Frankfurt, Caring, and Activity

It continues to be fairly quiet here at the Soup, and I suspect at least part of the reason is that the kind of posts that have been put up over the last couple months have been, for the most part, pretty sophisticated, longish, and well-developed arguments on ideas the authors have thought a lot about over some time.  Of course, this occurrence, while yielding several top-notch posts, has also, I think, cranked up the stakes for everyone contributing to the site, with some folks (myself included) thinking, “Well, perhaps I should wait to trot out that idea until it’s more fully cooked.”

            Well here’s to the half-baked!  One of the central ideas behind PEA Soup from the beginning was that it would serve as a forum not only for ideas we’d spent a while thinking about, but also for fairly embryonic ideas (requiring brief exposition) that we could toss into cyberspace for feedback.  So in that spirit, let me trot out a little sumpin’ sumpin’ about Harry Frankfurt’s important work on the nature of caring.

            I’ve been teaching a graduate seminar at BGSU on free will and moral responsibility, and we’ve been focusing in the last half of the course on Frankfurt’s attempts over his career to figure out precisely what’s involved in identification, the process by which one renders certain motivationally effective desires one’s own – internal to the self – such that they have the authority requisite for self-determination.  In one of his more recent articles, “On Caring,” he talks about the role of activity in caring, and the way in which one provides continuity and unity to one’s life (or, as I would have it, various unities in one’s life) by caring about certain things.  In several of his articles to this point, he has located activity, which he thinks is essential to true agency, at various points, e.g., with the formation of a second-order volition, with a decision one makes to resolve ambivalence, or with the process of critical self-reflection and evaluation.  In this article, though, he says that the agent who cares about something has a “disposition to be active in seeing to it that the desire [related to one’s care] is not abandoned or neglected” (“On Caring,” p. 162 of Necessity, Volition, and Love).  What matters, then, is not that one actively reinforce or maintain these desires regarding cared-for objects; instead, one is to remain vigilant lest the desire wane, in which case one will (should?), given one’s care, do what one can to render it strong again, and this is the role of activity, of identifying agency.

            This seems phenomenologically inaccurate, though, for it makes it seem as if desires with respect to cared-for objects are somehow independent of one’s cares.  Instead, it seems to me that desires related to cares flow from them, are dependent on them, such that they serve (in part) to indicate the cares one has.  If one cares about X, for example, one will, as a result, have certain desires to protect/preserve/defend X.  Exclusive desires to the contrary, or a lack of desires in general, indicate that one either cares about the contrary of X or one doesn’t care about X at all, respectively.  If this is right, then were one’s desires with respect to X to wane, this would be an indication that one’s caring itself would have waned, and one would then be less inclined – perhaps not at all inclined – to ensure that one’s desires not be abandoned or neglected in the first place.  Thus, I fail to see the motivation for activity of the kind Frankfurt urges here.  And if this is to be the location for the kind of activity constitutive of agency (which also produces the continuity and unifying story of persistent agency), then I fail to see very much, if any, genuine activity in our lives.  (Furthermore, I fail to see how one could, even if Frankfurt’s story is right, go about preserving the kind of desires in question.  Desires are clearly outside of our control, so what could be done to preserve them or alter their valence?  One might think that we could try and do so indirectly, but this will depend on our having a different care in place, viz., a care about preserving the original care for X.  Now Frankfurt certainly can’t require such meta-caring, on pain of infinite regress.  So if it’s a contingent matter whether or not I have that meta-care, our vigilance relation to our desires in the story he tells is itself utterly contingent, perhaps not even a typical relation at all.)

            What I’m curious to hear, therefore, are the phenomenological stories people have to tell (gather round the fire, kids!), particularly about the relation of cares to desires, but also about what role, if any, there is for activity in the mix.

9 Replies to “Frankfurt, Caring, and Activity

  1. David-
    I recall having similiar thoughts after reading “On caring.” So here are a few ideas that emerged after chewing on your half-baked post (sorry for taking the metaphor too far):
    I think Frankfurt has always been interested in how we should understand the relationship between the more doxastic side of our moral psychology (our judgments, beliefs about value, our ‘cares’) and its motivational or affective side (desires, etc.) The way I read him is that it’s exclusively desires that are motivationally efficacious; that desires do flow from cares (or like states), as you claim; and that one’s cares and one’s desires can come apart in that one need not desire to do that which reflects one’s cares. (So akrasia exists, I guess.) Now, I don’t know that Frankfurt would deny your claim that the absence of desire can be evidence of the absence of the associated care, but I also see no basis for him to deny it either.
    Activity might play a role in aligning one’s cares and one’s desires in the following way: A care, for Frankfurt, is a standing commitment that is identity-constituting, arrived at through reflection and deliberation, and generates second-order volitions. The trouble is that I may not be motivated (i.e., may lack the appropriate desire) to act in accordance with my cares. But presumably I might be aware of such gaps because in the process of identifying my cares, I acquired the self-knowledge regarding when I may not desire to act as my cares bid me act, and so I adopt strategies of action designed to create desires that align with my cares. A (totally) hypothetical example: I care that I am involved with my kids’ development and education, but often find myself undermotivated to do so. So I adopt the second-order volition of putting myself in those situations in which I know I am disposed to desire to do that which advances the objective I care for. So instead of trying (vainly) to find the enthusiasm to attend parent-teacher conferences at my children’s school, I make sure to always be available to read my kids stories at bedtime, which I routinely desire to do. In this way, my desires are to some degree within my control, and I adopt a strategy of acting so as to align my desires with what I know I care about (in light of my knowledge of what sorts of activities tend to produce in me desires that align with my cares).
    I’m not sure if this is answers your questions about activity, but I think it coincides with Frankfurt’s idea that cares involve some sort of commitment to a certain kind of desire.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful remarks, Michael. Two quick nits to pick. First, I wouldn’t classify cares exclusively on the doxastic side. Cares certainly consist *in part* of beliefs/judgments, but not wholly; there’s clearly an affective component (perhaps the central component), e.g., emotional dispositions. Second, I don’t see activity involved in the formation of cares (despite what Frankfurt occasionally hints at). We *discover* what we care about via critical self-reflection. For the life of me, I can’t think of a care I actively brought about.
    But anyway, to your example. Seems to me that you still haven’t raised a case in which your desires are under your control. You’ve just managed to find ways to tap into pre-existing desires that indeed flow from cares about your kids’ educational development. It’s not at all clear that a desire to attend the PTA, for example, is even necessary for that care (doing so may be inefficient, etc.). Furthermore, Frankfurt’s worry was about desires related to cares that *wane*, and his claim is we can be active with respect to them by being vigilant about keeping them in place (with the original strength attached). So I guess I don’t yet see your example helping out on that score.

  3. David,
    Thanks for the post! A couple of quick questions –
    1) You write (in response to Michael) “I don’t see activity involved in the formation of cares (despite what Frankfurt occasionally hints at). We *discover* what we care about via critical self-reflection. For the life of me, I can’t think of a care I actively brought about.”.
    Have you had a chance to read Frankfurt’s “The Reasons of Love” (Princeton, 2004)? It seems that what he writes there is much more in line with your suggestion; he stresses that we often simply find ourselves with cares and loves, where this is not a matter of activity or recognition of independent value (he gives the example of a parent’s love for a child).
    2) In your original post you write “Exclusive desires to the contrary, or a lack of desires in general, indicate that one either cares about the contrary of X or one doesn’t care about X at all, respectively.”
    I wonder what you might say about cases where an agent cares about, e.g., leaving a healthy world for future generations? With such a care, I could imagine a person having few X-related desires, in part because it is sometimes unclear how best to promote what she cares about. It might also make her less likely to form the appropriate desires – and to act on them – as the object of her care is ‘distant’; it will be easier for immediate desires and concerns to interfere. [So she will often desire to drive her car instead of walking, even though this runs against her care for future generations…]

  4. Thanks for the comments, Jason. Regarding your first one, I’ve got _The Reasons of Love_ sitting on my shelf, but I haven’t yet gotten to it. It doesn’t surprise me, however, that Frankfurt is going entirely in the “passive formation of cares” direction. This seems evident from his responses to critics in the volume _Contours of Agency_.
    Regarding your second comment, it’s certainly possible to care in this way about distant objects (distant both geographically and temporally), although often these may be better construed as “wishes” or “hopes.” Nevertheless, I think it crucial to tie caring to emotional dispositions, such that if there is no emotional cost attached to a betrayal of the “care,” then it’s no care at all. But that’s not to say that there aren’t degrees of care, such that one may experience *some*, albeit not much, emotional cost when the cared-for object has negative fortunes. So I would suggest that it’s not the *distance* of the cared-for object, in your example, that generates few/weak desires; instead, it’s the fact that the agent doesn’t care all that much about it (perhaps because of the temporal distance, indeed, but the lack of many/strong desires is *directly* caused by the low degree of care, and not the temporal distance involved in the cared-for object). And the weakness of the desires, due to the weakness of care involved, will explain why those desires are often overpowered by cares “more close to home” (where that’s construed as simply stronger cares).
    As for it being unclear what will best promote the cared-for object, that certainly won’t undermine the agent’s wanting to do *something* about it, *if* the care is relatively strong. The lack, then, wouldn’t be volitional; it would be epistemological.

  5. I love PEA Soup. But I can’t understand anything. Does this stuff come off the top of your heads this way? How do you feel about current events? Iraq War? Education? Health-Care?

  6. Sorry to reply to such an old post, but it sparked my interest. Also, I should warn that I am not a professional philosopher and have never read anything by Frankfurt. Proceed at your own risk.
    This response is primarily to your initial post, David. I will first give my response to your second objection because my response to the first objection depends on it (I’m not going to deal with the ‘meta-care’ portion of this objection because I don’t think I understand it. The prefix “meta-” tends to make my brain shut down.). As I read it, your second objection is that the notion of resuscitating desires is suspect simply because, as you put it, “Desires are clearly outside of our control.” You are right if you mean that I cannot just conjure up desires by an act of will. Still it’s certainly not the case that the ways in which I act have no effect on my desires at all. Rather it’s just that the effects are not always predictable or easily explicable. To pick a rather harmless example, when I entered university, I never had a desire to drink coffee. Now, however, I have the desire to drink coffee with alarming frequency. What happened? Well, I can’t put my finger on it, but it must have something to with all the coffee I drank between then and now. The point is that my desires are affected (perhaps even effected) by my actions, though the precise lines of influence are difficult to trace.
    So, the desires I have are at least partially contingent upon the actions I perform, though the connection is not always clear. This is where my response to your first objection begins. That objection, as I take it, is that desires and cares are linked in such a way that by the time one becomes aware of a flagging care-related desire, the care with which that desire is associated will already be damaged such that the individual will not have the motivation to resuscitate the desire. What I wrote above is meant to open up the possibility that one can revive a desire by performing certain actions. And if that is true it means that it’s possible for me to revive a flagging desire, IF I have an outside motivation that produces actions which tend strengthen that desire.
    Here, David, you might look to the affective component of care which you mention in your posts, because the desire to avoid emotional pain can be a strong motivator. Take, for example, a long relationship which is showing signs of stagnation. A man begins to realize that his desires to spend time with and know more about his girlfriend are starting to flag. He no longer finds her as interesting as he did at the start of their relationship. They have, however, been together for a long time, and when he considers leaving her to look for someone more interesting, he finds it less desirable than the prospect of sticking things out, despite his flagging desires. However he also recognizes that if he continues to lose interest in his girlfriend, the current balance of desires might change, and he might eventually find the prospect of a break-up more desirable than the prospect of sticking things out. This awareness (that further deterioration of the relationship may eventually drive him to choose a break-up and all the attendant emotional pain) could be enough to motivate him to do things and act in ways that strengthen their relationship. And those actions, if my opening paragraph is on target, could resuscitate his flagging desires.
    Here then, is a (perhaps unnecessarily long) story that attempts to answer your question about how one could find motivation to resuscitate flagging desires. One problem with it is that the fear of emotional pain is central to the story, and one trying to fit this in Frankfurt’s picture might be reluctant to give that particular motivation such a central place in a scheme that is supposed to help explain how we preserve the unity of our lives.

  7. You’re absolutely right, Michael, that someone might find such a motivation in the way you’ve described. But you might not, either. And yes, desires are affected by us, but indirectly, mediately. The question, though, is what are the circumstances under which will we be moved in the ways you suggest to make the changes that will ultimately affect (effect?) our desires? My answer: *only* if we’ve already got certain other desires/affective components in place, components which themselves are not under our direct, immediate voluntary control.
    Have I addressed your point?

  8. Thanks for the response, David. You have addressed my point and clarified my understanding of yours as well. In my first post, I do implicitly accept that in order to resuscitate a desire, an agent will need “certain other desires/affective components in place.” And I also agree that those desires/affective components an agent has are not under her immediate control. But I’m not sure that I understand why you require immediate, direct control, or rather, why you think Frankfurt’s picture requires it. Is it because without such control, our ability to preserve the cares we do have will just be too much of a crapshoot? Or, as you put it, because “our vigilance relation to our desires in the story he tells is itself utterly contingent?” Are there other reasons to object?

  9. You’ve got it, Michael: without this kind of direct, immediate control over our desires, and without there being any reason to think we’ll have independent cares about the preservation of our waning cares, any success we have in restoring our cares or the desires associated with them will be a matter of luck, a “crapshoot,” in your words.

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