Thursday, May 14, 2009

Frankfurt on Freedom of the Will III

There is a class of people who are my superiors and whom I would therefore be reluctant to think of as lacking freedom of the will. By upbringing they do not flee in battle, do not abandon their children when childrearing is unpleasant, and do not indulge in resentment, self-defilement, or envy. It never occurs to them to do these things, in spite of any momentarily strongly-felt desires to do so which may flare up within them sometimes. They have no need for second-order desires. Yet they are free.

Even Frankfurt sees that such spontaneously prudent beings (SPBs I'll call them) are free. He must because they obviously are. His picture of free will as conformity of action to second-order desires cannot easily account for this, however. He could propose that the second order desires of SPBs are subconsciously held, but that would be idle speculation. He could bring up his wanton again, the fellow who doesn't care how his first-order desires cause him to act or doesn't care on which of them he acts. Unless we accept his theory of free will, we will have to accept that the wanton is free, Frankfurt might say.

So, let's propose another psychology in order to settle these quandaries. If the wanton cared about which of his desires he followed in that he wanted his actions to maximize the net long-term satisfaction of the largest set of them - in other words if the wanton wanted to be prudentially rational - then he would have the potential to be free. If he successfully endeavored to act in such a prudent manner, he would be free in the sense that momentarily strong desires would be unable to sway him from his choice to maximize his larger set of desires. If this became effortless and unreflective for him, he would become an SPB.

The psychology we need, then, is not Frankfurt's top-heavy structure of orders of desires but only the rather more cognitive than connative capacity to reflect on the set of desires in order to determine which cause of action most satisfies it. Freedom of the will, then, is a mechanism for remembering which course of action is most desirable in the sense of maximizing the fulfillment of one's set of first-order desires. Employing this mechanism in order to repel temptation to do otherwise is enough to constitute freedom of the will. No desirability in the sense of second-order desires to follow first-order desires is needed.