Paper on Behavior

This essay has a total of 4646 words and 24 pages.


Deborah Kerdeman
University of Washington

"Can the teaching of ethics really help cleanse the business world of shady dealings?"
Asked by Newsweek magazine during the height of the recent Wall-Street scandals,1 this
query resonates with perennial concerns about whether or not virtue can be taught and how
such instruction might best be effected. The problem, Newsweek declares, is not that
students lack ethical standards or are incapable of distinguishing wrong from right. The
challenge for educators rather lies in helping students act on the virtues they espouse.
"Even in today's complex world, knowing what's right is comparatively easy," Newsweek
concludes. "It's doing what's right that's hard."

Why do people act wrongly, when they know full well what right conduct demands? This
phenomenon, known to philosophers as incontinence or akrasia, receives extensive treatment
in Book Seven of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.2 Like Newsweek, Aristotle holds that
akrasia presents a special challenge for moral education. How does Aristotle conceive this
challenge, and what might contemporary educators learn from Aristotle's analysis? To
appreciate Aristotle's insights into akrasia and moral instruction, it is helpful to begin
by looking at popular views of the akratic's dilemma.

Popular beliefs about incontinence are varied and often contradictory, Aristotle
contends.3 Two, however, bear scrutiny. Aristotle summarizes them as follows:

(1) The continent person seems to be the same as one who abides by his rational
calculation; and the incontinent person seems to be the same as one who abandons it.

(2) The incontinent person knows that his actions are base, but does them because of his
feelings, while the continent person knows that his appetites are base, but because of
reason does not follow them.4

In short, popular opinion concludes that with respect to akrasia, feeling overpowers
reason; the individual, as a consequence, is seduced into acting irrationally. This
conclusion, in turn, is marked by two deeper suppositions: a) feeling (or appetite) is
distinct from reason; b) reason can be disciplined, but feelings cannot.

Although voiced in ancient Greece, these common beliefs about akrasia are held no less
widely today. Like Aristotle's compatriots, we tend to divorce reason from desires and
appetites. The latter we regard as urges we cannot help but feel; reason, by contrast,
bespeaks a capacity for considered control. When we act against our better judgment, it is
because we cannot hold our feelings at bay. We lose control and behave irrationally.

This entire set of assumptions is wrong, Aristotle insists. Akrasia cannot be explained as
the seduction of reason by appetite. Nor can we say that akratics have lost control. On
Aristotle's view, akrasia is a form of practical judgment. More precisely, it is a form of
practical judgment that has gone astray. In what respect is akrasia a kind of reasoned
evaluation? How does this judgment represent a conflict between knowledge and action? To
answer these questions, Aristotle takes a closer look at the two popular beliefs about

According to Aristotle, the first belief, that akratics "abandon logical calculation,"
derives from Socrates. For Socrates, knowledge of (or correct reasoning about) the good
naturally leads to correct action. "No one, (Socrates) thought, supposes while he acts
that his action conflicts with what is best; our action conflicts with what is best only
because we are ignorant of the conflict."5 Insofar as akratics act wrongly, then, they
either a) are ignorant of the good; or b) know the good, but choose to discount this
knowledge. In so doing, they act irrationally.

While Aristotle acknowledges the appeal of Socrates' position, he feels that it does not
really capture the akratic's situation. "It is evident," Aristotle writes, "that before he
is affected the person who acts incontinently does not think he should do the action he
eventually does."6 The empirical world, in other words, attests to the fact that
incontinents do possess knowledge of the good. Inasmuch as akratics manage to achieve
correct knowledge, they must be exercising reason. The first belief is thus mistaken:
akrasia connotes neither ignorance nor irrationality.

The second popular belief, that feeling overtakes the akratic's knowledge of the good, is
mired in contradiction. According to advocates of this position, "When the incontinent
person is overcome by pleasure he has only belief, not knowledge."7 This view, in other
words, assumes that pleasurable feelings overwhelm or dissolve knowledge of the good,
converting it into opinion or supposition. It is impossible, therefore, to simultaneously
possess both knowledge of the good and strong feelings of pleasure. Contrary to its
manifest wording, then, this position assumes that incontinents cannot know that their
actions are base.8

For Aristotle, in sum, popular opinion is wrong (1) to define akrasia as an abandonment of
reason, and (2) to assume that it occurs in the face of appetite or pleasurable feelings.
Nonetheless, Aristotle declares, these common beliefs should not be discounted: while
neither is entirely correct, each does contain a key insight regarding akrasia. The second
premise is right to maintain that appetite is central to incontinence. What it fails to
consider is the possibility that appetite is central to continence as well. In an of
itself, in other words, appetite is not the villain in the drama of akrasia. Its role must
be explained in some other way.

For its part, the first premise is right to assume that correct reasoning leads to correct
behavior.9 However, it fails to entertain the possibility that reasoned judgment can
conflict with a person's actual conduct. Indeed, it is precisely the conflict between
reason and behavior which makes akrasia so puzzling. "Though persuaded to act otherwise,
(the incontinent) still acts wrongly," Aristotle declares. "The incontinent person thinks
it is wrong to pursue (the pleasant thing at hand), yet still pursues it."10

Exploring common beliefs about incontinence thus leads Aristotle to ask a series of
questions which brings the dilemma of akrasia into sharper focus. How (pace Socrates) is
it possible for the akratic to arrive at correct conclusions, yet still act wrongly? What
role do feelings and appetites play in the puzzle of akrasia? Aristotle considers two
reasons to explain why knowledge and action conflict.

The first reason, Aristotle says, derives from the fact that correct reasoning requires
premises that are both universal and particular. Individuals, however, sometimes attend to
one premise at the expense of the other. Concentrating exclusively on the universal
premise leads to incorrect conduct, because it is the particular premise which controls
action. Focusing solely on the particular premise also can be misleading. Correct
reasoning requires that the particular premise be properly classified. Correct
classification, Aristotle says, cannot take place without a universal premise, for it is
the universal premise which articulates general concepts and categories. Insofar as the
universal premise is ignored, then, mis-classification is likely. Incorrect classification
of the particular, in turn, results in incorrect action.11

The second reason why knowledge and behavior sometimes conflict does not concern the
knowing process but rather the conditions under which knowledge is achieved. Individuals
may possess knowledge. But they also may be "asleep or mad or drunk." These states are
characterized by the presence of strong feelings, feelings not unlike "emotions" and
"sexual appetites." Such feelings, Aristotle tells us, "clearly both disturb knowledge and
the body as well."12

It is this second state of affairs which for Aristotle best describes akrasia. Like those
who are asleep or mad or drunk, the incontinent is affected by strong feelings. Such
persons, Aristotle asserts, "both have knowledge in a way and do not have it." That is,
people affected by strong feelings may say knowledgeable things. They may "even recite
demonstrations and verses of Empedocles." This does not mean, however, that these persons
actually understand the words they espouse. In this respect, the incontinent is like an
actor who can convincingly recite verses even though he does not comprehend them, or a
young learner who is able to string together words without fully grasping their meaning.13

The central question thus comes into view: how, precisely, do appetites and strong
feelings affect the reasoning process when persons knowingly act against their better
judgment? Aristotle offers the following explanation:

Suppose, then, that someone has (a) the universal belief, and it hinders him from tasting;
he has (b) the second belief, that everything sweet is pleasant and this is sweet, and
this belief (b) is active; and he also has appetite. Hence the belief (c) tells him to
avoid this, but appetite leads him on, since it is capable of moving each of the (bodily)

The result, then, is that in a way reason and belief make him act incontinently. The
belief (b) is contrary to correct reason (a), but only coincidentally, not in itself. For
it is the appetite, not the belief, that is contrary (in itself to correct reason.)

Hence beasts are not incontinent, because they have no universal supposition, but (only)
appearance and memory of particulars.14

Aristotle's account here is obscure, largely because it has been preserved in the form of
scanty lecture notes. In an extended footnote to his translation of the Ethics, Terence
Irwin offers one interpretation of Aristotle's ideas.15 Irwin's interpretation may be
summarized as follows.

The incontinent is working with three premises or beliefs. One belief (a) is universal
("Sweet things shouldn't be tasted"). A second belief (b) entails perception and contains
both a universal and a particular component ("Everything sweet is pleasant; this
particular thing is sweet"). A third belief (c) represents the inference that is drawn
from the other two premises ("This sweet and pleasant thing shouldn't be tasted").

Besides these three beliefs, the incontinent also has appetite.

Now, belief (b), "Everything sweet is pleasant; this is sweet," acts to excite appetite.
Consequently, belief (b) detaches itself from the universal belief (a) and joins instead
to appetite. This does not necessarily deter inference (c) from being reached. But because
(a) and (b) have become disconnected (the latter having joined with appetite), (c) is not
genuinely derived from premises (a) and (b). Thus, while the incontinent may be able to
correctly recite inference (c), he does not really know (c), because he has not derived it
from an integrated set of premises.

In a similar vein, the incontinent both has and doesn't have belief (b). Insofar as (b) is
the focus of the incontinent's attention, we can say he has this belief. But since (b) is
attached to appetite, it is detached from (a). It thus does not genuinely follow in the
reasoning process. Consequently, while the incontinent may "know" premise (b), he does not
"really" know it.

On Irwin's account, then, the key move in the phenomenon of akrasia is the dissociation of
particular premise (b) from universal premise (a) and its subsequent attachment to
appetite. As a consequence, appetite ("Taste this sweet thing!") overcomes the better
syllogism ("Don't taste it!"). The incontinent knows better, but his behavior conflicts
with his knowledge.

While this interpretation of Aristotle seems promising, it ultimately fails to explain
how, exactly, the better syllogism is overcome. Is it because the incontinent's feelings
simply are stronger than those of the continent person? This explanation is unlikely:
Aristotle insists that the continent person, no less than the akratic, possesses strong
feelings.16 What role, then, do feelings play in cases of akrasia?

In an essay entitled, "Aristotle On Learning To Be Good," M.F. Burnyeat offers an
illuminating angle from which to consider this question.17 Unlike Irwin, Burnyeat does not
believe that incontinence represents the triumph of feeling over reason. This would
suggest that reason alone leads to virtuous conduct and that feelings hinder this outcome.
Such a conclusion, Burnyeat maintains, is precisely the opposite of what Aristotle
intends. Feeling for Aristotle is not an obstacle to correct behavior: on the contrary,
feeling is essential if virtuous conduct is to be realized. Framing the issue this way,
incontinence becomes a striking example of what happens when feelings are ignored,
repressed, or misdirected.

To appreciate this line of argument, Burnyeat directs us to look beyond the immediate
circumstances of the incontinent's conflicted decision and view akrasia instead as a
phenomenon evolves over time. As Burnyeat puts it, we must "account for (the akratic's)
present conflict in terms of stages in the development of his character which he has not
yet completely left behind. For on Aristotle's picture of moral development, as I have
drawn it, an important fact about the better syllogism is that it represents a later and
less established stage of development."18 Given this perspective, the crucial questions
become: In what condition is the person prior to akrasia? Can this original condition be
nurtured or educated in such a way as to prevent akrasia from developing? What kind of
education fosters the disposition for continence? When and how can moral education go
wrong and open the door to conflict? Burnyeat offers the following analysis.19

Long before reflective judgments about behavior are achieved, a wide range of desires and
feelings works to shape patterns of motivation and response. Pleasure and pain constitute
the poles of this "feeling range." Physiologically-based appetites and instinctive
reactions propel us between these two poles. Appetite moves us to pursue pleasure;
instincts such as fear impel us to avoid pain.

It is important to note, Burnyeat contends, that the powerful feelings of appetite and
fear are not divorced from the realm of thought. Insofar as the ability to recognize
pleasure and pain is a function of perception, appetite and instinct do represent
cognitive processes. Specifically, they are evaluative responses. Burnyeat puts the matter
like this:

It is not that evaluative responses have no thought component (no intentionality): on the
contrary, something is desired as noble or just, something inspires shame, because it is
thought of as disgraceful. The responses are grounded in an evaluation of their object,
parallel to the way appetite is oriented to a conception of its object as something
pleasant; in this sense both have their "reasons."20

These "reasons," of course, are very low-level. They are primitive, Burnyeat tells us,
because they do not invariably or immediately lose efficacy in the face of contrary
considerations. They are, in short, "pockets" of thought that remain relatively unaffected
by our overall view of things. Thus, while appetite and instinct may be evaluations, they
do not signify logical or analytical reasoning. To denote this idea, Burnyeat calls
appetites and instincts, "unreasoned evaluative responses."

Insofar as basic evaluations are non-analytical, they do not distinguish "good" objects
from "bad" ones. Instead, they pursue whatever happens to be pleasant at the time. Because
of this, unreasoned evaluative responses must be directed towards good objects by means of
guided practice and habituation. "The underlying idea," Burnyeat observes, "is that the
child's sense of pleasure, which to begin with and for a long while is his only motive,
should be hooked up with just and noble things so that his unreasoned evaluative responses
may be developed in connection with right objects."21
Continues for 12 more pages >>