The problem goes back at least as far as Plato. Socrates (in Plato's Protagoras) asks precisely how this is possible—if one judges action A to be the best course of action, why would one do anything other than A?
In the dialogue Protagoras, Socrates attests that akrasia does not exist, claiming "No one goes willingly toward the bad" (358d). If a person examines a situation and decides to act in the way he determines to be best, he will actively pursue this action, as the best course is also the good course, i.e. man's natural goal. An all-things-considered assessment of the situation will bring full knowledge of a decision's outcome and worth linked to well-developed principles of the good. A person, according to Socrates, never chooses to act poorly or against his better judgment; actions that go against what is best are only a product of being ignorant of facts or knowledge of what is best or good.
Aristotle on the other hand took a more empirical approach to the question, acknowledging that we intuitively believe in akrasia. He distances himself from the Socratic position by locating the breakdown of reasoning in an agent’s opinion, not his appetition. Now, without recourse to appetitive desires, Aristotle reasons that akrasia occurs as a result of opinion. Opinion is formulated mentally in a way that may or may not imitate truth, while appetites are merely desires of the body. Thus opinion is only incidentally aligned with or opposed to the good, making an akratic action the product of opinion instead of reason. For Aristotle, the antonym of akrasia is enkrateia, which means "in power" (over oneself).
The word akrasia occurs twice in the Koine Greek New Testament. In Matthew 23:25 Jesus uses it to describe hypocritical religious leaders. The Apostle Paul also gives the threat of temptation through akrasia as a reason for a husband and wife to not deprive each other of sex (1 Corinthians 7:5).
In Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, book II, Acrasia, the embodiment of intemperance dwelling in the "Bower of Bliss", had the Circe-like capacity of transforming her lovers into monstrous animal shapes.
Donald Davidson (1969–1980) attempted to solve the problem by first criticizing earlier thinkers who wanted to limit the scope of akrasia to agents who despite having reached a rational decision were somehow swerved off their "desired" tracks. Indeed, Davidson expands akrasia to include any judgment that is reached but not fulfilled, whether it be as a result of an opinion, a real or imagined good, or a moral belief. "[T]he puzzle I shall discuss depends only on the attitude or belief of the agent…my subject concerns evaluative judgments, whether they are analyzed cognitively, prescriptively, or otherwise." Thus he expands akrasia to include cases in which the agent seeks to fulfill desires, for example, but ends up denying himself the pleasure he has deemed most choice-worthy.
Davidson sees the problem as one of reconciling the following apparently inconsistent triad:
- If an agent believes A to be better than B, then they want to do A more than B.
- If an agent wants to do A more than B, then they will do A rather than B if they only do one.
- Sometimes an agent acts against their better judgment.
Davidson solves the problem by saying that, when people act in this way, they temporarily believe that the worse course of action is better, because they have not made an all-things-considered judgment, but only a judgment based on a subset of possible considerations.
Another contemporary philosopher, Amélie Rorty (1980) has tackled the problem by distilling out akrasia's many forms. She contends that akrasia is manifested in different stages of the practical reasoning process. She enumerates four types of akrasia: akrasia of direction or aim, of interpretation, of irrationality, and of character. She separates the practical reasoning process into four steps, showing the breakdown that may occur between each step and how each constitutes an akratic state.
Another explanation is that there are different forms of motivation which can conflict with each other. Throughout the ages, many have identified a conflict between reason and emotion, which might make it possible to believe that one should do A rather than B, but still end up wanting to do B more than A.
Psychologist George Ainslie argues that akrasia results from the empirically verified phenomenon of hyperbolic discounting, which causes us to make different judgements close to a reward than we will when further from it.