Harry Frankfurt
Free-will philosopher Harry Frankfurt.

This week we delved into the topic of free will via Netflix’s Making a Murderer. We asked whether Brendan Dassey was free during his confession to the murder, rape, and mutilation of Teresa Halbach. To understand the problem we need to tackle the notion of agency, with which free will is inextricably bound up.

To have free will generally means to make one’s own decisions. This requires agency, the ability to make things happen above natural causes: to mentally represent situations and form goals such that free will can be attributed. In the standard scientific view, however, the Universe is fundamentally driven by causes and effects, whose patterns we summarise as laws. So how do we think above them?!

According to philosopher Harry Frankfurt (pictured) agency arises from our ability to consciously reflect on things. Agents are bundles of beliefs and desires, where the things we reflect on and consciously endorse form our agential identities.

In ‘Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person’ Frankfurt (1971) describes a drug addict who has two drives: (1) a desire to continue taking a substance; (2) a desire to stay clean. These ‘first-order desires’ are mental states which are in competition with one another because they are directly projected at the same external objects (drugs). But the addict, as a conscious entity, can reflect on them via ‘second-order desires’ (‘volitions’): step back and endorse which desire they identify with most. Thus the addict can secure their free will if their volitions conform to the outcome.

But where do volitions start? Frankfurt assumes we are responsible for second-order desires (e.g. ‘I shouldn’t eat more because I’m fat’) but not our first-order desires (e.g. ‘I’m hungry’). How?

And his view is not innocuous. To assert that the addict’s substance use was their decision—or that Dassey’s confession was freely given—is to imply something big about their responsibility.