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Mark Kingwell

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

So Tiger Woods admits he violated his "core values" in pursuing a series of adulterous relationships with models, society hostesses and party planners who all bear an eerie resemblance to each other. This public display of remorse may or may not satisfy the Tiger-baiters out there; at least he has, as we say, come clean about admitting that his actions did not match his beliefs.

But this coming clean is not so clear. However sincere, his admission raises the thorny question of whether he ever really held the beliefs, or values, he now regrets having violated. Can someone possess a value and still act against it? Can someone act against a belief without at the very same time abandoning it?

My own view is that ethical issues are rarely about beliefs, or even about core values, whatever those are. Instead, most ethical action is governed by complicated patterns of desire: what I want to do, what I wish were the case, what I would like to be. With that in mind, here are some of the things that the common but usually garbled claim about violating core values might mean, in Tiger Woods's case or otherwise.

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1. WEAKNESS OF THE WILL

The Greeks called this akrasia , which means a lack of command. I know what the right thing to do is, I just failed to do it because I am weak. Socrates thought this was impossible; Plato didn't. That's perhaps why Plato was more congenial to later Christian thinkers. It is worth noting that the English translation of the Greek word is, sometimes, incontinence.

2. ASPIRATIONAL GOODS

These are aspirational not in the consumer sense, but in the sense that there are things I aim for, but I fall short most of the time because it is an imperfect world. This makes morality a kind of "personal best" challenge, where I'm trying to get closer to the right thing I discern. But we all know what Yoda told Luke about trying.

3. REGULATIVE IDEALS

Duty-based moral theories often hinge on this notion. There is some good thing, say justice or an unconditionally good will, which I realize I can only ever approach asymptotically. But this goal nevertheless guides me in my second-best actions. On this view, the perfect is not the enemy of the good - the charge often brought against utopianism - but is instead its best friend.

4. TELEOLOGICAL FLOURISHING

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I have some idea of what my proper ends or goals are, what would most fully realize my ethical nature, but I fall short because of (a) mistakes, (b) poor execution, or (c) inattention. From this perspective, ethical failings are like booting grounders in baseball: probably inevitable, but you can try to lower your percentage of errors with practice.

5. PSYCHIC CONFLICT

I have a first-order desire to do something (have sex with lots of women) but a second-order desire not to (and be faithful to the smoking-hot mother of my children). After a period of struggle, the first-order desire wins out for as long as it takes to satisfy it - in Tiger Woods's case, apparently not long.

These may all seem similar, but in fact represent significant differences in their views of human proclivity. When it comes to Tiger Woods, the situation looks like some version of (1) or (5), perhaps a combination thereof. But one can never rule out:

6. MUDDLE

I want to be a good person, at least in theory, but my head keeps getting turned by the rewards of fame, wealth and alpha-male privilege. In delirious moments, I can't quite see why I shouldn't reap those rewards. Foolish, but plausible.

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Or even:

7. CYNICISM

I'm really only sorry I got caught - stupid cellphones! - but I know what is expected of me if I want to retain any portion of those rewards. Harsh, but plausible.

Desires are not nearly as tractable as beliefs or their pumped-up cousins, values; they're all about spillage. Tiger Woods gave into his, and hurt his wife. He's genuinely sorry. But logic demands that pre-crash Tiger would do it again - not something you can admit at a press conference.

Mark Kingwell is professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.

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