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.

139 thoughts on “Socrates, weakness of the will, and addiction

  1. SocraticGadfly

    BUT … per last Friday’s piece … if television binging is done to the point of addiction, the two situations are more similar than dissimilar.

    That said, the bigger picture fits in with what i have said many a time here … we do have a generally free will in our volition, but it’s often under some degree of psychological compulsion, the degree of which can and will vary from person to person and situation to situation.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Alan White

    I only wish to add in here the contribution of Robert Lowell “The Dolphin”, the signature poem of his autobiographical book of sonnets of the same title, who I saw at Tennessee in the last year of his life, and one of my favorite poems, especially with that last line which has guided me ever since that year I saw him, ill and cynical as he was:

    My Dolphin, you only guide me by surprise,
    a captive as Racine, the man of craft,
    drawn through his maze of iron composition
    by the incomparable wandering voice of Phèdre.
    When I was troubled in mind, you made for my body
    caught in its hangman’s-knot of sinking lines,
    the glassy bowing and scraping of my will. . . .
    I have sat and listened to too many
    words of the collaborating muse,
    and plotted perhaps too freely with my life,
    not avoiding injury to others,
    not avoiding injury to myself—
    to ask compassion . . . this book, half fiction,
    an eelnet made by man for the eel fighting

    my eyes have seen what my hand did.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Daniel Kaufman

    DM: I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that I think the sort of thing you are describing, re: virtue/vice, (clinical) mental health, and neuroscience is little more than a pile of category errors. Given that we’ve had that argument already, a number of times, I’ll get off the train, here, rather than keep going.


  4. Will Lorca

    Great article! As someone with some mood condition (disorder), good judgment escapes me during “episodes”–spells of amathia or something like that. It’s not akrasia at all (in my own experience). I feel resolute in making those darn bad judgments and seeing them through.

    But about the math thing in the comment section… I’d like to add that even though induction is both used in mathematics and the natural sciences, the former doesn’t need the empirical experiments of the latter kind designed to get at some truth of some “natural” thing. It’s getting at abstract things or “formal” things; things that don’t really exist in the “real” world; things that ‘thought experiments’ and analytic proofs can work well for without the need for them to obtain in the “real world out there” because formal things are independent of it.

    The “Pythagorean” theorem is found to be objectively true via picture-proofs and analytic proofs. We need not find perfect 3:4:5 triangles in nature to judge whether the theorem and proofs are mathematically true or not. Good luck finding them. It obtains perfectly in its very formal world; in its very game. It’s not random.

    Evolutionary stable strategies (ESS) obtain in their particular formal games in and of themselves. Again, not random. This is true in them whether such ‘games’ can be found in nature or not.

    Weirdly enough, some of them can be used to model things in nature. I think that the weird effectiveness of formal representations to explain and predict the natural world causes us to confuse them for being “out there” themselves.

    Unless… we take a cue from Lawrence Krauss (i love him but he’s way off on this one) and expand what empirical means. But that’s not helpful at all.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Rita Wing

    If I remember rightly, Richard Davenport-Hines, in the excellent “The Pursuit of Oblivion” examines the changing attitudes to various addictions: where once gambling addiction was held to be wickedness, whilst addiction to (in the day) opium was held as non-criminal wretchedness deserving of sympathy, these positions have been reversed over time. Indeed, tracing social attitudes to drug-taking and the very definition of addictions is revelatory. Added to Carl Hart’s work on addiction – what it is and isn’t – and Michelle Alexander’s (“The New Jim Crow”) on political reasons to impute social problems to addiction, it is hard to see how we can take up judgmental attitudes at all…although, I have to say that over a lifetime, one finds so many of these “failures of will power” in oneself one does come to sympathise with others rather than pointing the finger. All specific to drug-taking, of course.


  6. brodix


    We are all compelled, even to judge others, just that some compulsions are more helpful and beneficial than others.
    My observation is that our individual compulsions are tiny fluctuations in a much larger dynamic. The individual drug user isn’t going to Afghanistan to harvest poppies. They are little more than a random consumer, susceptible to weaknesses apparent in a broad number of the population, for quite a number of reasons, such as an inability to tolerate an atomized culture and consequent lack of direction normally expected for what amounts to the herd animals that people are. So unless these cultural habits can be addressed, it is mental peeing into the wind to point fingers at the individuals.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Philip Thrift


    I believe what I said is what Chaitin’s paper (The Limits of Reason) says: “certain mathematical facts are true for no reason.” [random: without order or without reason (].

    “I have lived in the worlds of both mathematics and physics, and I never
    thought there was such a big difference between these two fields. It is a matter of degree, of emphasis, not an absolute difference.”

    “So am I saying that this approach that science and mathematics has been following for more than two millennia crashes and burns? Yes, in a sense I am. My counterexample illustrating the limited power of logic and reason, my source of an infinite stream of unprovable mathematical facts, is the number that I call omega.”

    Not really different from Doron Zeilberger: “But neither Euclid, nor Gauss, not even Ramanujan, knew about the new messiah, the powerful electronic computer, that would revolutionize both the discovery and the justification of mathematical knowledge, and would (soon!) turn mathematics into an empirical science.”

    One wonders that the way some philosophers snipe at these ideas that philosophy is indeed becoming irrelevant to the modern world.


  8. Patrice Ayme

    Fundamental Processes, Including Computations, Logic, Are Objects:
    Robin Herbert says: …”many don’t seem to grasp that the classical logics are not tied to any physical assumptions.” Many among those who have never heard of Platonism, presumably, because the notion that logic is not “material” is at the core of Plato’s view of the universe.
    I beg to differ. My mood is driven in part from the observation that the Ancient Greeks had plenty of holes in their axiomatics… Especially in mathematics (where they made several ludicrous mistakes, such as forgetting non-Euclidean geometry).

    If logic is not tied to “physics”, or what’s material, we want to know what that is. But, as I am going to show, all we do is go back to the Gospel of John as the ultimate authority (itself straight out of Plato!)
    Twentieth Century physics has revealed that physics is made of “Fundamental Processes” (see the very nice, pre-QCD book by that title from Feynman)… And quanta. So saying that “logic is not physics” is tantamount to saying that logic is neither a fundamental process (or set thereof), nor quanta (or set thereof). The problem is that any logic shows up as quanta (aka “symbols”), and is itself a process (classical logic rests on implication, the simplest process:”if A then B”). Logic shows up as nothing else, so that’s what it is. This is the modern philosophy of physics, in action! (It originated with Newton and Laplace, and was then amplified by Jules Henri Poincaré)

    There was a famous exchange between Heisenberg and Einstein; the latter, at the peak of his glory, accused the young Quantum physicist to have only put observables in his matrix quantum theory. Heisenberg replied that it was Einstein who taught him to do so! (Infuriated, ten years later Einstein rolled out the EPR thought experiment, relabelled “entanglement” by Schrodinger, now the central notion in Quantum theory…)
    So what’s “material”? What’s observable! And what is observable? (Delocalized) fundamental processes and (localized, yet ephemeral) quanta. Claiming that the logos is neither is done in the first sentence of the Gospel of John, and John adds that its name is god. We of the natural school shall excommunicate evoking god.

    Fundamental processes are described by equations, but that doesn’t mean the equations are “real”, beyond symbols (“quanta”) of a medium. First of all, equations are approximations: a classical computer can only make a finite number of operations (differently from a full Quantum computer). Instead what is really real is the fundamental process the equations approximate.

    Indeed, consider atoms: they are real, “indivisible” (sort of)… and yet mostly made of delocalized processes known as electronic orbitals.

    So is a classical computation a real object, in the aforementioned sense? Yes, because it is a FINITE set of fundamental processes (moving electrons and photons around). However, if the proposed computation, or logical deduction, takes an infinite amount of time, it becomes something that never comes to exist.

    In this view, call it material logic, time, whether we want it or not, whether logicians realize it, or not, is part of logic: the time-energy principle de facto granulates time (we need infinite energy for infinitely small time intervals, hence for would be infinite logical computations). To say time is not part of logic is another of these oversights (as Archimedes did, implicitly using what non-standard analysts, Robinson and Al. called “Archimedes Axiom”, which excludes infinitely small (or large) integral numbers). Any piece of logic comes with its own duration, namely how many steps it needs in its simplest form.

    Quantum computing uses one (hypothesized) infinity: the assumed instantaneity of what I call the Quantum Interaction (aka Quantum Collapse). That enables to delocalize Quantum logic (no distributive law of propositional logic!), as delocalized Quantum processes, and this is why it can’t be classically duplicated (aka “Quantum supremacy”).
    Happy processes!


  9. brodix

    Also another word for weaknesses is malleable. Society doesn’t function without leaders and followers, as just a bunch of strong willed people equals fighting. So it really is a matter of leadership.


  10. Will Lorca

    “I think that mathematics is quasiempirical. In other words, I feel that mathematics is different from physics (which is truly empirical) but perhaps not as different as most people think.” – Chaitin in the Limits of Reason.

    Gave it a read. Math is ‘not truly empirical’ based on my reading like physics. I don’t think the Derrida card is in play here.

    I am a pre-white belt in the philosophy of math but, in my humble opinion, I don’t think Chaitin’s view is quite novel or profound. The verbiage, I feel, conceals the rehashing of points and some spins applied. ‘Irreducible complexity’, ‘sufficient reason’, and ‘omega’ ring some noisy bells though… Behe, Platinga and de Chardin. cough cough Maybe it’s just me. Don’t know.


  11. Robin Herbert

    Chaitin is undoubtedly brilliant, but somewhat out there. As Scott Aronson says, the philosophical conclusions he extracts from his omegas are somewhat overblown.


  12. milesmutka


    Can you clarify a bit more: is the addict suffering from anosognosia? I.e. he is sick, but not aware of his own sickness? Or is there some other form of amathia, or agnosia that affects the situation?


  13. Massimo Post author


    “Behavioral economics shows that people have a revealed preference. That is compatible with akrasism as I understand it”

    Most philosophical accounts are under-determined by empirical evidence, otherwise they would be science, not philosophy. Still, I find the Socratic view more coherent with modern science than the akratic view. 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. That’s why I wrote the post to begin with.

    “My problems is that I don’t see why it is important to draw the distinction you are drawing in this case”

    You know by now that I don’t draw sharp boundaries around complex concepts (contra frequent accusation by Coel, who is gone from the blog, at the moment). But I also think that a continuum doesn’t mean there are no interesting differences.

    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.

    “I see laziness as a mental defect. I don’t think in terms of drawing a distinction between “failures of character” and “mental illness”.”

    We disagree there, obviously. I see laziness as a defect of character, not a mental “defect.” As Dan says, going down that road means denying any meaningful distinction between virtuous and vices, and — I would add — between normal behavioral range and pathology. Sure you want to do that?


    “certain mathematical facts are true for no reason”

    I’m not sure what that means. Mathematical facts are just what they are, facts. What would a “reason” look like? Is there a reason why the Pythagorean theorem is correct (within Euclidean geometry)? That said, “random” just seems the wrong word here, as it indicates that things could have easily been otherwise. Which is definitely not the case.

    “One wonders that the way some philosophers snipe at these ideas that philosophy is indeed becoming irrelevant to the modern world.”

    One wonders at the arrogance of practitioners of a field who are conceptually confused about crucial elements of their own field. That’s why we have philosophy of science, philosophy of math, etc. Just because one is a mathematician it doesn’t follow one is good at mathematical ontology.


    “is the addict suffering from anosognosia? I.e. he is sick, but not aware of his own sickness? Or is there some other form of amathia, or agnosia that affects the situation?”

    The addict is suffering from the biological/physiological phenomenon of addiction, which is fairly well understood. As such, he is not suffering from amathia, which is a spiritual condition, so to speak (lack of wisdom). Although one argue that the first step, beginning to use drugs, was indeed a failure of wisdom on his part.


  14. Philip Thrift

    ” ‘certain mathematical facts are true for no reason’
    I’m not sure what that means.”

    What is the probability that a true statement of arithmetic is provable?


  15. Massimo Post author

    “What is the probability that a true statement of arithmetic is provable?”

    I don’t think that question is meaningful. Are we taliign about a frequentist probability, subjective Bayesian, or what? What’s the distribution of reference?


  16. Massimo Post author


    I assume your question has a point. What is it? I can’t pick a distribution arbitrarily, and you can’t possibly know that it won’t make a difference.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Robin Herbert

    If we can pick any frame of reference then I can confidently state that the probability of a true mathematical statements being provable is 42.

    ‘But 42 isn’t even a probability’ You say?

    It is in the frame of reference I have chosen.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. brodix

    The complete absence of matter/energy does have a definition. The void. So the issue of mathematical platonism has to ask whether any laws apply to the void. Can there be numbers, if there is nothing to define? Can operations occur, if there is no activity?

    Does something as basic as 1+1=2 have any meaning, if there is nothing to specify and no actions that can manifest?

    To add is a verb. If you don’t join two sets of one, then you don’t have one set of two. The numbers are abstractions of nouns. Proto-pronouns. He and she joined to become a couple. 1+1=2.

    Isn’t that 1+1 always equals 2 a tautology? Identical cause yields identical effect. Cause and effect are physical.

    What about geometry; Three dimensions are the Euclidian coordinate system and that requires a center point. 0,0,0. There can be different points and thus different coordinate systems defining the same space. We are the multiverse. Just ask the politicians whether there can be different maps of the same space. What if your plane is at a different angle than mine?

    So is geometry really foundational to space, or is it just a useful mapping device?

    Those who think mathematical platonism are real, also tend to be eternalists and think all events exist out on the time dimension and this process of change is just an illusion. Did all those events on that timeline of the universe come into existence with the Big Bang, or did they always exist on the timeline? Does this cup of tea I’m drinking pre-exist the universe?

    I think some in academia have been drinking too much of their own bathwater.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. couvent2104


    I don’t know how a discussion about Socrates and addiction turned into a discussion about mathematics etc., but …

    The truths of mathematics are basically random.

    I don’t know what this means. I suppose it could mean that one could choose other axioms and arrive at different truths. This is correct, but hardly new, and in the 21th century it isn’t very profound. I think Pascal already observed that one has to start from axioms that aren’t justifiable within the axiom system itself.

    But within a chosen axiom thsystem, certain things are true and other aren’t. Even before I went to university, I learned about geometries in which Pythagoras’ theorem isn’t true, simply because the concepts of distance or length don’t make sense in those geometries. But given Euclidean geometry, Pythagoras is provable and I really would like to know in what sense one could call it “random”, unless it expresses the perfectly banal fact that one can write down many theorems but only a few of them will be true (in the sense that you can prove them).

    Now, everybody knows about Gödel etc. – true theorems that can’t be proven within an axiom system – but I don’t see what the word “random” is doing here, because calling these true (but unprovable) theorems “random” adds absolutely nothing at all to something we already know: there are true but unprovable theorems in sufficiently rich axiom systems.

    By the way, as Massimo pointed out, it’s unclear what random means here. If it simply means that we can’t prove all true theorems, well, then OK. Gödel, etc.
    If it means that we don’t know if a theorem that sounds right will be provable, well, OK. These thing happen. Sometimes a counterexample is found, sometimes not.
    But if it means there’s some “random process” going on … Well, then I would like to know what the probability distribution is, because calling something “random” without such a distribution is just another way to say: “we don’t know when or if the train will arrive.”

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Massimo Post author


    impressive. But it doesn’t look like anything that would provide an answer to your own question. The motive of which, within the context of this discussion, is still entirely unclear. What are you trying to do, mathematical terrorism??


  21. Massimo Post author


    I think you are close to hit the limit of posts including words like “big bang” and others that have nothing to do with the issue at hand.


Comments are closed.