Jon Elster

Acting Against One’s Better Judgement Publication date : June 7, 2007

“I see the right, and I approve it too/ Condemn the wrong — and yet the wrong pursue,” says Medea in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
“For the good that I would I do not: but the evil that I would not, that I do,” deplores Saint Paul in The Epistle to the Romans.
These two famous quotations express what could be called the “weakness of the will”.
Why do smokers carry on smoking when they know how harmful it is for their health? Why do governments continue to take dangerous, unreasonable decisions right before elections? Why have some countries failed to ban the sale of firearms, despite the known effects this has on crime? These are some of the modern examples of akrasia that Jon Elster examines here.
Why do we continue acting against our better judgement? More importantly, asks Elster, given the fact that we do, how can we overcome such behaviour?
Although Socrates said it was impossible to do evil knowingly, both history and daily life have amply demonstrated that it is possible. Elster examines this classic philosophical problem, using the subtle, powerful tools of contemporary philosophy to create a complete picture of the factors that explain this “weakness of the will”. And he describes the strategies that can help individuals and institutions to overcome it.
Ulysses tied himself to the mast of his ship to resist temptation; can institutions too find a way of resisting temptation?

This is an illuminating, modern approach to a classic philosophical problem by a brilliant, world-famous philosopher. He has written a concise work which gives us the essence of his thinking and offers a new look at decision-making and choice.

Known for his work on rational choice, Jon Elster is a professor at Columbia University and at the Collège de France. A former professor of the University of Chicago, he has also taught sociology at the University of Paris VIII and philosophy and history at the University of Oslo. He is the author of Le Laboureur et ses enfants (1987), Karl Marx, une interprétation analytique (1989) and Psychologie politique (1990).