Something very discouraging happened to me last night. I found myself finishing an entire tub of ice-cream, and this was amidst a long-term regime to get fit and lose some weight. It left me feeling guilty and like a failure. I was a victim of what can be called weakness of the will. (I personally prefer the Greek word akrasia because it doesn’t have the word ‘weakness’ in it and somehow makes me feel better.)
Most of us have been there before – we know what we want but sometimes act against our own will. Sometimes it’s about something as innocent as ice-cream, and other times it’s about something more serious. How do we understand and deal with akrasia ,and what has this to do with being a ThinkCitizen?
Scholars start by saying that akrasia involves the ageless battle between desire and the reason, experienced by all rational human beings. Traditional accounts of Philosophy of Action will phrase it as some kind of good against evil battle. However, one of my favourite philosophers – David Hume – argued that desire is in fact the final cause of everything we do. He therefore tells me ‘Syano, its not that your reason is weak or that you’ve lost some kind of battle, but that you simply didn’t want to stick to your fitness regime enough. If you really wanted to, you would not have eaten so much ice-cream’. In other words, I know what I should want, but don’t quite want it yet or badly enough, and it’s not my fault. Change what you want, and reason will follow (or at least justify it). Therefore, there is no such thing as akrasia. There is simply desires, and reason simply finds the best way of satisfying and explaining them. When we think we wanted something else, we’re almost lying to ourselves.
Then along comes another chap called Immanuel Kant, who tells me ‘Syano, don’t listen to him. Reason is everything; it is sacred; it is what sets you apart from other species. You can your better judgement given by reason, which has the power to change your desire. You need only have put your foot down and be strong enough.’ I already see myself with spoon-filled ice-cream approach my lips, staring it down with a sweaty face and yelling at it “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!’ and the spoon retreating accordingly. Instead, I wasn’t strong enough, according to Kant; I did not listen to reason. In my better moments I’m convinced and even feel empowered by Kant. When I’m in my ice-cream moments, however, I’m won over by Hume. How convenient.
As we go and do our work today I leave you with what I think being a ThinkCitizen is about – its about giving your reason a chance. Sometimes we don’t even know what our better judgment is telling us or even have the opportunity to have a better judgement. You may receive as many as 5000 media messages today and most of them will want to change and strengthen your desire using techniques that are very clever. In many cases, you won’t have the space to even think. Mass media (and especially entertainment) has gone so far as to become a daily comfort for some of us, let alone being sufficiently removed on it to judge to judge its content. So, here’s a challenge – I’m not asking you to have the strength of will to say ‘no’ to whatever you want today (even though that would be nice). I’m asking that after you leave work and have some time to yourself, don’t put the headphones on, don’t turn on the TV, don’t turn on your computer and watch videos. Instead, do what humanity always did when they didn’t have mass media – talk to your friend, do something active, play a board game, write down your own thoughts about something you’re going through in life. Your mind and thoughts are the essence of your identity. Protect them; nurture them. Try this for a day, maybe a week, or even a month. You never know – over time when you come across your own ice-cream moments, you may actually find that a certain part of you is stronger.