Akrasia

It’s been over three weeks since my last post on this blog. As a consequence, I would like to return to what has unfortunately become a familiar theme. There’s an old Greek word for this ancient phenomenon: akrasia—ancient because every person who has ever been born has had to grapple with this dilemma. ‘Akrasia’ means ‘weakness of will’ and applies to any instance when one faces a choice between a thing that one knows is good and another thing one knows is less good, but that one chooses anyways (a drug, a procrastination break, excessive amounts of cake…). If it’s the case that we always want what we think will be best for us, and always choose what we want, then it seems to make no sense why it is that we sometimes choose to do things that are not good for us, or choose not to do things that we want and think are important. I want to write a single blog post every week. Why am I sometimes not able to? Akrasia.

I would argue that this issue is at the root of nearly every major political problem, that natural human flakiness may in fact be the root of all evil. And here’s why: to participate in a society is to allow oneself to be dependent on other people, but there are very few people who one can actually fully depend on. As a result, the people who we trust to make decisions for us will often let us down—and we will often let ourselves down, the people who we should be able to trust most of all. If someone finds that the advantages to breaking a promise considerably outweigh the disadvantages of breaking it, then they will probably break it (and then feel bad about it later). A whole school of political thought has been founded on these principles: rational choice theory. Actors will tend to behave in ways so as to maximize whatever seems to be their personal advantage. A person might think that the institution of meat-eating is one of the greatest evils of our age, and eat meat regularly (because who can turn down a deliciously cooked steak?). Someone might think that everyone has a personal duty to try to prevent global warming, and then keep the heat on in the winter, and drive half a mile to the store because one doesn’t want to walk in the cold. Akrasia.

But the point here is that these ‘rational’ choices are less than rational, because the person will readily admit that if they just had a little bit more will-power, they would have behaved differently. And that’s what makes this uniquely (and universally) personal problem a uniquely political problem. It seems that it’s probably the case that people in politics will make what knowingly seems to them to be the wrong decision because they are either personally advantaged by it, or because they know that standing up for their beliefs will result in personal harm—very few people want to be martyrs.

And now I’d like to tie this back to a real discussion of contemporary politics. In the past, when I was on this theme, I compared personal akrasic compromise to the democratic compromises that were occuring in Egypt (with Mohamed Morsi). I asked the (potentially dangerous) question: is there something fundamental about anti-pluralistic religions that necessarily puts them at odds with democracy? If one had complete rule by the people, and the people chose Islam, then would that not be an Islamic Democracy? If the majority decided that minority viewpoints should be suppressed, does this ‘majority mandate’ confer moral legitimacy upon that government?

Of course not. It confers political legitimacy on the government, and possibly even legal legitimacy, but not moral legitimacy. Majoritarianism only guarantees the most ethical policies if the best decisions are actually those created by a mob. For democracy to work, majority rule must be tempered by a good Constitution—a Constitution that sometimes tells the majority that what they want is not what is best, and that has the authority to stop them. Just as discipline and an adherence to one’s commitments is the antidote to akrasia on the small scale, so a well-written Constitution and a means of enforcing its principles and tenets is the antidote to akrasia on the large scale.

A cottage industry has recently emerged amongst comparativist political scientists asking questions about the relationship between Islam and democracy in the middle east. Since the beginning of the ‘Arab Spring’, observers have had high hopes for democratization in two particular Islamic states: Egypt and Tunisia. In 2011, Tunisia had its first free elections after the overthrow of their leading autocrat, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. For their new president, the people of Tunisia elected a human rights activist, Moncef Marzouki. In 2012, the leading Ennahda party announced that it wouldn’t allow sharia to be the main source of legislation in the new Constitution, that the state would remain secular. The Constitution guarantees rights for women, and women hold more than 20% of all the parliamentary seats. While the state has declared Islam as its national religion, and while 98% of all Tunisians are Muslims, the country has a secular culture that encourages religious freedom. In terms of democratization, Tunisia seems to be doing pretty good. If Tunisia works as a case-study, then it would seem that Islam and democracy may in fact be compatible. Why does this seem like more of a question for Egypt? I would guess that it has something to do with Tunisia’s commitment to its new Constitution, and Egypt’s overhaul and redrafting of its new Constitution.

Akrasia on both the small and large scales results from a person or group of persons’s inability to fully commit themselves to their goals. The incongruence of the Constitution with the popular majority, or the individual with his/her personal projects leads the actors in question to sacrifice their difficult ideals for what is easier and more concrete, more immediately gratifying or less painful. What once seemed like a good idea now seems foolish or unrealistic.

But don’t get me wrong, sometimes there are good reasons to make these kinds of sacrifices. For example, while I feel that this blog is valuable and my promise to regularly write on it is important to me… I have four term papers to do—over 60 pages to write—and just one month to complete them. So this particular commitment will have to be broken, this goal dashed by the pragmatic realities of college life… I hope that other people will take over this blog from me… but I don’t expect it. And for saying to myself that I would write every week, and then failing to do it, I must confess that I feel (just a little bit) ashamed. But let’s end on a high note! If the goal is reasonable and appropriate for the person making it, and the person makes adherence to that goal a top priority, akrasia will never be a problem. And for nations that have the proper conditions for democracy, and that also want it, democratic culture will probably thrive! The only way we’ll get better is by challenging ourselves, and if we’re truly challenging ourselves, then we will sometimes fail. So… let us try spectacularly! And in doing so, we will learn what we are capable of… probably more than we originally thought.

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