The Way of the Wanton
Velleman (David)
Source: 2005; Personal Website
Paper - Abstract

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Excerpts from the Introduction1

  1. In his 1970 paper "Davidson (Donald) - How is Weakness of the Will Possible?", Donald Davidson introduced his solution to the philosophical problem of akrasia by framing it as a problem about the self: [...] Davidson did not refer to the self as such, but when he spoke of "the agent's representative", he was invoking the same idea — the idea that a person's psyche hosts a conversation among several voices, one of which has the distinction of speaking for the person himself.
  2. Davidson's solution to the problem of akrasia did not live up to its picturesque introduction. It did not identify "the agent's representative" but merely divided the conative attitudes into prima facie, all-things-considered, and "all-out" judgments. The last of these judgments was cast in the role of The Will, insofar as it constituted the agent's immediate intention to act, but Davidson never explained why this attitude should be conceived as representing the agent rather than simply bringing up the rear in a parade of attitudes passing through the agent's mind.
  3. A more successful attempt at identifying "the agent's representative" appeared in the following year, when Harry Frankfurt published "Frankfurt (Harry) - Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person". Like Davidson, Frankfurt discussed cases of conflicting motives, but he offered an explanation of how one of those motives gains the authority to represent the agent himself. A motive gains this authority, Frankfurt explained, from the agent's desire that it predominate, which Frankfurt called a second-order volition. Frankfurt illustrated this phenomenon with the example of a drug-addict who has a second-order desire to resist his craving for the drug. [...]
  4. Frankfurt is usually interpreted as having said that human agency stems from the occurrence of higher-order volitions. What has not been widely noted, I think, is that Frankfurt traced the roots of agency further, to a particular interest shared by all human agents. [...] Frankfurt spoke, not of particular higher-order desires to be motivated in one way or another on a particular occasion, but of a standing desire to be motivated as we want, and to be so motivated because we want to be. This is in fact a third-order desire, for there to be correspondence and causal influence between our second- and first-order desires.
  5. The importance of this general interest in our own motivational integrity was reflected in Frankfurt's portrait of the paradigm non-agent, a figure that he dubbed the "wanton2". [...] The characteristic feature of the wanton3 is not that he merely lacks higher-order desires as to how he is motivated. Merely to lack such desires might just amount to indifference, which is not sufficient for wantonness4. What characterizes the wanton5 is "his mindless indifference to the enterprise of evaluating his own desires and motives", which is the lack of a third-order desire to engage in forming second-order desires. Frankfurt envisioned this "enterprise" as requiring some motive of its own. [...]
  6. The wanton6 lacks this motive for reflective evaluation, and so he is like someone who loses interest in checking his arithmetic. [...] What's analogous to wantonness7 is not the lack of an opinion as to whether the last calculation is right or wrong but rather a lack of interest in the enterprise of forming such an opinion. The wanton8 thus lacks a third-order motive for forming second-order evaluations of his first-order attitudes.
  7. Although Frankfurt never discussed the operation of this motive, it must operate sub-agentially, since evaluating one's motives is not in the normal case a full-blooded action. Deliberate acts of self-evaluation tend to interrupt one's other endeavors and can hardly be required to produce the reflective endorsements constituting those ordinary endeavors as actions. Hence the second-order volitions that transform mere motivated behavior into full-blooded action cannot, in the ordinary case, result from full-blooded acts of self-evaluation. One's characteristically human concern with one's motives must typically prompt self-evaluation that is not an action in its own right.
  8. Frankfurt thus posited a single motive whose sub-agential operation lies behind all human agency. Our agency arises from our concern over "whether the desires by which we are moved to act as we do motivate us because we want them to be effective in moving us or whether they move us regardless of ourselves and even despite ourselves".
  9. But how can "the desires by which we are moved to act as we do motivate us because we want them to be effective in moving us"? How, that is, can our wanting a desire to be effective in moving us make any difference as to whether it actually is effective? And even if a first-order desire can be made effective by our wanting it to be so, how do we thereby become identified with it, so that it becomes more truly our own, attaining the status of what Davidson called "the agent's representative"?
  10. I am going to offer answers to both questions. Although I will trace these answers to various passages in Frankfurt's papers, I cannot claim that they are his. They certainly don’t belong to the standard interpretation of Frankfurt's analysis of agency. The most I can claim is that they belong to an interpretation under which Frankfurt's analysis is correct — correct as the analysis of something, that is, though not necessarily of agency.


See Velleman - The Way of the Wanton.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1:

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
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