This is more of a summary or paraphrase than a review, really. The Importance of What We Care About is 13 essays by philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt. These are my one-paragraph summaries of each:

  1. If you do something because you willed yourself to do it, you are responsible for having done it, even if you could not in fact have done otherwise. The fact that your action was done under coercive threat or that it was predetermined does not absolve you of responsibility for it if the actual reason you took the action is because you intended to. For you to be blamable/creditable for some action does not require that you could potentially have done something else, contrary to centuries of previous theorizing about ethics.
  2. A perhaps defining property of “persons” is that we can form “second-order volitions”: desires about our desires. Because a person may wish that her will were directed toward wishes other than her current wishes, it is for persons that questions of “free will” arise: do I have the ability to choose my own wishes, or do I merely have the ability to work toward the fulfillment of whatever unchosen wish currently predominates?
  3. Threats and offers are two ways that one person may try to influence someone to exercise his will in a particular way. For either of these to rise to the level of “coercion,” or at any rate, “compulsion” — in a sense that absolves the person coerced of moral responsibility for the resulting action — it must go beyond merely influencing his will and become more like imposing one’s own will upon him.
  4. Doing something because it is the lesser of available evils, and therefore something one would rather not have to do, is still to do it freely and responsibly. Though being responsible for doing the lesser of available evils doesn’t necessarily make you blameworthy for the evil. If indeed it was the lesser of available evils, that is enough to deflect the blame.
  5. Things we do may be active (actions) or passive (mere happenings). “Passions” (e.g. anger) also may be active or passive in this way: some passions we own as part of our persons (they are “internal”), others take hold of us without our consent (“external”). A person may externalize a passion by rejecting it or refusing to cooperate with it or even by submitting unwillingly to it, or can internalize one by agreeing with it, going along with it, incorporating it into one’s self image. Merely regretting having a passion that you in fact go along with willingly isn’t enough to externalize it.
  6. Whether what someone does is their “action” or a “mere happening” cannot be resolved by looking at the prehistory of the activity for its causation (e.g. was it intended or desired). Rather, something about the activity (or the person doing it) while it is occurring discriminates the cases: whether or not the activity is being done under the person’s guidance. A behavior that is not desired, willed, or even anticipated, can nonetheless be a person’s action if when it takes place the person takes ownership of it and guides it intentionally.
  7. Parallel to epistemology & ethics is the study of “what to care about”. To care about something is to have a long-term personal investment in it. To care is not necessarily or even often voluntary, but to shape what one cares about is an important way to shape one’s will. To care about something is to give it will-power: to foment “volitional necessity.” A person compelled by volitional necessity does not typically feel her will has been overcome, but that the compulsion is (or is compatible with) her will. Being compelled by something we care about (e.g. the truth) is paradoxically liberating. The question of which things are worth caring about is vulnerable to philosophical critique. If you are to care about anything, caring about whether you’re caring about the right things is a good place to start.
  8. I showed in essay #1 that the Principle of Alternative Possibilities, which says that a person can be morally responsible for doing an action only if that person could have done otherwise, is false. I also asserted that the conundrum of whether or not determinism is true, and if true whether it is compatible with free will, is not significant to questions of moral responsibility.  Peter van Inwagen believes he has demonstrated that I am wrong about this. He is mistaken.
  9. People use the word “need” in an imprecise way that can make needs seem important even when they’re not. A “need” is not absolute but always relative to an end: I need α in order to β. To learn the moral priority of α you must examine β; α derives its moral priority from that of β. In particular, a need that you have only because of a desire that you voluntarily have assumed is not worthy of much respect.
  10. What is “bullshit”? Essentially it is indifference to the truth: a sort of bluff in which one goes through the motions of conveying something factual without actually attending to what it takes to represent the truth. It differs from “lies” in part in that the liar does care about what the facts are (in order to misrepresent them). For this reason also it is more dangerous to the enterprise of truthseeking. For various reasons it also seems especially prominent lately.
  11. Economic equality is an unwise choice of a social ideal. “Maximizing the incidence of sufficiency” is a better candidate. Focusing on one’s relative economic status rather than one’s absolute economic needs is ethically disorienting. Some common economic arguments for the value of economic equality do not withstand close inspection. Even the Rawlsian qualified justification of inequality (the “difference principle”) is too tepid.
  12. An experience of consciousness is simultaneously an experience of self-consciousness, or of reflexive consciousness-of-being-aware. (It also seems suspiciously superfluous, “an ontological absurdity”). Consciousness of our motives is of particular concern to us; we typically (unless we are “wanton”) compare our present motives to what we believe our motives ideally should be. By deciding in favor of one particular motive, a person “constitutes himself”; by accomplishing it he exercises “his own will”. One may fail to be “wholehearted” if one continues to be influenced by motives that oppose those that one has decided to identify with.
  13. Because for utilitarians well-being is the only rational good, no sort of action is off-limits to them in theory (any sort of action might improve well-being in some conceivable scenario). So it may seem that it would be difficult for them to make durable commitments to certain principles of conduct (aside from utilitarianism itself). The same sort of suspicion is leveled at atheists (if there is no god, everything is permitted). However a person may indeed still find some courses of action “unthinkable”, based on something integral to her nature, and will not do such actions. This may be a rational thing, and may indeed rescue us from repugnant conclusions of judgement.
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