I had to choose between two mutually exclusive courses of action, A and B. I judged that doing A was better, all things considered, than doing B, that I had more reason to do A than to do B, yet I did B. This is troubling. How might we make sense of it?
"Well, did you do B accidentally? Or, did someone force you to do B?"
No, not this time. This time, I did B freely and intentionally. This is a big part of the reason I find it so troubling that I did B. I chose B. If I had done B accidentally, I need only have tried to be more competent with my bodily movements. But in this case, I didn’t act incompetently; I acted incontinently. This way of describing the case also rules out having been forced. I wasn’t man-handled in such a way that made me wind up with what B delivered; I chose it. And I didn’t choose it in response to an external threat. If I had, I could say that I judged that doing B was better, all things considered, which includes my consideration of the threat. But in this case, I chose B freely. These other cases of doing B would be troubling, but for very different reasons. This case is so troubling because, even though I was enough attracted by what I expected B to deliver to choose it freely and intentionally, I judged myself to have had more reason to do A. (I take this to be a necessary condition — sufficient, too? — for any akratic choice.)
"Well, then you need to own up to your desires. A judgment about what you have most reason to do is just a judgment about which course of action is the one most likely to answer to the desire of yours with the greatest felt strength. If you did B freely and intentionally, then you desired what you expected from it more than what you expected from A. Maybe you have reasons to get people to believe that you desire what you expected from A more than what you expected from B, but (*wink, wink*) we know better."
What are you, some kind of economist? Anyway, I’m not skeptical about the possibility of akrasia. In fact, I’m pretty sure it happens because I’m pretty sure my choice of B happened just the way I described it above. I’m looking for a satisfactory way to account for it.
Here’s a strategy on offer that intends to be both faithful to my description of what happened and consistent with the notion that all reasons for action are desire-based. It invokes a hierarchy of desires relevant to an agent’s willing. There is a second-order desire about which of the competing first-order desires should motivate. The second-order desire might be thought to be a better indication of my conception of the person I am or would like to be. At this level of reflection I endorse one of the options and reject the other, regardless of felt-strength. I desire that what the one delivers be motivating and not the other. In the case above, though, it didn’t work that way. I wanted my will to be to do A, but I did B instead. One explanation for this is that the strength of the first-order desire to do B won out against the second-order desire that I be motivated to do A.
This way of accounting for akratic acts accommodates the idea that reasons for action are desire-based. My all-things-considered judgment that I had more reason to do A was based in the second-order desire. Is the explanation faithful to my description of the case? Not if the following is true:
I am free with respect to my choice to do B if and only if:
I am moved to do B by a desire to do B, and
I want this desire to be the one that moves me to act.
In my case, 2. is false. I wanted my first-order desire to do A to move me to act, not my first-order desire to do B. So, I didn’t do B freely. I didn’t really exercise my agency with respect to my choice to do B. I was like Frankfurt’s unwilling addict in a relevant respect. If that’s right, then the strategy that makes use of hierarchically ordered desires to account for akrasia isn’t really faithful to the way I described the case. We’ve lost the sense of the akratic as a free agent. And so, given a standard account of what has to be true about a person in order to be morally responsible, this way of accounting for akrasia won’t allow a person to be morally responsible for akratic acts.
It seems to me that the strategy which distinguishes among hierarchically ordered desires in a person’s psychology can’t be used to account for the existence of akrasia unless we prefer some other way of providing the conditions for free agency. If the strategy is used for both, then akrasia isn’t so much explained as it is explained away.