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March 15, 2005


Check Harry Frankfurt (yes, that guy), "Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person" or something like that.

I think part of what's going on here is that people who talk about second-order wants allow that you can want things that you have. So I can want to want to exercise even if I already want to exercise--I reflect on my desire to exercise, I see that it is good, and I want to keep it. So I want to exercise, and I want to want to exercise as well. (Example strictly fictional.)

You're *glad* to be the sort of person who takes care of yourself, IOW.

Frankfurt's idea, in about 25 words, is that real freedom is wanting things that you want to want; so that your want is in tune with the kind of person you want to be.

"I think part of what's going on here is that people who talk about second-order wants allow that you can want things that you have."

Man, if I were more inclined to credit arguments from etymology (or from order in which the OED defines a word)... Anyway, I assume that people wouldn't make that allowance without having good reasons for doing so, but on the face of it that seems absurd.

Well that's not true, you can clearly want something you already have--it just doesn't normally come up unless your continuing having it becomes at issue.

Anyway, I don't think wanting to want to do something is even the right way to talk about what you're describing—even when you reflect on your desires, if you find them good, I don't think you say of yourself that you want to want the things you desire; you just go right to simply still wanting them. If you're glad to be the kind of person who takes care of yourself, isn't that more easily captured by "I want to take care of myself, I'm taking care of myself, yay me"? Even if you want to think of it as "I want to be the type of person who takes care of himself, and I am, yay me" or "I want to be the type of person who has the wants I want, and I do, yay me", the "type of person" bit interposes between the first and second wants—you're still not talking about a want for a want.

I have to say I don't really feel your intuitions of absurdity here--maybe I'm overly trained to accept the meanings that have been stipulated here, but I just don't have the reaction that second-order wants (they're usually called "Second-order desires" for some reason) are problematic.

The kinds of wants at issue here I don't think are meant to be conscious. Frankfurt's stock example is of different kinds of addict--the unwilling addict, who wants not to have the overwhelming desire for the drug that he in fact does have, and the willing addict, who is glad that he has the overwhelming desire for the drug. No. 1 wants not to want the drug; No. 2 wants to want the drug (and that want is satisfied). But they may not say to themselves, "I want to want etc."

BTW, I think your annoyance at "want to want" plays into Strawson's hands. It seems intuitive, perhaps, that someone who does X freely must do X because she wants to (for some sense of 'want'). Strawson's point, kind of, is that free will is not just doing X because you want to do X--but being responsible for the fact that you want to do X. Well, is your wanting to do X free? If you want to do X because you want to want X, perhaps it is. But Strawson's point is that not only is this kind of weird, to be responsible for this second order want (it seems) you must have a third-order want, which is very weird--etc. etc. So Strawson is deliberately using a weird locution to try to get us to say, "Ain't no such thing, and so moral responsibility is impossible."

I should add that the Believer's summary of the state of play of discussion of free will, and Strawson's, is somewhat tendentious. The top entry at the free will group blog (http://gfp.typepad.com/) concerns a paper that may cast doubt on some of the underlying assumptions--do the folk really believe free will to be incompatible with determinism?

Isn't even calling the manifestation of a chemical dependency an addict experiences a "want", as if it were on a par with and the same kind of phenomenon as wanting not to be a lazy bum or to eat a ham sandwich, rather tendentious from the get-go?

I think what I object to more than anything is the locution "want for a want" or "second-order desire" [though now that I've written what follows I think that that actually isn't true, but, being unfamiliar with the general use of those terms, I can't be sure]. In what you said in the last two parts of your first comment (and what I was trying to get at myself in the post proper), where you refer to being a kind or sort of person, what's manifested is, IMO, an extra layer of indirection (incidentally it occurred to me on the bus that at some nontrivial level I'm thinking in a rather C++-derived way, both as a reluctance to treat what's being called a second-order desire as different in kind from a first-order desire (just use a pointer to the base class!) and in thinking of the object of a second-order desire as, at the closest approximation to something that could be called "a want for a want", a want for a pointer to a want. I'm not sure how actually interesting that is but it struck me and I found it striking), and a sign that, while the object of a second-order desire involves other desires, it would be a gross simplification to speak of it as being just a desire, or as involving only desires. When you want to be the sort of person who takes care of himself, that not only involves wanting to be the sort of person who would want to go running, but who would also have other sorts of wants, and would also have other sorts of habits and would engage in all sorts of activities at an unreflective sort of level. (Though I suppose that you have to think that wants come into play only when the object of the want or the possibility of doing otherwise obtrudes into your consciousness, as opposed to remaining (I suppose as good a way of saying it as any is) characterized by Zuhandenheit. In fact insofar as you're talking about wanting to be in a certain way, what you really want is to go through a process of habituation at the end of which you once again won't want to do X, but now the reason will be that you've reached the point where it's the default action—you don't want to do it because the choice doesn't manifest itself.) Saying "second-order desire" seems to imply that you could say "I have a second-order desire to go running", which doesn't make sense to me; too much is left out.

I suppose I should actually read the referenced article and post.

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