Weakness of the will: Akrasia in clinical practice

John S. Callender

in Free will and responsibility

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print April 2010 | ISBN: 9780199545551
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754616 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

Weakness of the will: Akrasia in clinical practice

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To have conflicting desires or motivations is part of everyday experience. I may have a desire for a cream cake although I also desire to stay healthy or avoid becoming overweight. I may wish to watch a film to its end late in the evening while knowing that I have a busy day at work the next day and it would be better for me to get an early night in bed.

The existence of behavior, which is at the same time harmful and self-willed, occupies a considerable proportion of the resources and energies of psychiatric services. There are whole subspecialities, such as the psychiatry of addictions and services for patients with eating disorders that are occupied with little else. Psychotherapists and clinical psychologists spend their days helping people to behave in ways that are less self-destructive and more adaptive. Consultation-liaison services have a daily quota of assessment of patients who have engaged in nonsuicidal deliberate self-harm. The general hospitals are full of patients who suffer from illnesses as a result of bad diet, cigarette smoking, too much alcohol, or too little exercise.

This happens not because people are ignorant of the risks that they are running. Instead, it happens when people know of the risks but choose anyway to act as they do.

In this chapter, I will begin by presenting some classical philosophical theories about akratic or weak-willed behavior. I will examine the concept of akrasia in light of standard definitions of autonomy. I will go on to look at more recent thinking on this theme and consider to what extent this aids our thinking about clinical problems.

Chapter.  11708 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Psychiatry

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