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.