Reformed Compatibilist Freedom. Part 2. Harry Frankfurt on Hierarchy of Motives and Free Will

The debate on free will has traditionally focused on how external constraints may prevent us from freely doing what we want to do. In contrast, modern psychology highlights how internal constraints (or drives) such as addictions, phobias and other kinds of compulsive behavior can be even more compelling in determining our actions. Frankfurt introduces several distinctions to our internal constraints or desires in order to shed light on they affect the way we exercise our free will.

(1) First-order desire: “A wants X”, is a desire to perform some action. A desire to eat a mango is a first-order desire; a desire for world peace is not.

(2) Will: a first-order desire which is effective, i.e. which causes one to do what one desires to do. A desire to eat mango is one’s will in Frankfurt’s sense, if that desire brings one to actually eat mango.

“An agent’s will, then, is identical with one or more of his first-order desires. But the notion of the will, as I am employing it, is not coextensive with the notion of first-order desires. It is not the notion of something that merely inclines an agent in some degree to act in a certain way. Rather, it is the notion of an effective desire — one that moves (or will or would move) a person all the way to action. Thus the notion of the will is not coextensive with the notion of what an agent intends to do. For even though someone may have a settled intention to do X, he may nonetheless do something else instead of doing X because, despite his intention, his desire to do X proves to be weaker or less effective than some conflicting desire.” (p. 14)

(3) Second-order desire: “A wants to X”, as a desire to have a certain desire. For example, a physician helping drug addicts may ‘desire’ to take drugs in order to experience and thus empathize with the drug addicts’ desire for the drug. In reality, he wants only to want to take it, and not to take it. There is nothing in what he now wants that would be satisfied by the drug itself. “His second-order desire to be moved to take the drug does not entail that he has a first-order desire to take it…That is, his desire to have a certain desire that he does not have may not be a desire that his will should be at all different than it is.” (p. 15)

Suppose the physician really wants to achieve his goal. Trying out drugs is now among his desires. “But the question of whether or not his second-order desire is fulfilled does not turn merely on whether the desire he wants is one of his desires. It turns on whether this desire is, as he wants it to be, his effective desire or will.” (p, 16)

(4) Second-order volition: a desire that a certain desire be one’s will, i.e., a desire that a certain desire brings one to action. “Someone has a desire of the second order either when he wants simply to have a certain desire or when he wants a certain desire to be his will. In situations of the latter kind, I shall call his second-order desires, “second order volitions” or “volitions of the second order.” (p. 16).

Put concretely, the above example of eating mango can be turned into an example of a second-order volition if I desire instead, not just to have the desire for durian, but that the desire for durian rather than mango be effective in bringing me to eat durian rather than mango.

Frankfurt emphasizes,

“Now it is having second-order volitions, and not having second-order desires generally, that I regard as essential to being a person. It is logically possible, however unlikely, that there should be an agent with second-order desires but with no volitions of the second order. Such a creature, in my view, would not be a person…It is only because a person has volitions of the second order that he is capable both of enjoying and of lacking freedom of the will.” (pp. 16, 19)

Frankfurt defines free will accordingly:

“When we ask whether a person’s will is free we are not asking whether he is in a position to translate his first-order desires into actions. That is the question of whether he is free to do as he pleases. The question of the freedom of his will does not concern the relation between what he does and what he wants to do. Rather, it concerns his desires themselves…It seems to me both natural and useful to construe the question of whether a person’s will is free in close analogy to the question of whether an agent enjoys freedom of action. Now freedom of action is …freedom to do what one wants to do. Analogously, then, the statement that a person enjoys freedom of the will means…that he is free to want what he wants to want. More, precisely, it means that he is free to will what he wants to will, or to have the will that he wants. Just as the question about the freedom of an agent’s action has to do with whether it is the action he wants to perform, so the question about the freedom of the will has to do with whether it is the will that he wants to have.” (p. 20. Emphasis added)

I give a concrete example.
Suppose I have a desire to eat durian, but my Westernized roommate gets nauseous whenever I eat durian in his presence. Out of loving considerations, I may have a second-order desire not to have the desire to eat durian. I may even go further and attempt to extinguish my cravings for durian or at least try to control my cravings. I may attempt to make my actions conform to my second-order desires. If I am successful in my attempt, I have freedom of will, which according to Frankfurt, is the ability to will whatever I want to will. That is, I am not simply led around by my first-order desires. Instead, it is my deeper and more personal second-order desires which controls me.

Frankfurt elaborates,
“It is in securing the conformity of his will to his second-order volitions, then, that a person exercises freedom of the will. And it is in the discrepancy between his will and his second-order volitions, or in his awareness that their coincidence is not his own doing but only a happy chance, that a person who does not have this freedom feels its lack.” (pp. 20-21)

“A person’s will is free only if he is free to have the will he wants. This means that, with regard to any of his first-order desires, he is free either to make that desire his will or to make some other first-order desire his will instead. Whatever his will, then, the will of the person whose will is free could have been otherwise; he could have done otherwise than to constitute his will as he did…the assumption that a person is morally responsible for what he has done does not entail that the person was in a position to have whatever will he wanted. This assumption does entail that the person did what he did freely, or that he did it of his own free will.” (p. 24. Emphasis added)

Frankfurt concludes. “It seems conceivable that it should be causally determined that a person is free to want what he wants to want. If this is conceivable, then it might be causally determined that a person enjoys a free will.” (p. 25) Frankfurt’s argument is that it is possible that one’s action is determined (predestined) while one can have desires about one’s own desires. This is compatibilist freedom. According to Frankfurt, it is not even required for free will that the person could have done otherwise or has alternative possibilities since you would want to act in accordance to your higher-order desires without internal or external constraints. Frankfurt would certainly be approved by Jonathan Edwards who earlier had argued that agent is free in that he can and does choose according to his strongest inclinations or desires.

Harry Frankfurt, “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person” in Harry Frankfurt, The Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge UP, 1988).
Robert Kane, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will (Oxford UP, 2005).

Next post: Reformed Compatibilist Freedom. Part 3. Martin Fischer & Mark Ravizza on Guidance Control and Compatibilist Freedom.

The posting is delayed due to unforeseen contingencies, but it shall be done out of free will!

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