Recurring Themes

Reference Material:

            I want to move on from Frankfurt cases and discuss sourcehood accounts directly. In particular, I want to consider two sourcehood views that involve issues I’ve touched on in past posts. Let’s dig right in.
            First up, P.F. Strawson’s concept of reactive attitudes developed in Freedom and Resentment (full disclosure – I haven’t read this). Reactive attitudes, as Strawson defines them, are certain emotions people experience as a response to wrongful actions. When you are wronged, you resent the wrongdoer. When you wrong someone else, you feel guilty. And if you’re a third party witness to a wrongful act, you feel indignation. These emotional reactions are deeply woven into human social life. In fact, Strawson claims, they are (perhaps fully) constitutive of holding someone morally responsible. That is, what it means for someone to be morally responsible for an action is just that the parties involved experience the reactive attitudes.
            Strawson thinks this is the conception of moral responsibility we need to carry into the free will debate. Suppose we tie free will to moral responsibility, that is, we define free will as the degree of control required to justify moral responsibility. Then we go on to argue, for example, that determinism and free will are incompatible theses, determinism in fact holds, and therefore the free will thesis is false. Should we conclude that moral responsibility is an illusion? Strawson’s reply, as I understand it, is a kind of practical one. People are morally responsible because people experience the reactive attitudes. Arguing that these attitudes are illusory, ill-conceived, and should be abandoned, is almost a fool’s errand. They are such a fundamental part of how we relate to one another that the objective, abstract argument just fails to land. The reactive attitudes can’t be given up – they’re here to stay.
            What I want to observe is that this is another case where an argument related to the free will debate relies on a direct connection between free will and moral responsibility. Strawson’s conception of moral responsibility as rooted in the reactive attitudes runs through his arguments for compatibilism, and his views have spawned a related family of compatibilist positions. Historically, these arguments and positions were developed as a reaction to the failure of the classical compatibilists to form a reasonable picture of free will in the to-do-otherwise sense. So Strawson’s arguments arise in a historical debate about what free will is (and its compatibility with determinism), but they themselves seem to presume a notion of free will, that required for moral responsibility. This is not the first time we’ve encountered this type of apparent circularity – in my last post I observed how Frankfurt cases do something similar. Perhaps it’s unavoidable. Perhaps the concept of free will is inextricably tied to notions of moral responsibility. Perhaps when we evaluate a particular conception of free will, in a thought experiment, for example, we inevitably fall back on our intuitions surrounding moral responsibility. I suspect this is true.
            The other sourcehood account I’ll discuss is Harry Frankfurt’s hierarchical theory of free will. Frankfurt’s framework uses two key distinctions: different levels or “orders” of desires, and whether or not such desires result in action, or are “effective”. His classic examples focus on different types of addicts. Addicts may have conflicting first-order desires. They might both want to take drugs (for the high) and not take drugs (to avoid coming down, for example). Which desire is effective determines their will. Unwilling addicts, upon reflecting on their conflicting first-order desires, have a second-order desire that their first-order desire to not take drugs becomes their will. Unfortunately for them, their desire to take drugs overpowers the desire not to, and they in fact take drugs. They are unwilling in the sense that their will, their effective first-order desire to take drugs, conflicts with their second-order desire. Willing addicts, by contrast, have a different second-order desire. They embrace their addiction, desiring that their first-order desire to take drugs becomes their will. Like the unwilling addicts, they in fact take drugs. But unlike the unwilling addicts, there is no conflict between their will and their second-order desire – they are willing.
            Frankfurt says the willing addict takes drugs of her own free will because she desires the desire that constitutes her will – her second-order desire is that her first-order desire to take drugs be her will. The unwilling addict, according to Frankfurt, does not act of her own free will. Her second order desire is that her first-order desire to not take drugs be her will, but she does otherwise. She does not desire to will as she does. More succinctly, the willing addict acts freely because she desires her will; the unwilling addict does not act freely because she does not desire her will. I want to observe an assumption I think Frankfurt’s view, as I’ve described it, makes. Notice that she, the agent, is in some sense identified with her second-order desires. When we ask “did she act freely?”, we examine her second-order desires. Were they consistent with her effective first-order desires, her will? If yes, then she had free will. If no, then she didn’t. When we say she had free will, or she didn’t, her will is her effective first-order desire. “She” is her second-order desire.
            Is this conception of the self, as identified with second-order desires, something we should accept? My response is similar to what I expressed in the freedom to do otherwise post. I find this conception of the self problematic. Why should the self not be identified with first-order desires in some situations? Maybe I like pears, so I eat them, and there is no second-order desire or even thought. Do I act freely or not? Does Frankfurt’s view have an adequate answer here? Perhaps more problematically, why is the self not identified with third-order, or even higher-order, desires? Why stop at second-order? An explanatory infinite regress, again similar to what we encountered in exploring the freedom to do otherwise, might be rearing its head here. The will is identified with effective first-order desires. For the will to be free, it must be consistent with a corresponding second-order desire. But is this second-order desire free, in any sense? It seems it would need to be consistent with a corresponding third-order desire. And so on. Where this infinite regress leaves the status of the dialectic, I don’t know. But on its face, it seems obviously problematic.
            The recurring themes from this post, moral responsibility and the self, will continue to play a role, starting with the next post – Galen Strawson’s Freedom and Belief.