The Problems of Blessing III

When you really get down to it, the most basic practical problem of blessing is one that gnaws miserably at the heart of all ethical action: does it really lies in our power to do good? One of the advantages of thinking our way into ethical relations by following the thread of ‘Blessing’ is that it draws this uncomfortable question out into the open from the beginning.

It was this gnawing worry that eventually ate away the root of the perfectionist ethics of the Greeks and Romans: the problem of akrasia—weakness of will.

“No one does wrong willingly”

Thus Socrates. There is something compelling about the insight. Anders Behring Breivik, perpetrator of mass killings in Norway, regards himself as justified in his actions. He claims to have a ‘good’ reasons. Tony Soprano, the fictional mafia boss, rationalises his path through violence and tenderness as ‘looking after his family’. Does anyone (other than the mentally ill) ever act with consideration and intention without also having a set of reasons that somehow function to justify the action? Cartoon villains don’t really exist do they? That’s what makes them funny.

But if no one ever does wrong willingly, then the objective fact that people do in fact do wrong demands further explanation. Socrates’ claim is that the failure is not in the will, but in the knowledge of the wrongdoer. When a wrongdoer wrongs, what actually happens is a miscalculation of how to achieve the good—a failure of knowledge. Anders Breivik wanted to achieve a just Norwegian society, but his knowledge of what constitutes a just society was badly flawed leading him to do wrong by killing dozens of people. The remedy is better education.

Again, there is something quite compelling about this explanation. It is intuitively plausible because it coheres nicely with our own ‘internal’ perspective on our most serious acts of wrongdoing: our failures are more environmental than essential. It appears to be an optimistic view as well, suggesting that if we devote ourselves to education and ‘moral formation’ we will be eventually able to overcome wrongdoing. Interestingly, on this account, both forgiveness and retribution become incoherent as responses to wrongdoing.

I think most people agree, however, that while the account above has points of plausibility, it doesn’t manage to fully account for our practice or experience of wrongdoing. The problem is, precisely, akrasia: the weakness of our wills. We could debate back and forth the extent to which we are capable of willing to do wrong. Let’s say that the jury is still out. What is more significant is the weakness of our will to do what is right. I do not need to look very far for examples: why did I have bacon again for breakfast when I know that it will probably end up killing me from heart disease? Why did I spend my money on bacon when I could have used it to provide for someone less well off? Why did I spend my time last night watching TV rather than working on the multitude of morally profitable tasks I have on my To-Do list? Why do I not devote my whole life to the strenuous pursuit of excellence in all its forms rather than largely mooching around?

Now, there are many different stories about the why of akrasia: for example, I love bacon because I’m wired by natural selection to gorge on fat while it is readily available. Again, many of these stories are exculpatory: suggesting that my weakness of will is largely due to factors operating upon me from outside. [In this case, the overwhelming attractiveness of bacon to male homo sapiens—even when consumption endangers the epithet ‘sapiens’]. Powerful objects of attraction, deficits of knowledge, competing explanatory narrative contexts for action, competing objects of desire, histories, futures. Weakness of Will.

Can I ever be confident that I possess a ‘will to do you good’, rather than a ‘will to survive’, a ‘will to power’, or more seriously and realistically, just a lack of will altogether? And if I cannot be confident of this, how can I be confident that ‘doing good to you’, i.e., blessing, should form the fundamental structure of our relationship?

The first practical problem of blessing is wanting to bless.



3 thoughts on “The Problems of Blessing III

  1. Love it, Dan! Although not sure I’d class love of bacon as a moral failing (sounds a bit Old Covenant to me)..

    Two questions:

    1. Why would forgiveness not make sense on Socrates’ optimistic view? (I believe you, I’d just like to know how you got there.)

    2. The akrasia stuff gels nicely with biblical anthropology — in which it’s not so much knowledge as what we (don’t) do with it that’s the problem (as per Romans 1). But in the church circles I’m familiar with lots of our practice seems to operate on a ‘more knowledge will fix it’ paradigm. Care to speculate?


    1. Thanks Chris,
      I’m pretty sure if I’d been in the garden of Eden, the apple would have been bacon flavoured…

      1. I think that the issue is that a wrong can’t be forgiven when it is excused. Socrates view tends to regard wrongdoing as a technical problem with the execution of an act rather than a direct personal offence. Forgiveness requires a kind of moral judgement about the wrongdoing that isn’t available within Socrates’ moral conceptuality. (The view is more developed in Aristotle and Seneca).

      2. Jamie Smith made the same point in the New College lectures. I think there is much to consider.

      I think ‘more knowledge will fix it’ is actually powerfully true in many circumstances. The SBS series “Go Back To Where You Came From” is an example of greater knowledge leading to greater empathy leading to transformed ethics (ideally). There are many cases where our ethics fail because we lack moral imagination (not least empathic imagination: what that would be like) and the moral imagination can be fired precisely by being fed knowledge. Obviously, some forms of communication of knowledge are more suited to this business of firing the moral imagination, but that doesn’t affect the basic point.
      On the other hand… some of the things you’ve been speculating about on your blog strike me as profoundly true: that practice, habituation, repetition are modes through which knowledge becomes embodied and autonomic.

      The transformation of the moral imagination, and thus the transformation of desire requires both new knowledge and new practices/training. Desire needs an object to draw it out and it needs a practice to be strengthened and made constant. Churches should both set forth the object of desire and train in the disciplines of desiring. All done in fear and trembling for it is God who works to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose.

      Here ends the speculation 😉
      I’d like to hear more of your thoughts… perhaps a blog post?


      1. Ah yes – blog post. Long overdue. How the mighty have fallen! Hmmm…

        You must be right about transformed desire needing new knowledge and new practices/habits — not least because we can’t really get direct access to our desires! (Can we?)


Comments are closed.