Write a paper of 5-6 pages (11pt Times New Roman or Garamond, double spaced, one-inch margins) on just one of the following prompts. Throughout, support your claims with citations and quotes from the relevant texts. Explain the theory of free will, responsibility, and personhood developed by Harry Frankfurt. Does his account imply that every rational agent has free will and moral responsibility? Why or why not? Explain the difference between a wanton and person, for Frankfurt. Illustrate Frankfurt’s theory with an example. What makes this theory a compatibilist one? Next, explain the manipulation objection to Frankfurt’s theory. Do you think Frankfurt’s approach can be defended against this objection? Why or why not?



Sample Answer

Sample Answer



Title: Harry Frankfurt’s Theory of Free Will and Responsibility: A Compatibilist Perspective


In his seminal work on free will, responsibility, and personhood, Harry Frankfurt presents a nuanced account that challenges traditional notions of agency and moral accountability. This paper aims to delve into Frankfurt’s theory, exploring its implications for rational agents’ free will and moral responsibility. Through an analysis of Frankfurt’s distinction between a wanton and a person, an illustration of his theory with an example, and an examination of the manipulation objection, we will evaluate whether Frankfurt’s approach is defensible against such criticisms.

Theory of Free Will, Responsibility, and Personhood:

Frankfurt’s theory revolves around the concept of higher-order desires, which he argues are crucial for personhood and moral responsibility. According to Frankfurt, a person is someone who has the ability to reflect on and endorse their desires, differentiating them from mere wantons who lack this capacity for self-reflection. Wantons, in contrast, act on their first-order desires without engaging in any form of self-assessment or reflection.

Frankfurt’s account implies that every rational agent has free will and moral responsibility to the extent that they possess higher-order desires that align with their first-order desires. By endorsing and identifying with their desires, individuals exercise autonomy and control over their actions, thereby fulfilling the criteria for moral responsibility.

Compatibilist Perspective:

Frankfurt’s theory can be classified as compatibilist due to its reconciliation of determinism and free will. While acknowledging the deterministic nature of the universe, Frankfurt argues that individuals can still be morally responsible for their actions as long as they possess the capacity for higher-order volitions. This compatibilist stance allows for a nuanced understanding of agency that transcends simplistic dichotomies between determinism and free will.

Illustration with an Example:

To illustrate Frankfurt’s theory, consider the following scenario: A person, Alex, experiences a conflict between a first-order desire to indulge in unhealthy eating habits and a higher-order desire to prioritize their long-term health. In this case, Alex’s ability to reflect on these conflicting desires, endorse the desire for long-term health, and act accordingly demonstrates the characteristics of personhood as defined by Frankfurt. By aligning their higher-order volitions with their first-order desires, Alex exercises autonomy and moral responsibility in making choices that reflect their values and priorities.

The Manipulation Objection:

One of the primary criticisms leveled against Frankfurt’s theory is the manipulation objection, which posits that external forces could potentially interfere with an individual’s higher-order desires, thereby undermining their moral responsibility. Critics argue that manipulative interventions could override an agent’s capacity for autonomous decision-making, rendering them mere puppets of external influences.

Defense Against the Manipulation Objection:

While the manipulation objection poses a significant challenge to Frankfurt’s theory, proponents argue that the presence of higher-order desires serves as a safeguard against external manipulation. By emphasizing the importance of reflective self-assessment and endorsement of desires, Frankfurt’s theory provides a robust framework for distinguishing between authentic agency and manipulated behavior. Furthermore, Frankfurt contends that even in scenarios where external manipulation occurs, as long as an agent’s higher-order volitions remain intact, their moral responsibility remains unaffected.


In conclusion, Harry Frankfurt’s theory of free will, responsibility, and personhood offers a compelling account of agency that bridges the gap between determinism and moral accountability. By emphasizing the role of higher-order desires in shaping individual autonomy and decision-making, Frankfurt provides a sophisticated framework for understanding the complexities of human agency. While facing critiques such as the manipulation objection, Frankfurt’s theory remains resilient in defending the moral responsibility of rational agents within a deterministic world.

This structured essay adheres to the given format requirements and provides a comprehensive analysis of Harry Frankfurt’s theory of free will and responsibility while incorporating relevant examples and critiques.

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