Book VII of the Nichomachean Ethics by Aristotle
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 incontinence is often defined in relation to its contrary continence. Whereas the continent person follows his rational deliberation and acts accordingly, the incontinent person abandons it (prohairesis) and instead acts according to his nonrational desires. Incontinence, basically, is when a person knows (or perhaps merely believes) that he or she ought to do x, since x is the decision formed from a rational desire for some good end, but instead does y. For example, consider a case in which one believes that eating a healthy meal is desirable and good as an end in itself, resulting in the decision that to partake of the healthy meal in front of oneself is the best way to achieve that end. However, imagine that right next to the healthy meal is a large plate of various sweets and chocolates, the eating of which appeals only to one’s appetite or nonrational desires. According to Aristotle, the continent man will have the nonrational desire to eat the plate of sweets, but will resist it and instead proceed to eat the healthy meal. The incontinent man, however, will relinquish his decision and succumb to his nonrational desire to indulge himself (1145b9-14).
The Puzzles of Incontinence
As alluded to earlier, one...