In book seven of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle sets out his theory of akrasia, or weakness of will. Aristotle attempts to explain both how such actions are possible (contra Socrates), and how we can dissolve the puzzles (aporiai) generated by our most important (kurios) commonly held beliefs, which arise in response to the actions of the incontinent person. This paper will review book VII of the Nichomachean Ethics (EN), and attempt to resolve some of the remaining questions left open by Aristotle’s critique.
According to Aristotle, ethika is not an exact (akribes) science, for it only provides “usual” truths (hos epi to polu), or those that are true for most, but not all, cases. Ethics is a practical discipline, which depends on the prudent person to make competent decisions with respect to various particular cases; unsurprisingly, it would be difficult (if not impossible) to determine any invariant rules of application for every ethical situation. Accordingly, Aristotle consults the opinions of the common majority as an initial starting point from which to proceed in ethical study. The beliefs of the hoi polloi are revisable, however, and in the case of incontinence, we shall see that Aristotle cannot resolve all of the puzzles resulting from them.
The format of this paper will proceed as follows. First, we will attempt a rough description of Aristotle’s conception of incontinence. Next, we will survey the most salient puzzles with which he is concerned. Subsequently, we will attempt to resolve any remaining questions concerning the plausibility of Aristotle’s theory.
Aristotle’s conception of inc...
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...ned earlier, we remain convinced that the incontinent knows the entire time that what she does is the wrong thing to do. If we think she doesn’t know, or forgets momentarily, then why is she morally responsible for her wrong-doing? Likewise, Aristotle’s own explanation lacks enough specificity as to why and how the appetite makes one “unaware” of the good conclusion. Simply put, the ambiguity interpretation is the most plausible way to account for both our pre-theoretical intuitions and our everyday practical experiences. In this respect, it remains true to the spirit of the Nichomachean Ethics.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, Translated by Terence Irwin. Second Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 1999.
Davidson, Donald. “How is weakness of the will possible?” in Essays on Actions and Events. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1980.