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Interesting. I think my intuitions here turn on whether the bully is being (perhaps subconsciously) guided by a sensitivity to what are in fact good reasons. Feelings of compassion are one way that we can exhibit such sensitivity to reasons. So this looks like a case of Nomy Arpaly's "rational akrasia". The agent acted virtuously, not weakly.

If we imagine that the bully is instead overcome by some other, less appropriate emotion -- fear of what others will think of him, say -- then I would say that his inaction was weak-willed.

I think the confounding factor in May & Holton's Experiment Two, Vignette One puzzling result is that many people (rightly) regard jumping out of an airplane as a brave act and are not going to be comfortable describing it as weak-willed, despite the fact that it violates a previous judgment & resolution. Just as people as going to be disposed to see a "weak will" behind any behaviour they strongly disapprove of, so they will resist styling actions that involve traditional virtues like courage as weak.
To see whether there is any clear idea of weak-willed action in the popular mind--count me a skeptic on this one--you might try asking your subjects to describe one or two examples of weak-willed action and to explain why they are weak-willed. I suspect the results will show "weak-willed" in the popular mind is an utter mishmash of concepts like cowardly, hypocritical, irrational, and just plain wicked.

Hi Josh and Richard, Great paper! I wanted to comment of your (and Josh K’s) suggestion based on the results of experiment 3 that evaluative factors are influencing attributions of weakness of will so that people are more likely to attribute weakness of will to an agent for a bad action than a neutral action. Here is an alternative explanation (not too far from Richard C’s suggestion), and I’d like to hear what you think of it. The proposal is based on two claims.

Claim 1: In addition to deviation from all things considered judgments and resolutions, paradigm cases of weakness of will also involve the agent’s acting in a way that deviates from the agent’s core values and central evaluative attitudes (where these values and evaluative attitudes constitute the agent’s ‘real self’ or ‘deep self’ in something like the Susan Wolf sense).

Claim 2: Unless presented with very compelling evidence otherwise, the folk tend to believe that people, *deep down inside*, have core values and evaluative attitudes that prescribe actions that conform to widely shared notions of moral rightness (or normative correctness if you like).

Claims 1 and 2 jointly imply that people will tend to attribute weakness of will to an agent more readily for bad actions than neutral actions (or good actions). Do you think something along these lines might help explain the results of experiment 3? This proposal makes some interesting predictions in so-called ‘inverse akrasia’ cases such as Arpaly and Schroeder’s Huck Finn (or the bully case that Josh K briefly mentioned). For example, it predicts that people will less readily ascribe weakness of will to Huck Finn than a matched control case involving standard weakness of will.

I think the effect uncovered by May and Holton with respect to judgments about weakness of will could be usefully compared to an analogous effect uncovered by Pizarro, Uhlmann, and Salovey in 2003 with respect to judgments of praise and blame. In "Asymmetry in Judgments of Moral Blame and Praise: The Role of Perceived Metadesires", Pizarro et al. found that while subjects blamed actors less for performing a morally negative act if they did so out of impulsive, overwhelming emotion, they praised actors just as much for performing a morally positive act whether they did so out of overwhelming emotion or out of cool, calculated deliberation. They provide evidence that this difference in praise and blame is mediated by a difference in how people perceive actors’ higher-order desires. The idea is that people tend to assume that pretty much everyone has positive higher-order desires that their negative lower-order desires be ineffective and that their positive lower-order desires be effective.

Dana Nelkin also suggests the following explanation of Pizarro, et al.’s results in “Do We Have a Coherent Set of Intuitions about Moral Responsibility?”:

“It is natural to suppose that in cases of ‘bad’ actions done with, say, great anger, the emotional experience itself acts to block one’s ability to see the reasons there are or one’s ability to act on them. We tend to say things like ‘he couldn’t help it’ or ‘he was overcome’ by the emotion. In contrast, a rush of sympathy, for example, could itself be seen as a vehicle for reasons-recognition. Rather than getting in the way, it actually shines a light on the reasons there are for acting, or so one might think. Thus, the fact that bad emotions tend to be mitigating factors in people’s judgments of responsibility, while good emotions tend not to be, looks like it could be a natural consequence of an internalized reason view of responsibility and some natural assumptions about the operation of emotions.” (252)

I could see similar explanations for May and Holton’s data. Just as people tend to ascribe less blame to actors whose actions are the product of overwhelming emotions (because they assume the actors have positive higher-order desires that those overwhelming negative emotions be ineffective) but not less praise to actors whose actions are similarly produced (because they assume the positive emotions to be reasons-revealing), people might tend to ascribe less weakness of will to actors like Josh’s bully because they (1) assume the bully really does, despite his explicit pronouncements, judge that those positive overwhelming emotions should be effective, or (2) assume that those emotions themselves shed light on reasons that at the last minute cause the bully to re-evaluate his judgment and perhaps even form a spontaneous resolution to do the right thing. Given that the actors in May and Holton’s vignettes really do seem to judge that the bad thing they don’t end up doing would be the best for them to do, I tend to think the second of these explanations (which seems to be along the lines of Richard’s suggestion) is the most plausible.


But if the agent is really "overcome" with an emotion, how exactly can the action be weak-willed, as weakness of the will is supposed to be free (as opposed to compelled action).

I agree with one strand in Philoponus's comment. Here's how I put the point in an e-mail message I sent to Josh M. & Richard in March: "It’s interesting that the mean response to the JV & RV skydiving story is 4. I found myself wondering whether part of what explains the low figure is something like the following: participants tend to see skydiving as courageous, and that makes attributing weakness of will less attractive to them than it would be in the absence of this feature. A test would involve a 'neutral' story that doesn’t involve (apparent) courage (or above-average willpower, for example)."

Philoponus suggested "asking your subjects to describe one or two examples of weak-willed action and to explain why they are weak-willed." I did something related, and I reported the results in a paper of mine that Richard and Josh discuss. Below are two quotations on this from the paper. The second is from an endnote:

. . . The students were presented with the following written sentences: “What is weakness of will? Please answer this question and briefly describe one example of weakness of will.” Only eleven of the students (about 15%) mentioned doing something one knew or believed one should not do – either in their answers to the general question or in their examples. But only one student (about 1.4%) mentioned doing something one chose, decided, intended, or resolved not to do in either connection.

Some readers may be curious about how other students responded. Four mentioned not standing up for what one believes (or for one’s convictions or beliefs). I did not include them in the knowledge/belief group of eleven because it was not clear that the beliefs they had in mind were specifically about prospective actions (as opposed to something more general: e.g., the belief that tolerance is good). Nine mentioned doing something that one does not “want” to do – for example, having sexual intercourse with one’s boyfriend when one does not want to. Several others offered examples such as eating junk food or not exercising without saying whether the agents were acting contrary to an intention (or resolution, choice, etc.) or to what they knew or believed they should not do. A few students mentioned being ineffective in getting others to do what one wants them to do. Several offered answers of the sort one sees when a student taking a test draws a blank – for example, “People are always willing but fear constitutes the capacity of will”; and “Outside of human thought, the concepts of will and weakness probably have no true meaning. That being said, the notion of a ‘weakness of will’ seems absurd. I realize that this is my opinion.”

In my spare time (which has dwindled recently), I'm writing a little book on weakness of will that incorporates some Ex-Phi studies. If any of you are doing such studies on weakness of will, I'd love to see the results.

Richard C., Chandra, and Adam L.,

Thanks for the comments on Experiment 3 and the sort of Deep Self issue there. This is a really interesting alternative to consider. By way of reply: First, "overcome by a feeling of compassion" is Josh K.'s phrasing. We just said he "gives in." ("He thinks it would be better to stay home and read as planned, but he gives in and goes with them.") So I don't think we led subjects to believe much about the agent's deep self, etc. one way or the other.

But, as Chandra and Adam point out, the subjects may have assumed one over the other. (Chandra, I just saw you have a forthcoming paper developing a Deep Self account of the Knobe effect, etc. I haven't read it, but it looks very interesting and relevant here!) Given the results from Pizarro et al. Adam mentions (which are very interesting ), we might have some reason to think people generally assume the best, so to speak, of people's deep selves, all else being equal.

Then again, I'm not sure that all else is equal. I'd have to look at the Pizarro et al. paper, but one thing that might differentiate our case (at least in the third experiment) is that the bad agent is part of a Neo-Nazi group. I wouldn't be surprised if knowing this about the agent makes subjects less likely to give his deep self the benefit of the doubt. They might even assume he's normatively incompetent ("insane" in Wolf's technical terminology)!

Hi John, feel free to replace 'overcome by' with 'tempted by', as you please.


Good point about the courage issue with Experiment 2. Al Mele (whom we stupidly forgot to acknowledge in the paper!) has actually suggested this to us too. The main worry we have with this explanation is that it can’t uniformly explain the drop in agreement: in two of the four cases Carl doesn’t actually jump (and so doesn’t exhibit courage). But it certainly could be playing some role as well. If we’re able to make more changes to the paper, perhaps we can mention this.

On the skeptical view: In his paper Mele actually did ask his subjects what they think weakness of will is. And, of course, the results were all over the map. However, as we say in our paper, we’re not sure why we should put any weight whatsoever on such results in our theorizing. After all, even if ordinary folks possess a shared concept, we wouldn’t expect them to be able to articulate the principles that govern its application. (Compare a linguist who says there are no shared principles of grammar because ordinary people can’t articulate the same principles, etc.)

Ah, it looks like my comment about Mele was in the queue while his was as well! In any event, thanks to everyone so far for the discussion and to Josh K. for posting this. We've been receiving some great feedback!

Thanks all for these excellent comments.

On the deep self approach. The data in Chandra's paper on the Knobe effect certainly suggest that people are ascribing something along the lines of a deep self to each other. (Somewhat ironic given the situationist drift of so much social psychology in recent years). I wonder though about Chandra's second premise (which also comes up in Adam's comment): that people assume that the deep self is basically good. Maybe that has some plausibility for in-group members. But knowing some of the literature on race and stereotyping, I'd be surprised if it held more widely. That might provide a good test though: could it be that people are more likely to ascribe weakness of will to out-group members who act against resolutions to be bad than to in-group members who act in a similar way?

In general I wonder how to think of the deep self view in terms of the debate between the 'acting against best judgment' approach and the 'resolution violation' approach. One way to think of the deep self is in terms of deeply held judgments, which is how Chandra tends to describe it; another is in terms of deeply held commitments to act in certain ways, which look more like resolutions. Is there any reason at the moment for going one way or the other?

Incidentally, on Huck Finn: the problem in making that case plausible as a case of akrasia is that one has to show why Huck's decision not to turn Jim in isn't based on some deep-seated belief that that was the right thing to do. Some unpublished additions to the novel clearly show, I think that Twain himself thought that Huck did in some sense know it was right. The villain of the piece, for Twain, was conscience, which he thought was a totally unreliable guide to moral truth. I have some relevant quotations in a paper here:

On the issue of the bravery needed to jump out of a plane. I agree absolutely that that is a potentially confounding factor, one that we worried about at the time. The problem is that it is hard to come up with scenarios that are at all psychologically plausible, but that clearly illustrate the points one wants to draw out. Undoubtedly we were just insufficiently imaginative, but we did want to avoid just asserting that the actors in the stories had certain attitudes without making that seem likely that they did.

If it turns out that bravery is another feature that is important in making ascriptions of weakness of will, that in itself is further evidence that the notion is a real motley. It's interesting that the term seems to be fairly recent -- the earliest citation in the OED is from the late 19th century -- so it doesn't have a real weight of established usage behind it.

Hi Richard,

In raising the deep self perspective, I did not want to identify the deep self with either one’s all things considered judgments or one’s resolutions. Of course the three will often track together (peoples’ deep selves typically influence their all things considered judgments about what to do which results in their forming certain resolutions). But the philosophically interesting cases involve the three coming apart in various ways. Inspired by your very thoughtful discussion of inverse akrasia (in your online paper), I suggest imagining the following Huck Finn case:

Huck’s deep self (his core evaluative stance) abhors the idea that Jim be turned in. Practical reasoning issues an all things considered judgment that it would be best to turn Jim in (what one judges as best to do, and what truly *is* best to do, by one’s deep self’s lights, can surely come apart). Huck forms a resolution to turn Jim in. He then deviates from his resolution. And let us also stipulate that judgment shift occurs (perhaps due to cognitive dissonance as you suggest) so that at the time of deviating from his resolution, Huck does not judge that it would be best to turn Jim in.

Based on what you say at the bottom of page 15, I take it that you think Huck experiences weakness of will, and that most people will readily agree. I don’t think so, though I admit I could be very wrong here. My guess is that people will be, at the very least, much less inclined to classify Huck’s failure to turn Jim in as a case of weakness of will than a more standard case (i.e., the dieter who yields to temptation). Why? Some people will want to point to the judgment shift. But to me, it seems whether judgment shift occurs or not is not what drives the effect. Rather it is the fact that Huck’s failure to turn Jim in is deep self concordant, while paradigm cases of weakness of will involve deep self discordance (this a *contributing* feature, not a necessary feature). So I am suggesting that deep self discordance is an underappreciated feature of what makes an action weak-willed that is *independent* of other factors that also drive weakness of will attributions (factors such as deviation from one’s all things considered judgments and deviation from one’s resolutions).

May I say about Huck Finn, in the light of the additional text Holton brings to light in “Inverse Akrasia”, that it seems clear that Twain means to portray Huck as experiencing a crisis of conscience, perhaps not shifting all the way to the judgment that helping Jim to escape is the right thing to do, but coming to have grave doubts that turning Jim in is the right/best thing to do. Classic akrasia, as Aristotle defines it in NE VII, viii, involves doing one thing while still embracing that argument (logos) that something else is best. I think this is also pretty much Holton’s sense of akrasia as well. Thus Huck is not akratic.

Perhaps the more interesting question is whether Huck is weak-willed. The new text emphasizes how bad Huck feels as he begins to execute his decision to turn Jim in. There are emotions we must work through in executing hard choices, but I would suggest that intense shame is not one of them. If we feel deeply ashamed of what we are trying to do, we should stop and carefully reconsider our decision. We’ve missed something, we’ve miscalculated, we’ve made the wrong choice. I don’t think Huck shows any disposition to over-revise or unnecessarily reconsider his choices when he stops in the face of feeling ashamed of his decision to hand over Jim.

Weakness of the will occurs when:

1) you have conflicting drives and urges

2) the "strong" alternative is to a course of action which short term involves a degree (or higher degree) of pain in order to produce a longer term goal which is higher rewarding

"strong will" is when you are prepared to put up with the pain of securing more gratifying rewards

3) the "weak" alternative is to a course of action with short term lower rewards and normally no (or significantly less) pain

"weak will" is when you are not prepared to put up with pain and so pursue less gratifying rewards

The choice is normally complicated by

4) questions re criteria - whether the strong alternative is really that strong or worthwhile or desirable - e.g."do I really want to exercise/ be slim/ be a successful worker?" -or the famous "do you sincerely want to be rich?" [i.e. is it worth all the hard work to you?]

5) the weak alternative often leads to longer term pains [such as feeling jaded, sick, dissatisfied] - but it is usually easy to ignore these when making the decision, and alter them when they occur by a variety of mood altering substances and activities

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