Very Different Kinds of “Will”

Two radically different things are both called “will”. One is a definite orientation and effort toward this end rather than that, analogous to a kind of desire. The other is supposed to be a power of decision independent of deliberation.

I don’t believe that there is or could be such a thing as decision with absolutely no deliberation. What we have is an ability to deliberate, and to choose between alternatives based on that deliberation (see also What We Really Want). Neither deliberation nor decision could apply to an eternal being, because these necessarily involve time and change.

Kinds of Reason

As Aristotle might remind us, “reason” is said in many ways. All forms of reason are potentially valuable, but there is a very important distinction between what I’ve been calling the ethical reason that is intimately involved with who we are, and other forms that are more like tools we can use. Also, ethical reason relies on concrete judgments of things, rather than formal manipulations.

In some ways — in terms of the role I see it playing — ethical reason is more like what some people have called “will”. I prefer to avoid the term “will” because it is too often associated with an arbitrary power of decision. I do very much think of ethical reason as the thing in us that ultimately decides things large and small, but the kind of decision involved is always at least implicitly ethical (concerning what we “should” do), and therefore by no means arbitrary.

Common complaints against “reason” concern what I would call what I would call a usurpation of the place of ethical reason by the tool-like kinds of reason, or claims made on their behalf. Contrary to the claims of a certain ill-conceived modernity, tool-like reason can aid us in utilitarian calculations that may help inform decisions, but cannot by itself provide an adequate basis for decision, which is always ultimately ethical.

Whereas tool-like reason aims at precision, ethical reason is maximally inclusive in what it takes takes into account. This inclusiveness is its strong point, but at the same time makes it especially fallible. Due to the fact that we are situated beings in the world, there is no such thing as an infallible decisionmaking process we could use. Aristotle already pointed out that ethical reason is less precise than other forms. Tool-like reason achieves its precision by excluding considerations that ethical reason cannot ignore.

Because of this, concrete realizations of ethical reason can be better or worse. In general, human beings are called rational animals not because we are perfectly rational, but because we have the capability for reason. Especially in the case of ethical reason, that capability is always a matter of degrees. We all use it all the time, and do better or worse. We can also learn or be inspired to do better than we did before.

Ricoeurian Choice

Part 1 of Ricoeur’s Freedom and Nature is devoted to a rich discussion of choice. He says that to will is to think (p. 41), and that deciding is a kind of judging (p. 43). But also “I project my own self into the action to be done. Prior to all reflection about the self which I project, the myself summons itself… it becomes committed…. Prereflexive self-imputation is active, not observational” (p. 59; emphasis in original).

He develops at length how the interdependence of the voluntary and the involuntary can be seen in processes of choice. “The circle of ethics and practice repeats the more basic circle of motive and decision” (p. 77). Motives partially determine us in certain directions, but in deciding we choose which motives to put first. Deciding involves a combination of analysis and judgment with creativity and risk.

We should not think of a decision as an atomic act coming from nowhere. Hesitation and indecision are valid moments of a genuine process of considering alternatives, and this has implications for the self as well. “[T]his inchoate, problematic mode of myself must be grasped as it presents itself. We have no right to substitute for it the image of the triumphant self which is invariably one” (p. 140). The ambiguity inherent in our embodiment means that our decisions cannot be simply governed by a present totality of inclinations or an evident hierarchy of values (p. 143).

Neither an intellectualist approach that tries to reduce decision to air-tight determination from reasons nor a voluntarist one that turns decision into a creation from nothing is valid. “A living dialectic constantly brings us back from one aspect of choice to the other: choice as the peak of previous growth and as the surge of novelty” (p. 164; emphasis in original). “Thus we must say simultaneously that ‘choice follows from the final practical judgment’ and ‘a practical judgment is final when choice irrupts‘” (p. 181; emphasis in original). “Determination of the act and indetermination of the power do not actually represent two separate moments” (p. 186). (For more on the same book, see Phenomenology of Will; Ricoeur on Embodiment; Voluntary Action; Consent?. In general, see also Fallible Humanity; Ricoeurian Ethics; Oneself as Another; Choice, Deliberation; Practical Judgment; Potentiality, Actuality; Brandomian Choice.)