Acknowledging Akrasia

— Mr. Vir Narain

What I had not foreseen
Was the gradual day
Weakening the will
Leaking the brightness away.
-Stephen Spender

Akrasia is a Greek word denoting weakness of the will: the inability to act according to what one knows to be right. Yielding to temptation is an instance of akrasia. Procrastination is another; but that can be discussed later. Most moral transgressions result from akrasia. Even if we know what to do (or not to do) we are unable to act accordingly. In the moral regime of the traditional religions the question of what is to be done or - more importantly - not to be done was already settled. All traditional religions have their commandments or equivalent. The main problem, then, is: how to overcome akrasia, weakness of the will? Clearly, for most people, only strong incentives and disincentives could do the job. Mostly, fear of punishment greatly strengthened the resolve to conform. So an elaborate scheme of rewards and punishments was devised, and this undoubtedly helped to reduce moral transgressions to a very large extent. RAP (reward-and-punishment) morality ruled in all religions and, it must be admitted, was fairly successful.

Two basic questions
Humanism, in undertaking to provide an alternative to traditional religions, had to find answers to two basic questions: “How do we know what is right or wrong behaviour?” and “How do we ensure that we do the right thing?” We shall not here deal with the first question, beyond pointing out the extreme difficulty of finding for it a satisfactory answer. Walter Lippmann has brought this out very effectively. “The teachers of theistic morality, when the audience is devout, have only to fortify the impression that the rules of conduct are certified by God the invisible King. and the elders are what they claim to be. When he has done that, there are no radical questions to be asked. The ethical problem for the common man is to recognise the well-known credentials of his teachers. In practice he has merely to decide whether the priest, the prince, and the elders, are what they claim to be. When he has done that, there are no radical questions to be asked. But the teachers of humanism have no credentials. Their teaching is not certified. They have to prove their case by the test of mundane experience. They speak with no authority, which can be scrutinized once and for all, and then forever accepted. They can proclaim no rule of conduct with certainty, for they have no inherent personal authority and they cannot be altogether sure they are right. They cannot command. They cannot truly exhort. They have only human insight to guide them and those to whom they speak must in the end themselves accept the full responsibility for the consequences of any advice they choose to accept.

Yet with all its difficulties, it is to a morality of humanism that men must turn when the ancient order of things dissolves. When they find that they no longer believe seriously and deeply that they are governed from heaven, there is anarchy in their souls until by conscious effort they find ways of governing themselves.” To this a further difficulty must be added: that there are not - and perhaps ought not to be - any “teachers of humanism”. We are all on the same footing.


Conscience: the starting point
Since akrasia involves an inability to do what one believes to be right, the starting point for exploring how to deal with it has to be one’s sense of right and wrong. Without going into how it arises, every individual almost without exception develops - starting from early childhood - a sense of right and wrong. This is his conscience, and akrasia comes in the way of his acting according to it. Humanism has rightly banished the time-tested method of reward and punishment from the moral domain. Punishment now operates only in the legal domain. The further effects of this on law and society need to be explored. But humanism is left now with almost no recourse to ensure moral behaviour. At the same time, it has rightly been said: “That we are morally weak, that we yield to temptation, that we fall short of our ideals, is indisputable.”

With external sanctions ruled out, it is to the inner resources of the individual, now freed from the fear of punishment, that we have to turn. It is not easy for an individual to cope with this freedom. As Kotarbinsky said:”Men are like deep-water fish - accustomed to strong external pressure, so when they reach shallow waters they perish, burst by internal forces.” Modern society, almost by definition, has to be permissive. “Being modern is being ‘advanced’ and being advanced means being rich, free of the encumbrances of familial authority, religious authority and deferentiality. It means being rational and being rationalised.” says Edward Shils. “If such rationalisation were achieved, all traditions except the tradition of secularity, scientism and hedonism would be overpowered.” With the fading influence of the traditional religions and RAP morality we reach the “shallow waters” of the permissive society. What Edward Shils feared seems well on its way to coming about.

Enkrateia and asceticism
As opposed to akrasia, enkrateia is often defined as self-control, but a much better definition is self-governance. In the absence of external sanctions it is only one’s own ability to resist the impulse to act contrary to one’s conscience that can prevent transgressions. Having liberated men from the grip of RAP morality, humanism must turn to the task of strengthening the individuals’ capacity for self-governance. Enkrateia - one’s will-power - has to be strengthened. Asceticism (a word that is in bad odour with humanists owing to its association with the more extreme aspects of traditional religions) is perhaps the most reliable way of achieving this.

As Walter Lippmann says: “The modern world, as it has emancipated itself from its ancestral regime, has assumed almost as a matter of course that the human passions, if thoroughly liberated from all tyrannies and distortions, would by their fulfillment achieve happiness. All those who teach asceticism deny this major premise of modernity, and the result is that the prevailing philosophy is at odds on the most fundamental of all issues with the wisdom of the past.”

According to one writer: “Will power is like a muscle – it increases with increased use. Asceticism is basically a training course for the muscle of will power.” According to another: “If all acts of willpower reflect a single strength, then training any individual act of self-control should strengthen all acts of self-control. Indeed, this is what research shows. Committing to small, consistent acts of willpower in any domain—from improving our posture to watching our finances—can increase overall willpower.”

“Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day.” says William James, “That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time, and possibly may never bring him a return. But if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin.”

William James was a strong advocate of developing self-discipline as a habit. He says: “There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.”

Clearly, the habit of self-control has to start from childhood. Here the key is disciplined upbringing within the framework of liberal humanism as against easygoing humanism. A Spartan upbringing may be the best preparation for meeting the challenges and temptations of modern living.

About the Author
Vir Narain is currently Chairman of the Indian Humanist Union. He retired from the Indian Air Force as Air Marshal.

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