Jonathan Lowe: "The Will as a Rational Free Power"

Jonathan Lowe: "The Will as a Rational Free Power". Listen to the talk here.


Drawing on insights from Aristotle and Locke, I shall argue in this paper that the human will is a mental power of a very special kind, crucially involved in the genesis of our free actions. Like all powers, the will can be exercised or manifested on particular occasions. Its exercises are volitions or “acts” of will. Volitions are mental occurrences or events, with a distinctive type of intentional content: a volition or “willing” is always a volition to do such-and-such, where such-and-such is some action-type. For instance, it might be a volition to open the door, or to raise one’s arm. As a power, the will is distinctive, first of all, in being a free power: that is to say, its exercises are not caused by prior events, nor by other agents acting upon the agent whose will it is. It is also, crucially, a two-way power: a power to will or not to will to do such-and-such. This feature of the will is indispensable for its possession of a third crucial feature: it is a rational power — that is, a power which is, or at least can be, exercised by its possessor in the light of reason. According to this conception of the will, willing is choosing between alternative possible courses of action or inaction — and, typically, choosing for a reason of which the agent is aware. I contend that this is the only overall conception of the will that can be accommodated by our intuitive self-conception as rational free agents.

In section 1 of this paper, I shall set out the foregoing account of rational free agency in some detail, explaining both its terminology and its main principles. Then, in section 2, I shall more briefly outline the chief features of a rival account of intentional agency that is currently dominant — the standard “causal” theory of action, which ultimately owes its inspiration to the ideas of Hume. Finally, in section 3, I shall identify the decisive advantages that I believe my neo-Aristotelian account has over any neo-Humean account.