Thursday, July 25, 2019

On Harry G. Frankfurt's 'The Importance of What We Care About'

The Importance of What We Care About (book cover) by Harry G. Frankfurt

The philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt collected thirteen essays in The Importance of What We Care About (1988). The first twelve are reprints, and the thirteenth is new. He reprinted them in chronological order with only a brief preface, so it is a challenge to see how they are related as a body of things one might importantly care about. I imagine that a chronological presentation of his work is useful to inform us about his evolution as a philosopher but not necessarily useful to introduce us to any particular topic or drive home any particular thesis.

In the Preface, he says he's focused on "metaphysics or...the philosophy of mind — for instance, how we are to conceptualize ourselves as persons, and what defines the identities we achieve." He's interested in free will, and not just in the context of moral choices.

The thirteen essays are in academic language that is generally difficult to read. Here's what they are about.

"Alternate possibilities and moral responsibility" (1969)

His position is: "A person may well be morally responsible for what he has done even though he could not have done otherwise." More specifically, a man who faces a threat if he does not perform a certain action is unable to act otherwise, but if he had coincidentally already decided to perform that action anyway for reasons of his own, he is still morally responsible, according to Frankfurt. "We often do, to be sure, excuse people for what they have done when they tell us (and we believe them) that they could not have done otherwise. But this is because we assume that what they tell us [about the threat or coercion] serves to explain why they did what they did."

"Freedom of the will and the concept of a person" (1971)

Humans (and some non-human animals) are entities that merge mind and body, and lamentably there is no word for this. Humans are unique because we have "second-order desires," that is, we can want to want something. [Typically: We want to eat dessert, and we wish we wanted to eat something healthy.] It is for a person to be "concerned with the desirability of his desires themselves"; it is "the question of what his will is to be." Reason is a prerequisite to "becoming critically aware of his own will and of forming volitions of the second order," and these second-order desires — driven by reason and will — have to do with "the essence of being a person."

In this essay, he argues that it's possible to have free will even in a deterministic universe. Some outside force might determine whether one "enjoys or fails to enjoy freedom of the will." In that case, though, two people (the person and the outside force) might be morally responsible for the person's choices.

"Coercion and moral responsibility" (1973)

He discusses "cases of coercion in which the victim is made to perform an action, by being provided with a certain kind of motive for doing so," such that "the victim is not to be regarded as morally responsible for what he has been coerced into doing." He notes that "threats" and "offers" are similar in that they create a motive, but a threat dangles a "penalty" while an offer dangles a "benefit." People who are threatened may still be morally responsible for their choice. "Coercion" is something more because it makes the person no longer morally responsible. This has something to do with the severity of the threat, such that "the person would act reasonably in submitting" to the threat. "This requirement can only be satisfied when the threat appeals to desires or motives which are beyond the victim's ability to control, or when the victim is convinced that this is the case." When a threat is severe enough, the victim "cannot prevent his desire to avoid the penalty in question from determining his response," unless, that is, he's got some exceptional virtues or powers. In that case, he "performs not merely rightly...but with a certain heroic quality." He ends by claiming that "only another person can coerce us, or interfere with our social or political freedom," and we "tend, of course, to be more resentful" of such personal interactions than of mere environmental constraints. Nonetheless, our environment may deprive us of free will; the deprivation of free will does not require the interference of another person.

"Three concepts of free action" (1975)

This essay, written while he was teaching at Rockefeller, is a response to a 1975 essay of the same title by Don Locke. Frankfurt mentions Locke's example of two hijacked pilots who are ordered to fly to Cuba, one who does so because he is afraid he'll be killed, the other who follows orders gladly because he has a mistress in Havana. This is a strange example to illustrate the subtleties of coercion. If we were in need of an example, slavery and rape are far more common in the real world, and the perpetrator often tries to make the victim feel guilty for submitting to the coercion (e.g. because — so the perpetrator conveys — that is what the victim secretly wants, or would have done anyway, or is all they're good for, or...) These problems, not men's helicopter fantasies, are something we actually already care about. This is why diversity in philosophy departments is so important.

Frankfurt discusses cases in which a person feels conflicted about his choice. The hypothetical person claims "that what he did was not something he really wanted to do, or that it was not something he really wanted to do." He might, for example, have picked the lesser of two evils.

A person is "active with respect to his own desires when he identifies himself with them." If his identification of himself with his desires is what drives his action, then he is "active" with respect to those actions. "Without such identification," Frankfurt says, "the person is a passive bystander to his desires and to what he does..." Second-order desires cannot be passive. They are active by their nature; a person is always identified with his second-order desires.

"Identification and externality" (1977)

What's the difference, he asks, "between the sort of thing that goes on when a person raises his arm (say, to give a signal) and the sort of thing that happens when a person's arm rises (say, because of a muscular spasm) without his raising it?" [This is one of the very last topics I would have considered including in a book titled The Importance of What We Care About. but here it is.] And, for that matter, "to some of the thoughts that occur in our minds, as to some of the events in our bodies, we are mere passive bystanders. Thus there are obsessional thoughts, whose provenances may be obscure and of which we cannot rid ourselves; thoughts that strike us unexpectedly out of the blue; and thoughts that run willy-nilly through our heads." We experience these things passively; we are not identified with them.

"The problem of action" (1978)

Our understanding of "action" centers on "the contrast between what an agent does and what merely happens to him." Actions may have causes, but they need not have causes of any particular type. He talks about "purposive" behavior that involves course corrections to achieve some goal.

"The importance of what we care about" (1982)

Here's the title essay of the book. It's the most readable essay up to this point, indicating, to me, his evolution as a writer. It marks a turning point in his writing style.

He identifies "what to believe" (epistemology), "how to behave" (ethics), and "what to care about" (his interest).

"...for most of us, the requirements of ethics are not the only things we care about. Even people who care a great deal about morality generally care still more about other things. They may care more, for instance, about their own personal projects, about certain individuals and groups, and perhaps about various ideals to which they accord commanding authority in their lives but which need not be particularly of an ethical nature. There is nothing distinctively moral, for instance, about such ideals as being steadfastly loyal to a family tradition, or selflessly pursuing mathematical truth, or devoting oneself to some type of connoisseurship."

And what does it mean to be important? The concept is "fundamental" and runs into "circularity" when he tries to define it. Something is important if it makes a "difference at all" to something else, probably an important difference.

"A person who cares about something is, as it were, invested in it. He identifies himself with what he cares about in the sense that he makes himself vulnerable to losses and susceptible to benefits depending upon whether what he cares about is diminished or enhanced. Thus he concerns himself with what concerns it, giving particular attention to such things and directing his behavior accordingly. Insofar as the person's life is in whole or in part devoted to anything, rather than being merely a sequence of events whose themes and structures he makes no effort to fashion, it is devoted to this."

A person's caring cannot be fleeting, or else it would appear no different from an "impulse. He would not in any proper sense be guiding or directing himself at all." Also, "when a person cares about something, it may be entirely up to him both that he cares about it and that he cares about it as much as he does." And: "The formation of a person's will is most fundamentally a matter of his coming to care about certain things, and of his coming to care about some of them more than about others."

He closes with these lines: "When a person makes something important to himself, accordingly, the situation resembles an instance of divine agape at least in a certain respect. The person does not care about the object because its worthiness commands that he do so. On the other hand, the worthiness of the activity of caring commands that he choose an object which he will be able to care about." I don't know from agape, but this sounds like normal post-breakup advice to me. If someone refuses your energy, stop thinking about them and give your energy to someone who wants it.

"What we are morally responsible for" (1983)

He's still arguing that a person may be morally responsible, even if he can't act otherwise, when he "acts as he does for reasons of his own, rather than simply because no other alternative is open to him."

"Necessity and desire" (1984)

Here, Frankfurt claims that "desires" sometimes take precedence over "needs." A terminally ill patient might choose a "pleasure cruise" on his bucket list rather than yet another surgery. He thinks that we must also consider "the value of what [something] is needed for" rather than the mere fact that it is needed.

A "volitional need" depends on something that's wanted. If the desire is voluntary, the volitional need is "free"; if the desire is involuntary (for example, "especially intense or difficult to control" or "ineradicably persistent" even if mild), the volitional need is "constrained."

He makes this interesting comment at the end: "Our feeling that it is incumbent upon us to assist a person in need tends to become somewhat attenuated when the need is essentially derivative from that person's desire. This may be because the hardening of desire into necessity strikes us as an analogue of 'bad faith,' so that we suspect the person in question of being unable to control his desire only because he does not really want to do so."

"On bullshit" (1986)

This essay is famous, so I shall not say much about it here. It maintains that bullshit is a type of deception that, unlike lying, doesn't intend to make a truth claim. "For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.

"Equality as a moral ideal" (1987)

Regarding the distribution of wealth, what matters morally "is not that everyone should have the same but that each should have enough. He believes that an undue focus on economic equality "tends to divert a person's attention away from endeavoring to discover...what he himself really cares about and what will actually satisfy him." On a different tack, in times of scarcity, there are moral questions about the best distribution of resources: "perhaps it is worse to prolong the process of starvation for a short time than to terminate quickly the agony of starving to death." He also applies this argument to the educational rights of a hypothetical disabled child, saying that making a choice to help a disabled child even when it might adversely affect an abled child isn't about "providing people [in this case, the disabled child] with as much as others. It pertains rather to the urgency of the needs of people who do not have enough."

"Identification and wholeheartedness" (1987)

He muses on the difference between "mind" and "consciousness." For example: "one way of being unconscious is to be asleep. But even while they are asleep, animals respond to visual, auditory, tactile, and other stimuli. Otherwise it would be difficult to wake them up."

It gets more productive here: "We are ceaselessly alert to the danger that there may be discrepancies between what we wish to be (or what we wish to seem to be) and how we actually appear to others and to ourselves." Also: "Our hearts are at best divided, and they may even not be in what we are doing at all." To the extent that we are "moved to act by something other than what we really want," we're passive, because "we are moved by a force that is not fully our own."

A "second-order volition" is a choice about what desire you want to motivate you.

"When the decision is made without reservation, the commitment it entails is decisive. Then the person no longer holds himself apart from the desire to which he has committed himself. It is no longer unsettled or uncertain whether the object of that desire — that is, what he wants — is what he really wants. The decision determines what the person really wants by making the desire on which he decides fully his own. To this extent the person, in making a decision by which he identifies with a desire, constitutes himself. The pertinent desire no longer in any way external to him."

Also, choosing to identify with one of two desires "is not necessarily to eliminate the conflict between those desires, or even to reduce its severity, but to alter its nature." The person's commitment "eliminates the conflict as to which of these desires he prefers to be his motive. The conflict between the desires" — "which remains — is in this way transformed into a conflict between one of them and the person who has identified himself with its rival. The person is no longer uncertain which side he is on, in the conflict between the two desires, and the persistence of this conflict need not subvert or diminish the wholeheartedness of his commitment to the desire with which he identifies."

"Rationality and the unthinkable" (1988)

This is the final essay, written for this book, that serves as the conclusion, I suppose.

A challenge of utilitarianism is that "anything might at some point be morally imperative." As with atheism, "nothing can be ruled out in advance." A utilitarian can't commit to principles of personal integrity and "can form no stable conception of his own moral identity." [Apart from utilitarianism, anyway.] There do need to be some limits on what is thinkable; "the set of actions that are unthinkable for a person specify the limits of what the person can will to do. It defines his essence as a volitional creature." People who will do anything "if the price is right" have "no essential nature at all." Our will, which regards "what we are unable to bring ourselves to do," sometimes compels us to act in a way that seems on the surface to be irrational ("against [our] judgment") but that is just where "the rationality of a person may in part reside."

And so finally we see what Frankfurt cares about.