Nonsocratic skepticism. A critical view on the relation between weakness of will and self-control

Term Paper, 2019

24 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Socrates and Davidson on weakness of will
2.1 Socrates
2.2 Davidson

3. Watson on weakness of will
3.1 Watson’s criticism regarding Socrates and Davidson
3.2 The virtue self-control
3.3 The difference between weakness of will and compulsion
3.4 Self-control as an explanation
3.5 Watson versus the common account

4. The plausibility of Watson’s proposal
4.1 Are socratism and Davidson to be rejected?
4.2 Self-control
4.3 Weakness of will versus compulsion
4.4 Is self-control the solution?
4.5 Does Watson’s proposal succeed?

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In “Skepticism about Weakness of Will” (1977) Watson challenges the common account whose proposal consists of two components: First, it believes a weak-willed action to be intentional and against the person’s better judgment. Second, it claims such actions to be free in the sense that the person could have resisted acting weak-willed.1 Watson himself comes to the opposite conclusion regarding the second component (a weak agent could not have resisted acting against his/her better judgement in the moment of action) based on his main thesis: “[W]eakness of will involves the failure to develop certain normal capacities of self-control[.]”2

To show this, he first argues against socratism and Davidson. Then, he works on differentiating weakness of will from compulsion and brings these terms in relation to the virtue of self-control. Based on this procedure he draws his conclusions and proposes his theses. At last, he argues why his proposal is more reasonable than the common account.

My paper will be about reconstructing this argumentation by Watson and about discussing if his proposal is plausible. My main thesis is that he cannot give a clear answer to the question of when exactly a person acts weak-willed, either. One point of criticism will be about him introducing the term “self-control“ as a solution. We will see that this kind of solution creates new issues. For instance, how do we know if and when a person is or should be capable of self-control? A second point will be about Watson’s argument that we can hold a person responsible for acting weak-willed because he/she should have learned and applied the skills needed for resisting but didn’t. What is troubling here, underlies the same problem than the previous question. Are we really able to tell when this is the case? And what are the consequences if we cannot say for sure when a person acts weak-willed?

My approach will be to first give a short overview on Davidson and socratism. Then, I will reconstruct Watson’s argumentation which starts with criticising these two positions. Based on this reconstruction I will discuss the plausibility of Watson’s proposal regarding the criticisms mentioned above. All in all, my goal is to outline and question the relation between weakness of will and self-control as Watson describes it.

However, we first need to clarify what precisely is meant by weakness of will: In traditional Philosophy, we believe a person to act weak-willed when he/she acts against his/her better judgment (all things considered). That means, a person choses to do a over b, even though he/she believes it would be better to do b rather than a. We call such actions weak-willed because we find it odd that a person acts contrary to what he/she thinks to be best. In fact, we expect a person to act based on his/her better judgment and not against it.3

2. Socrates and Davidson on weakness of will

2.1 Socrates

Socrates’ position on weakness of will is known as socratism or socratic skepticism. This position “denies the possibility of such behavior“4 based on the belief that a person will never act freely and intentionally against his/her better judgment.

Therefore, like Watson, socratism rejects the common account. Nonetheless, we will see that Watson’s reasons for this differ from the reasons given by socratism: Socrates takes the opposite position to the common account because the later believes weakness of will to be possible while socratism itself doesn’t. Watson, instead, shares the view with the common account that weakness of will is possible. Hence, he calls his own position nonsocratic skepticism.5

2.2 Davidson

Unlike socratism, Davidson can be understood as a representative of the common account. At least, he is well known for his attempt to show that weakness of will exists in the way the common account takes it to be.

To understand Watson’s criticism regarding Davidson’s position note that Davidson calls weakness of will incontinence and defines it as follows:

In doing x an agent acts incontinently if and only if: (a) the agent does x intentionally; (b) the agent believes there is an alternative action y open to him; and (c) the agent judges that, all things considered, it would be better to do y than to do x.6

On the contrary, Davidson also defines two principles regarding the belief that an intentionally acting person acts according to his/her better judgment:

P1. If an agent wants to do x more than he wants to do y and he believes himself to be free to do either x or y, then he will intentionally do x if he does either x or y intentionally.

P2. If an agent judges that it would be better to do x than to do y, then he wants to do x more than he wants to do y.7

However, based on his conviction that incontinence exists, he names a third principle with the goal to show that this principle is also true, even though P1 and P2 seem to exclude its possibility:8

P3. There are incontinent actions.9

These principles are the content of Watson’s criticism against Davidson. They both share the view that incontinence exists, but again Watson’s position differs in an important respect: Davidson assumes that a person who acts weak-willed could have done otherwise. For this reason Watson understands him to be a representative of the common account. Meanwhile, Watson’s goal remains to give an explanation on why the person is not free in the action concerned.

3. Watson on weakness of will

Watson initiates his paper by introducing the topic of weakness of will and the implication that the common account cannot give a reasonable explanation for this phenomenon. Therefore, he introduces his own position in the philosophical debate for which he then wants to argue. This position he calls (as already mentioned) nonsocratic skepticism.10

3.1 Watson’s criticism regarding Socrates and Davidson

About socratism Watson says that he does not believe this position to be right in claiming there is no such thing as weakness of will. Nonetheless, he agrees with Socrates in terms of viewing the common account as problematic.11

Interestingly, Watson refers to Davidson in order to show why socratism is false. This procedure is surprising because Davidson argues for exactly that position against which Watson wants to argue. But Watson explains: “Although I believe his own solution to have difficulties of its own, I wish rather to examine the way in which he generates the problem.”12 And this is exactly what he does by elucidating Davidsons definition of incontinence and his principles, as well as by highlighting the problem that P1 and P2 seem to exclude the existence of incontinent actions. Mainly, he stresses out Davidson’s belief that modifying the principles cannot be a solution and that Davidson, therefore, has the task to reason how P1 and P2 can be true but incontinence exist at the same time. He, then, explains Davidson’s position in more detail and adds three points of criticism in which the last point is the most important one. This point is about questioning the acceptability of P1 and P2:

[T]he problem lies with these socratic principles. Aside from the fact that P1 and P2 lead to a denial of what intuitively seems to exist, there are strong reasons for rejecting them.13

Additionally, he states that P1 and P2 basically consist of what Socrates believed to be true for a person and that this exact belief led him to deny the existence of weakness of will. For this reason, Watson claims the principles to have a socratic character.14

Watson, then, uses this comparison as a transition to come back to Socrates, whom he had started this part of argumentation with, and explicates:

Socrates insisted that what is called weakness of will (akrasia) is really a species of ignorance. […] The so-called weak agent lacks the art of measurement, the art of correctly weighing nearer and farther goods, and to have this art is to have knowledge of good and evil.15

With this he also mentions “the thesis that virtue is a kind of knowledge”16 which will become relevant in the next subchapter.

Pursuing his argumentation, he introduces the change from Socrates to the later Plato as well as the term “motivation“ combined with rationality: “Plato’s distinction between the rational and nonrational parts of the soul may be taken as a distinction between sources of motivation[:]”17 A rationally acting person acts on behalf of his/her better judgment. A person acting based on a non-rational motivation, acts on behalf of his/her desires. Therefore, the different sources of motivation may conflict with each other. This creates an opening to the possibility of weakness of will because a person’s desires may lead him/her to act contrary to his/her better judgment. Furthermore, Watson concludes that Plato rejected Socrates’ view and that Watson himself, therefore, is right to say that socratism is false because he, too, believes that such desires and resulting consequences exist.18

This comparison of Socrates and Plato brings Watson to distinguish between an evaluational sense and a motivational sense. Also, he now draws the line back to Davidson because he wants to apply the two senses on his principles to show why exactly Davidson’s position is false, as well.

In the first sense, if one wants to do x more than one wants to do y, one prefers x to y or ranks x higher than y on some scale of values or ‘desirability matrix.’ In the second sense, if one wants to do x more than y, one is more strongly motivated to do x than to do y. Thus, P2 may be true if understood in the language of evaluation, but false if understood in the language of motivation; whereas P1 is true if understood in the language of motivation but false if understood in the language of evaluation. […] There is no univocal interpretation of the key phrases of P1 and P2 on which these principles turn out to be true, or even very plausible.19

Thus, Watson concludes that Davidson fails to defend the acceptability of P1 and P2 while allowing the existence of incontinent actions at the same time. Beyond that, he mentions that the principles do not only rule out the possibility of incontinent actions but also of compulsive actions. He says, we need to let go of “the idea that the strength of one’s desire is necessarily proportional to the degree to which one values its object[.]”20 Then accepting the existence of incontinence and compulsion wouldn’t be a problem at all. The real problem, he claims, is distinguishing them.21

3.2 The virtue self-control

Watsons’s next step of argumentation includes the socratic view again. This time he treats the socratic theory of virtue with special attention on the virtue of courage (as he already indicated when explicating Socrates opinion on akrasia). His goal here is again to argue against socratism. Socrates asserts that “each virtue is a special case of wisdom (knowledge of good and evil) applied to a particular context[.]”22 Therefore, he believes “courage [to be] wisdom about danger“23, but Watson disagrees. According to him, a person needs courage exactly when he/she has a reason to be fearful. It is a virtue that makes a person act in accordance to his/her better judgment instead of being guided by fear. Additionally, he connects courage to the term “self-control“.

Courage is the capacity to deal with one’s fear in contexts where one is thereby spontaneously inclined to actions which are contrary to one’s view of what should be done. […] Courage is thus a special type of self-control; it is self-control in situations of personal danger. Consequently, self-control has a broader application than to pleasure and temptation.24

Furthermore, he states that self-control is a skill any person should have and should want to be capable of. He does not mean that a person is supposed to always be and act rational, but that even a spontaneous person wishes to have some degree of control over his/her actions. Finally, resulting from this reasoning, Watson introduces his own proposal:

[T]he virtue of self-control is the capacity to counteract recalcitrant motivation, that is, motivation which is contrary to one’s better judgment. It is this virtue that the weak agent lacks, or at least fails to exercise[.]25

However, he also mentions that this thesis doesn’t allow us to distinguish weakness of will from compulsion because both result from a lack of self-control.26

3.3 The difference between weakness of will and compulsion

To work out the difference between a weak-willed and a compulsive action Watson introduces the example of a drinking woman, illustrating three different versions: “(1) the reckless or self-indulgent case; (2) the weak case; and (3) the compulsive case.”27 In (1) the woman does not act against her better judgment. In (2) and (3) she does act knowingly against her better judgment. In accordance to this example Watson refers directly to the common account and that it believes the following to be true: On the one hand, the weak and the compulsive drinker both act contrary to their better judgment. On the other hand, the weak and the reckless drinker both are able to resist. Therefore the weak drinker’s behaviour is not viewed completely immoral but it’s also not excused.28

The common account, then, insists that the weak person has, but fails to exercise, the capacity of self-control. It is this requirement that nonsocratic skepticism challenges.29

But before Watson goes on with arguing for his proposal he takes an intermediate step to look at the term “compulsion“. He distinguishes between motivational compulsion and interpersonal compulsion. The later refers to a person acting forced by someone else; which is not a form of compulsion Watson is interested in. The former means that a person “is motivated by a desire […] that he or she is unable to resist”30 and the form of compulsion in Watson’s focus.31

Next, he opens a new subchapter, where he goes into more detail regarding the differences between the said concepts. The main problem, he states, is that weakness of will is not defined clearly enough to properly distinguish it from compulsion. He offers a first distinction by saying that a compulsive acting person seems to act against his/her own will. But the same goes for a weak-willed person. Therefore, one may conclude that weakness of will is a case of compulsion. But Watson doesn’t think this to be a satisfying answer because we intuitively distinguish the concepts from one another:

[W]e are inclined to contrast weakness and compulsion like so: in the case of compulsive acts, it is not so much that the will is too weak as that the contrary motivation is too strong; whereas, in weakness of will properly so-called, it is not that the contrary motivation is too strong, but that the will is too weak.32

Although he considers this true, the problem that “there does not appear to be any way of judging the strength of desires except as they result in action”33 still remains. Also, he believes that this second way of distinguishing the concepts will lead us again to the conclusion that weakness of will is a case of compulsion. Therefore, he rejects this explanation as well.34

Next, Watson argues on how to avoid coming to such a conclusion. One option would be to deny the existence of compulsive acts. For this, he refers to Feinberg who thinks this to be true. However, Watson argues against him. He compares Feinberg to the common account and explains that Feinberg doesn't believe irresistible desires exist. The common account believes “that the weak person has but does not exercise the capacity to resist.”35 In this sense both positions are similar to him. Concluding, Watson rejects Feinberg because he cannot give a plausible argument against such an irresistibility. In addition, Watson offers examples to show that “we very frequently compare the strengths of desires[.]”36 However, he admits that the criteria for doing this are unclear.37

3.4 Self-control as an explanation

In order to find a solution Watson brings in the term “self-control” again. For his further argumentation he now refers to Aristotle’s distinction between a continent and a temperate person. Based on this inquiry he concludes that we cannot say that some people have stronger desires than others. Instead, he proposes the following:

The weak and the strong may be subject to desires of exactly the same strength. What makes the former weak is that they give in to desires which the possession of the normal degree of self-control would enable them to resist. In contrast, compulsive desires are such that the normal capacities of resistance are or would be insufficient to enable the agent to resist.38

This statement is a further explanation on his original thesis (see subchapter 3.2). However, here it becomes clear that Watson doesn’t only use self-control to explain weakness of will but also to distinguish it from compulsion. To argue for this position, he refers to Aristotle again and says that he has a similar but problematic approach. While Aristotle compares the weak-willed person with other people regarding their motivation, Watson compares them regarding their ability of self-control. In his opinion, this allows us to say that a person acts weak-willed when other people could have resisted because of their self-control. We, then, can hold the weak-willed person responsible for his/her actions because he/she should have had the self-control needed to resist. This belief includes that we think a person not only to be able to but to be obliged to acquire this skill through his/her socialisation and apply it when necessary. Contrary, when we conclude that the person, nonetheless, couldn’t have resisted, we don’t hold him/her responsible because we view him/her as a victim of his/her own compulsive actions. This very explanation (on the relation between self-control and weakness of will versus the relation between self-control and compulsion) is Watson’s solution to finally distinguish the concepts.39


1 Vgl. Watson (1977), S. 317.

2 Watson (1977), S. 339.

3 Vgl. Stroud (2014).

4 Watson (1977), S. 316.

5 Vgl. Watson (1977), S. 326f.

6 Davidson (1970), S. 22.

7 Davidson (1970), S. 23.

8 Vgl. Davidson (1970), S. 23ff.

9 Davidson (1970), S. 23.

10 Vgl. Watson (1977), S. 316f.

11 Vgl. Watson (1977), S. 316f.

12 Watson (1977), S. 317.

13 Watson (1977), S. 319.

14 Vgl. Watson (1977), S. 318f.

15 Watson (1977), S. 319.

16 Watson (1977), S. 319.

17 Watson (1977), S. 320.

18 Vgl. Watson (1977), S. 320.

19 Watson (1977), S. 320f.

20 Watson (1977), S. 321.

21 Vgl. Watson (1977), S. 320f.

22 Watson (1977), S. 322.

23 Watson (1977), S. 322.

24 Watson (1977), S. 322.

25 Watson (1977), S. 323.

26 Vgl. Watson (1977), S. 321ff.

27 Watson (1977), S. 324.

28 Vgl. Watson (1977), S. 323f.

29 Watson (1977), S. 324.

30 Watson (1977), S. 325.

31 Vgl. Watson (1977), S. 324ff.

32 Watson (1977), S. 327.

33 Watson (1977), S. 327.

34 Vgl. Watson (1977), S. 326ff.

35 Watson (1977), S. 329.

36 Watson (1977), S. 329.

37 Vgl. Watson (1977), S. 328f.

38 Watson (1977), S. 330.

39 Vgl. Watson (1977), S. 330ff.

Excerpt out of 24 pages


Nonsocratic skepticism. A critical view on the relation between weakness of will and self-control
Bielefeld University  (Abteilung Philosophie)
Willensschwäche, Willensstärke, Willenskraft
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
theoretische Philosophie, theoretical philosophy, weakness of will, willensschwäche, nonsocratic scepticism, scepticism, nonsokratischer Skeptizismus, skeptizismus, selbstbeherrschung, self-control, socrates, davidson, compulsion
Quote paper
Kim Ann Woodley (Author), 2019, Nonsocratic skepticism. A critical view on the relation between weakness of will and self-control, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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