Backsliding: Understanding Weakness of Will

Natalie Gold on an attempt to solve the paradox of intentionally acting against one's best judgement

August 16, 2012

To most people, weakness of will seems like a psychological fact of life, but for some philosophers, the possibility of intentionally acting contrary to one's best judgement presents a paradox. A view that can be traced back to Plato is that no one freely does anything other than what she believes to be best. In Backsliding, Alfred Mele attempts to show that free weak-willed action is possible and to explain how it occurs.

Take Jack, who judges in the morning that it would be best to stay in and study, but who, come evening, goes out to a party instead. There are two arguments to the effect that Jack cannot have acted intentionally and freely against his best judgement. The first is that there is a special connection between evaluative judgement and action so that, if Jack goes to the party, then, at the time of going, he cannot really have judged that it would be best to stay in. His best judgement must have changed. The second is that, if Jack could have resisted temptation then he would have stayed in, hence he was not really able to stay in. He was compelled to go out and therefore unfree.

Mele dismisses the first argument as uncompelling, citing compulsive hand-washers and drug addicts as counter-examples. He also thinks it uninteresting to respond to the question of how weak-willed actions are possible by simply saying that they cannot happen. But the only counter-argument he offers is the claim that it relies on a gerrymandered notion of best judgement, the force of which issues from judgements being hitched together with intentions when, properly speaking, the two are separate mental states.

His response to the second argument is more interesting and is the nub of the book. He develops a framework for explaining weak-willed action and shows how, within that framework, an agent may be able to exert self-control. In other words, it is not true that Jack could not have done otherwise. Mele still makes room for a special connection between judgement and action: the default is that we move straight from judgement to intention. However, he distinguishes judgements from their motivational strength. While best judgements are normally based on our evaluations of the objects of our desires, the motivational strength of our desires does not always match up to these evaluations.

This allows the possibility of weakness of will, when the default transition from evaluation to intention is blocked by an opposing motivation. The reason that such action is free is that it is up to us, in some sense, whether we act on the intervening desire. Desires are not irresistible and we can influence their motivational strength. In particular, Mele suggests that Jack's judgement is being derailed by "hot" representations of the objects of his desires, sensations such as the anticipated pleasure of having fun at the party, and he can endeavour to increase the strength of his desire to stay in by focusing attention on his forthcoming exam.

The book falls uneasily between two stools. There is a lot of philosophical ground-clearing before Mele presents his framework. He relies heavily on arguments he has made in previous work, and the book would have been a more digestible read if he had paraphrased more and quoted less. It might be hard going for non-philosophers. However, while the framework is extremely plausible (it draws on the experimental literature on self-control) and very suggestive for anyone who is already inclined to Mele's view, I don't think that his arguments will be persuasive enough to convince philosophical sceptics about weakness of will.

Backsliding: Understanding Weakness of Will

By Alfred R. Mele
Oxford University Press, 160pp, £30.00
ISBN 9780199896134
Published 24 May 2012

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