Akrasia is the philosophical term for the state of acting against one’s better judgment. For instance, if you know that you’d be much happier if you and your partner talked about things in a calm and civil manner, yet you somehow find yourself raising your voice again, that’s akrasia. The moment that you realize that if you don’t study for the test tomorrow you might flunk, but you keep playing video games anyway, is akrasia. Feeling awful about factory farming but continuing to eat that mouthwatering steak is akrasia.
You know what no one ever has akrasia about? Touching a hot stove.
No one is like “I know that this is burning away my flesh and going to cause me serious wounds that will put me in the hospital, but I can’t stop touching the stove!” Doesn’t happen. Why? Because it hurts. You don’t put your hand on a hot stove, because if you did it would hurt, and if you did by some mischance put your hand on a hot stove you’d yank it away immediately. For the vast majority of people, hot stove akrasia is not a thing.
Now, you might say: “Ozy, that’s just about physical pain. When I yell or procrastinate or eat steak, the pain I feel isn’t physical, it’s emotional.” But people are very good at avoiding painful emotional things as well. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to avoid taking a shit on your boss’s desk at work, even though the consequences of such behavior would be entirely emotional.
Indeed, a fair amount of akrasia is people avoiding painful things, even when it involves them making serious (but less painful) sacrifices. For instance, you might be very frightened of social rejection– for good reason, rejection is very painful– but also be extremely lonely. You have to run a risk of social rejection in order to avoid being lonely. But your brain is so good at getting you to avoid extremely painful experiences that you spend a lot of time wishing you had someone to talk to and wondering if anyone would ever notice if you died. That is also a painful experience, but less painful in each individual moment than social rejection (it is worse, but only because it’s drawn out longer).
From a certain perspective, the problem is that procrastination doesn’t hurt. If procrastination on studying hurt as much in the moment as touching a hot stove hurts, the market for Internet-blocking software would disappear.
Of course, procrastination has a sort of niggling pain in the moment– you know the time is ticking away. And procrastination hurts eventually. But the problem is that people aren’t super-good at ‘eventually’. That’s kind of the whole akrasia problem.
In a sense, a lot of the problem of akrasia is that people’s system ones and system twos don’t agree about what’s good and what’s bad.Your system two says “if we don’t study for the test tomorrow, then I’m going to flunk”; your system one weights “eventual flunking” as a little bit painful, “the boredom of studying” as extremely painful, and “playing video games” as extremely enjoyable. Your system two says “factory farming is wrong”; your system one says “bro, you must think I am insane if you want me to give up these delicious calories because of your high-falutin concerns about beings which, may I point out, aren’t even the same species as us.” Your system two says “chill out, he’s my partner and I love him and if we stay on the same page I’m pretty sure we’re going to work this out”; your system one says “LION??? I AM PRETTY CERTAIN MY PARTNER IS A LION????? I AM GOING TO ATTACK THEM WITH ALL WEAPONS AT MY DISPOSAL.”
If only system ones and system twos could be made to agree about things. I suspect the problem of akrasia would be substantially solved.