Personhood, Free Will, and Moral Responsibility

In Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person, Harry Frankfurt presents an intriguing take on personhood and sketches some of the implications of his view for free will and moral responsibility. In this paper I will reconstruct parts of Frankfurt’s argument. I will briefly argue that he offers a plausible account of personhood and that its implications for free will and moral responsibility are sound. I will also indicate some areas where further work needs to be done.

Frankfurt identifies the distinctive characteristic of humans and hence of persons as the capacity for what he terms “second-order desires,” as distinguished from “first-order desires.” Many animals, including humans, have first-order desires–desires to do or not to do one thing or another. But humans also, at least sometimes, are able to want to have or not to have their first-order desires. They seem to have a capacity for reflective self-evaluation, a sui generis ability to step back and assess the desirability or lack thereof of their first-order desires.

Frankfurt draws a further distinction between mere second-order desires and “second-order volitions.” One could conceivably have a second-order desire consisting of one’s wanting one of one’s first-order desires without actually wanting that first-order desire to be effective–that is, to actually move one to action. It is having second-order volitions, wanting a certain first-order desire to constitute one’s will, rather than merely wanting in some non-decisive way to want X, that is the sine qua non of being a person.

Frankfurt contrasts persons, so-defined, with “wantons.” Wantons are entities who have first-order desires but lack second-order volitions (they could conceivably have second-order desires). Nothing in the concept of a wanton entails that he cannot reason or cannot deliberate concerning how to do what he wants to do–the possession of reason per se does not distinguish the person from the wanton. But whereas wantons reflect only on the most efficient means to the ends they happen to have, persons reflect on the desirability of the ends themselves. The wanton is simply not concerned about the desirability of his desires.

Frankfurt further explicates his theory with the example of the unwilling addict. The unwilling addict has conflicting first-order desires–he wants to take the drugs and doesn’t want to take them–and in addition has a second-order volition consisting of his wanting that his desire to refrain from the drug be effective. He is therefore not neutral with regard to the conflict between his desire to take the drug and his desire to refrain from taking it. He identifies himself with one rather than the other of his conflicting first-order desires. And in virtue of this identification, accomplished through the formation of a second-order volition, the unwilling addict may legitimately say that it is not of his own free will but rather against his will that he is moved to take the drug.

This example goes some way toward clarifying the concept of freedom of the will. Freedom of the will is the power the power to bring one’s effective first-order desires into alignment with one’s second-order volitions. We rightly say that the unwilling addict’s will is not free with respect to his drug habit, for it is not within his power to overcome the discrepancy between his effective first-order desire to take the drug and his second-order volition that his desire to refrain from the drug be the effective one.

Building on these ideas, Frankfurt argues that the relation between free will and moral responsibility is not as cut and dry as sometimes thought. Counterintuitively, someone can be morally responsible for having done something even if his will wasn’t free when he did it. If he aligns himself with his action by formulating a second-order volition ratifying his effective desire to perform the action, then he can be morally responsible for the action even if his having the contrary second-order volition would have been impotent. Concomitantly, though he may lack the freedom to dislodge his desire to perform the action, in formulating a second-order volition backing his desire to refrain therefrom he could in some sense dissociate himself from an action that he unavoidably performs and thereby avoid moral censure.

Consider the willing addict. If his addiction were somehow to diminish he would attempt to reinstate it. His will is not free, for his desire to take the drug will be effective regardless of whether or not he wants this desire to constitute his will. Yet, though his will is outside his control, by his second-order volition that his desire for the drug should be effective, he makes the desire his own. Addiction notwithstanding, he may still be morally responsible for taking the drug.

I think that Frankfurt’s approach here is on the right track. The capacity to assess one’s desires and align oneself with some over others certainly seems to be an excellent candidate for a personhood-conferring property. Some might argue that he unfairly privileges mere biological humanity, but he forecloses the charge of “speciesism” by stipulating that membership in the species homo sapiens is not of ethical significance in itself. Neither non-human persons nor human non-persons are conceptually problematic, though at present humans are the only species we know of that sometimes manifest the traits constituting personhood.

His framework for freedom of the will and moral responsibility also strikes me as fundamentally correct. As Frankfurt points out, mere freedom of action is not what we are after when we speak of freedom of the will. If humans are simply receptacles for powerful impulses, buffeted this way and that by their desires without any input from a deliberative faculty, then freedom and responsibility would seem to have no role in human affairs. This view of things doesn’t seem to capture our actual lived experience of deliberation and choice.

However, it does seem true that we are fully in control of ourselves much less often than we might like to believe. We are indeed in the grip of powerful desires that we struggle to tame. But human beings are not simply bundles of unruly desires. At least some of the time and to some extent we are able to take a detached view of our desires, giving our assent to certain of them and withholding it from others. On some of these occasions our assent or lack thereof is even sufficient to move our will, but even when it is not there is something significant about it, something that I believe Frankfurt is correct to identify as relevant to moral responsibility. Whether judgments of a person’s moral responsibility can accurately be made by others, the possibility of one’s being self-deceived about one’s moral responsibility in a given case, and the relationship between moral responsibility and legal responsibility are issues for further study and reflection that Frankfurt does not address in this essay but that I hope to explore in future papers.