Agnes Callard on acting against your interests

By Robert Wright, Sep 04 2020

The first thing I ever heard about the philosopher Agnes Callard is that she had once lain down in the middle of a road at night as part of her philosophical explorations. This intrigued me, so I arranged to talk with her on The Wright Show last year. I’m glad I did, both because it was a fairly wild conversation (as conversations with philosophers go) and because it made me see such common words as unruliness and aspiration in a new light. In Part I of the interview, below, Alice and I talk about unruliness (and the related concept of “akrasia”). In Part II, which will appear in a future issue of NZN, we talk about aspiration, the subject of her book Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming.

Unruliness, or a rebellion for its own sake

WRIGHT: You’ve written about something called “akrasia.” As I understand it, it’s doing something even though you think it's the wrong thing to do in one sense or another—morally wrong, unwise—and you know that, but you do it anyway. But before we talk about that, I want to talk about “Unruliness,” which is the name of an essay you wrote. 

The way you first came to my attention was by virtue of your having at one point in your life laid down in the middle of a road at night on the yellow line, which struck me as—yeah, “unruly” would be a fair way to put it.

I was very struck by that and I thought I should get this person who allegedly did this to explain to me why she did it. 

So this was what, 20 years ago or something?

CALLARD: Yeah, just about. I was a grad student at Berkeley studying classics at the time. 

I guess I would describe unruliness more generally as when you see that there's a certain structure of how people tend to respond or act in a situation; and then you see another possibility of just a thing that people don't do. 

Another example I gave in that essay is eating flowers. I used to be really tempted to eat flowers. I'm like, they're so pretty. I just want to eat them.

Did you ever do it?

Yes. They don't taste good. But I would keep trying. It was like, but that's not what you do. You don't eat flowers.

One does not eat flowers.

Exactly. And so there's this line in the road, and it's like, here's what you don't do: lie down on that line. And then once I get that thought, I'm like, but what would it be like if you did it? 


We just have this rule that we all made up, we all follow this rule. And the more you think about it, the more it feels to you like you need that knowledge of what it would be like because that excluded possibility becomes so tempting. 

And for years before I laid down, I always loved to walk along the yellow lines, which is already—

That's rule breaking as I understand it.

Since high school, I often would come home from debate tournaments late at night, and the roads would be empty. And in that situation, I'd always walk along the yellow lines, and I would feel like a car almost, like I'm playing a car. 

So I had already done that for years, but what I had never done was lie down, be a stationary object.

Wisely, I might add...

Yes. And I never did it again. Because as I say in that essay, a policeman came along and thought I was trying to commit suicide. We had a long conversation. He made me promise not to ever do it again. So now I don't do it.

Were there cars coming by while you were lying down? 

Yeah.

So you could have actually been killed.

Yes.

When my friend Paul Bloom described this to me, I said that woman must be crazy. I don't mean this offensively, but that's what I said about you.

I’m not offended.

If there was a significant risk of you dying, it seems to me that the knowledge of what it was like to lie down there is really not quite worth the cost.

I see that. 

(Laughs.)

I made myself very narrow. And it wasn't a super narrow road. And my thinking was cars don't tend to cross over the double yellow lines when they're driving.

No. This was before texting, I'll give you that much. It's not like doing it in the age of driver texting.

Yeah, there weren't many cars too. I can't remember how many cars passed me, maybe one or two. And the policeman was in the car, who saw me. Maybe he was the only one actually. 

I wasn't scared. But it seemed to me that the probability of being hit by a car was very low. You might still think, yeah, but it's high enough to make that a crazy thing to do.

That's what I'm thinking, yeah.

That makes a lot of sense to me, that point of view. 

One of the things that I've talked about in the piece is this difficulty of communicating with the police officer, where I was like, I know I'm not going to be able to get you to understand what was attractive to me about this…

I would say cops are a particularly tough audience for that message, yes.

Right. So maybe one way to think about it to make it seem less crazy would be to put it in a context of thinking about that as a kind of outlier decision among a large field of decisions where I am more open and risk-taking than other people. I'm sort of seeing more possibilities of what to do. 

Even just when I walk down the street, and if there's a little ledge, I'll tend to walk on the ledge because it's more fun. And I notice other people don't do that. It's like I'm having a little bit more fun than the people who just don't think about walking up—not a high ledge, just…

I was gonna ask. Okay.

No, no, no. I also like heights so I do tend to climb up on things that are tall. 

Two or three years ago, I started this late night debate series, kind of out of nothing. I just saw the possibility of doing this. And it's been really popular, and it's something that was easy to do, but just nobody saw the possibility. 

I think most people, it's not that they would say “All things considered, I shouldn't lie down in the middle of the road;” it’s that it would never occur to them to lie down in the middle of the road. Right? 

That is, in a way, what's abnormal about me—that I saw that possibility. So I guess what I want to say is that there are advantages to being attuned to those possibilities and to finding them compelling, but there are also disadvantages.

Yeah, those have occurred to me. So maybe you should talk about the advantages.

Well, those were examples of the advantages. The fact that I walk on the ledges and other people just walk on the sidewalk. It's fun. When I walk down the street, sometimes I skip, sometimes I dance. I've noticed other people don't do that. So I get to have more fun than other people, because I'm seizing these possibilities that are there. 

Those ones are not dangerous, but whether I see the alternative possibility or not isn't so dependent on whether or not it's dangerous. It's not like I can turn that on and off in that way. 

I don't think that I would do that now. I'm a parent. I'm older. It was a particular frame of mind that I wouldn't describe as especially rational but I suppose that I do do other things—I continue to do things that people around me find a little bit puzzling, but maybe where the stakes are lower.

Do you have just one quick example that springs to mind?

Maybe my office is an example. Here, I'll show you.  


Whoa.

This is what my office looks like. Most people's offices don't look like that.

Have you ever tried sitting in that office while on psychedelic drugs?

No, I've never done any psychedelic drugs.

You don't need to. That's the great thing about that office.

Thank you. So the point is that's a possibility that's open to everyone—to not have a boring office—but people just don't apprehend that possibility.

Right. I apprehend the possibility of having a clean, tidy office but that has never happened. 

Is there a connection between your attraction to unruliness—we should add that you define unruliness as not exactly the same as rebellion because rebellion has a purpose; unruliness is like aimless rebelliousness, it’s for the sake of the rebellion as opposed to for the sake of some end state that the rebellion is designed to lead to—

It's less purposive, yes.

And is your unruliness related to your being attracted to philosophy?

Yeah, I think so. Here's a way that I put it recently on Twitter: I'm attracted to transgressive views too—transgressive ideas, not just transgressive actions. 

And that's a dangerous way to be because, if you're attracted to a view on the basis of the fact that other people disagree with it, you're pretty likely to be wrong a lot of the time. Because what most people think tends to be right. 

So one thing that philosophy does is puts me in constant argumentative contact with other people so that I can test whether this transgressive idea is a good one, or is one of the garbage ones. Most of them, the vast majority of them are garbage. 

I'm someone who needs a lot of personal interaction in order to think, and that's really a big part of why I left classics—I was a grad student in classics, I got an MA, I took all these exams—but in classics, you're sort of expected to develop your ideas on your own, and I would develop pretty crazy ideas. 

Like, I once handed in a paper on the Aeneid that was about how the entire Aeneid was a dream, and the paper had a soundtrack you were supposed to listen to. It was just crazy. 

So suppose you're a little bit crazy. You need people to rein you in. And philosophy gives me that.

So it's like a good intellectual prison or safe house or something for you. No, that's a bad metaphor.

Intellectual workout.

It's a good gym. It's a good safe gym for you. Okay. 

Akrasia, or a weakness of will?

Now, let's back into akrasia. That's a word that I could not have defined until I saw it in your work. You don't hear it much. It means acting against your better judgment while you're thinking this is wrong or unwise. 

I had two thoughts. One, it kind of is something I do. 

On the other hand, when people are doing something that they know is wrong—at that moment—aren’t they managing to come up with a justification for it, so they don't think it's wrong? 

An example for me is watching sports when I should be working. It seems to me like a pure waste of time. Sometimes, I'll even wake up at night and I'll have spent an hour watching the U.S. Open, and I'll think “I'm not going to watch it at all today, I'm not going to watch it all today”—I’ll vow to do that, and that vow will let me get back to sleep because I'll be at peace with myself. 

And then about 50% of the time, I will violate the vow the next day, but often it is with a justification floating around in my mind: like, okay, you put in a lot of work, you deserve to do this and so on. 

So first of all: is it akrasia if I'm justifying it at a conscious level, no matter how self-deceptive the justification?

Good. I would say philosophers often talk about hard cases versus easier cases, where the easier cases are easier to explain away philosophically. So that would be an easier case. 

Just to take a step back: the word akrasia comes from the word “strength”—kratos—and then “a”, alfa primitive, so it's “lack of strength.” It's sometimes in English referred to as weakness of will. It's acting against your better judgment: I know I should do this, but I do this instead. 

Now, there are two ways to take the case of akrasia and sort of soften it into an easier case.

One way is to think, at the last minute, I changed my mind; I convinced myself that actually that was the better thing to do.

The other way is to say, I didn't convince myself, but I was powerless. I couldn't control myself. So in a sense, I didn't act intentionally. 

So you can take a case of akrasia and soften it—make it easier—by turning it into a case of change of mind or turning it into a case of involuntary action. 

But if you don't do either of those things, then you get a kind of paradox: if you thought this other thing was the better thing to do, why didn't you do that?

Strictly speaking, is that the only true akrasia, when you're actually thinking this is the wrong thing to do as you do it?

It depends on who you ask. Some philosophers think that the true one doesn't exist. It's impossible.

Socrates or Plato, they wrote about this, right?

Yes. Socrates famously had this view. I think my colleague Robert Pippin has this view that there's no such thing as what I would call the hard case. 

Now, if you think there's no such thing as that case, you're going to call the other cases akrasia. So if you want to ask me which is the true akrasia, it depends on whether you're talking to a skeptic or not. I'm not a skeptic.

So, Socrates says there's no such thing as doing what?

Acting against your better judgment (voluntarily, you have to throw that in there). So he thinks that if you do what looks like acting against your better judgment, it must have been the case either that you changed your mind at the last minute or that you weren't actually in control of your actions. 

A drug addict might be like “I shouldn't take this drug,” but they take it anyway. That might not be a hard case of akrasia because their judgments were not controlling what they did in any sense.

And what is your view?

My view is that akrasia and aspiration are actually related in that, in a case of akrasia, you are looking at the world simultaneously from two different ethical points of view. 

The easiest cases to think of are ones where we have some kind of brute bodily appetite, like a desire to eat another cookie. And you say to yourself, "No, I'm going to have a stomachache later if I eat another cookie. I shouldn't eat one, but they look really good.” …

You have this point of view on the cookie: "Yummy. That looks so good." There was a time in your life where that was the only point of view on it you had, when you were like four. You're four years old, you just want the cookie and you don't think "Well, I get a stomachache later." 

The ethical point of view of prudence where you step back from yourself and you think about your life, you didn't have that at that age.

So you had to learn to think about the world in that way. But when you learned that, you didn't totally unlearn the four year old's point of view.

You're telling me.

That's still kind of with you. 

I think what's happening in a case of akrasia is that you've sort of pulled yourself aspirationally out of a certain kind of older, more childish, more immature way of approaching the world, where immediate pleasures are the only things of value. You've pulled yourself out of that, but not all the way. 

And so, when you look at the action of watching sports or eating the cookie, you look at it both as "That will be so fun, yum, yeah" and, "Well, no, I don't want to do that, I have this better option."

And there's a lot of ways to manage that dialectic. 

One way to manage it is to tell yourself a story that will satisfy your prudent self. That's what we call rationalization: we sort of convince the prudent self that actually having the cookie or watching the sports thing is good for us: like, if I don't relax a little, I won't get any work done, so I should. 

I would say, in that case, you're not weak-willed, because you're not experiencing this straight-up clash.

Oh really? Well, that's a relief, because that's what I do. Then I'm not weak-willed. Good.

It's maybe worse though.

Oh.

Because rationalization isn't better. It's a way to adjudicate the conflict between the two perspectives that is non-optimal. You're doing it, in some sense, by self-deception. You can almost think of this “younger you” that he knows he's not on the best rational grounds and he has ways of co-opting the prudent you by giving fake reasons for why the imprudent thing would be the better thing to do.

Yeah. It seems to me this should be called weakness of will. But go ahead. It depends on how you define it.

I think it's fine to use it as an umbrella term. 

The reason to be a stickler about the hard case is that the hard case can look impossible if you make a certain set of philosophical assumptions: that an action is only intentional if the agent does it for a reason; and that a reason is the agent's all-things-considered judgment about what the best thing to do is. And so then if that person thinks, "No, this other thing is the best thing to do", it looks like it follows that the person can't intentionally—

Right, you can't be acting against your better judgment because it feels like your judgment at the time is that you should do it, right? In the case of rationalization, I mean.

Right. So that just doesn't count as a case of acting against better judgment. Some philosophers have just been particularly interested in the paradoxical reality of an action's being both intentional and against one's better judgment.

And that does happen to me. Sometimes I'm sitting there watching sports, and I think, "Okay, now I should go up and work." And I don't get up off the couch. And then I feel there's a gnawing feeling of guilt inside me. That's true akrasia, right?

Right. I'll put it this way. That's the kind of case that keeps philosophers up at night. 

But I think they're in the same family. I think you're right that what motivates us to create false rationalizations is the same kind of conflict that shows up in a particularly strident form in what the philosophers call the hard case.

The interview was lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Illustration by Nikita Petrov.

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