Are akratics free?

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:

  1. I am moved to do B by a desire to do B, and
  2. 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.

12 Replies to “Are akratics free?

  1. Simple question:
    Can’t you just claim that /there is no explanation/ for your choosing B: Thats precisely why it’s irrational?
    Secondly, on your account, what if I have a third-order desire that tells me not to follow my second order desire? How are we to choose which is more important? (and therefore which to follow)
    Thanks,
    Alex

  2. Alex:
    My account? I’m more wondering what I should think of such accounts. Good questions in any case.
    I suppose things would be more complicated if you had such a third-order desire, but this wasn’t true of me. It wasn’t because I had reached a point where I had reflectively formed a conception of my true self — that issue is closed as far as I’m concerned. I’d think this is probably the best way to think about what’s going on at the higher level. If you haven’t yet reached that point, then maybe you can’t be considered an agent in the first place.
    About your first question: if there’s really no explanation for my choosing B, if it’s really just inexplicable, then the question about my exercising agency with respect to B becomes even more focal. It makes it sound as if B happened to me, rather than I chose it. But then how could I be morally responsible for the akratic act?

  3. Kyle, I’m skeptical about hierarchical accounts myself, but let me at least try to defend them (weak and off-the-cuff though this response may be). You write:
    I am free with respect to my choice to do B if and only if:
    1. I am moved to do B by a desire to do B, and
    2. I want this desire to be the one that moves me to act.
    And then you say that in your case, condition 2 is not met, because you want to be moved by the desire to do A, not the desire to do B.
    But why can’t you have conflicting second-order desires? Indeed, it almost seems as if you must have conflicting second-order desires here, because the desire to do B must include, at least in ordinary cases, the desire that one’s desire to do B be effective in motivating one to do B. We could perhaps imagine a case in which what one desires is that one do B for reasons having nothing to do with one’s desire to do B. But I think this would be a highly unusual case. In your case, I think, it is highly likely that (i) you desire to do B, and (ii) you desire that this desire be effective in moving you (because that is, in essence, part of desiring to do B). But of course, you also desire that your desire to do B is not effective (after all, you desire that your desire to do A be effective). Simply put, you desire conflicting things.
    Now if this is the case, then why say that you are akratic, rather than simply conflicted? Perhaps the hierarchy theorist will say that what settles the question is not desires about your desires, but (a more promising route to my mind, and one which your own description of the hierarchy theorist’s position suggests) your desires about what kind of person you are. Suppose in this case that, while you do indeed desire to do B and desire that your desire to do B is effective, you do not desire at all to be the sort of person who is motivated by the desire to do B. What you desire, rather, is to be the sort of person who is motivated by a desire to do A. And it is this desire which is hierarchically above the rest, and which is most closely to be identified with you. So you are akratic because you act in a way that shows that you are not the sort of person you want to be; but you are free because, after all, not only did you act on a desire you had, you acted on a desire which you desired to be effective.
    Now, I can see two potential (and related) problems on the horizon; so before others zing me with them, I’m going to mention them myself! (1) Can’t we argue that, just as the agent must surely desire that his desire to do B be effective if he desires to do B, it also follows from these desires that the agent must desire to be the sort of person who is moved to do B? (2) If the agent desired not to be the sort of person who was motivated by a desire to do B, and yet was so motivated, doesn’t this show that the agent wasn’t really free? And the answer to both of these is . . . I don’t know, let me think about it and see what I can come up with. (What exactly was the intuition about freedom supposed to be, anyway?) But in the meantime, I present this half-baked entry in line with our SOUPer tradition of presenting the half-baked, for others to ponder, comment on, and (if you wish) pummel mercilessly.

  4. Kyle: Are you taking acting freely and being responsible for the act to be identical or coextensive here? You start out discussing whether you B-ed freely and then responsibility pops up later on in the post.
    I ask because there seems to me to be wiggle room to affirm that
    [you B-ed freely iff you were moved to B by a desire to B and you wanted your desire to B to be the operative attitude.]
    but to deny that
    [you were responsible for B-ing]
    on the grounds that B-ing was not what you took yourself to have most reason to do. At least it seems to me a common enough move in the literature on freedom and responsibility to take one’s responsible actions to be a subset of one’s free actions, with the former being characterized in terms of an agent’s reasons. This approach might be consistent with a version of your claim that “my all-things-considered judgment that I had more reason to do A was based in the second-order desire.” I’m not sure that the second-order desire and the all-things-considered judgment are not the same state in the end, but if we take responsibility to track all-things-considered judgments, then we could maintain that perhaps you B-ed freely but that you were not responsible for B-ing.

  5. Tolstoy said, or at least, the tea packet I was reading said he said, “Until you do what you believe in, you don’t know whether you believe it or not,” a way of saying we sometimes don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do, and our behavior (the behavior that surprises or perplexes us, like doing B) provides the evidence that we misunderstood something about ourselves. I think there are orders of desires, but I think simple ignorance about ourselves is a likely explanation for doing B. So is doing B rational and free? As rational and free as everything else we do that’s based on incomplete information, I would guess.

  6. Right, Troy. No doubt it is true of some people that when then they do things like choose B instead of A they’re simply conflicted, rather than akratic. But the way I’ve described the case, that’s not true of me here. My identification with the desires concerning the kind of person I am or want to be — the kind who’s motivated by the desire to do A — is a settled matter. But I was taking this to mean that at the level where I’m wholeheartedly endorsing this (wherever that is) I’m decidedly against any desire in favor of B being effective or successful in motivating me. I’m settled in the view that I don’t want to be that sort of person. The conflict that occurred at the first level is resolved here. So, I was taking this to mean that condition 2. is indeed false. The desire for A is the one I wholeheartedly endorsed as my true self. It’s the one that I really wanted to move me to act. Now, I think that because I say this, I don’t have to answer your question (1). (2), though, is a really good one. It’s the one I took myself to be asking!
    Michael: I was taking it that since I didn’t meet the conditions for having done B freely, I’m not morally responsible (I suppose I mean blameworthy) for having done B. But I did B akratically. I would have thought that people are (usually? always?) blameworthy for their akratic acts. But that said, I’m not sure I understand what you’re proposing.

  7. Bob: Perhaps we are sometimes prone to this kind of self-deception, but Tolstoy’s view (or the way I’m reading it now, out of context) seems too close to the economist’s revealed preference theory, which I rejected above.

  8. Irrational action doesn’t undermine freedom/responsibility, it seems to me, especially if the conditions for the latter simply involve one’s will being structured in a certain way such that the ultimate motivational psychological elements are noncognitive (a la Frankfurt, e.g.). So suppose one is responsible for action A just in case it depends on a will (a desire, say) that is picked out via a hierarchy of desires, which themselves depend ultimately on one’s nexus of cares. Now suppose we’ve got a straight-up case of volitional necessity, where the way in which the agent cares about some X fixes his will in a way he *wants* it to be fixed (so he identifies with it), but that nevertheless he can’t bring himself to refrain from doing what he does, and yet he also wouldn’t want to be able to bring himself to refrain. And further suppose that A goes against his best judgment, goes against what he has most reason to do, etc. Here’s a case in which the agent is appropriately held responsible for A-ing, despite its not being what he had most reason to do.
    The question, then, is is that a case of akratic action? I’m actually inclined to say no; here, the action was (a) something the agent wouldn’t later regret (which seems a key constituent of akrasia), and (b) something rendering one’s best judgment/most reason *irrelevant*, not something best thought of as *contrary to* or *against* reason.
    Nevertheless, take a straightforward case of akratic action: I go to a party intending to stick to my diet and I wind up eating half a pie. Here’s a plausible Frankfurtian analysis: I have a general care about eating in a healthy way, and I just cared more here and now about eating the pie, so my “akratic” care was stronger than the long-term commitment. Insofar as I had a properly structured will (my action depended on a will that depended ultimately on my strongest care in the moment), I’m free and responsible. Insofar as what I did was contrary to what I had most *reason* to do overall — given that what I have most reason to do is determined by what I want for myself in a cool hour, say — it was irrational. And insofar as I was betraying a long-term commitment, I’ll likely regret doing so in the morning.

  9. Thanks, David. I think this is helpful, but let me see. I don’t think irrational action undermines freedom/responsibility, either. But I worried that the akratic doesn’t meet the conditions for freedom/responsibility if those conditions are construed in the way that Frankfurt and others have suggested. If, as you say “one is responsible for action A just in case it depends on a will (a desire, say) that is picked out via a hierarchy of desires, which themselves depend ultimately on one’s nexus of cares,” how could someone genuinely akratic be responsible?
    I agree that the case you consider in your first paragraph is one where the agent is responsible, but that’s because I agree that that case doesn’t seem to involve akratic action. Whether he had more reason to do something else doesn’t matter because you stipulated he wouldn’t later regret what he did, and “he also wouldn’t want to be able to bring himself to refrain.” But I didn’t mean to describe a case like that. I meant to describe a case like your falling off the pie-wagon at a party. (Have things gotten as crazy as that in BG?)
    You’re looking at the pie. You want to eat it, but you also want to stick to your diet. You identify with the latter, not the former desire. But, here and now, the stonger attraction of the flakey, buttery crust and the sweet filling wins out. I would have thought the thing to say is that your will wasn’t fixed the way you wanted it to be fixed. If it had been, you wouldn’t have eaten all that pie — you would have been strong-willed, resolute, practically wise, or whatever. So, you didn’t identify with the desire you acted on. But doesn’t this mean on the Frankfurtian accounts that you’re not responsible?

  10. I’m suggesting that you *can* identify with the stronger desire/care (here and now), rendering you responsible, without that identification undermining the akrasia involved. If the irrationality consists in betraying the longer-term care/commitment for the sake of the short-term one, then you’re irrational for identifying with the short-term care, despite being responsible for doing so.

  11. Ah, I was right. This is helpful. But two things:
    1. Isn’t this suggestion different than what people who invoke hierarchical accounts to explain akrasia typically intend? I think the way I described your pie-eating case is closer; I think it is, but the sample size I’m working from is pretty small: 1 (I have in mind Ch. 8 of McNaughton’s Moral Vision).
    2. Even if not, it seems that the way I described your pie-eating case is true of some people. I think I’ve had experiences like that — despite the flakey, buttery goodness, knowing that I oughtn’t, regretting bringing it to my lips as I’m bringing it to my lips. In such cases, despite not identifying with it, I would have thought, all else equal, I’d be a responsible agent. Is this intuition wrong? Or must the account of freedom/responsibility we’ve been talking about be wrong? Neither?

  12. I guess I’m having a hard time thinking of this case as one of non-identification. If it isn’t, then on the structured will account I’ve sketched, it’s more like that of the unwilling addict: you’re being assaulted and compelled by something akin to an “alien” desire. But if that’s the case, then you’re not responsible for your actions.
    On the other hand, if there’s a sense in which you *are* identifying with the motivating desire, but it conflicts with a more general commitment you’re ordinarily identified with (where what you have most reason to do is located at the more general standpoint), you can be responsible but irrational.
    I’m not sure what others invoking the hierarchical account would say, although this strikes me as the most plausible move.

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