Neoptolemus and Huck Finn Reconsidered. Alleged Inverse akrasia and the Case for Moral Incapacity

Journal of Value Inquiry (forthcoming)
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Cases of akratic behavior are generally seen as paradigmatic depictions of the knowledge-action gap (Darnell et al 2019): we know what we should do, we judge that we should do it, yet we often fail to act according to our knowledge. In recent decades attention has been given to a particular instance of akratic behavior, which is that of “inverse akrasia”, where the agent possesses faulty moral knowledge but fails to act accordingly, thus ending up doing the right thing. In particular, two literary examples are considered as exemplifying this kind of akratic situation: Huckleberry Finn (Arpaly & Schroeder 1999, Arpaly 2000, Hursthouse 1999, Kleist 2009, Holton manuscript) and Neoptolemus as understood by Aristotle (NE; Arpaly & Schroeder 1999). In this paper I will argue that those of Neoptolemus and Huck Finn are not cases of inverse akrasia (Holton manuscript) but are much better explained as instances of what Williams (1993) called “moral incapacity”. In particular, the reason why they fail to act according to their original judgments is due to a lack of motivation to act accordingly, which is grounded in their moral self-identities (Blasi 1984; Vigani 2016). The paper will unfold as follows: I will, first, argue that neither Neoptolemus nor Huck Finn show akratic behavior; thus, they cannot be legitimately labeled as “inverse akratics” (par 1.); then, I will argue that they act the way they do notwithstanding their faulty judgments because they are effectively motivated to do so. Such motivation originates in their moral self-identities and is experienced through the threat of self-betrayal (par 2); finally, I will argue that when an agent is motivated to act in a way that is integral with her moral self-identity, acting otherwise is experienced as something one cannot ultimately do; that is, as a moral incapacity (par 3). This “cannot” is neither a metaphor for an “I shouldn’t”, nor an instance of what has been recently labeled a “moral impossibility” (Caprioglio Panizza 2020, 2021), since it does not arise from the normative force of deontic judgments, and it is neither physically nor psychologically impossible for the agent to act otherwise.

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Matilde Liberti
Università degli Studi di Genova


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