so ingrained over time that, like a thrown stone, it cannot be changed. There was a time when it was in the power of the agent to change it, but that time has passed. NE 3. 5. 10-31; NE 7. 3. 1147a20-24.

26 NE 3. 1. 1110b17-24. Aristotle drew a distinction between acting out of ignorance and in ignorance. In ignorance refers to someone like a drunk who is not conscious of her actions but nonetheless is held responsible for being in that state. The person who acts out of ignorance, however, is truly unaware of the circumstances at hand was not acting voluntarily and thus cannot be held responsible. That which is done in or of ignorance is simply non-voluntary. One must also be aware of the distinction Aristotle draws between non-voluntary (ouk ekousion ) and involuntary (skousion). All acts done in ignorance are non-voluntary, but only those which the agent regrets after she becomes cognizant of the fact count as involuntary. Aristotle thus did not count acts done in ignorance, but without regret when made aware of them, as truly involuntary, because the agent would have done the act voluntarily if she had been aware of it. For example, the person who runs over her neighbor's cat which she did not see while backing her car out of her driveway would be involuntary if she were sorry for the accident, but non-voluntary if she were not. NE 3. 1. 1110b17-28.

27 Examples of true compulsion, for Aristotle, are when the moving principle is entirely outside the agent, such as someone being carried away by the wind or by other people. In other cases, when an external mover is exerting extreme pressure on the agent, such as in extortion, threat of life, or other extreme circumstances, Aristotle described the action as "mixed," but nearer voluntary than involuntary because the agent still has a choice, however unhappy it might be. Only when the agent has no active role at all may the action be exempted from being akratic according to Aristotle's definition. But genuine instances of ignorance do not count as akratic behavior. NE 3. 1. 1109b30-1110ba15; NE 3. 1. 1113b23-27.

28 NE 7. 10. 115a28-31.

29 Not unlike Socrates, Aristotle appears to believe that rationality requires action. For example, note the imperatives in the practical syllogism relating to sweets:

"The one opinion is universal, the other is concerned with the particular facts, and here we come to something within the sphere of perception, when a single opinion results from the two, the soul must in one type of case affirm the conclusion, while in the case of opinions concerned with production it must immediately act (e.g. if everything sweet ought to be tasted, and this is sweet, in the sense of being one of the particular sweet things, the man who can act and is not constrained must at the same time act accordingly)." NE 7. 3. 1147a25-31, italics mine. As Ronald Milo comments, "Aristotle seems to suggest that it is psychologically impossible for one who accepts the premises not to act in the required manner (unless, of course, he is prevented from acting by other external physical forces) . . ." Milo, 50. An akratic person, then, is psychologically driven to apply the universal truth.

30 Both excess of pleasure and loss of desire for pleasure are unfortunate extremes, for Aristotle. The desirable action is something of a Golden Mean between them--the relative standard of what most people do. A person should thus judge his alcohol consumption, violence, and resolve against what the average person normally does. If an agent finds herself being excessive in comparison with others, she should curb her activity and get closer to the norm. If, despite recognizing she is excessive compared with others she continues this behavior, she is akratic. NE 7. 7. 1150b7-18; NE 7. 8. 1151a1-5; NE 7. 10. 25-27. In a different context, (NE 2. 6. 1106a29-1106b6), Aristotle is prepared to make the mean relative to an individual, but he does not offer this option in discussing akrasia.

31 NE 7. 4. 1147b20-1148a18.

32 NE 7. 3. 1146b7-1147a24; NE 7. 3. 1147b6-17.

33 Chappell, 105-106; Milo, 82-84.

34 Donald Davidson, "How Is Weakness of the Will Possible?" in Moral Concepts, ed. Joel Feinberg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), 93-113, reprinted in Donald Davidson, Essays on Actions and Events (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 21-42; see also "Actions, Reasons and Causes," 3-19; and "Intending," 83-102; in the same volume; and "Paradoxes of Irrationality," in Philosophical Essays on Freud, ed. R. Wollheim and J. Hopkins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 289-305.

35 Michael Bratman, "Practical Reasoning and Weakness of the Will," Nous 13 (1979), 153-171.

36 Graeme Marshall, "Action on the Rationality Principle," Australasian Journal of Philosophy 59 (1981), 54-67.

37 The problem with this wording is a lack of clarity and definition about what qualifies as "best" or "good." What makes something the better or best judgment? Better in whose judgment? Best in what sense? Good in what way? Since weakness of will is framed by classical thinkers, it presupposes an objectivity which most modern commentators cannot accept. But unless one accepts objective truth and morality (as Plato and Aristotle certainly would have), what problem would there be in going against qualified subjectivist or relativist human projections of morality or truth?

38 Davidson, "How Is Weakness of the Will Possible?"in Moral Concepts, 95.

39 Thomas E. Hill, Jr., "Weakness of Will and Character," Philosophical Topics 14, no. 2 (Fall 1986), 94, 103; Jeanette Kennett, "Decision Theory and Weakness of Will," Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 72 (1991), 113-115; Richard Reilly, "Moral Weakness," International Philosophical Quarterly 17 (June 1977), 167-169; Christine Swanton, "Weakness of Will as a Species of Executive Cowardice," Canadian Journal of Philosophy 21, no. 2 (June 1991), 124-129; and Ezio Vailati, "Leibniz on Locke on Weakness of Will," Journal of the History of Philosophy 28, no. 2 (April 1990), 221.

40 Stan van Hooft, "Weakness of Will," Southern Journal of Philosophy 26, no. 3 (1988), 403-404.

41 R. M. Hare, Freedom and Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), 67-85; Moral Thinking: Its Levels, Method, and Point (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981).

42 David Wiggins, "Weakness of Will, Commensurability, and the Objects of Deliberation and Desire," in Essays on Aristotle's Ethics, ed. A. O. Rorty (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980), 241-256.

43 David Charles, "Rationality and Irrationality," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 83 (1983), 191-212.

44 Gary Watson, "Free Agency," The Journal of Philosophy 75 (1975), 205-220, reprinted in Free Will, ed. Gary Watson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 96-110; and "Skepticism about Weakness of Will," Philosophical Review 86 (1977), 316-339.

45 David Pears, Motivated Irrationality (Oxford: Clarendon, 1984).

46 Stephen Schiffer, "A Paradox of Desire," American Philosophical Quarterly 13 (1976), 159-203.

47 Swanton, 124. See also Galen Strawson, "Libertarianism, Action, and Self-Determination," ed. Timothy O'Connor (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 20.

48 Audi, 271; Hill, 102; and Kirk Robinson, "Reason, Desire, and Weakness of Will," American Philosophical Quarterly 29, no. 4 (October 1991), 293-295, 298.

49 Hugh McCann warns against the reductionism of causally deterministic accounts of action that "do not allow for independent mental states of intending, but rather seek to reduce intention to other states, often a combination of desire and belief which, when they cause behavior of an appropriate kind, are held to issue in an intentional action." Hugh J. McCann, "Intrinsic Intentionality," Theory and Decision 20 (1986), 247.

50 "Intentions do frequently accord with strongest desires, and the frequently accord with judgments of what is best. The problem is, however, that strongest desire and best judgment may be out of accord with each other, and then intention can go either way." McCann, "Intrinsic Intentionality," 252. See also John Bigelow, Susan M. Dodds, and Robert Pargetter, "Temptation and the Will," American Philosophical Quarterly 27, no. 1 (January 1990), 39-41; Hugh J. McCann, "Rationality and the Range of Intention," Midwest Studies in Philosophy 10 (1986), 192-194; Alfred R. Mele, "Akratic Feelings," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 1, no. 2 (December 1989), 284; Robinson, 293-298; Scaltsas, 381; van Hooft, 411-415; and Wiggins, 246.

51 Dahl, 160.

52 Milo, 50.

53 Hare, Freedom and Reason, 68, 75-77; see also Donald Evans, "Moral Weakness," Philosophy 50 (1975), 299.

54 Reilly, "Moral Weakness," 170, 173.

55 Thus, for Frank Jackson, "it seems that causing agents to act contrary to better judgement is neither necessary nor sufficient for weak-willed action." Frank Jackson,"Weakness of Will," Mind 93 (1984), 3.

56 In general, the classical Greeks all had a weak concept of the will. See David Carr, "Varieties of Incontinence: Towards an Aristotelian Approach to Moral Weakness in Moral Education," Philosophy of Education Society 1996 Yearbook, available at, 4.

57 Watson, "Skepticism about Weakness of Will," 330-332.

58 Milo, 80.

59 McCann, "Intrinsic Intentionality," 247-252, "Rationality and the Range of Intention," 192-194; and Bigelow, Dodds, and Pargetter, 40.

60 G. W. Leibniz, Theodicy, sec. 336, in Schriften, 6.314. A similar phrase is in a letter to Clarke, letter 5, sec. 8, in Schriften, 6.390.

61 For discussions of resistibility, see Hare, Freedom and Reason, 78-79; J. P. Day, "Temptation," American Philosophical Quarterly 30, no. 2 (April 1993), 177-180; Evans, 304-306; William Frankena, "Hare on Moral Weakness and the Definition of Morality," Ethics 98 (July 1988), 790; G. Matthews, "Weakness of Will," Mind 75 (July 1966), 414-415; Nagel, 42; and Reilly, "Moral Weakness,"169-173.

62 Kane, 133.

63 Evans, 303.

64 Obviously, these critiques of alternative ethical theories are merely suggestive, not exhaustive, of a fuller account.

65 Victor L. Worsfold, "Akrasia: Irremediable but not Unapproachable," Philosophy of Education Society 1996 Yearbook, available at, 1.

66 I will here assume rather than argue the legitimacy of virtue ethics for an evangelical Christian ethic which takes Biblical ethics seriously. The Christian virtue ethics I would advocate, however, would make several important revisions to classical virtue ethics. The variety of virtue ethic which I would endorse would have affinity with but not identical to those advocated in Joseph J. Kotva, Jr., The Christian Case for Virtue Ethics (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1996); and Robert B. Kruschwitz and Robert C. Roberts, eds., The Virtues: Contemporary Essays on Moral Character (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1987).

67 Carr, 3. See also Betty Sichel, Moral Education: Character, Community, and Ideals (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 104.

68 M. F. Burnyeat, "Aristotle on Learning to Be Good," in Essays on Aristotle's Ethics, ed. A. O. Rorty (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980), 69-92.

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