The weakness of will is defined as a lack of self-control or the state of acting against one’s better judgment. Philosophers have debated for years about the philosophical puzzle surrounding the concept of the weakness of will. At the heart of the philosophical puzzle is the dichotomy between acknowledging the best course of action to take, yet deciding to complete an action rated below this initial plan. The lack of consistency between these two actions is the behavior that has puzzled philosophers.
I will accept Callard’s “no weaker will” argument as the most convincing philosophical response because it highlights the importance of the perceived “weaker decision” actually overpowering the “better decision”. However, I acknowledge that Callard’s argument falls short in saying that a rational agent would purposely favor irrational acts to avoid the outcome they desire. I will strengthen Callard’s argument with my own argument. Making a different decision from the “better reason” robs you of the opportunity of obtaining the intended benefit, but may still yield a more important benefit in the end.
The general characterization of weak will, is that agents with “weak wills” act on a reason they acknowledge as weaker than another reason on which they could have acted. In 1977, Gary Watson wrote a paper called “Skepticism about Weakness of Will”. His paper stimulated a plethora of philosophers to gain interest on the philosophical puzzle on the actions that result from “weaker reasons”. Watson believes that there exists a philosophical divide between our judgments regarding what we do and our ability to turn these judgments into motivations.
His solution argues that people who experience “weakness of will” do not have a stronger desires than normal people, but rather that they lack the same levels of self-control as generally expected of a normal person. The interesting behavior that humans continue to participate in when they conduct an action that they themselves deem to be the less favorable action is the philosophical puzzle. How is it that an action, which you deem as the best choice by reason, is ultimately not supported as what you take to be your strongest reason in the end?
This behavior is best captured in a simple example of an agent choosing to go to a party when in fact he believes it would be in his best interest to stay home and study. (Callard 68) This choice renders a disparity from what an agent believes is best and the action they end up choosing. Watson’s solution to the philosophical puzzle is the belief that there exist discrepancies between the judgments we make in our minds and our ability to carry out these judgments into action.
At the same time, Watson highlights that certain compulsions involve desires that even those with normal levels of self-control are unable to resist. Watson defines the “weak agent” to be one that lacks reasonable and normal self-control. (Watson 332) This would be explained by the example of a woman who has a tendency to drink alcohol against her better judgment that she must stay sober for an important obligation; she chooses to drink because she lacks the self-control. The compulsive case of irresistible desires can be described through a decision such as staying awake when tired.
Though an agent may have in his best interest to stay awake during a lecture, if the irresistible desire of sleep in the moment overtakes the prioritized desire to learn the material, the agent will surely fall asleep. Watson maintains the compulsive case only holds given that an agent with normal levels of self-control is not able to resist this desire. (Watson 331) Just because they have prioritized one action over another doesn’t mean that a rational agent cannot succumb to a universally irresistible “less favorable” action.
Recently in 2015, Agnes Callard introduced a new perspective to the puzzle, challenging the existence of weakness of will. Callard does agree with Watson that it is irrational of a “weak willed” person to act on his weaker reason. However diverging from Watson’s view, Callard believes that there is a lack of understanding for the reasoning and motivations going into decisions that are chosen instead of the “better” judgment. Rather, the choice they made surely had an important motivation that caused them to choose that option. Hence, there was never a weaker reason.
Callard disagrees with the viewpoint that agents with “weak wills” act on reasons that they rank as lower priority. She argues that no action can fit this description. Callard’s solution to the puzzle calls attention to the disparity between normative and explanatory reasoning using their differences to claim that there is no such thing as a “weaker reason”. She begins by first drawing the distinction between the two. Normative reasons are facts that favor and motivate performing distinct actions. Explanatory reasoning explains why the action/outcome occurred.
Deciding to act on a reason alone, but ending up completing an alternative and perceived less favorable action could be thoroughly detailed with explanatory reasoning. However, our understanding may not be comprehensive enough to outline why this less favorable option was acted upon. (Callard 72) If we could delve deeper into understanding the agent’s psychenot just hearing their explanatory reasoning, but also analyzing their normative reasoning- we may be able to understand why the agent chooses to party rather than study. Callard argues hat this choice is not the weaker judgment but rather, the choice being made is what the agent would rather do. Through the party-study example Callard contradicts the notion of “weaker reason” saying that the “weaker reason” itself not always the primary cause for choosing that action. Callard believes that actions like choosing to go to a party instead of studying can be attributed to the fear of success. She asserts that weighting the fun that comes from partying over the success that may come from studying may be a normative reason, but not an explanatory one.
She admits that fun may be a rational force to go party, but the primary motive lies in the fear of success. Therefore, the weaker reason is not the direct cause of the action. When analyzing agents that act upon “the weaker reason”, Callard does not speak enough empirically measuring the amount of happiness that comes from a particular agent’s choosing the “less favorable” versus that choosing the better judgment. I will address this weakness when I bolster Callard’s argument. Callard also referred to a different example of the thirsty sailor at sea in order to further reject the “weaker reason”.
This sailor only has reason to not drink salt water. But after many hours, the sailor gets so thirsty that he drinks anyway. His thirst was the motive for drinking, but since he doesn’t believe his thirst justified his drinking, it can only be an explanatory reason. Since it is explanatory and not normative, and the sailors cannot recognize the “weaker reason” of thirst as counting in favor of their action. Therefore the “weaker reason” does not detail a sound explanation. (Callard 73)
Though Watson had an interesting approach in stating that some people have weak wills that lead to them to choosing against their best interests, the argument was not strong enough. Stating that a portion of people have weak wills still does not explain why the majority, if not all people, have -at various points- acted against what they recognized as the best judgment. The better judgment, which they even recognize after the action, that they should have chosen otherwise. The compulsion case claiming that some desires are irresistible to all seems like a generalization.
Back to my initial point, in different circumstances, people will act against what they thought was their desired action. I believe Callard’s “no weaker will” argument was the most convincing philosophical response, mostly where it highlights the importance of the incorrectly labeled “weaker decision”. The “weaker decision” is actually the preferred course of action in the moment that it is chosen. Even in something as benign as watching late night television when nothing entertaining is on. The agent continues to watch TV anyways and we wonder why this agent acts without a better reason to continue doing so.
Even if there is no obvious conscious reason, there could very easily be an unconscious one; Watching television that doesn’t require thinking maybe be a way for the agent to unwind, relax, and lower their stress level. There is certainly a good argument for rational agents choosing the actions that are the best for them in the moment, whether consciously or unconsciously. (Callard 76) Callard argument is not completely sound when she says that a rational agent would purposely favor irrational acts to avoid the outcome they desire.
In the rational case, agents do not fear that they will become successful when they study. They wish to be successful, but sometimes the time required and the small-perceived chance of the work paying off, leads to more immediate successes being pursued. I would also assert that these “weaker” actions chosen pursue a different kind of successful outcome that may differ from the initial form of success. In the end, the choices still give the agent some kind of benefit. By evaluating the choice on a non-level scale, studying can easy be seen as more beneficial to the career than partying.
However, if a different metric like personal happiness or reduction of the agent’s stress level is used for the metric, partying may overtake studying. Whether consciously or unconsciously, acting in immediate self-interest is what motivates the decision. This further demonstrates that the choices that people make are in fact the best judgments that they see immediately and for the future being the best decision. If this were not the case, a rational agent would choose otherwise.
In conclusion, I will agree that Callard’s “no weaker will” argument provides the most substantial response to the philosophical puzzle of why agents act on the “weaker reason”. Yet, I acknowledge that Callard’s argument falls short in saying that a rational agent would purposely favor irrational acts, which is not necessarily true. While I accept most of Callard’s argument, I insert my own point emphasizing the importance of choosing the perceived “weaker reason”. Though it might not be clear immediately, the action that agents commit, are made at what the agents believe to be the most rational judgment for them at that point.