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Tom Minor Does Frankfurt’s1 hierarchical ordering of desires affect a satisfactory account of the problem of self-determination? In this essay, based on a reading of Harry Frankfurt’s ‘Freedom of the Will and the Concept of the Person’, it is to be understood that ‘freedom of will’ is synonymous with the freedom to be self-determined. Frankfurt achieves a sort of hierarchical ordering of desires, which translate into the will through a range of cathexes with certain of those desires in higher and higher orders. Frankfurt conceives of these desires as being diametrically opposed, intraorderly. These will be discussed in an attempt to establish what contribution Frankfurt’s hypotheses regarding first- and second-order desires and secondorder volitions, applied to his sketch of the unwilling, wanton and willing drug-addict, make to the problem of self-determination. Under close scrutiny, Frankfurt’s division of desires of the first- and secondorder seems to hold up to common sense. But at times he lacks consistency in his approach to identifying the differences between someone who’s will is free and someone who’s will is not free. It is in no way simple to extrapolate any meaningful comment of the problem of self-determination, when Frankfurt’s own language and style take the reader round and round in circles, based on hypothetical instances of agents’ freedom to act and freedom to will which are in no way supported by evidence and can be intuitively challenged at the fundamental level of reality. Starting at the beginning then, what are ‘first- and second-order desires’? Let us say that I want to take drugs. This is a first-order desire, but it does not tell you how much I want to take the drug, nor whether my desire to take the drug will be decisive in my actions. It is possible that I want to both take and avoid taking drugs. In such a conflict of first-order desires, Frankfurt suggests that we formulate desires of a second-order, which motivate us to choose one or other of the first-order desires to be our will. So I may want and not want to take drugs, and this conflict requires that i decide which desire I want to have. I can want to not want to take the drug and Frankfurt calls this a second-order desire. Conversely I can want to want to take drugs, though for what reasons, Frankfurt never says. So if I want to take drugs and simultaneously want to not take them, I decide that I either want the will to take the drug or the will to not take it. It would seem that second-order desires are only necessary when a conflict in the first-order exists. If I wanted only to take drug, I would have no need to want to want to take the drug as a second-order desire unless I also wanted not to take the drug in the firstorder. Equally, if I only did not want to take the drug, I would not need to want to not want to take the drug, because I already did not want to, unless of course I also wanted to.

2 What if I did not want to take the drug, but wanted to know what it was like to want the drug? Then I only want to want to take it and not to actually take it. Taking it then, would not satisfy anything that I wanted, as I univocally did not want to take it. It would be wrong to think that because I wanted to want to take it that I actually wanted to take it; my second-order desire to be moved to take it does not imply a first-order desire to want to take it. It becomes clear that second order desires, to want to want to do something, imply not wanting to do something in the first-order and that second-order desires to want to not want to do something imply wanting to in the first order. To want to be different in our preferences is what separates man from animals, who can only form desires of the first-order.2 Frankfurt distinguishes ‘wanting simply to have a certain desire’ from ‘wanting a certain desire to effectively be your will’, which he calls second-order volitions: “…it is having second-order volitions, and not…second-order desires generally that I regard as essential to being a person.”3 Applied to his sketch of the unwilling and wanton ‘addict’, we can see how Frankfurt tries to establish his crucial division between a person and a ‘wanton’. Assuming that the physiological condition accounting for their addiction is the same, something that is biologically and psychologically improbable, and that both unwilling and wanton addicts inescapably succumb to their desire for the drug, Frankfurt thinks that the unwilling addict hates his addiction and “…always struggles desperately…to no avail, against its thrust…”4. We can infer a conflict in the first-order desires of the unwilling addict, but critically, there is also a volition of the second order in that he wants his desire to not take the drug to constitute his will and become effective in his action: “It makes a difference to the unwilling addict…which of his conflicting firstorder desires wins out…Both desires are his…and whether he finally takes the drug or…succeeds in refraining…he acts to satisfy what is in a literal sense his own desire…something he himself wants to do, and…not because of some external influence…”5 Frankfurt identifies the unwilling addict with this formation of a secondorder volition: a first-order cathexis through which one of his rudimentary desires is made his own alongside the de-cathexis of the other. So the unwilling addict both wants and does not want to take his drugs, and what sets him out as a person is his ability to reflect on his desires and choose which one he should invest in, namely, the desire not to take the drug. It is by virtue of this configuration that the unwilling addict may authentically state that the will moving him to “use” is not his own; that it is not by his free will

3 but against it that this force moves him to use. Herein, lies one of the first contradictions appearing in Frankfurt’s text. Initially we are told that the unwilling addict acts to satisfy his own desire and not because of some external influence, yet if he wants not to want to use drugs and goes ahead and uses, Frankfurt tells us that the unwilling addict can meaningfully say: “…the force moving him to take the drug is a force other than his own, and that it is not of his own free will but rather against his will that this force moves him to take it.”6 The force moving the unwilling addict then either is or is not his own desire, it cannot be both. It would seem that at this early point in his examination, Frankfurt confuses himself, and matters get worse when we try to compare the unwilling to the wanton addict. Wanton’s do not care about their will, according to Frankfurt. They make no second-order volitions and are not concerned with the desirability of their desires. They ignore the question of what their will should be. Their actions reflect the economy of their first-order desires and as such they are likened to: “…an animal…thus incapable of being concerned about his will…”7. The wanton addict may suffer conflicts of the first-order like the unwilling addict, but he makes no cathexis to either one of his desires, not caring which one wins out. Frankfurt believes that this wanton indifference stems from a lacking capacity for reflection or disinterest in the task of appraising his own desires and motives. The wanton addict is moved by both desires and will not be fully satisfied whichever one of them becomes effective; it makes no difference to him, thus he will not win or lose his struggle, unlike the unwilling addict8. Since the capacity for forming second-order volitions is essential for the capacity of person to enjoy or lack freedom of will, the wanton addict does not meet the criteria of personhood, nor is their will a problem for them, according to Frankfurt. But what does this tell us about the problem of self-determination? We can assume that neither the unwilling nor the wanton addict is free to determine their will. The unwilling addict is not free because it is not the will he wants and the wanton addict is not free because he has neither the will he wants, nor a will that differs from the will he wants, nor does he have any volitions of the second-order. What is established is that in order to have freedom of the will, one needs to be capable of the becoming critically aware of one’s own will and of forming second-order volitions that become effective in determining the outcome of the conflict between one’s first-order desires: “It is in securing the conformity of his will to his second-order volitions, that a person exercises freedom of the will. And it is in the discrepancy between his will and his second-order volitions...that a person who does not have this freedom feels its lack.”9 Since wantons are incapable of even forming second-order volitions, it would seem, from the above statement that they do not even get to notice their lack

4 of freedom of the will, whereas the unwilling addict, by virtue of the fact that he can form second-order volitions, does feel a lack of freedom of the will. Neither experience freedom of the will and presumably, they would both need to form an effective, rational second-order volition and fulfill the purpose of the will they wanted in order to be free, but this seems to be refutable, as Frankfurt states: “…having the freedom to do what one wants to do is not a sufficient condition of having a free will. It is not a necessary condition either.” 10 Taking this statement to its logical conclusion, it must be possible that one could be free to do what one wanted, without having a free will. It also implies that having a free will does not have to even include the freedom to do as you want. In other words, depriving someone’s freedom to act in no way denies his freedom of will. Frankfurt clarifies his position succinctly in the third part of his essay: “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 a question of whether he is free to do as he pleases…freedom of will does not concern the relation between what he does and what he wants to do…it concerns his desires themselves.”11 Desires of higher orders than the second are also possible within Frankfurt’s hierarchy; thus it is possible to have a conflict of second-order desires and both want to want and want to not want, both of one’s conflicting first-order desires. Higher-order desires would be wanting to want to want a first-order desire, or wanting to not want to want a first-order desire and a higher-order volition would be wanting one’s desire to want to want a particular firstorder desire to become effective in motivating one to act. Theoretically there is no limit to the degrees of removal one may take in what Frankfurt calls: “… obsessively refusing to identify…with any of his desires until he forms a desire of the next higher-order.”12 Termination of such a series requires a decisive identification with one of one’s first-order desires. What this tells us about the problem of self-determination is yet to be grasped! Perhaps, Frankfurt’s contribution to the problem of self-determination is to be found in the final part of his essay when he supposes the example of the man who enjoys freedom of action and freedom of will, who is free to do what he wants and free to want what he wants to want: “A person’s will is free only if he is free to have the will he wants…with regard to any of his first-order desires, he is free either to make that desire his will or to make some other desire his will instead. Whatever his will, then, the will of the person whose will is free could have been otherwise.” 13

5 This clearly has implications for the relation between freedom of will and moral responsibility, which Frankfurt believes has been widely misunderstood. He believes that it is false to implicate moral responsibility only if someone’s will was considered to be free when he acted, and that he may be morally responsible, even if his will was not free when he acted: “…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…[it] does entail that the person did what he did freely, or that he did it of his own free will. It is a mistake, however, to believe that someone acts freely only if his will is free.”14 In order to illustrate this example, Frankfurt introduces his ‘willing addict’, who is delighted with his addiction and wouldn’t have it any other way. He is not free, because his desire to take the drug would be effective with or without a second-order volition for it to constitute his will. Yet when he takes the drug, he does so: “…freely and of his own free will.”15 Not only is he physiologically addicted but he also wants to be. Such an over-determination of the willing addict’s first-order desire may be contributory to its effectiveness. Paradoxically, his will is not within his control, yet his secondorder volition towards his desire for the drug makes his will his own. This argument holds up to the intuition that you may be compelled by forces outside of yourself to do something, but that you still choose which of your desires you want to have. It is this volition that provides the basis for attributing moral responsibility to someone who may not have acted freely, but who may still be culpable for their actions since they chose, and were free to go with one desire rather than the other. To sum up then, freedom of the will in the first-order is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for the applicability of moral responsibility, but freedom of will in the second-order seems to be sufficient and necessary to imply moral responsibility. Therefore, being morally responsible is neither necessary nor sufficient for the attribution of freedom of will in the first-order, but being morally responsible is necessary and sufficient for the attribution of freedom of will in the second-order. These circular arguments, if not a little dizzying, do hold up to intuitive sense, but they remain unremarkable regarding the problem of determinism. Frankfurt deconstructs the ordering of our desires convincingly but his comments on the ‘causal determination’, ‘external inculcation’, or ‘chance occurrence’ of a person’s enjoyment of freedom of the will or lack thereof, fail to leave the reader satisfied that Frankfurt has indeed made any contribution of the problem of selfdetermination which seeks to understand whether people are free to choose the will they want, the will they want to want, or the will they want to want to want! Or whether people are determined and thus not free to choose the will they want, the will they want to want, or the will they want to want to want. Frankfurt tries to use his hierarchical division of first- and second-

6 order desires and his crucial second-order volitions to separate out the unwilling, wanton and willing addicts, in an attempt to support his conception of what it means to be a person and not an animal. These divisions and separations merely distract from the implicit goal of his thesis: to establish an account of the conditions for freedom of the will. At times his terms get confused and he contradicts himself, leaving the reader wondering if this is really just a theory in search of validation. In conclusion, Frankfurt manages to identify two conditions as essential for someone to be said to experience freedom of will: freedom to act and freedom to want to act the way he wants. It would be possible for someone to not have the freedom to act, or the freedom to want the will that they want, and still be said to have acted freely and of their own free will. Likewise, it would be possible for someone to have the freedom to act, and the freedom to want to act the way that they want to, without acting freely or by their own free will. Not only, must these two conditions be met to claim freedom of the will, but the person must have the rational capacity to reflect and evaluate the desirability of his desires and be able to invest effectively in one, rather than other of his desires; something Frankfurt’s wanton addict is incapable of doing and is thus relegated to the status of the animal. Despite their appeal, Frankfurt’s circular arguments seem difficult to prove, how do we establish whether someone has the freedom to want the will that they want? Do we ask them? Would they know? Are we to judge this freedom by means of a moral code, and if so, does that really speak of someone’s authentic freedom and not just a socially constructed version of freedom and un-freedom? The ambiguities in Frankfurt’s text, do, however, allow for a reading of the relation between moral responsibility and freedom of the will as an essentially hollow nexus, since moral responsibility can be applied to people who may not have freedom of the will, such as in the example of the willing addict. Apart from these minor offerings, we are still no clearer on the issue of selfdetermination. We know that drug addicts are not free and that certain conditions are necessary in order to be free to self-determine, but we are none the wiser with regards to how or why the conditions of free will are met in some cases, with some people, and not in others, or indeed, whether this outcome is itself causally determined. For all we know, and it would seem that Frankfurt wants us to ponder this, it could be a matter of indifference and chance that any of us ever experience freedom of the will.


Frankfurt, H. (1971). “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of the Person”, Journal of Philosophy, 68: 1, 5-20; reprinted in Kane (ed.). Free Will (Oxford: Blackwell, 3rd edition, 2004) 2 Frankfurt, H. (1971). “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of the Person”, (pp 129) 3 ibid. (pp 132) 4 ibid. (pp 133) 5 ibid. (pp 133-134) 6 ibid. (pp134) 7 idib. (pp 133) 8 ibid. (pp 132-134) 9 ibid. (pp 136) 10 ibid (pp 135) 11 ibid (pp 135) 12 ibid. (pp 136) 13 ibid (pp 138) 14 ibid (pp 139) 15 ibid (pp 140)

Frankgurt's hierarchical ordering of desire  

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