In this post I wish to engage in a piece of philosophical exegesis in order to expose a certain misreading of McDowell. The passage I will be discussing reads as follows:
It would be a mistake to protest that one can fail to act on a reason, and even on a reason judged by oneself to be better than any reason one has for acting otherwise, without there needing to be any clouding or distortion in one’s appreciation of the reason one flouts. That is true; but to suppose it constitutes an objection to Aristotle is to fail to understand the special nature of the conception of virtue that generates Aristotle’s interest in incontinence. (Mind, Value, and Reality, p. 55)
Here, McDowell concedes that Akrasia, the phenomenon where an agent judges that some action A is the best course to pursue, but nevertheless freely chooses not to do A, is possible. On this point, McDowell agrees with Aristotle and Donald Davidson (and disagrees with Socrates who flatly denies such a possibility). More significant still, McDowell acknowledges that the best way of conceiving of Akrasia may not be in terms of “clouding or distortion in one’s appreciation of the reason one flouts.” In short, while McDowell conceives of the distinction between the virtuous agent, on the one hand, and the continent or incontinent agent, on the other, in terms of the latter having a clouded perception, he does not maintain that the possibility of Akrasia is also to be so explained.
This is an important point since some have mistakenly attributed to McDowell the claim that Akrasia can only be explained in terms of clouded moral perception. Let us refer to the thesis that it is possible for an agent to choose not to do A even if the agent’s judgement that A is the best course of action is unclouded as unclouded Akrasia. According to, what I will refer to as the misguided reading of McDowell, the above passage implicates a denial of unclouded Akrasia. The misguided reading rests on the false assumption that the “mistake” McDowell refers to in the passage in question is the idea that unclouded Akrasia is possible. However, the misguided reading overlooks the opening clause of the very next sentence in which McDowell grants “that [the possibility of unclouded Akrasia] is true”. What McDowell actually sees as the mistake is not the possibility of unclouded Akrasia per se but the idea that unclouded Akrasia poses a difficulty for his account. The upshot of the rejection of the misguided reading is that we do not need to see McDowell as attempting to account for the possibility of Akrasia in terms of “clouding or distortion” in an agent’s appreciation of her reasons. On the contrary, a careful reading of the relevant passages reveals that this is a question McDowell is altogether silent on—i.e., McDowell fails to provide any explicit positive account of how Akraisa in general (or unclouded Akrasia in particular) is possible, at least not in the essay presently under discussion.
That McDowell fails to provide a positive account of Akrasia is not surprising, nor should it be seen as a defect (i.e., a sin of omission) given his present purposes. This is because McDowell is only concerned with preserving the Aristotelian distinction between the continent and incontinent agent, and not with an account of Akrasia per se. Thus, the misguided reading errs first and foremost because it construes McDowell’s argument as attempting to establish a conclusion on a subject matter that falls outside the argument’s actual area of concern.
However, even if we reject the misguided reading, the possibility of unclouded Akrasia may still seem to pose a difficulty for McDowell’s account. Since (in the case of the virtuous agent) perceiving what one ought to do is sufficient for doing it, then the agent who manifests weakness of will must be displaying a clouded perception. While this is true by McDowell’s lights, this fact alone does not involve the denial of the possibility of unclouded Akrasia. To see this, we must distinguish between the following two types of cases: (1) ones in which an agent arrives at what she ought to do via the exercise of a perceptual sensitivity (alone) and (2) ones in which an agent arrives at what she ought to do via ratiocination. Strictly speaking, (1) and (2) are not mutually exclusive since in the case of the non-virtuous agent (i.e., the continent and incontinent) both ratiocination and a perceptual sensitivity are typically in play. However, in such a case, the deliverance of the agent’s perceptual sensitivity is itself reduced to just another reason in the agent’s all-things-considered judgement. This follows from the fact that (in the case of the non-virtuous agent) moral perception does not have the silencing power that it does in the case of the virtuous agent. In fact, the absence of this silencing power is just what it means for a moral perception to be clouded on McDowell’s picture. By contrast, the virtuous agent, who has an unclouded perception, is one whose perceptual sensitivity silences all competing reasons (with certain qualifications that I will ignore for the time being) and who can therefore be described as not resorting to ratiocination at all. With these subtleties in mind, I will (for brevity) continue to talk of moral perception versus moral ratiocination as if the two are mutually exclusive phenomenon.
With the distinction between moral perception and moral ratiocination firmly in place, we can now appreciate that McDowell sees unclouded Akrasia as only relevant to the latter but not to the former. By McDowell’s lights, an agent cannot have an unclouded perception of what she ought to do and yet fail to do it since (as noted earlier) having an unclouded perception is sufficient for virtuous action. However, McDowell’s account allows that an agent may have an unclouded appreciation of her reasons and yet fail to act upon them. The upshot of this is that Akraisa (i.e., unclouded Akrasia) only applies to moral ratiocination and not to moral perceptions.
The significance of the above conclusion should not be under-appreciated. Recall, on McDowell’s view, the virtuous agent is able to perceive and act upon what she ought to do in a given situation without need for ratiocination. (In fact, this is what distinguishes the virtuous agent from the merely continent agent on McDowell’s picture.) Hence, the non-virtuous agent (i.e., the continent and incontinent) is the agent who has to resort to ratiocination since her perceptions (being clouded) are not sufficient to get her to the point of acting as the virtuous agent acts. In a slogan, the non-virtuous agent shall not live (morally) by perception alone. The upshot of this is that Akrasia can only arise in the case of a non-virtuous agent for whom ratiocination remains relevant. The virtuous agent, by contrast, relies solely on perception and therefore cannot ever suffer from Akrasia. This strikes me as just the sort of result one would want. In conclusion, McDowell’s distinction between moral perceptions and moral ratiocination allows him to preserve the following pair of desiderata: (1) it allows him to grant the possibility of unclouded Akrasia (vis-à-vis moral ratiocination) while maintaining that unclouded perception (alone) is sufficient for virtuous action, and (2) it implies that only non-virtuous agents can suffer from unclouded Akrasia.