It is uncontroversial that you can do something that you don’t want to do. You can pay taxes when you’d rather not. You can take the trash out to the street when you’d rather keep reading a novel. You can get up when the alarm goes off when you’d rather sleep in. What we want to do at the moment doesn’t always coincide with what we believe we ought to do.
How should we describe situations that are slightly different? You don’t pay the taxes, even though you believe that you should. You don’t take out the trash, though you know that not doing so will mean that you’ll miss the weekly collection. You turn the alarm off and go back to sleep, when you know that by doing so you’ll be late for work. We might say that in each of these cases you take a course of action that you believe is not the right course of action to take. You act against your own self interest. Philosophers characterize such cases as weakness of will. You have weakness of will when your will is too weak to do what you believe you should do.
Although these seem like cases of weakness of will, there are many philosophers who believe that there is no such thing. They argue that these cases are incorrectly described, and that when they are presented correctly, they are not cases of weakness of will.
Let’s reconsider the case of continuing to read a book when doing so will mean that the garbage doesn’t get taken out. Is it true that you really wanted to take the garbage out, but that you didn’t have the strength of will to accomplish it? Isn’t it more accurate to say that you preferred to continue reading the book, and that you desired the continuation of that activity at the expense of getting the chore accomplished? Your will accomplished what you wanted. You voted with your feet, as the expression goes. What seemed like weakness of will was really a misreading of what you wanted. What you wanted is made clear by the what you actually did. Your desire to read the book out-ranked your desire to get this week’s garbage to the street. Your will was not weak, since you did what you most desired.
“Caesar and Me” is about the struggle of the will, where the will is represented by a ventriloquist’s dummy, Caesar. Unlike an earlier episode involving a ventriloquist and his prop, “The Dummy,” this ventriloquist, Jonathan West, is not surprised that Caesar appears to be an semi-autonomous agent who speaks for himself. But the self that the dummy speaks for is really West himself, recommending courses of action that West, in his non-dummy mode, finds repellent.
West is down and out. He can’t find work either as a ventriloquist or in any other field. He can’t meet the rent on his meager one bedroom flat, and his prospects are bleak. While West seeks conventional solutions to his problem, his alter-ego, Caesar thinks outside the box, and advocates a life of crime. West resists, and says “A man has to live with himself, even if he lives in the gutter.” Thus he wants to reject Caesar’s recommendations not on prudential grounds, but on moral grounds.
When we are of two minds about a course of action, as Jonathan West is, and one “mind” prevails over the other, is that a case of weakness of will? To claim that, one would have to identify the will with the “mind” that doesn’t prevail. But that seems incorrect on two grounds. First, there aren’t two wills, but just one, the will that chooses from among the courses of action under deliberation. Second, the will that acts is not weak, since it has selected a course of action.
What tempts us to describe West as suffering from weakness of will may be that it is apt to describe his ill-advised actions as a failure to do the right thing when he knows that it is not the right thing. This may be a moral weakness, but not a weakness of will. The will does its job, and the choice it carries out is the Jonathan West’s preference.
One might object that with further reflection, or under other circumstances, West might have chosen differently. Maybe his choice is impulsive, and so doesn’t really represent his true preferences, as they would reveal themselves in the fullness of time. Still, this merely suggests that West is impulsive, and that doesn’t match with the facts. West’s vacillation between his regular voice and his Caesar voice is extended in time.
Do we learn how to avoid choosing the wrong path? In cases like these we often remark that the newly minted criminal has been hanging around with the wrong people. West, a loner, has only been hanging around with Caesar, to whom he gives voice. Giving voice to thoughts, plans, and values different from his own, West risks making them his own. To avoid West’s plight, we should limit our imaginative flights of fancy which represent values we find problematic.
Davidson, D., 1970, “How Is Weakness of the Will Possible?,” in Davidson 1980, Essays on Actions and Events, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 21–42.
Stocker, M., 1979, “Desiring the Bad: An Essay in Moral Psychology,” Journal of Philosophy, 76: 738–753.