If you’ve ever helped a child to master toileting, you’ll know of the moment where your patience and understanding expires.

It’s somewhere between the sixth wet bed and the poo stains on the walls, where you beg, implore the child to explain. “You know how to use the toilet, why don’t you just do it?!”

Well, park that frustration friend, because if the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle is to be believed, we’re all a bit like that child, smearing shit on the walls despite knowing better. Aristotle believed in something he called akrasia – which is usually translated as ‘weakness of the will’, but I prefer to translate it as ‘incontinence’.

That’s right, Aristotle thought most of us had, at one stage or another, a leaky ethical bladder. We know what’s right and wrong; we know how we should act, and yet we wet ourselves rather than actually doing it.

This happens, according to Aristotle, for two reasons. First, passion. There are times when our emotions, ego, excitement or panic get the better of us, and our reason disappears. This can lead us to violence, cruelty, thoughtlessness or any number of things that we know are wrong. Like a toddler wetting themselves in fear or excitement, our moral restraint and discipline is overwhelmed by the emotion of the moment.

This form of akrasia often feels like being ‘swept up’ in the moment. We suddenly find our fists clenched, we find ourselves unable to swallow a hurtful thought – we are, for all intents and purposes – not in control. However, we’re responsible for our lack of control. According to most scholars who believe akrasia is a thing, we lose control because we haven’t worked hard enough to master ourselves. “I’m sorry I said that, I totally lost control,” is an explanation here – not an excuse.

The second way we can be overwhelmed is weakness. Sometimes we are the child who just doesn’t make it to the bathroom in time and has an accident on the floor. Morally, we know that we should try to minimise carbon emissions and that means we should get out of our pyjamas and walk the five minutes to pick up takeaway. But wouldn’t it be faster, and easier, to drive? Here, it’s clear what should be done. It’s just we don’t have the strength of will to do it.

Akrasia of this kind is different to the ‘heat of the moment’ stuff we discussed above. In this case, the little voice in our heads is nagging at us: ‘you should say something’, ‘you shouldn’t be doing this’, ‘that’s your son’s Easter chocolate Matt, you shouldn’t be eating it’… stuff like that. Here, we’re perfectly aware of our failing and watch ourselves fail, seemingly incapable of doing otherwise.

However, there are some who believe akrasia is actually impossible. They reject outright the idea that someone can know what is right to do and also refuse to do that thing. Here’s how their argument looks:

  1. Every choice people make is made because they see something good in that action.
  2. Therefore, nobody willingly chooses to do something bad.
  3. When people appear to be choosing to do something bad, it is because they think that bad thing is, in some way, good.
  4. Bad things happen because people are mistaken about what’s good.

The belief behind akrasia is that we can know – really know – what’s good and shit the bed when it comes to actually doing it. But would someone who really understood why we need to speak up against abuses of power ever remain silent? Critics of akrasia think not. They think the reason why someone wouldn’t speak up against a bully is because they’ve decided that in this situation, they momentarily believe that the good of personal safety trumps the good of justice. That is, the source of unethical behaviour is in mistaken beliefs, not in weak character.

However, this kind of reasoning comes close to committing the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy. The This fallacy, named is named for the Scottish-themed anecdote used to demonstrate it, is a kind of circular reasoning. Here’s how it looks:

  1. Claim: All Scots are brave and never flee battle
  2. Counter-evidence: But MacDougall is a Scot and he fled battle yesterday!
  3. Denial of evidence: MacDougall isn’t a true True Scots are brave and never flee battle.

The No True Scotsman is a way of shifting the goal posts so counterfactuals can’t actually disprove your claim. They are just reworked to support it further.

Critics of akrasia seem to make a similar claim:

  1. Claim: People do the wrong thing because they don’t know what’s right
  2. Counter-evidence: Yesterday I knew I should have returned the wallet I found with the cash still inside, but I took the cash and then returned the wallet
  3. Denial of evidence: You didn’t truly know that’s what you should have done. Otherwise, you would have done it.

This might seem like an academic dispute. And that’s because it is. But it’s also one that matters. Being able to identify the source of ethical failure is crucial if we’re going to prevent it. If ethical failures are problems of knowing and understanding what is good and why it’s good, then the solution is going to involve a lot of education.

If instead, ethical failures are connected to weakness of the will, then our ethics training needs to look a bit more like toilet training: getting us to identify the cues, knowing what to do ahead of time and having the strength to hold on, even when our will seems like it’s going to give way.

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Can we choose to do bad things?