How Your Desires Make or Break Your Habits: Frankfurt’s Compatibilism

Maybe you should think more about what you want if you want to be free. I did.

Photo by Christian Lue on Unsplash

Being an over-achiever while being lazy does not always yield the best results. And, oh, how I know that. But I am back to prove facts wrong and have some fun while doing it! In this story, I continue the mini-series I started a long time ago, and I will use my vices to try and better exemplify this next account of compatibilism.

For those of you who have been here before, I will be much slower in putting posts on my Instagram account, so I hope I am quite easy to follow here! And, finally, I promise you, I will take advantage of my summer to make the most of my free time and do what I like: grasp the unexplainable. If you also liked my content, I am sorry for ghosting you! I had to work on my desires a bit.

Now, if you remember the distinction between freedom of will and freedom of action: firstly, congratulations, secondly, you have to admit it is quite tricky. If you don’t remember it, take a look here (yes, that old old story). On Frankfurt’s account, we have to be prepared to make even more mental gymnastics in order to understand the problem of free will, and not only:

Although this is a topic we would study in Ethics, moral responsibility stubbornly appears in all things free will. This just stands as proof of the interlinkage of all philosophical concepts. But alas!

Harry Frankfurt (born in 1929) gives us an account of compatibilism, which is based on first and second-order desires. I decided to give a brief explanation for some objections brought to this kind of compatibilism at the end of the article. Let me know if they convinced you, and if you want to maybe touch more upon them. Until then, let’s understand why desire matters.

How can desires be of different orders?

In the last year or so, I wanted to do a lot of things. I wanted to find a job, to write on Medium, to go to parties, or to study for university. And sadly, I did not accomplish all the things I wanted to do. Why? Well, certainly not because I was not free to do it.

Photo by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash

I had the freedom of action to search for jobs online, to think about philosophy and find a way to make it simple, and to read hundreds of pages on British history. Going to parties was not necessarily a given, as restrictions were everywhere! But that is okay, I had more time to study.

My desire to study for university could have been accomplished because of that, and because I had access to all the relevant materials. Thus, we can say that I was able to do what I wanted to do. This, is on one hand, freedom of action, and on the other, a first-order desire. Frankfurt ties this kind of desire to the simple fact of capacity.

If you want something you can do, that is your first-order desire.

Doggy Rex from the last story could have this kind of desire. If Jerry has used Rex with succulent chunks of meat, and Rex could open the cupboard where the tasty snack is, we can say that Rex is free to accomplish the desire for an additional chunk of meat. So, he has a first-order desire, eating meat, and he is indeed capable of acting freely.

Unfortunately, Frankfurt thinks Rex’s desires are not as complex as ours, and Rex is not free (or morally responsible). A person does not only want to study, party, work, etcetera. Frankfurt informs us that a person also wants to want to study, party or work. And, if accomplished, this desire reflects freedom of will.

Second-order desires are desires for first-order desires.

Let’s exemplify this.

Firstly, my desire to write an article on Medium is a first-order desire. I want to do it, and I am free to act on this desire. Secondly, my desire to want to write on Medium is a second-order desire. I desire a productive version of myself, who can get me out of a semi-vegetative state of overusing Netflix and MOBAs. And I desire that I want to finally write that article.

Want, want, want

The thing is, I am lazy. So, I can say I was kind of addicted to Netflix and MOBAs. Because I was addicted, I did not write the article up until now. My laziness did not impact my capacity to write the article. Oh no! I was totally able to do it all this time. My freedom of action was not impaired.

My freedom of will, on the other side, was.

Photo by Manja Vitolic on Unsplash

Because I was lazy, I was in a certain state of addiction to things that perpetuate my laziness. Because of that, my first-order desire was insensitive to my second-order desire to be productive. In this case, Frankfurt would tell me that I was not free. I was bound to perpetuate my addiction. In other words, my actions were determined by my condition. My first-order desire remained the desire to watch Netflix, and not to write on Medium.

The relationship between the two kinds of desires reveals freedom of will.

Now, that my second-order desire finally won, I have written this article. Because my first-order desire to be productive is now supported by my second-order desire to want to be productive, I did it! (Hopefully, Frankfurt would congratulate me.) The sense of laziness does not make my first-order desire insensitive to my second-order desire. I do not want to look at funny videos on Instagram anymore, instead of being productive.

In this sense, my will is free. Because my will is not influenced by the desire to lay in bed all day and watch two new TV series, my first-order desire is not decoupled from my second-order desire anymore, and the second-order desire can become effective.

In the case of cigarettes, I am still unfree.

Photo by Andres Siimon on Unsplash

If a non-smoker wanted me to give her a cigarette, her will would be free, because her second-order desire to want a cigarette and her first-order desire to smoke were in accord. If I asked another smoker for a cigarette after two hours of not smoking, I would not be free. Why?

Let us assume my second-order desire was to want to smoke less, and wait three hours, not two, until my next cigarette. If the smoker I asked for a cigarette does give it to me, I remain unfree. My freedom of action is there, I can light my cigarette and smoke it, but my freedom of will is not if I actually do it.

My second-order desire was too weak to make me go against my first-order desire.

The ineffectiveness of my second-order desire to want to smoke less on my first-order desire to smoke more determined me to smoke, perpetuating my addiction. What does this tell us about responsibility?

Moral responsibility

First, observe that this account of compatibilism does not rest on the assumption that we can choose different courses of action, as we have seen in PAP. I can always choose to stop smoking or to smoke even more (first-order desire, or freedom of action). Still, this does not tell me whether I am free or not. Instead, the fact that my second-order desire is not effective does.

Freedom of will is determined by the effectiveness of second-order desires.

This makes Frankfurt say that all those who can be held responsible have to have their first-order desires sensitive to their second-order desires. Because my first-order desire to smoke more is insensitive to my second-order desire to smoke less, I cannot be held accountable (sorry, mom). Somebody who does indeed smoke less, as per their second-order desire, can be held accountable.

So, moral responsibility is tied to freedom of will.

Photo by on Unsplash

How good is this kind of compatibilism?

Well, it is quite good. I honestly think it makes sense after you understand all the mental gymnastics it involves, but others do not think the same. Of course, with further mental gymnastics, objections to this account evoke the source of desires: external or internal.

If I want to study for university, there are different explanations for this first-order desire of mine. One - I actually enjoy learning, and this wish comes from somewhere inside my psyche. So, it is an internal source for this wish. Two - I paid way too much for this university, and I cannot waste all that money (or everybody else from my friends is actually learning). So, I have an external source for my wish and ambitions.

The objection goes like this.

If first-order desires can be formulated due to external sources, why couldn’t second-order desires be the same? My wanting to want to smoke could be defined by the fact that all my friends do. So, my second-order desire is as influenced by external factors as my first-order desire.

If Frankfurt compatibilists want to end the debate, they should either explain why this is not the case, or concede that just internal sources for second-order desires matter. And, honestly now, how do you discern between internal and external sources when it comes to hidden wishes and thoughts of people?

Hello there, or welcome back!
If you’re new here, you should know about my mission. I want to give people an easy-to-follow guide to philosophy. For now, I decided I want to cover the complex topic of free will, but I appreciate any suggestions!

Like what I do? You can follow me, subscribe to my stories at the bottom of the page, or leave a comment below, so I can know that! If not, you know what they say: the un-criticized story is not worth writing.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store