Can We Knowingly Do Wrong? The Akrasia Problem in Plato's Protagoras
Socrates claimed in the Protagoras that "no one does wrong knowingly", and that “Virtue is Knowledge”. His claim was subsequently interpreted as 'no one does evil voluntarily', 'no one does harm intentionally', and 'no one makes mistakes willingly'. This has come to be known among philosophers as The Socratic Paradox. For although making mistakes is a familiar matter (such as in the case of holding mistaken beliefs, where the believer does not know that the belief s/he is holding is erroneous), wrong actions, on the other hand, are surely not necessarily performed in ignorance (we often confess to knowing that we were lying, cheating, or acting in some other morally wrong way and yet going ahead). Hence, while being mistaken about our beliefs on account of ignorance seems to be a familiar and uncontroversial matter, our acting wrongly for the same reason seems puzzling to say the least. Wrong actions seem different from mistaken ones. If they are different and if it isn’t so much a lack of knowledge which explains our moral failure, then the task is to explain what else it could be?
The standard approach in western philosophy to this puzzle of Akrasia (Ancient Greek for lack of self-control, incontinence, or more recently Weakness of Will) has traditionally been based on a specific understanding of human error and wrongdoing, and which explains the phenomenon as a failure of the Will, or, in more contemporary terms, as a failure to be motivated to act on what we know to be right. At the heart of this approach is the idea that weakness of will is an everyday example of human beings failing to act on their knowledge on account of some "psychological interference"; and hence it has been assumed that we require a psychological explanation of actions in general to account for such failings. This approach stands in complete opposition to the Socratic one, since it does not hold that knowledge is sufficient for avoiding moral failure and acting virtuously.
On the other hand, if Socrates were right in treating knowledge (or Reason) as a perquisite for desires (as opposed to a rival or counter-part) then action-explanation may be understood along the lines of reciprocal relations between our knowledge about ourselves and our knowledge about the world. Arguably then, knowledge is the key feature of our going about desiring and doing things. Moreover, we would offer much greater latitude in the way we go about explaining how we come to desire and do things. When desire is characterized as something essentially different from our knowledge, one is forced to characterize actions in terms of that fundamental boundary. Rejecting that strict demarcation permits new avenues for explanation and description. In particular, it reveals that the polarity between an agent's subjective desire and his objective knowledge to be nonexistent. I propose that a non-psychological explanation of actions is not only compatible with akrasia, but also those similarities or differences between practical and theoretical failings can facilitate an understanding of actions based on similarities and differences in degrees of knowledge. This in turn gives rise to a number of questions, and which must be answered adequately if we are to obtain a convincing explanation of akrasia (and moral failure in general), based on the Socratic account. The first question to be addressed is: in what other sense could Socrates have meant that "no one does wrong knowingly"? Moreover, what sort or degree of knowledge need one secure, for one to succeed in acting on it? Could Socrates' claim that "no one does wrong knowingly" have meant that no one could fail in doing something, should s/he have the relevant sort of knowledge necessary for succeeding in doing that thing?
My research involves:
1. Gaining an accurate picture of how Plato may have understood the akrasia problem in the Protagoras;
2. Investigating what he could have meant by the claim that 'Knowledge' is more valuable than 'True Belief', in the Meno; and,
3. How, if at all, might a sound grasp of Plato's peculiar notion of 'Knowledge' help us solve the akrasia puzzle?