[I no longer endorse this view. Check out There is No Akrasia for an updated view of akrasia.]
Akrasia is a term that comes to us from the Greeks. The word means “weakness of will”, and it’s been discussed by philosophers for thousands of years. The basic idea revolves around people making choices; specifically, choices that they don’t think are good, but choose anyway.
Through history, philosophers have found akrasia to be an impossible or contradictory concept. From Socrates, who says that we never do anything if we know it’s bad, to contemporaries like Donald Davidson who try to show that akrasia is indeed possible, there’s been lots written on the subject.
Anyhow, if you think A is worse than B but choose A all the same, you are demonstrating akrasia. For example, if you want to stop laying on the couch and get up and move, but find yourself still sitting, there’s a gap happening where your actions and goals aren’t lining up.
This should sound really similar to the sorts of situations where we combat preference reversal, or avoid distractions. I believe this is because akrasia is really just a combination of time-inconsistent preferences and a few other factors.
Let’s unpack our example of sticking to the couch vs exercising:
R.M Hare (among others) see that if you think “exercising is better than laying on the couch”, this will also mean that you will choose to exercise. So when your butt stays glued to the couch, this appears fairly contradictory. But it seems kind of a stretch to say that exercise is strictly better than sitting on the couch; there’s pros and cons to each one of the choices (e.g. it’s not “sitting on the couch” vs “sitting on the couch and getting $20”).
Instead, I think it makes more sense to break down what we mean by “better”. What we we’re getting at seems to be closer to:
“Exercising compared to sitting on the couch affords me a chance to stay fit, improve my mood, etc. Compared to staying sitting, which could kill me early, exercising better fulfills my long-term goals of health and wellness.”
(For something similar when it comes to moral judgments, see this.)
By breaking apart our “A is better than B” when we evaluate choices and instead being explicit about the pros / cons, we can remove any mysterious “betterness” qualities which might force us to choose a specific action.
But this doesn’t explain why akrasia might happen in the first place. Given that I know that A has all those nice benefits which coincide with my long-term goals, why don’t I choose it over B?
I believe the answer is, “Because factors other than what directly achieves my long-term goals also play a role in shaping my decisions.” Paraphrasing Michael Stocker, “Mood, energy, interest, etc. can all factor in.”
Often, your intuitions can be a good source of information. If you find yourself trying to force yourself to do something you “should do”, or if you find yourself “wanting to want”, it seems likely that something’s misaligned.
I believe akrasia crops up when our actions and intentions are miscalibrated, so there’s tension from conflicting goals.
We already know that humans aren’t the most consistent creatures. So when we make decisions, there’s going to be reasons for why we chose them, but they might not correlate to our long-term goals. For example, if you’re reading webcomics, you may keep clicking for the immediate reward of an amusing image, which hyperbolic discounting inflates to be more valuable than, say, making dinner, which might benefit your health more.
(This is actually a contentious point, where some philosophers make a distinction between “choosing B out of free will” or “being forced to choose B because of other factors”, the latter of which is referred to as “compulsion”.
I think that such a distinction isn’t really what we need, because we can’t talk about choosing actions without reasons or incentives, so saying you “choose B in isolation without any external influences” seems too far an abstraction from real life, where nothing is really isolated.)
But in some cases, I think taking a break (i.e., not taking the course of action that best maximizes achievement of our long-term goals) can be the right thing to do. Like I mentioned earlier, humans have lots of goals. We’re also not infinite; we run out of energy.
If taking breaks is helps maintain our energy levels, then it actually is helpful to our long-term goals, just not outright. Lots of other indirect things like socialization, hygiene, and more all seem to be necessary to keeping us running smoothly.
Lastly, getting a good understanding for the different desires you have and actually weighing them seems to be a strong tactic to better align your actions to all your goals. If a part of you doesn’t want to do something, try actually looking into why. Some short-term “cravings” might very well have far more cons than pros (which align with things you care about), but remember that you also need rest and other Good Things to function well!
By understanding that we can hold multiple goals, which different actions satisfy to varying extents (sometimes in ways that contradict with our long-term goals), akrasia can happen. I don’t think that akrasia is considered contradictory, though. It looks that way if you just focus on your long-term goals.
Additional Info (feel free to skip)
- I got most of my information from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy page, if you want to learn more.
- My position is pretty close to the “externalist” camp. There are also other views you may want to investigate.
- All of the general reasoning about things aligning to “long-term goals” does assume some sort of a value system that ranks things according to how much you care about them. This probably deserves a topic on its own. Just keep in mind that I’m making some assumptions here.
- See here for a quick essay on how directly optimizing for X might is not the same as actually optimizing for X (i.e., if you have an indirect method that does better, it’s still optimizing).