Wrapping up Aristotle: On the Emotions and Akrasia

The Problem of Akrasia

We’ve been discussing Aristotle’s take on lack of self control, explaining that there were two types: weakness of will and impulsiveness. I discussed how these two types of character led to a deeper understanding of the emotions. Now we want to take this knowledge and see if we can use this knowledge to work towards our goals of showing that good and bad are more than just relativistic, arbitrary concepts, and that ethics has a real job to do.

The ancient Greeks had a term for being unable to control yourself, for going against your better judgment: akrasia.

Socrates thought no one would ever harm herself on purpose; Plato and Aristotle weren't so certain

I’ve discussed this earlier, but I’ll restate it here without making an obvious argument, as a sort of signpost to where we are going: judgement should not be thought of only in terms of the sort of thinking you do when doing algebra problems. Judgement of a kind is going on all the time inside you, even if you aren’t aware of it.With that said, lets put it aside for a moment and focus on finishing up with Aristotle.

Akrasia is a very important concept in ethics for the simple reason that it’s hard to explain why it should happen. If we know what’s right and wrong, if we can think and understand that we should or should not do a particular thing, why then do we still sometimes do bad things? If you have an ethical theory that insists morality and moral behavior are at least sometimes products of human cognitive ability, that is if you believe that you use your brain to consider right and wrong, good and bad, you’d better have a good explanation for why thinking people don’t do what they know is good all the time. Otherwise it might be easier to think that what we think has nothing much to do with what we do.

You and I both know we do not do what is good all the time, so we need an explanation. And it can’t be some sort of self-serving or question-begging claim everyone knows is wrong but that will “save” your theory from being obviously weak. A good theory will account for such problems legitimately, or you might say ‘organically’ in that it ‘grows’ out of’ the structure.

So in this installment we’re going to see how the innovations we saw last time from Aristotle will help solve the problem of akrasia. More specifically, we want to uncover if and to what extent emotions contribute to or explain akrasia. We’re asking Aristotle to tell us whether emotionally excited people who do bad things are acting voluntarily, involuntarily, or some mix of the two.

Well, first off Aristotle notes that common sense and experience tell us sometimes people really do deliberate and fail to stick to the results of the deliberation because of their emotional condition. (Later down the road we’ll discuss the ‘how’). Second, he notes that sometimes people see this possibility coming and ‘wake’ themselves, regaining control of themselves before it is too late and they get overcome. Because both of these things are true, common sense tells us that some things done through the emotions are not done knowingly and so they are involuntary. Let’s think of a couple of examples.

Consider the difference between an enraged soldier in battle and an wealthy executive being insulted by his spouse or lover at a country club cocktail party. You might argue that the soldier’s and the executive’s responses are “voluntary”, but they have important differences.

Emotions and Akrasia

The ethical issue is that some emotions are inevitably, strongly going to be experienced given a certain context. So we need to understand how reasonable it is to expect a moderation of the emotion or at the least keeping a good handle on behavior in such situations is. In some cases emotional action will violate one of the three standards for an act being voluntary (not in ignorance of relevant factors, unforced, the result of deliberation), and so in those cases, the action should be considered counter voluntary. After all, how could a soldier expect to survive if he isn’t reacting to the seriousness of a life and death struggle? Similarly, how could the businessman keep his reputation if he responds inappropriately to his wife? If he hits her he’s obviously gone beyond acceptable behavior, but if he is made to look ineffectual he’s in bad shape too.

Whatever sort of thinking and judging is going on in cases where you are overcome by emotion, it sure seems to common sense to be “less” than the sort of conscious deliberation you might go through as you’re diligently crafting your cover letter for a new job application, the sort of thing I’ve called the conscious deliberation of a reasoning agent.

So to that extent you might be inclined to say that motional actions sometimes do not involve planning ahead and accepting the consequences of your possible actions. In some cases at least, the spirit of calling something “voluntary” is violated even if the term somewhat loosely applies. But how do we distinguish those cases?

Aristotle and Plato both say that behaving uncontrolled with respect to the emotions is actually in a way giving in to reason – it is “intelligent” behavior, even if inappropriate or just plain wrong. The idea is that temper is rational in that it is open to the dictates of reason in a way the appetites aren’t: cognition is going on even if reflection isn’t.

As Aristotle puts it, temper relative to reason is like a hasty servant to its master, or a dog barking at someone approaching the home. The hasty servant runs out of the room before hearing everything said and then fails to carry out the instruction. And the dog is on alert even before it knows whether the visitor is a friend. Both reason and sensory appearance can cause an emotion and temper is not only a quality of the act, it is a source of it, it’s a feeling and a mental event.

Thinking back to the anger situations of the soldier and the businessman, in such circumstances either reason or appearance (or both) will indicate something like “unprovoked aggression” or “insult” and temper, as if having reasoned out this sort of thing is a good cause for “going to war”, moves immediately into hostile mode. So this “incomplete thinking” is in a way temper following reason.

On the other hand, in a case of too much appetite, (the ‘kid in the candy store’), all appetite needs is for perception to say “pleasant” and you hatch a plan to get enjoyment even though you just ate. While appetite drives you immediately to seek gratification for the sake of gratification, a person who loses their temper, while open to reason, doesn’t always exactly “plot” the satisfaction of temper. It’s in the service of reason, misunderstood.

Aristotle’s Answers

The “separation” we see in a weak person’s action is often missing in the behavior of the intemperate one. While the intemperate person is wholly in the moment, the weak one is fully aware and methodical in their choice. When you get down to it, what Aristotle says about the emotions is that some emotions really are counter-voluntary. This means that his ethical theory and others like it has good reason to assume that some emotional acts are counter-voluntary. Therefore there’s a big moral difference in doing something wrong based on an emotion that is fundamentally counter-voluntary. And as we’ve noted, in some cases its just going to be the case you will experience a counter voluntary emotion.

Now if you act from an anger of such violence that you “see red”, you don’t know what you are doing. And if you are incapable of knowing what you are doing, but later regret what you did, then clearly you acted counter-voluntarily. (If you didn’t regret it, then it sure seems like the outcome matches what you would have willed.) What can we do with that?

Aristotle defines the emotions as “all those feelings that so change men as to affect their judgment and that are also attended by pain or pleasure”. This cognitive (thinking-centered) definition allows a three-step process by which to examine emotions and understand their impact. And it should give us some insight into how we can develop a strong understanding of right and wrong. He asks us to ask:

1. What is the state of mind of the (e.g., Angry) person?
2. Who do we usually get (angry) with?
3. On what grounds do we get (angry) with them?

Answering these questions gives Aristotle this definition of anger: an “impulse accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight directed without justification toward what concerns oneself and one’s friends.” But how does it help us understand right and wrong?

First, thinking seriously about people you are dealing with or observing in this manner will train you to be a better judge of character, temperament, motive and tendencies. Second, I believe it tells us that what’s notable about the emotions is how powerful their felt experience is bound to be on certain occasions, and how this is still intimately tied to our cognitive abilities. Third, it helps us understand that akrasia, which might on the surface look like people choosing to do what they know will hurt them, is at least in the cases of certain emotions, not that at all. In the case of being enraged it’s a quick solution to what appears to be a life and death threat – whether, as in the case of the soldier the potential for physical death, or in the case of the businessman, the potential for social or societal “death”.

It is up to those of us who really care about right and wrong to fairly understand what type of person we are dealing with, what type of context they are in, and what the likelihood is that their emotional response is controllable before we determine whether they acted good or bad, and how to punish them if necessary.

There’s still a lot more to be said on right and wrong, but for now we’re done with Aristotle. Next time we’ll begin on Lucretius’ discussion of mind, which develops what Plato and Aristotle started in a highly scientific manner and will allow us some more insight into how to make the judgments we need to make to both be good and to know good.


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