Higher-order volitions (or higher-order desire), as opposed to action-determining volitions, are volitions about volitions. Higher-order volitions are potentially more often guided by long-term beliefs and reasoning. A higher-order volition can go unfulfilled due to uncontrolled lower-order volitions.

The philosopher John Locke already claimed that free will was the ability to stop before making a decision, to consider what would be best to do, and the ability to decide and act based on the outcome of that thinking, which could be seen as equivalent to forming a higher-order volition.[1] Locke concludes that when it comes to “chusing a remote [i.e., future] Good as an end to be pursued”, agents are “at Liberty in respect of willing” and that “in [the power to suspend the prosecution of one’s desires] lies the liberty Man has”, that the power to suspend is “the source of all liberty”.[1]

Prof. Dr. Regine Kather does not see free will as a condition, but as a lifelong process,[2] fitting the view that free will arises from the presence of higher-order volitions in each new situation.[need quotation to verify] Prof. Dr. Ansgar Beckermann and Prof. Dr. Regine Kather both address the connection between consciousness and free will: Consciousness has the quantum noise of physical processes as an input variable and the repetition of learned behavior as a central functional principle. Free will emerges only through intelligent metacognition, i.e. the application of higher-order volitions to one's own intentions to act and thus the ethical control of one's own impulsiveness, which cannot represent free will if, according to Beckermann, "it is based on neural processes in the brain that take place before I even form the intention of wanting to do something",[3] or, according to Kather, the human being decides under concrete conditions and in the light of ethical principles, whereby the human being, through the specific form of consciousness, can consider the goals and reasons for its actions and thus gain greater freedom than is already found in the animal kingdom.

An example for a failure to follow higher-order volitions is the drug addict who takes drugs even though they would like to quit taking drugs. According to Harry Frankfurt the drug addict has established free will when their higher-order volition to stop wanting drugs determines the precedence of their changing, action-determining desires either to take drugs or not to take drugs.[4]

John Locke argues that if the will were determined by the perceived greater good, every agent would be consistently focused on the attainment of “the infinite eternal Joys of Heaven”,[1] which consequently would be the topmost higher-order voliton to win Pascal's wager, corresponding to the drug addict's desire to survive his drug addiction.

The concept of higher-order voltions goes back to the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, who used it to explain free will independently of determinism, of the thesis that what happens in the world is determined by predictable natural laws, which is however made unplausible by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and resulting quantum noise. But even if the world were governed by such laws, one could be free in the sense that higher-order volitions determined the primacy of first-order desires. This view is called compatibilism.

See also


  1. ^ a b c "Locke On Freedom". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2020-01-21. Retrieved 2023-06-27.
  2. ^ "Freiheit und Determination". de:SWR Tele-Akademie (in German). SWR. 2006-05-28. Archived from the original on 2007-03-14. Retrieved 2023-06-23.
  3. ^ "Freier Wille – alles Illusion?". de:SWR Tele-Akademie (in German). SWR. 2006-05-21. Archived from the original on 2006-09-14. Retrieved 2023-06-23.
  4. ^ Frankfurt H.G. (1971). Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person. The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 68, No. 1 (Jan. 14, 1971), pp. 5-20