Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Paradox that no-one ever does wrong knowingly

To: Yann M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Paradox that no-one ever does wrong knowingly
Date: 27 November 2006 13:00

Dear Yann,

Thank you for your email of 21 November, 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 will.'

It is a good idea to approach this, as you have done, by contrasting Plato and Aristotle. You note that Aristotle criticises the Socratic view because it fails to 'take into account... akrasia', but you don't explain how Aristotle does attempt to take this into account.

Here, would have been a good opportunity to contrast the Socratic/ Platonic view of virtues as essentially cognitive - the soul's knowledge of the Forms of Courage, Temperance and Justice - with Aristotle's psychologically more realistic account of inculcated habits of thought and action. It is not enough to 'know' that courage is good and cowardice bad, one must in addition have these qualities 'drilled in' as a result of repeated practice. Hence the emphasis that Aristotle places on psychological habit.

Although in unit 2 I offer a defence of something closer to the Socratic view, I would fully accept that there is an aspect of 'physical courage' which can only be acquired through repeated physical drill. I mean the kinds of things that elite Paratroops or the Foreign Legion do in training, learning to survive in extreme conditions or to resist brutal interrogation techniques. In an extreme combat situation, many would be prepared to accept at face value what the shell-shocked soldier says later the Court Martial, that he *could not* carry out the order to stand fast in the face of a hail of bullets.

This seems to be different in a crucial way from the example of the cigarette smoker whom you consider. The withdrawal symptoms may be very severe, the social pressure enormous, but still there is a clear choice made. The smoker still has the power to say 'No' even while he or she says 'Yes'.

You refer to Richard Holton, who argues that 'weakness of will is just a tendency we all have to revise our judgements about what is best'. I accept that this works for some cases. In the combat situation, I may have the physical courage to stand and face the bullets, but I decide to run in defiance of my orders, in order to live to fight another day. The cigarette smoker knows the dangers, but decides in this special case to make an exception, in the certain belief that it is only an exception.

You could call this flexibility of judgement rather than weakness. Nietzsche's point in your quote from 'Beyond Good and Evil' is that persons of strong character are necessarily inflexible about certain matters, and this is a good not a bad thing. Even if we generally think that flexibility is an intellectual virtue and inflexibility a vice, it is not always so. There is such a thing as being *too* flexible.

However, it is a sad fact about the human condition that circumstances do arise where we feel anguish at our weakness. This is not explicable simply in terms of 'revision of judgement'. Consider the case of the soldier who has the physical courage to stand. He is fully able to make a decision to stand or run. Moreover, he does not think in this case that 'discretion is the better part of valour'. He has not revised his firm judgement that running would be a cowardly and despicable thing to do. And yet, to his everlasting shame and regret, he runs.

My explanation for this would still be in terms of knowledge. This is the account I give in unit 2. It is not a case of rationally revising one's judgement, nor is it a case of physical inability. It is not the 'will' that is weak, but rather a case of 'bad judgement', failing to keep one's objective steadfastly in view.

You make a point about the difference between the 'agent centred' moral philosophy of the Ancient Greeks, and 'action centred' view of contemporary moral philosophers. In recent times, there has been a strong move back towards 'virtue theory' (e.g. Alasdair MacIntyre's book 'After Virtue'). While I applaud the emphasis on the importance of the virtues, I feel that there is a danger of ignoring the fundamental question - addressed in this program - of the ultimate basis for moral judgements. The problem of weakness of will is a special challenge to any view which attempts to argue for an objective rather than a subjective basis for moral judgements, which would the judgement that 'such-and-such would be wrong' a question of objective knowledge rather than merely exhibiting approved attitudes or behaviour.

All the best,

Geoffrey