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A cure for akrasia

-2 [deleted] 28 December 2012 07:11PM

Some of you guys have been a little down on philosophy articles lately. This article by Roy Sorensen appeared in Mind in 1997, and it is awesome, therefore all philosophy papers are awesome. 

 

Published in Mind 106/424 (October 1997) 743

A CURE FOR INCONTINENCE!

Tired of being weak-willed?  Do you want to end procrastination and back-sliding?  Are you envious of those paragons of self-control who always do what they consider best?

Thanks to a breakthrough in therapeutic philosophy, you too can now close the gap between what you think you ought to do and what you actually do.  Just send $1000 to the address below and you will never again succumb to temptation.  This is a MONEY-BACK GUARANTEE.  The first time you do something that you know to be irrational, your money will be refunded, no questions asked. Of course, you might nevertheless have some questions.  How can you act incontinently when you know that the "irrational" act will earn you a $1000 refund? Well, that's what's revolutionary in this new cure for incontinence.  

Old approaches focus on punishing the weak willed. This follows the antiquated behaviorist principle that negative reinforcement extinguishes bad behavior.  The new humanitarian approach rewards incontinence -- and lavishly at that.  The key is to make the reward so strongly motivating that an otherwise irrational act becomes rational.

Some may seek a refund on the grounds that the reward for incontinence played no role in their (apparently) incontinent act; although aware of the reward, they would have performed the act anyway.  These folks should distinguish between actual and hypothetical incontinence.  If you act in accordance with your judgement as to what is best overall, then you did nothing irrational.

True, the hypothetical incontinent act is a sign that you have a weak will.  But the presence of this disposition gives you all the more reason to block its manifestation -- by sending $1000. Granted, there are people who cannot be swayed from temptation by a mere $1000.  These recalcitrant individuals are advised to send in more than $1000.  Give until it hurts.

Rush your cheque to:

Dr. Roy Sorensen

Department of Philosophy

New York University

503 Main Building

100 Washington Square East

New York, New York 10003-6688

(Note, address is not current)

Comments (32)

Comment author: tgb 28 December 2012 10:34:38PM 1 point [-]

I find this quite amusing, but think it would belong better as an open-thread post or similar. Not much to discuss here, unless I'm missing something.

Comment author: [deleted] 28 December 2012 10:48:51PM *  0 points [-]

I concede that, but I thought people would enjoy this and open thread stuff typically gets buried in 15 minutes or so.

Anyway, here's what there is to think about: 1) Sorensen's solution is paradoxical: if you get an overwhelming (utility wise) amount of money for being akratic, you can't be akratic. So long as you have $1000 (or however much) in Sorensen's fund, it's impossible to commit an (actually as opposed to contrafactually) akratic action.

2) Sorensen probably didn't get any money in the mail, because his solution is obviously silly. But why? It's not hard to tweak the scenario beyond practice but within reason to counter objections about long-tem utility. How do we explain the silliness of this solution?

3) Another (also funny) article in response to this counters that Sorensen's solution isn't silly at all, but rather one that we regularly practice: when we encounter ourselves behaving akratically, we often tell ourselves stories about how we're not distractible, but spontaneous, not mean, but honest, not lazy, but contemplative. We just reevaluate the akratic behavior so that it seems to have a higher utility, and so choosing it is not akratic. Is this true? And if so, is this practice irrational? It obviously seems so, but its irrationality is as hard to explain as the irrationality of Sorensen's solution.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 06 January 2013 02:33:05PM *  1 point [-]

open thread stuff typically gets buried in 15 minutes or so.

Yes. And one of the reasons why open threads get buried so fast is that people post open-thread level things as separate articles.

Thus, the purpose of my downvote is to make it easier for people to cooperate in this Prisonner's Dilemma.

Comment author: handoflixue 29 December 2012 12:58:27AM 0 points [-]

Except that since he'll never refund the money, the action is still akratic. And even if he does pay out, anything that costs you more than $1,000 is still akratic. It's clever word games that relies on our knowledge that he won't refund the money (because he said so, but also because it pattern-matches to an obvious scam)

Comment author: [deleted] 29 December 2012 01:49:01AM *  0 points [-]

He wouldn't even accept the money, much less refund it. It's just a philosophy paper, intended to point out (in an amusing way) a problem or paradox in our understanding of practical reasons.

But in the scenario that he (humorously) sets up, he would refund the money if asked, but the fact that you get $1000 for doing something akratic makes it non-akratic (i.e. because the utility of the akratic action is no longer outweighed, once you take the refund into account).

Comment author: handoflixue 29 December 2012 06:30:28AM 0 points [-]

I suppose then my issue is that I find the problem/paradox trivial to solve, because if you just write out an actual logical flow chart, there's no individual step that runs in to problems. It's clever word play, but there isn't any actual substance behind it.

It's not actually a paradox, because the refund is guaranteed in advance (either you'll do something akratic because everyone does, or he'll use the paradox logic to weasel out of paying). Regardless of which branch you're on, the actual value of the payout is now effectively 0 - if you know you'll get it inevtiably then getting it now is a trivially small improvement, and if you'll never get it, then... you'll never get it. So no paradox emerges, and the action remains akratic.

Put another way: At best, you've simply regained your money, and thus gained +$0.00. Your own failure to be akratic would, itself, be akratic... and... okay... that reasoning produces a completely different and actually viable paradox, but it still simplifies out to "you'd have to be stupid to take this offer" :)

Comment author: [deleted] 29 December 2012 03:50:36PM -1 points [-]

It's not actually a paradox, because the refund is guaranteed in advance (either you'll do something akratic because everyone does, or he'll use the paradox logic to weasel out of paying).

I don't think you've understood the article: if you have $1000 with Sorensen, you cant' do anything akratic. It's impossible. Which isn't to say your behavior changes at all, it just can't be called akratic anymore.

Comment author: Alicorn 29 December 2012 07:35:59PM *  2 points [-]

If you lost well over a thousand dollars through weakness of will by some other mechanism, that would still be akratic.

Comment author: handoflixue 31 December 2012 06:39:14PM 0 points [-]

I don't think you understood my point: You're NOT fixing any actual aspect of your life by spending $1,000, so saying you don't have akrasia is clearly wrong, or else you're using a fairly stupid definition.

Also, Alicorn's point, which I raised twice before.

Comment author: [deleted] 31 December 2012 07:24:02PM -1 points [-]

I don't think you understood my point: You're NOT fixing any actual aspect of your life by spending $1,000, so saying you don't have akrasia is clearly wrong, or else you're using a fairly stupid definition.

That is the point of Sorensen's article.

Comment author: handoflixue 31 December 2012 08:35:59PM 0 points [-]

... the point of his article is that you can waste $1,000 doing something that doesn't work?

Comment author: [deleted] 31 December 2012 10:06:56PM *  -1 points [-]

The point of his article is that we run into an absurdity so long as we understand akrasia to be 'knowingly acting against your self interest' (or some equivalent variation thereof). Suppose I have before me actions A and B, and I judge that A has greater utility. Then I do B.

If this is my problem, we can as easily solve it by raising the utility of B (until my doing B instead of A is no longer irrational) as we can by lowering the utility of B until it is no longer tempting. But it's manifestly absurd to think that I can cure akrasia by raising the utility of B (as Sorensen ironically recommends). Yet nothing about our understanding of akrasia explains this absurdity.

So it must be that our understanding of akrasia is faulty. That's the point of the article.

Comment author: Epiphany 29 December 2012 02:10:19AM *  1 point [-]

Just send $1000 to the address below and you will never again succumb to temptation.

If he's talking about impulse buying, this might actually work. You can't spend money if you don't have any left.

Before you respond: I do "get it" (the idea is to reward you for bad behaviors thereby changing your perspective on your bad behaviors) and I know this was posted in a journal (Some may trust people that they don't know posting in online journals with lots of money, but it's not impossible for spammers / hackers / con artists to post things in online journals that shouldn't be there, and also, you really should think twice before lending a person $1,000 even if they do legitimately post in a journal. For instance: The bank would check their credit score, not whether they publish articles in a journal. That's common sense.)

Additional responses that suggest the author may think that I am clueless or picks apart my simple joke will be ignored. Laugh or downvote as desired and move on!

Comment author: [deleted] 29 December 2012 02:35:09AM -1 points [-]

Well, it would work for anything, if there's enough money (it doesn't matter if the money comes from you): the point is that an akratic action is an action where you evaluate a pair of options (say) such that the utility of A is higher than the utility of B, but nevertheless you do B.

Sorensen's solution is to refund your money if ever you choose B. But knowing that you'll be refunded, B now has a higher utility, so the action isn't akratic. It's like a paradox.

Comment author: Epiphany 29 December 2012 04:58:22AM 0 points [-]

Assuming it makes sense to trust such an ad. I wouldn't. I'd be more likely to trust such an ad for preventing impulse buying via monetary depletion.

Comment author: Desrtopa 29 December 2012 03:28:03PM 0 points [-]

It took me a while to get it, but Esar is right. The point of the "solution" isn't that it's useful. You behave in the same way you did before, only now it's not akrasia anymore because you get a thousand dollars back so you're not acting against your own interests. It doesn't modify your behavior, it just redefines it.

Comment author: Epiphany 29 December 2012 07:54:58PM 0 points [-]

I "got it". I am not missing the point. I'm just saying "If you send $1000 to somebody over the internet, you're not likely to get it back later." Therefore, that doing this would curb impulse buying by making you broke seems more likely to me.

Comment author: [deleted] 29 December 2012 09:22:01PM 0 points [-]

You get that this is a philosophy article that appeared in a journal right? Its not an actual ad. The point is to present a paradox.

Comment author: Epiphany 29 December 2012 09:46:49PM *  2 points [-]

A. It was posted on the internet (I assume you pasted it in as opposed to typing it off of paper). The internet poses various interesting security risks such as the possibility for spammers / hackers / con artists to post things where they shouldn't be.

B. That it appeared in a journal is no reason to trust a person you don't know with $1,000. Consider this: the bank doesn't lend money based on whether you post in a journal, they lend money based on your credit score. Why trust anybody with $1,000 without at least knowing their credit score?

All I wanted to do was make a funny comment. Responses that nit pick a simple joke and simultaneously make me feel like the other person thinks I am clueless make me not want to participate here. I am not going to continue this conversation further.

Comment author: [deleted] 29 December 2012 10:57:19PM 0 points [-]

Well, I apologize for any offense. Your response (i.e. suspecting a scam) was, even if in jest, both not uncommon and not what I expected. There is just no possibility this is any kind of scam, and it simply didn't occur to me that anyone would think otherwise.

Comment author: Epiphany 30 December 2012 01:32:21AM *  0 points [-]

I apologize

This does make me feel better. Thanks.

There is just no possibility

I've had countless experiences where high-level professionals like doctors, the president of a company, leading businesses and even a college have done destructively incompetent things and/or outright intentionally attempted to take advantage of me and often for less money than $1,000. At this point, I would not allow the president of the United States to borrow $1,000 without a credit score and a contract.

Be careful. Seriously.

Comment author: [deleted] 29 December 2012 03:02:50AM 1 point [-]

Certainly someone irrational enough to actually pay the $1000 would also be irrational enough to, say, set $1001 on fire (which would still be irrational even after receiving the $1000 refund).

Comment author: [deleted] 29 December 2012 09:28:03PM 0 points [-]

I don't get it.

I do somthing stupid, like spend all day on 4chan. I send him the $1000. I do something stupid, like spend all day on 4chan. I get the $1000 back. I do something stupid, like spend all day on 4chan.

Comment author: gjm 29 December 2012 09:56:13PM 5 points [-]

Nope, indeed you don't get it :-).

After you send him the $1000, when you spend all day on 4chan, it is no longer stupid because of the $1000 you get back by doing it. Therefore it isn't an akratic action. Therefore you don't get the $1000 for it after all. This is a contradiction, and "therefore" it's impossible for you to do it :-).

It's just a philosophical joke.

Comment author: Mestroyer 29 December 2012 02:18:32AM 0 points [-]

Q: What if I do two irrational things, one after another, so that the first was necessary to get my refund, but the second was purely wasteful?

A: Well, if doing one irrational thing can't get you the reward and two can, the second one wasn't purely wasteful.