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Harry Frankfurt’s “Freedom of the Will and Concept of a person”

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In his Freedom of Will and Concept of a Person, Harry Frankfurt asserts that the common philosophical approach to the concept of a person is wrong, as it interferes with his own perception. Frankfurt mentions Strawson’s definition: “the concept of a type of entity such that both predicates ascribing states of consciousness and predicates ascribing corporeal characteristics . . . are equally applicable to a single individual of that single type.” In contrast to Strawson, Frankfurt alleges that a person must have both a first-order desire and second-order desire or volition to be a person.

A first-order desire is simply a “desire to do or not to do one or another.” A second-order desire is when a person wants to simply have a certain desire or when a person wants a certain desire to be his will. Frankfurt tells us that second-order volitions are the latter of the two second-order definitions (“wants a certain desire to be his will.”)

Many would question what second-order desires have to do with this work on freedom of will. In his own words, Frankfurt explains: “For it is only in virtue of his rational capabilities that a person is capable of becoming critically aware of his own will and of forming volitions of the second order.” This means that only a creature with the capabilities of reason can realize that it has its own will and can make volitions of the second order, and thus is a person.

To explain better the notion of a person, Frankfurt calls upon an example of two narcotic addicts, called the wanton addict and the unwilling addict. A wanton, plainly stated, are “Agents who have first-order desires but who are not persons because, whether or not they have desires of the second order, they have no second order volitions.” The essential characteristic of a wanton is that “he does not car about his will.”

The unwilling addict hates his addiction and constantly struggles to evade it, yet ultimately failing to do so. In the unwilling addict’s case, there is a first-order desire conflict: he has both the desire to take the drug and the desire against taking the drug. And now we must realize that the unwilling addict is a person according to Frankfurt’s definition of the concept of a person: the unwilling addict has a second-order volition which is that he wants his desire to stop taking the narcotic to be his will.

The wanton addict is not a person, but a creature ruled by his first-order desires. The wanton addict’s “actions reflect the economy of his first-order desires, without his being concerned whether the desires that move him to act are desires by which he wants to act.” It “never occurs to him whether he wants the relation among his desires to result in his having the will he has,” or in more basic terms the wanton addict has no second-order volitions.

Contrary to what most would believe, the wanton addict is a creature but may still suffer from a first-order desire conflict similar to that of the unwilling addict. The wanton addict may have the first-order desire to take the drug and the first-order desire not to take the drug.

The main difference between the wanton addict and the unwilling addict is that the wanton addict is only a creature because it has no volitions of the second order while the unwilling addict is a person because he wants to make his desire his will.

The most compelling question now is that of freedom of will: Does one have the freedom of the will while the other does not? According to Frankfurt’s classification, the unwilling addict has freedom of will because he has a volition of the second order. However, there is some wisdom in the saying “Ignorance is bliss.” Because the creature who is the wanton addict has no second-order volitions, he is ignorant of what the drug may be doing to his body and therefore has no care as to what first-order desire is paramount. Furthermore, the wanton addict no longer has a conflict between his first-order desires.

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