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What is weakness of the will?

Updated: Nov 24, 2020



Suppose that I’m torn between giving into temptation and having that cigarette and ‘doing the right thing’ and not having that cigarette. The conflict here is not so much about what to do on a given occasion as it is about what to value and, therefore, what kind of person to be.

Someone who has a cigarette is not just someone who has that one cigarette. His having that cigarette is part of a constellation of activities and norms that validate his having that cigarette. He has that cigarette not just because he wants the pleasure of that one cigarette but because he sees his having that cigarette as a rebellion against corporate tyranny or as an act of protest against the jocks in high school who bullied him. Similarly, someone who abstains from having a cigarette is not just someone who abstains from smoking on one occasion. He is someone who belongs to a certain religious order or whose greatest achievements in life involve endurance sports. Someone who resolutely accepts either identity does not suffer from ‘weakness of the will.’ If he goes with the smoker-identity, his will isn’t weak, since his will is to have the cigarette, and that’s what he does. If he goes with the non-smoker-identity, his will isn’t weak, since his will isn’t to have a cigarette, and he doesn’t. It’s only when a given person is caught in between two identities that his ‘will is weak’, and it’s only because he’s only half-convinced of their respective merits that he is in that position in the first place. A non-Judas does not become a Judas ‘in a moment of weakness.’ A moment of weakness turns a half-Judas into a total Judas.

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