freedom of the will or freedom from the will? (comparing Harry Frankfurt and Buddhism)

In a famous paper,* Harry Frankfurt argued that we have freedom of action if our desires match our behavior. I want a chocolate chip cookie; I eat the cookie; thus I demonstrate free action.

But we have freedom of the will insofar as we can control the desires we have. I want the chocolate chip cookie, but I wish that I did not. If I can influence my own desire for cookies, I demonstrate freedom of the will.

Thus the ability to have second-order volitions (desires about desires) is the trait that we value as moral freedom–it is what people have tried to express by describing human beings as metaphysically free. “A person enjoys freedom of the will [if] he is free to want what he wants to want.”

For Frankfurt, the difference between free, morally responsible agents (“persons”) and all other actors (“wantons”) is not that persons can control their desires; it is that they can form desires about those desires. In contrast, “The essential characteristic of a wanton is that he does not care about his will.”

Although Frankfurt does not use the language of identity in this paper, he offers an implicit theory of it. We are the coherent structure of our own desires, and if our desires fail to cohere, our identity is at risk. He imagines a person who has conflicting second-order desires that prevent him from preferring some of his first-order desires over others. Frankfurt doesn’t offer a concrete example, but perhaps this person wishes that he were more conservative and also wishes that he were more radical, and he cannot resolve that difference. In that case, the person would be torn every time he saw a tweet by AOC. “This condition, if it is so severe that it prevents him from identifying himself in a sufficiently decisive way with any of his conflicting first-order desires, destroys him as a person.” He becomes a “helpless bystander to the forces that move him.”

This is strong language, and I’m inclined to interpret Frankfurt’s theory as a matter of degree. We are more or less free to the degree that our first-, second- (and even third- and fourth-) degree volitions cohere and are consistent with our actions. Nobody has 100% freedom of the will.

Frankfurt says his position is compatible with determinism. That is, even if our minds are caused in the same way that other complex objects (computers, forests, stock market prices) are caused, we have free will to the extent that we form effective second-order desires. He even entertains the possibility that whether we have free will or not is determined. For instance, some kinds of parenting develop a capacity for second-order volitions and some don’t, but we don’t chose our parents. (This is my illustration, not his).

Now consider a certain tradition in Buddhism, which I derive mainly from US academics like Owen Flanagan, Mark Siderits, Bryan Van Norden, and Emily McRae and the classical Asian texts they quote.

Buddhism is a deterministic philosophy: all of our thoughts result from ordinary causes, just like the causes of the weather. (That is the doctrine of Dependent Origination.) We have desires without wanting them. Some of these desires are undesirable, and we can use mental techniques to marginalize or neutralize them.

So far, the view seems similar to Frankfurt’s. But in Buddhism, all desire is problematic. It has an intrinsic connection to suffering. That means that even if some desires are worse than others, we are wise to reduce desire per se.

Furthermore, we have no identity. (That is the doctrine of No Self). We are only a stream of specific feelings and beliefs. Wisdom comes from recognizing that there is no stable entity beneath that stream, and certainly nothing there that should concern us.

Frankfurt does not spell out practical or spiritual implications. To apply a distinction from Pierre Hadot, he is an academic or a scholastic philosopher, not a practitioner of Philosophy as a Way of Life. But his theory could imply that we should reflect as self-consciously as we can about our own desires. When we experience a bad desire, we should acknowledge that it partly defines our identity, so we had better get rid of it. A good way to counter bad desires is to give oneself reasons against them. Reasoning is also our way of knowing which desires are bad in the first place. For instance, if you feel a sexual desire, that partly defines you unless you decide that it is immoral and renounce it. A moral exemplar is someone who looks deeply and uncompromisingly into herself for the purpose of self-improvement.

In contrast, the advice from Buddhism is not to dwell on the desires that arise for us. Do not embrace them or cling to them, but also do invest emotion in denouncing or shunning them. Name them, acknowledge them, and try to set them aside, recognizing that their origins are natural (for everything that happens = nature), and we are not responsible for them (because we don’t cause anything), but we are better off without them.

Compassion functions differently from other first-order volitions in Buddhism. Because compassion is the desire for others to suffer less, it is not strictly a form of will. Spending more time and affect on compassion thus reduces our will, overall.

You could say that Buddhism recommends a second-order volition to be a more compassionate person. But Buddhism does not see us as persons. Therefore, an alternative interpretation is that Buddhism simply recommends compassion. Buddhism encourages you to practice or habituate yourself to compassion rather than reflecting abstractly on whether your identity is compassionate.

As long as we consider examples like wanting to eat chocolate chip cookies, this issue feels harmless or even amusing. But once we start thinking about serious personal vices, like envy and lust–or real social injustices, like sexism or racism–the stakes rise. Then it becomes a compelling question whether we should exercise freedom of the will by relentlessly critiquing our own desires or else freedom from the will by putting all our desires (apart from compassion) to the side.

*Frankfurt H.G. (1971). Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person. The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 68, No. 1 (Jan. 14, 1971), pp. 5-20. See also Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot); Foucault’s spiritual exercises; how to think about other people’s interests: Rawls, Buddhism, and empathy; empathy, sympathy, compassion, justice; the grammar of the four Noble Truths; Owen Flanagan, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized; how to think about the self (Buddhist and Kantian perspectives), how do we perceive an identity?, etc.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.