To the extent that I understand him, Frankfurt says that we choose "out of our free will" when that first-order desire becomes effective which corresponds to the second-order volition (when I wish X as I also wish to effectively wish X); Frankfurt, Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person.

So if I come to find as my only first-order desire to do X, while my higher-order volition is to come to effectively not want to do X, I am not deciding of my free will. E.g., if I wish to injure the puppy, but I do not wish to (effectively) wish to injure the puppy, I am not choosing out of my free will.

Famously, Frankfurt has also discussed moral responsibility. But how does his proposal for decisions made out of free will relate to moral responsibility? If I effectively wish to harm the puppy, but do not wish to effectively wish to harm the puppy, my decision comes not out of free will, correct? Am I - according to Frankfurt - still responsible for harming the puppy, even as I am not doing it out of free will? Does Frankfurt thus strictly dissociate free will and moral responsibility?

2 Answers 2


Frankfurt distinguishes freedom of action (actions stem from person's desires), and freedom of the will, having second order volitions and enough control to bring first order desires in line with them. He needs this distinction to argue that freedom of the will may exist without freedom of action, which is what a compatibilist needs to reconcile free will with a deterministic world. His interest in the moral responsibility is mostly negative, he wishes to undermine the libertarian principle that one is morally responsible for what one has done only if they could have done otherwise. This is done by presenting thought experiments where a person seems intuitively responsible for their action even if they could not have done otherwise, see Information Philosopher's discussion of the Principle of Alternate Possibilities. The most famous example is Jones who either does on his own what Black wants, or, should he be disinclined, is forced by Black to do it. In the former case Jones seems responsible for his action even though he could not have done otherwise.

Frankfurt distinguishes creatures with second order volitions (persons) from those without (wantons), see Holton's commentary on Frakfurt's theory. Non-human animals and infants are all wantons in his sense. A wanton addict has no wants about his addiction, he is indifferent to being an addict, in contrast a person addict wants not to want the drug, but can not resist the craving. Since animals and infants are typically not held morally responsible for their actions acting on first order desires apparently can not, by itself, bring about moral responsibility. Frankfurt does not directly answer if a person with irresistible impulses is morally responsible for acting on them, but presumably not. It is only if the control of the free will can be effectively exercised that a person becomes morally responsible.

This is not dissociating moral responsibility from free will but rather tying it to free will (in Frankfurt's sense) very closely. What it does dissociate moral from is legal responsibility. For a number of practical reasons we may wish to hold individuals legally responsible regardless of whether they are morally responsible or not. For one thing, we have no reliable practical way of distinguishing between wantons and persons.


If I act out of my first-order desire to harm the puppy, then I am morally responsible for my action. If I act out of my higher-order, reflective desire not to act out of my first-order desire (which higher-order desire Frankfurt calls my 'free will') and accordingly do not harm the puppy, then I am equally morally responsible for my action. I can't see how the level of desire on which I act makes a difference to moral responsibility.

To put the point another way, it is my uncoerced desire-based intention that produces the action in both cases. This intention is the ground of my moral responsibility.

It is not so much the case that Frankfurt dissociates free will and moral responsibility; rather, he connects moral responsibility with acting out of my uncoerced desire-based intentions whether the relevant desires are first- or higher order.

I had better add the rider that I cannot speak for Frankfurt; I am setting out the position to which I think his argument leads. I can't see how he can avoid that position. If others can, this is an open forum.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .