Saturday, 20 May 2017


An akratic gambler says (again) that he wants to quit gambling. For example, if you ask him this is what he will tell you. We might also say that it is what he 'says to himself'.

But then he starts to think of himself 'empirically' rather than 'practically'. He says 'ok, so this is what I intend, but what actually am I likely to do?' He then reasons 'in the past I haven't quit, therefore I probably won't quit.'

There are also many occasions when the gambler still wants to go gambling. (This, indeed, is what gives point to our talking here of addiction, of commitment to quit, etc.)

Richard Moran offers this:
For the gambler to have made such a decision is to be committed to avoiding the gambling tables. He is committed to this truth categorically, as the content of his decision; that is, insofar as he actually has made such a decision, this is what it commits him to. For him his decision is not just (empirical) evidence about what he will do, but a resolution of which he is the author and which he is responsible for carrying through.
What this made me think of is a predicament that can arise in psychotherapy. A patient says that he or she wants to overcome some problem, to quit a certain habit of thought or action. And he then engages the psychotherapist in a discussion the form of which is supposed to help him tackle this disposition within himself.

The patient is at war with himself. The therapist is engaged as collaborator with the patient to help him take a stand against himself. Hmm.

It all looks so reasonable.

Perhaps sometimes it is.

However there is I think also something disquieting about the way the patient moves into the 'empirical' rather than 'practical' stance. That very stance, I want to say, is already one which prescinds from the commitment to give up their addictive or other behaviour. After all, if he really has made up his mind, then what is the possible relevance of looking at past evidence? Acts of self-determination are precisely that.

But because the patient appeals to something which these days is a paradigm of reasonableness - namely an empirical, evidence-taking stance - we may be encouraged to overlook his irrationality in deploying it in the present case.

 Why is he irrational?

It is irrational not because it ignores evidence. It is irrational in the way that Moore's paradox is irrational. ('I believe it is raining but it is not raining'.) In effect, one feels, he is saying 'I make up my mind to not do this, but probably my mind isn't made up'.

If I make up my mind to do something, then I am committed to doing something. To be committed to doing something means to follow this through so long as the opportunity remains.

Now a further question might be thought to coherently arise. That question is 'ok, but might not the opportunity here include the absence of overwhelmingly compelling urges to gamble?'

But what is being said here? Is the idea that the person, in committing to stopping gambling, is really saying 'I now commit to giving up gambling, unless of course I have compelling urges to gamble'? Yet this is absurd - it seems to reduce a commitment to a wish. Or is he saying 'Despite and in truth because of the compelling urges to gamble I experience, I now commit to put this behaviour behind me'? Hopefully the latter if we're not to waste our time in listening to him.

The rationality-defeating narcissism in the akratic gambler's appeal to empirical considerations about his past behaviour consists in his overvaluation of what he says to himself or to us when he takes himself to be making a commitment. The irrationality is partly obscured from us because the word 'says' or 'tells' in the first paragraph has two meanings - to utter and to commit, and we flit between them without realising.