Socrates, weakness of the will, and addiction

Socrates“People are dying because we misunderstand how those with addiction think,” says the title of a recent article in Vox by philosopher Brendan de Kenessey, who argues that addiction is not a moral failure, and that it is the moralistic attitude of a number of politicians and a significant portion of the public that makes the problem more difficult to deal with. Addicts are not bad people who need to be punished, he says, they are sick and need help.

And he is completely right, I think. And yet, I also suggest that the bulk of the article is based on the wrong philosophical criticism. de Kenessey blames Socrates for the moralistic attitude, while he should blame certain brands of Christianity instead. Here I will not make the positive case against Christian moralism (which is well known among certain politicians of a certain party in the US), nor will I unpack the idea that addicts are sick, not bad, people, as de Kenessey does a very fine job of that in his article. But I will defend Socrates and use the occasion to talk a bit not just about addiction, but in general the phenomenon of what the Greeks called akrasia, or weakness of the will, and which Socrates thought simply does not exist.

The starting point of de Kenessey’s analysis of the Socratic problem is the Platonic dialogue known as the Protagoras, in which the discussion between the Athenian sage and one of the most famous sophists turns to the topic of akrasia. Let’s contrast two instances of alleged akrasia, brought up by de Kenessey to make his point against Socrates, and which I think, on the contrary, show pretty clearly why Socrates was correct (once we add an hidden premise to the Socratic position, a premise not discussed by de Kenessey).

Imagine yourself in front of the television, intending to binge watch a season of Black Mirror (or whatever your favorite show happens to be). You think, when you reflect on it, that this isn’t really the best use of your time, and that you should instead pick yourself up and go to the gym, as lately you’ve let yourself go a little, and you don’t feel good, both physically and psychologically. You mull it over a bit, but in the end decide to stay and watch television, with munchies to accompany the experience.

Now imagine, says de Kenessey, an addict who is driving down the projects, thinking that he really ought to stop what he is doing, turn his life around, clean up, get a job, and take care of his family. Nevertheless, he keeps driving to the corner where he regularly meets his dealer, and buys some cocaine instead.

The two cases appear to have a similar structure, like this:

Subject A has two courses of action available to him, X and Y.

A thinks that he should do X, even though he is very tempted by Y.

A ends up doing Y, rather than X.

Socrates has this to say, in the Protagoras, about this kind of situation:

“No one who knows or believes there is something else better than what he is doing, something possible, will go on doing what he had been doing when he could be doing what is better.”

This seems paradoxical, in the original meaning of the term (para doxan = uncommon opinion), as it is a straightforward observation that people, like both our hypothetical television binger and drug addict, very often don’t do what they believe to be the best thing for them. And yet, Socrates is not alone in taking this position. Modern economists such as Paul Samuelson have proposed an approach in behavioral economics known as “revealed preference,” according to which people show what they really like by what they do, not by what they say. Similarly, modern psychology has accumulated a pretty good amount of evidence that we often confabulate about the reasons why we do things, i.e., we make up reasons to justify our actions because we often don’t really have a good understanding of our own motivations.

How does Socrates defend his “paradoxical” position, which seems to fly so clearly in the face of the evidence? He thinks that people in these cases do not suffer from akrasia, i.e., weakness of the will, thus acting against their best judgment. He thinks instead that people are doing exactly what they want to do, but are doing it because of bad judgment. Doing bad things is, therefore, a matter of ignorance, not malice.

Ignorance my ass, one might easily retort. The television watcher is not ignorant, and neither is the drug addict. They don’t luck the pertinent information, they don’t need to be educated about what is going on. True, but the word used in the Platonic dialogues in this context is amathia, which although usually translated as ignorance actually means something closer to un-wisdom, the opposite of sophia, one of the roots of the word philosophy. Socrates is arguing that apparent cases of weakness of the will are actually cases of lack of wisdom — not of factual or empirical knowledge, but of the proper way to arrive at judgments given certain factual or empirical knowledge.

Ever since discovering the Socratic idea of replacing akrasia (and, more importantly, actual “evil”) with amathia I found myself to be significantly more prone to understand others’ motivations and actions, to sympathize with their manifest lack of wisdom even when I cannot possibly condone their actions, and to generally cultivate an attitude of sorrow rather than anger when people do bad things. I find this new approach liberating and far more constructive than either the akratic or, much worse, the moralistic one.

Still, isn’t de Kenessey right that Socrates ends up blaming the victim here, and that it is this sort of blame that justifies the kind of draconian measures implemented by politicians, and supported by the public, that made the so-called war on drugs a total disaster with a high cost to society, both in human and financial terms?

I don’t think so, and the reason is that if we want to read Socrates charitably we need to see that the two cases above are actually distinct, and they are distinct because of a hidden premise in the Socratic approach. That premise is that we are talking about a normally functioning human mind, not a diseased one. It was well known even in the ancient world that human beings have a tendency to reason very poorly when they are under the influence of a number of external conditions, particularly drugs (including wine). A good deal of Greek tragedy is built on that premise, such as Euripides’ The Bacchantes. That is why Diogenes Laertius, commenting on the Stoics — which were explicit followers of Socrates — says that “they will take wine, but not get drunk.” (VII.118) Getting drunk artificially impairs one’s judgment, so when one is under the influence, as we say today, one is not suffering from lack of wisdom, he’s suffering from a temporarily dysfunctional mind.

If this is a reasonable and charitable interpretation of Socrates’ take, then the two cases of the television binger and the drug addict are very different. The first is an actual case of what Socrates is arguing against Protagoras: the binger — in accordance with modern behavioral economics theory — really does prefer to stay at home to watch Black Mirror rather than going to the gym. Yes, of course he knows that in the long run he would be better off taking the second course of action, but he judges that for him, right here and right now, binging is better. His future self be damned. He is, of course, mistaken in such judgment, just like Socrates maintained.

The same reasoning, by contrast, does not apply to the drug addict, precisely because he is an addict, and therefore his judgment is impaired. He is not suffering from amathia, he is suffering from a chemical addiction. And that is why the moralist attitude criticized by de Kenessey is pernicious, because it does not recognize that the person in question is sick, not evil (or unwise, as Socrates would put it).

There is, of course, a wrinkle in all this, which de Kenessey must be aware of, and yet never mentions in his article: on the first occasion that the soon-to-be drug addict decided to take cocaine his judgment was not impaired by being sick, yet. Which means he is still responsible for the initial decision to go down that road. Now we only have two ways of looking at the onset of the addiction, then: either the person is morally bad (the moralist view), or he lacks wisdom (the Socratic view). Not only the second view is more humane, it also makes much more sense than invoking akrasia: the future drug user had not yet had the experience of being on drugs, so he couldn’t possibly have yielded to the temptation of temporary pleasure promised by the drug. More likely, he made the unwise judgment that the drug wasn’t as bad as people say, or that he will have the willpower to resist the addiction, or something along similar lines and to the same effect.

de Kenessey points out that several modern philosophers have attempted to come up with an anti-Socratic account, but they can’t agree on what’s going on: for Harry Frankfurt the desires that represent our true self are those desires that we want ourselves to have (Harry Frankfurt); for Gary Watson they are the desires that align with our judgments of what is valuable; for Michael Bratman they are the desires that cohere with our stable life plans; and for Susan Wolf they are the desires that are supported by rational deliberation (Susan Wolf).

This business of a “true self” is, however, a red herring. As de Kenessey argues, modern psychology has done away with that notion (so did David Hume, two a half century before modern psychology). But the fact remains that “we” do make decisions in response to our desires and as a function of our capacity to arrive at judgments. Whether “we” are made of a unitary self, a bundle of perceptions, or whatever, doesn’t matter. Our judgments are either made by a functional human mind (in which case we are responsible for them) or by a non-functional one (in which case we are sick and need help). The difference between the moralist and Socratic view pertains to the first, not the second case. And there one has a choice of blaming people for the evil doing, or pity them for their lack of wisdom. I find the latter course of action to be far more preferable.

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Categories: Ethics, Social & Political Philosophy

139 replies

  1. As a kid I could not have cared less whether you termed my laziness as a character defect or a disorder.

    The pressing question for me was *what can I do about it?” Maybe that is a better categorical distinction, whether or not there is something we can or should do about it.

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  2. Robin,

    Quite so. But what one does about it very much depends on whether one thinks it is a matter of character or a brain pathology, no?

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  3. couvent2104,

    “The truths of mathematics are basically random” just means “certain mathematical facts are true for no reason”, and Chaitin’s “source of an infinite stream of unprovable mathematical facts”. That’s all.

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  4. Suppose there was an Oracle spitting out true statements of arithmetic. The changes of any one of them being provable would be like being struck by lightning.

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  5. Hi Massimo,

    Most philosophical accounts are under-determined by empirical evidence, otherwise they would be science, not philosophy.

    Yeah, but now you appear to have done a 180, where you appeared to be saying that the empirical evidence showed that Socrates was right.

    More importantly, I find the Socratic view more likely to lead to compassion than the akratic view, contra to what stated by the author of the article I criticized.

    Perhaps. As I said, it’s another way of thinking which may be useful. But it still seems to me that this is all it is — a different perspective or way of talking about the same state of affairs, such that there is no truth to the matter about which perspective is correct. One perspective may be more useful or more promoting of compassion than another, but that doesn’t necessarily make it truer.

    So I’m willing to concede that Socrates has this advantage. The advantage of the akratics is that how they talk about things is more in line with common usage and intuition, and it’s still possible to achieve the compassion of Socrates from an akratic viewpoint if we regard akrasia as a mild mental defect people are afflicted with and need help with rather than as a character flaw we should judge them for.

    In this specific case, I think addiction is pathological, while couch-potatoeing is not. This means that the first require medical or special intervention, the latter does not. That’s all I’m saying.

    Well, that’s fair enough I suppose, except that whether a problem requires medical intervention or not seems not to have a bearing on anything in this discussion, e.g. whether we ought to be compassionate or not. I don’t for instance see why we can’t talk in terms of addicts having a revealed preference to take drugs just as couch potatoes have a revealed preference to stay on the couch.

    I see laziness as a defect of character, not a mental “defect.”

    So, obviously these are fuzzy terms. But what, approximately do you see as the differences between the two?OK, you’ve said that a mental defect such as addiction might require medical intervention. But what medical interventions are available change over time. We might in principle understand the neurochemistry predisposing certain people to laziness and develop a pill to correct for it. Would that mean that laziness would no longer be a defect of character?

    as Dan says, going down that road means denying any meaningful distinction between virtuous and vices,

    Not at all. Virtues would be desirable or advantageous mental traits and vices would be undesirable or disadvantageous mental traits. Virtues would be healthy and vices would be unhealthy. There’s no way that regarding virtue/vice as mental health issues would erode the distinction between the two, any more than regarding aerobic fitness as a health issue erodes the distinction between being in good shape or poor shape.

    and — I would add — between normal behavioral range and pathology. Sure you want to do that?

    I would want to blur that boundary yes. I don’t think it’s right to see them as being distinct categories. I think what we regard as pathology is somewhat arbitrary, determined in part by culture and by what medical understanding and interventions we have. Conditions we understand and can treat are pathological, conditions we don’t understand and cannot treat are more likely to be regarded as character defects, especially if relatively common and mild. Conditions that result in behaviour that is culturally unacceptable are pathological, conditions that result in culturally acceptable behaviour are normal.

    But these criteria are pretty contingent — the frequency of certain character traits might change over time, new medical interventions and understanding might arise, etc. In the case of homosexuality, it changed from a pathology to normal because of a change in cultural attitudes. From my perspective, the old categorisation was not wrong and the new categorisation is not right, and vice versa. Because I think this categorisation is arbitrary. Better to regard the distinction as pragmatic for a given time and place rather than to regard it as deeply significant, and to have compassion and understanding for all regardless of how they are categorised in a given time and place. To insist on seeing the distinction as significant might promote compassion for those currently deemed to suffer from pathologies at the expense of suppressing compassion for those currently deemed to suffer from character defects.

    The one exception I would make to this general rule is Donald Trump. I cannot bring myself to feel compassion for him. This may be a pathological mental defect of mine.

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  6. Philip,

    “The truths of mathematics are basically random” just means “certain mathematical facts are true for no reason”

    I don’t know what that means. What sort of “reason” is Chaitin looking for? God, perhaps?

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  7. Philip,

    But there is no oracle. Wtf?

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  8. Hi Massimo,

    But there is no oracle. Wtf?

    What Philip is saying here is perfectly intelligible to me.

    There seems to be a view on mathematical truth (A) that what is true is only what is provable, and an alternative view (B) that truth can be independent of provability. I use A and B because I don’t know the technical terms if they exist.

    Take Goldbach’s conjecture that every even integer greater than two is the sum of two prime numbers. This seems like the sort of thing that should be either true or false, and yet if it’s true it may be impossible to prove it so. We certainly have not found such a proof, and Gödel’s theorem loosely says that there exist statements which are effectively true (at least on B’s view) but that cannot be proven. So (B) would regard Goldbach’s conjecture as true as long as there exists no counter-example to it, while (A) would not because it is not provable.

    I’m not sure which of A or B you subscribe to, But Philip appears to subscribe to B (as do I) and so he thinks there are true mathematical statements which cannot be proven or explained. To him, this means they are true for no reason. When Philip is talking about the truths of mathematical statements being random, he means something more like arbitrary or unpredictable, because most true mathematical statements are likely unprovably true. He imagines an oracle that could just tell you what is true without proof as a way of illustrating his point.

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  9. Philip,

    So we take something like, let X be the set of all the limits of convergent Cauchy sequences of rational numbers and let Y be the mapping of “x is not a natural number” to each member of X and then Y is a set of provably true statements about natural numbers.

    There are also uncountably many such statements and so you can’t index them the way you are trying to and so you can’t do that calculation.

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  10. DM: “The one exception I would make to this general rule is Donald Trump. I cannot bring myself to feel compassion for him. This may be a pathological mental defect of mine.”

    Perhaps a first step would be having compassion for his followers, as in “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

    For the most part, I agree with your arguments in this comment. But one aspect of the discussion that strikes me is that, while there is general agreement about the nature of addiction, there is not much consensus on the addictive substances themselves. Apart from trivial descriptions such as “I’m totally addicted to Belgian waffles,” we don’t have a firm idea of what an absolutely addictive substance would be; presumably it would be something that was 1) highly habit-forming and 2) bad for you. This would eliminate, say, cyanide (invariably fatal) and carrots (benign and beneficial — but don’t forget the injunction against beans by Pythagoras). The addition, in prehistoric times, of dogs and cats to the human household must have seemed, at the time, like a dangerous form of dependency to at least some people, much like what is going on now with marijuana, formerly a killer weed. I think on the whole that the Socratic appeal to wisdom, inexact as it is, is the most desirable course.

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  11. Also “true for no reason” is really just a rhetorical flourish from Chaitin. Just because something is not provable does not mean that it is true for no reason.

    For any program for any TM there is a fact of the matter about whether or not it halts and for every digit in the digital expansion of an omega there is a fact of the matter about whether it is a one or a zero which is true because of the fact of the matter about whether or not each program for that TM halts.

    So, not true for no reason, true for a reason.

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  12. DM,

    What if Trump is a symptom of a cultural pathology. Would it be worth considering him objectively, rather than emotionally?

    It seems on the political front, the disconnect between what the public is being told and the forces at work behind the scenes would do justice to any addict in denial.

    What drives this? Character, or sickness?

    Is there some breakdown in our culture, or are its pathologies systemic?

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  13. Hi Robin,

    then Y is a set of provably true statements about natural numbers.

    Wouldn’t each element of Y be a statement that is an arbitrarily long sequence of symbols? This is why you can’t index it. But this is also why Philip talks of statements up to n symbols long, and limits as n tends to infinity. There is an assumption there that the proportion of true statements would converge to some value as n tends to infinity rather than swinging wildly about without converging as you increase n. Seems plausible but I don’t know if it’s right.

    So, not true for no reason, true for a reason.

    But you’re missing the point here, I think. There is a fact of the matter, but we cannot explain, prove, or account for this fact. It is just a fact. That we cannot explain why it must be so is what Chaitin means when he says “true for no reason”.

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  14. DM,

    “but now you appear to have done a 180, where you appeared to be saying that the empirical evidence showed that Socrates was righ”

    Forgive me for not being clear, but I usually don’t think philosophical frameworks are directly empirically testable. They are frameworks, and some are better than others at making sense of the empirical reality. That’s where I am with akrasia vs Socraticism.

    ‘ advantage of the akratics is that how they talk about things is more in line with common usage and intuition”

    I fail to see how that’s an advantage at all, if it produces problematic judgments and courses of action.

    “except that whether a problem requires medical intervention or not seems not to have a bearing on anything in this discussion”

    Of course it does. It’s in addition to the issue of compassion.

    “But what medical interventions are available change over time. We might in principle understand the neurochemistry predisposing certain people to laziness and develop a pill to correct for it. Would that mean that laziness would no longer be a defect of character?”

    We’ll talk about it if and when that happens. I seriously doubt it.

    “The one exception I would make to this general rule is Donald Trump. I cannot bring myself to feel compassion for him”

    It’s hard, but I’m trying.

    “Philip appears to subscribe to B (as do I) and so he thinks there are true mathematical statements which cannot be proven or explained.”

    I did read the Wiki link. B seems pretty well established at this point, though I fail to see the relevance to Socrates and akrasia.

    “To him, this means they are true for no reason.”

    That’s bizarre. Imagine taking a position in science: we don’t understand, say, the next level of fundamental theory in physics, and perhaps we will never understand it. So that means whatever truth would be described by said theory has no “reason”? (And using the word “reason” here is also bizarre; explanation would be far better.)

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  15. DM,

    ” is just a fact. That we cannot explain why it must be so is what Chaitin means when he says “true for no reason”.”

    Sounds to me like Chaitin is engaging in willful hyperbole. The reality is that the fact is true for no reason we can (currently, at least) figure out. Which is a rather trivial statement.

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  16. Hi Massimo,

    I think you probably get where I’m coming from on akrasia/mental defects etc even though you don’t agree, and I think I get where you’re coming from too, so I’m happy to drop that if you are.

    What Philip is talking about has no relevance to the OP that I can see. I’m just trying to clarify things if I can since it doesn’t seem that Philip has managed to do so.

    On that subject, there seems to be a subtle point you are missing. We’re not talking about true statements for which we have not yet found a proof, we are talking about true statements for which no proof is ever going to be possible. We know from Gödel that such statements must exist — we just don’t know which as-yet-unproven statements fall into this category. It seems to me that a characterisation of such statements as “true for no reason” is arguably fair. Not bizarre in any case.

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  17. Massimo,

    To me, nothing about this is “well understood”, and I had trouble understanding what you are aiming at in this article. It seems you are trying to explain one vague concept with another, but which one are you trying to explain, akrasia, amathia or addiction?

    De Kenessey has a more clear point, but there are practical issues with compassion here. He advocates needle exchange and methadone/buprenorphine, but there is a hidden issue: injection needles are themselves part of the addiction, the way to short-circuit the biological feedback loops that is essential to the phenomenon of addiction. When opiates are prescribed in medical context, injection needles are almost never the delivery mechanism, and they are not the intended way to use methadone or buprenorphine either (but that is they way they are abused by some addicts, if they are allowed to use them unsupervised).

    Another matter related to amathia/akrasia is the rhetoric medicalization of someone, thus denying their agency. For example, a theist and an atheist can both perceive the other as the deluded wretch, with pathological inability to understand reality.

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  18. DM,

    “We’re not talking about true statements for which we have not yet found a proof, we are talking about true statements for which no proof is ever going to be possible. We know from Gödel that such statements must exist — we just don’t know which as-yet-unproven statements fall into this category. It seems to me that a characterisation of such statements as “true for no reason” is arguably fair. Not bizarre in any case.”

    I get it, but not, still bizarre. Sure, there are things (not just statements in math) that are true and we can’t prove them. So what? Again, that seems to me a trivial fact that has nothing to do with there be no “reason” for such truths. When is it that we are simply going to accept that there are epistemic limits to human reason, but that that fact doesn’t license to start making grandiose statements like the one at issue?

    At any rate, as you say, this has nothing to do with the OP, so I am going to filter any additional comments on this sub-thread, as is (more or less) the rule on this blog.

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  19. miles,

    sorry for being unclear, but the objective of the post is to defend Socrates against de Kenessey’s attack, which means criticizing the akratic framework. de Kinessey and I do not disagree on the need for a pragmatic, and compassionate, approach to addiction.

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