Must a person have both desires and values?

As one of the reasons behind taking up blogging was to gain writing experience in English for my studies, it might be fair to publish the essays that I am writing for my MA Philosophy course at the Open University, of course only after they have been submitted and graded.

Below is the first essay, trying to answer the question “Must a person have both desires and values?“, posed in the context of the discussion about what constitutes a person in contrast to a human being. It asked to focus on the suggested reading, mainly by Harry Frankfurt and Gary Watson, making this essay completely uninteresting to anyone who is not taking the same course.

I. Introduction

This essay will examine if it is necessary for a person to have both desires and values and it will concentrate on what sort of complexity of mind we require of a human being in order to be qualified as a „person“.

The difficulty of defining what should be understood in philosophical debate as a „person“ is demonstrated by the rush to negative delimitation. Most attempts at this definition do not take long to get to state what might not be a „person“, for example foetuses1, people in a persistent vegetative state2, very young children3 or certain types of drug users4. Nobody who is asked to define a „house“ would start by saying that it is not a bridge. Even other academic disciplines that have to define less tangible terms would for example not define „democracy“ by stating that it is not a dictatorship. A „person“ seems to be a rather hard thing to grasp or pin down.

Any attempt to define „person“ shall therefore be approached with utmost modesty.

Most philosophical writers seem to agree that „person“ is not the same as „human being“5, although in everyday use and in other disciplines6, these two terms are used interchangeably. This leads to the possible existence of human beings who are not persons, but also of non-humans who are persons. Examples for the latter could be anthropoid apes7 or intelligent life on other planets8. I suggest that we don’t have sufficient insight into the mental workings of animals (we will see that we are already struggling enough to find out what is going on in our own brains/minds) and that the existence of any intelligent life outside of this planet is at this point purely hypothetical, and I will therefore refrain from considering possible non-human persons in this essay.

II. Frankfurt

Frankfurt argues that the difference between persons and non-persons is a difference in mental complexity9, specifically the structure of a person’s will10 and their ability (or lack thereof) to form desires11. Frankfurt describes a system of several orders of desires. First-order desires are all the desires a person has12. These may even be conflicting desires and not all of them may push the agent to an action in accordance with that desire13. But then, there are also second-order desires: someone wants to have a certain desire or he wants a certain desire to be his will14, the latter being called “volition” by Frankfurt15. Having these second-order volitions is what Frankfurt regards as essential to being a person16 because he sees this as a prerequisite for the freedom of will17. Those non-persons that lack second-order volitions are dubbed “wantons”18.

With so many new concepts and terms being introduced, it is high time to bring an example. Frankfurt uses two drug addicts to illustrate his thoughts19: Both addicts realise and hate their addiction, so both have the first-order desire to take drugs, but also the first-order desire to refrain from drug use. Whatever both drug users do, using or abstaining from the drug, they will thus fulfil one of their desires.

The first drug user however also has a second-order volition. In the conflict between his two first-order desires, he is not neutral, but he wants the desire to abstain from the consumption to prevail over his conflicting desire of the same order. He wants the desire to abstain to become his will20.

The second drug user suffers from the same first-order conflict. However, he does not prefer that one of his conflicting desires should win over the other one21.

For Frankfurt, only the first drug user is a person22, even if he remains a drug user, because he has shown freedom of will.

III. Watson

Watson is outspokenly critical of Frankfurt’s attempt at defining a person, calling it “simply insufficient to the task he [Frankfurt] wants it to perform”23.

For Watson, the decisive concept in defining a person is that of values, which he describes as “more or less long-term aims and normative principles that we are willing to defend”24. Using these values, we rank our desires by attributing different levels of worth to them25. A person is then identified as a being that can make evaluations of its desires and can shape its life accordingly26. Watson himself regards this explanation to be in the tradition of Plato27.

Watson refuses to see any insight that would be gained by Frankfurt’s theory of different levels of desire, arguing that this just increases the number of desires that are competing with each other28.

IV. Discussion

As desires and values are themselves terms that are open to definition, maybe the bridge between Frankfurt and Watson can be gapped by defining “valuing” as “desiring to desire”, as Lewis29 does. Watson’s “values” would therefore be nothing else than Frankfurt’s “second-order volitions”30.

Not quite unlike in contemporary usage of the term, the philosophical interpretation of “values” is however not only descriptive, but also normative. Watson thinks that values need to (attempt to) lead to a “good, fulfilling and defensible life”31. These are largely positive attributes that are not equally required of “desires”. The two theories – of Frankfurt and Watson respectively – can therefore not be seen as congruent beyond the mere use of terminology. Watson’s interpretation of what constitutes a person is narrower and does exclude some human beings from the set of persons who would enjoy inclusion under Frankfurt.

For me, it is hard to make a decision between these two conflicting theories without knowing what the purpose of defining a “person” is, specifically if persons shall have less, more or different rights or obligations than (other) human beings. Going back to some of the often-cited examples of very young children32 or people in a persistent vegetative state33 which are excluded from the set of persons under both Frankfurt’s and Watson’s respective definition because they lack the mental capacity to either influence their own will or develop values, we would on first sight clearly accept that these human beings should not have some rights that persons have, but maybe enjoy other protective rights that persons don’t need. At a closer look however, the difficulty will always be at the borderlines, for example when we need to determine when exactly an infant becomes a person. As this would require a look into that person’s mind, this judgement can hardly be passed by outsiders.

In areas where human beings need to be put into groups to provide them with certain rights or require certain obligations from them, we therefore devise more objective criteria, e.g. by attributing different legal rights to infants or adults, or citizens and non-citizens. This is possible without denying anyone the membership in the set of human beings and it makes me begin to entertain the question if anything can actually be gained by denying some human beings “personhood” in philosophical debate.

The necessity to establish what and thus who is a person and who is not is further undermined if we consider the possibility of somebody being a person (and this is true under both Frankfurt’s and Watson’s respective definition) and that same human not being a person in the next instant, day or week. Neither Frankfurt nor Watson rule out the possibility that someone can form a free will today but will be unable to do so later or that someone has values but won’t have these later (although Watson’s definition of values has a more stable, long-term idea in mind, but they could still change over a long period of time, or under the impression of dramatic life-changing events).

Taking this thought further, maybe someone can even be a person in one respect and not a person in another respect at the same time. After all, it might be that somebody has a second-order desire or values about one aspect of his or her life, but is devoid of any such notions in other respects.

At this point I am reminded of Frankfurt’s statement that “people are generally far more complicated than my sketchy account of the structure of a person’s will may suggest”34. As neither Frankfurt nor Watson could have known when they wrote their papers in 1971 and 1975 respectively, this statement might be more true than both definitions of “person” can possibly endure: In 1979, an experiment by Benjamin Libet seriously shattered the notion of volitions or free will because he was able to measure a surge in brain activity before participants in the “Libet experiment” thought that they had a desire to act35. This suggests that volitions and free will are not as free as we have been assuming from the readings of Frankfurt and Watson. As even the results of the Libet experiment allow for the power to veto the impulse given by the brain and decide not to act in accordance with it (the “free won’t”36), there is still room for some level of conscious volition though. Still, free will cannot be debated in the same way after these experiments as it was in the 1970s.

V. Conclusion

Reminding the reader of the modesty called for in the introduction of this essay and considering all the doubts pointed out in IV., I would respectfully suggest that neither Frankfurt nor Watson have made a compelling case for the necessity of the definition of a person as something distinct from a human being or for their respective definition of such.

Watson’s definition suffers from his resorting to “values” which is a vague term of subjective moral judgement, and nothing much can be gained from trying to explain what the definition of the hitherto vague term “person” shall be by utilising other terms of no lesser lack of clarity.

Frankfurt is less affected by this criticism as “desires” do not imply the same stamp of moral approval as “values”, although his choice of the word “wanton” for those he deems non-persons also has quite a moralistic tone to it. But his concept of second-order desires has clearly been put into doubt by later scientific research.

Until I come across a more convincing definition of person, I will therefore continue to view all humans as persons. If necessary, they can be grouped into humans/persons of different mental capabilities, moral values, abilities to implement their will, et cetera. But I do not want to go so far as to deny any other human being the right to be called a person.

1Beaney 2008: 29; Matravers 2001: 35

2Beaney 2008: 29; Matravers 2001: 35

3Frankfurt 1971: II:2

4Frankfurt 1971: I:5-10

5Beaney 2008: 29; Frankfurt 1971: 4; Matravers 2001: 35

6For law, cf. Garner 2005: 960

7Beaney 2008: 29, citing an unsuccessful example of a legal action in Austria to get a chimpanzee recognised as a person

8Beaney 2008: 28

9Beaney 2008: 33

10Frankfurt 1971: 5

11Frankfurt 1971: 6

12Frankfurt 1971: I:3

13Frankfurt 1971: I:3

14Frankfurt 1971: II:1

15Frankfurt 1971: II:1

16Frankfurt 1971: II:1

17Frankfurt 1971: III:1

18Frankfurt 1971: II:1

19Frankfurt 1971: II:5-10

20Frankfurt 1971: II:6 and 9

21Frankfurt 1971: II:8 and 10

22Frankfurt 1971: II:9

23Watson 1975: III.10

24Watson 1975: 1

25Watson 1975: 2

26Matravers 2001: 53

27Matravers 2001: 51

28Watson 1975: 12

29Lewis 1989: 6

30Matravers 2001: 54

31Watson 1975: 1

32Frankfurt 1971: II:2

33Beaney 2008: 29; Matravers 2001: 35

34Frankfurt 1971: III:8

35Precht 2007: 152

36Precht 2007: 154



Garner, Bryan (2005) (editor) Black’s Law Dictionary, 8th edition, St. Paul, MN, USA, Thomson/West.

Precht, Richard David (2007) Wer bin ich – und wenn ja, wie viele?, 24th edition, München, Germany, Goldmann.


Frankfurt, Harry (1971) “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person”, Journal of Philosophy, lxviii, 1, 5-20 (reprinted as reading 3.2 to accompany A850 Postgraduate Foundation Module in Philosophy, Milton Keynes, The Open University and quoted by the chapters [in Roman numerals] and paragraphs [in Arabic numerals] of the reprint).

Lewis, David (1989) “Dispositional Theories of Value”, The Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume, 113-38 (reprinted as reading 3.4 to accompany A850 Postgraduate Foundation Module in Philosophy, Milton Keynes, The Open University and quoted by the paragraphs [in Arabic numerals] of the reprint).

Watson, Gary (1975) “Free Agency”, Journal of Philosophy, lxxii, 8, 205-20 (reprinted as reading 3.3 to accompany A850 Postgraduate Foundation Module in Philosophy, Milton Keynes, The Open University and quoted by the paragraphs [in Arabic numerals] of the reprint).

Study material

Beaney, Michael (2008) Doing Postgraduate Research in Philosophy, A850 Postgraduate Foundation Module in Philosophy, Chapter 2, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Matravers, Derek (2001) The Nature of Persons, A850 Postgraduate Foundation Module in Philosophy, Chapter 3, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

As I said, to non-students of this course this is not very illuminative. I passed the paper, but there is room for improvement.

The next paper, due on 22 April 2011, will be about the psychological continuity account of personal identity.

About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
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7 Responses to Must a person have both desires and values?

  1. John Erickson says:

    I’m gonna need some time (and maybe something more) to handle this. I’ll try feedback later – after the evening news depresses me with updates on Japan.

    • Please don’t waste your time!
      Because the essay refers to the required reading for the course, I think it won’t make much sense without having read that. And if you have read it, you would find out that I didn’t understand all of it :-)

  2. charlywalker says: passed…

  3. John Erickson says:

    Actually, perhaps frighteningly so, I did understand quite a bit. There’s an interesting co-argument I would propose for you to “chew on”. Although the technology is not quite there yet, we have seen numerous examples of “self-aware” computers throughout science fiction. The recent performance of “Watson” on the American TV show “Jeopardy” also brings up this concept. I will admit that Watson is simply an elegantly programmed computer (being a programmer myself), a brilliant program which only serves a single purpose. However, as technology progresses, computers will have processing faster by orders of magnitudes in the very near future, and access to amounts of data that will boggle human conception. The work of Alan Turing is especially interesting on this front, as is the web-based science fiction universe known as Orion’s Arm. They have extensive writings on “toposophic” levels of advancement of both human and artificial intelligence.
    I would throw the challenge back at you, Andreas (purely for fun), and ask your insights into how we would define these new “beings” and “persons”. Also, as the advancement of “cyborgs” combining electronic hardware with human forms continues, we may see a merging of the human “leap of faith or logic” capability with processing speeds and memory capabilities far in excess of purely biological entities. I’d be interested in your insights on these topics.
    But please, on some other day! MY BRAIN HURTS!! ;) (Seriously, you’ve over-heated areas of my brain that have lain dormant far too long. I need a rest! Now, where are those DVDs of the Three Stooges? :D)

  4. Pingback: The Psychological Continuity Account | Publish or Perish – Andreas Moser's Blog

  5. Pingback: MA Philosophy at the Open University | Publish or Perish – Andreas Moser's Blog

  6. Pingback: Punishment in light of the Reason Constraint | Publish or Perish – Andreas Moser's Blog

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