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Making Ourselves Whole:

Wholeheartedness, Narrative, and Agency


Marya Schechtman
University of Illinois at Chicago
ABSTRACT. This article uncovers difficulties with a widely-held account of

the kind of agential unity required for autonomous action and offers an
alternative account that avoids these difficulties. One influential approach
to characterizing agency holds that autonomous action occurs only when
an agent is wholeheartedly committed to the motivation on which he or
she acts. The basic idea behind this approach (defended by Harry Frankfurt
and Christine Korsgaard, among others) is that autonomous action is action
that flows from motivations that are truly internal to the agent, and that it
is an agents wholehearted commitment to a motivation that makes it internal in the relevant sense. Reflection on the diachronic aspects of agency
reveals some serious challenges for this approach. These challenges are
diagnosed as stemming from a fundamental structural tension between two
of its key elements; on the one hand the requirement of absolute wholeheartedness about our commitments, and on the other the claim that questions of agency and autonomy must take as their target the principles, plans,
and projects that individual actions represent rather than the actions themselves. The article argues that this tension is unavoidable in the approach
as usually defended and outlines a different strategy for characterizing agential unity that does not require wholeheartedness.
KEYWORDS. Autonomy, diachronic commitment, wholeheartedness, narrative,
strong unity

I. INTRODUCTION

here is a very influential (albeit controversial) approach to questions


of agency that I will call the strong unity view. This view, defended
by philosophers as different (and alike) as Harry Frankfurt and Christine
Korsgaard, is characterized by drawing close links between agency and
identity and defining the latter in terms of wholehearted commitment.

ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES 21, no. 2(2014): 175-198.


2014 by Centre for Ethics, KU Leuven. All rights reserved.

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There is much that is appealing in the approach, but there is also a great
deal that is troubling about it, and many philosophers have argued that the
requirement of wholeheartedness is implausibly strong when used to define
the agency or identity of beings as ambivalent and multiplicitous as we are.
In what follows, I will show that focus on the application of the strong
unity view to questions of diachronic identity can yield a deeper understanding of the underlying causes and implications of this problematic
requirement, as well as a strategy for addressing the problems it engenders.
I begin with a brief description of the main features of the strong unity
view. I then look at some questions about how the view applies in diachronic contexts, and use these to raise puzzles about the notion of wholeheartedness as it applies over time. This discussion shows that the strong
unity view contains key claims that are in tension with one another the
claim that questions about agency necessarily make reference to temporallyextended plans and projects and the claim that autonomy requires wholeheartedness. I conclude by sketching a suggestion for developing a view in
which the former claim can be maintained and the latter rejected.
II. THE STRONG UNITY VIEW
The strong unity view is, among other things, a response to the question
of what makes a particular event an action of an agent rather than a mere
occurrence in his or her history. Part of a plausible answer is that an
agential action requires some kind of an intention, but according to the
strong unity view it requires more than that. The motive on which I act
must be truly mine if I am to be an agent with respect to it. In order for
a motivation to be truly mine, in this view, I must endorse it or identify
with it and must do so without hesitation or ambivalence in Frankfurts
famous phrase, I must do so wholeheartedly.
The general contours of this view are familiar. It begins from the
recognition that humans, unlike other animals (at least as far as we know)
are not only able to experience motivations, desires, and impulses, but

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also to stand back from these and consider whether they want to, or
ought to, follow them. They are capable, in Frankfurts terms, of having
second-order desires (or volitions). The possibility of true autonomy or
human agency is taken to flow from this capability. Rather than just being
driven to action by whatever impulse happens to be strongest, we can
(indeed, as Korsgaard has it, must) take an evaluative attitude toward
these impulses, and this allows us to take a stand about which we want
to be moved by. The motivations that receive our endorsement are truly
ours and so have a special authority to represent us that unendorsed
motives do not. When we are moved by motivations we do not endorse,
this is something that happens to us rather than something we do.
Frankfurts early and illuminating example here is unwilling drug
addiction. We can imagine addicts with a powerful desire for a particular
drug who have vowed to fight their addiction with all their strength. They
experience impulses to procure and take the drug, but they view these
impulses as unwanted intruders. If they succumb to them they will experience their drug use as a failure to do what they truly wanted to do and
see themselves as passive and helpless in the face of alien forces.
The simple idea that we make motivations truly ours by endorsing
them or identifying with them requires some refinement, however.
Endorsement is just one more thing that we do, and it is therefore not
obvious why it should be able to constitute the difference between
autonomous and non-autonomous action. What, after all, makes the act
of endorsement a true action of mine? Both Frankfurt and Korsgaard
answer this concern, to which they are fully sensitive, with a requirement that our endorsements or identifications be entirely wholehearted. It
is not simply that I have the thought that I wish to be moved to action
by some motivation that makes it mine; I must be unambivalent in my
acceptance or rejection of it as a principle of action. The importance of
wholeheartedness is that it unifies the will and constitutes a well-defined
agential self capable of autonomous action. When I come down decisively behind a particular motivation there is a fact about what I want

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and so a genuine distinction between acting on my own desires and


being acted through.
The agential self is thus, according to the strong unity view, constituted by these wholehearted, and so self-unifying, choices. Frankfurt, for
instance, says that when someone makes a wholehearted decision [] the
decision determines what the person really wants by making the desire on
which he decides fully his own. To this extent, the person, in making a
decision by which he identifies with a desire, constitutes himself. The pertinent desire is no longer in any way external to him (1988a, 170; italics
original). He goes on to say that our acts of [] ordering and of rejection integration and separation of desires create a self out of the raw
materials of an inner life (1988a, 170).
Korsgaard makes a similar point, using an analogy between the person and the state. This analogy features prominently and repeatedly in her
work, receiving its fullest development in Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity,
and Integrity. While the latter is an extended discussion of Platos use of
this analogy, it also contains her description of the constitutional model
of self. According to the constitutional model [] the agent is something over and above her parts the way the constitution of a city is something over and above the citizens and officials who live there (Korsgaard
2009, 135). Large numbers of people who happen to be living in close
proximity do not constitute a unit, and there is no straightforward way to
interact with these people as a unified whole. If they organize themselves
into a state and put a constitution in place, however, a new entity comes
into existence, and now there is something that can be treated as a unit.
If a person is to constitute him or herself through wholehearted
endorsement in this way, it is clear that he or she will need to be completely decided not only on what he or she is going to do, but also on the
principle of action that choice expresses. A particular action at a time may
be viewed simply in its own terms, or as an expression of some broader
principle, project, or way of life of which it is a representative or part.
This is a familiar point from action theory. A man may be seen simply to

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be digging a hole, but he may also be seen to be gardening, or getting


exercise or spending more time outdoors, or trying to please his wife.
When we evaluate our motivations in the way that leads to autonomy as
the strong unity view describes, we are not just asking Do I want to
do X? but Do I want to be the kind of person who chooses to do X?
What we are evaluating is thus not simply an action or impulse, but rather
a plan, project, relationship, or, in Korsgaards term, a practical identity
(an identity like mother, philosopher, union president, Democrat, recovered addict) that the action implies (Korsgaard 1996, 101).
The fact that the targets of our identification or endorsement are not
simple individual actions, but rather principles of action, means that there
is a diachronic component to the question of agency. There are two main
reasons for this. First, the projects and plans that make up the principles
of action we need wholeheartedly to endorse usually take time to carry out.
If I wholeheartedly endorse a motivation to write a book, or to undertake
a particular career, or to kick my drug habit, I need to act not just now,
but also in the future. Many of our most important principles of action are
in fact open ended e.g. devotion to a friend, partner, child, cause or
lifestyle. Korsgaard, explains that because our projects unfold over time
our commitments will [] automatically carry us into the future (1989,
113). If you understand yourself as an agent [] implementing something
like a particular plan of life, she says, you need to identify with your
future in order to be what you are even now (1989, 113-114; italics original).
Second, the notion of commitment that stands at the centre of the
strong unity view suggests that we cannot know if an action is autonomous
simply by considering the actors attitude toward it at the moment; we also
need to know something about his or her attitudes over time. Commitment is not something you can have for just a minute. Wholehearted
endorsement of a motivation cannot amount simply to being unconflicted
about it right now; otherwise the addict could be wholeheartedly committed
to getting straight while sitting in his or her counseling session and be just
as wholeheartedly committed to the life of an addict five minutes later

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when he or she walks out the door. Frankfurt and Korsgaard make this
point explicitly. Having introduced the notion of caring as a form of
commitment, for instance, Frankfurt remarks that [] the notion of
guidance, and hence the notion of caring, implies a degree of persistence.
A person who cared about something just for a single moment would be
indistinguishable from someone who was being moved by impulse
(1988b, 84). And Korsgaard observes that If I change my mind and my
will every time I have a new impulse, then I dont really have an active
mind or a will at all I am just a kind of location where these impulses
are at play. And that means that to make up my mind even now to give
myself a reason I must conceive my reason as an instance of some general type (1996, 232; italics original). Constituting oneself as an agent thus
requires one to unify ones will both synchronically and diachronically. An
agent needs to have a well-defined and stable set of projects, plans and
commitments that provide principles of action over time.
There is a great deal that is convincing in this analysis, especially the
explanation of the way in which diachronic considerations must be part
of an account of agency. This insight, however, sits uneasily with the
demand for wholeheartedness, as we will see in the next section.
III. DIACHRONICITY AND WHOLEHEARTEDNESS
In this section I look at two different, and ultimately related, questions
about how to think about wholeheartedness with respect to projects,
plans, and relationships that stretch over time. The first is a question
about how consistent and unwavering wholeheartedness must be; the
second about how the notion of wholeheartedness applies to conflicts
between different diachronically extended plans, projects or practical
identities. In each case I will show that serious difficulties arise with the
notion of wholeheartedness.
The claim that the demand for wholeheartedness is problematic is
hardly a new one, and objections to the strong unity view have been raised

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from many quarters by those who argue that it is completely possible to be


an autonomous agent with a divided will, that there are circumstances in
which ambivalence can be an appropriate and healthy attitude, and that
attempts to force wholeheartedness can lead to inauthenticity.1 My discussion in this section is very close in spirit to that found in many of these
objections. The force and focus of the concerns that I raise will, however,
be somewhat different in two ways that are central to my overall purpose.
First, the most common rejections of wholeheartedness are defences of
volitional ambivalence as a valuable feature of human life. While I do not
exactly deny this, the point I am making here is that in many cases of diachronic commitment it is not even clear what exactly counts as either wholeheartedness or ambivalence. Second, the difficulties I am trying to highlight
with the dichotomy of wholeheartedness and ambivalence are connected
particularly to the application of these concepts to plans and projects that
unfold over time. I will therefore focus more directly on questions of diachronic commitment than is typically the case.
Consistency
Our first question concerns the kind of consistency required for wholeheartedness over time. When we think of an individual action at a given
time, it seems as if we have a fairly clear picture of what it means to be
wholehearted about taking that action. I sit, for instance, with a job offer
and an offer of admission to law school. The deadline for accepting them
both approaches and I need to sign and mail one acceptance letter or the
other. I might find that I am deeply ambivalent about which to do and so
cannot act decisively. But I might also find that on reflection I am able to
make a decision that feels firm and clear. Right at that moment I am quite
sure about which offer I wish to accept. Decisively, and with no feeling of
alienation, I sign my name on the letter accepting admission to law school
and put it in the mail. With respect to the actions of signing and mailing
my will is unified and I am wholehearted in my endorsement of them

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(although, as Frankfurt often notes, this does not mean I feel no pangs of
regret, only that I know for certain what I wish to do, regrets or not).
As we have seen, however, the real target of my identification is supposed to be not just an individual action but the underlying motivation or
project from which it flows. According to the strong unity view, then, it is
not enough that I am wholehearted about signing the letter of acceptance
and sending it in; I must be wholehearted about the choice of pursuing a
career as an attorney, a project whose execution necessarily spreads over
time. While I may feel quite resolved about this decision at the moment of
accepting admission to law school, this provides no guarantee that my
attitude will remain constant over time. The first question I wish to raise
about the strong unity views notion of wholeheartedness is thus the question of whether wholeheartedness about a temporally-extended project of
this kind requires only that I feel unambivalent about the project as a whole
at the time of taking some particular action associated with it (e.g. accepting
admission to law school), or whether I must instead remain wholehearted
about it throughout the entire length of time it takes to pursue it.
The first possibility seems far too weak and is, moreover, explicitly
rejected by strong unity theorists. If I feel completely unambivalent about
being an attorney when I accept my first job, but have second thoughts
on the first day of work or the next week or even the next month , it
seems hard to conclude that I am really wholehearted about this endeavour.
If I change my mind in such short order it does seem difficult to distinguish between commitment and impulse as strong unity theorists suggest.
The second possibility, however, seems as much too strong as the first is
too weak. The kinds of plans, projects, relationships and practical identities
that are supposed to constitute us as agents take time, effort, and resources.
It is unrealistic to suppose that people will, or even should, remain completely unconflicted about their long term projects at every moment of
their undertaking, and if they did we might wonder if they are taking life
entirely seriously. It is completely natural to have periods of doubt or
ambivalence.

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There thus seems to be something of a dilemma for our attempts to


understand the notion of wholeheartedness as it applies to these kinds of
extended projects. To see the force of this dilemma, let us imagine a
trajectory that a given womans relationship with her identity as a lawyer
might take. Suppose she wholeheartedly pursues and accepts admission
to law school, arrives there with a full commitment to starting a legal
career, and has a glorious first couple of years. In the third year, however,
she experiences a rough patch during which she wonders whether this is
really what she wants to do with her life. The law, perhaps, is not quite
what she thought it was or maybe she has discovered something about
her own proclivities. We can imagine this period of doubt being quite
protracted, but it may nevertheless be something she overcomes, renewing her wholehearted endorsement of a career in the law, taking a job,
and flourishing. We can imagine further that she still experiences periods
of ambivalence from time to time, during which she wonders if she has
chosen the right path, but these usually dissipate once a particularly onerous case is resolved or after she has had a short break. In middle age,
however, ambivalence about her chosen profession re-emerges. She once
again has the same kinds of doubts that have bubbled up now and again
throughout her career, but this time they are more insistent and last longer. Knowing that she gets this way when she is exhausted or fighting
with her colleagues she gives it time, but eventually is forced to acknowledge that she no longer loves the law or believes in what she is doing.
Eventually, she quits her job and retrains as an elementary school teacher.
What are we to say about this womans wholeheartedness about her
commitment to a career as an attorney, and hence about her agency with
respect to the actions associated with this career? According to a very strict
reading of the strong unity view, the fluctuations in her commitment mean
that she was never truly wholehearted about being an attorney. Doubts
about this project surfaced regularly, after all, and in the end she gave it up
altogether. The implication would then be that none of what she had done
in conjunction with her life as an attorney was truly her act. This reading is

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fairly easy to dismiss. It is completely implausible and almost certainly not


what strong unity theorists would say. Among other things, these theorists
explicitly allow that our wholehearted endorsements can change over time.
After emphasizing that our decisions at a given time must commit us over
time, for instance, Korsgard adds: Of course this is not to say that I cannot ever change my mind, but only to say that I must do it for a reason,
and not at random (1996, 232; Although there is a question to be raised
about where she will find a non-circular account of what constitutes a reason for change in this sense, since for Korsgaard reasons come from our
wholehearted commitments and nowhere else). Complete and unchanging
devotion to a project thus does not seem to be required for agency.
On a slightly weaker reading of the strong unity view, we might say
that the lawyer is frequently wholehearted in her identification and during
those periods her actions are autonomous and agential. During her periods
of ambivalence and doubt, however, she fails to be wholehearted and at
these times there is no real fact of the matter about what she wants to do,
which means that at those times there is no unified agent and no autonomous action. This position is unsatisfactory for a variety of reasons. First,
it brings us back to an understanding of wholehearted commitment that
depends on a persons attitude to a project at a given time, irrespective of
what she thinks shortly before or after. This is an understanding that
strong unity theorists explicitly reject because it makes wholeheartedness
difficult to distinguish from impulse. More important, however, it is simply
not plausible. It is true that periods of doubt and ambivalence can be painful and troubling, but it does not sound right to say that there is no unified
agent and so can be no autonomous acts at that time. Surely if the lawyer
continues to discharge the duties of her profession even while wondering
whether this is something she really wants to do we cannot reasonably say
that these activities represent merely the winning out of the strongest
temporary impulses events that happen to her rather than actions that
she is taking. On the contrary, she seems to be extremely resolute of will
even in the face of doubt and discouragement.

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This last observation suggests another possible reading. Perhaps proponents of the strong unity view will claim that the analyses I have given
so far simply misunderstand what they mean by wholeheartedness.
Wholeheartedness is not a psychological state, they might say, but rather
a structure of the will. If the attorney does indeed continue pursuing her
lawyerly duties despite having doubts we can say that she is in fact committed to the project throughout that entire time. Her wholeheartedness
is evidenced by her actions and her state of mind is not directly relevant.
This is, in many ways, a promising approach. It does indeed sound right,
at least to my ear, to say that a willingness to stick it out through periods
of doubt and discouragement is precisely what it means to be committed
to an endeavour whether it is a career, a marriage, a set of religious
principles or a political cause. This understanding of wholeheartedness,
however, seems in tension with much that strong unity theorists say about
it. Wholeheartedness about a project it now turns out is compatible with
extended periods of ambivalence. The attorney we are imagining is, during her periods of doubt, stepping back from her motives and questioning
whether she really wants to act on them and, we are imagining, she finds
that she does not know the answer to this question, even though she
keeps going through the motions.
Perhaps a final possibility for strong unity theorists is to claim that
the attorney is an agent throughout not because she is wholehearted
about being an attorney at each point, but rather because she is wholehearted about her principle of action at each point. During a period of
doubt she may step back from her conflicting motives and decide that
although she feels impelled to give up her career, she knows that such
impulses usually pass and can be explained by factors that do not necessarily imply that she has chosen the wrong career path. Her principle of
action is thus to wait it out, do nothing rash, and see if she feels better
about being an attorney next month after this horrible case is concluded.
This is also a promising analysis, but it raises further questions about the
notion of wholeheartedness and its relation to diachronic unity.

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According to this analysis, the target of wholeheartedness is not a plan


or a project or a practical identity, but a different kind of principle of
action one that urges caution before making major changes. There is
certainly nothing wrong with thinking of this as a principle of action, but
it is not clear how it relates to the identity-constituting aspects of the
strong unity view. It is, after all, our wholehearted identifications that are
supposed to constitute our identities as agents by giving us stable and
consistent principles of action. The examples we are given of the kinds of
wholehearted identifications that constitute an agent usually involve specific plans and projects they are practical identities (for Korsgaard) or
what we care about or love (for Frankfurt). Someone might, after all, be
wholeheartedly identified with a decision to act on impulse (like Emerson
who will shun all commitments when his Genius calls [1983, 262]), or
Galen Strawson who describes himself as a happy episodic with no sense
of diachronic continuity [2004, 431]). This reading of wholeheartedness
does not seem like a live possibility for strong unity theorists.
There are undoubtedly other possibilities that I have not considered,
and I do not claim to have shown that there is no possible conception of
wholeheartedness that can be applied to a trajectory like the one I have
described. I do hope to have shown, however, that there is real lack of
clarity about just what wholeheartedness means in this kind of case, and
about precisely what we must be wholehearted about if we are to be
autonomous agents. Similar issues arise in a somewhat different guise
when we ask how to adjudicate the competing claims of different extended
projects to which we are committed.
Conflicting Plans
We do not, of course, commit to only one project, relationship or practical identity in our lives, but to many. Because we have multiple long-term
commitments, we are bound sometimes to find ourselves in situations
where these make competing claims on us. The question I raise now is

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what the strong unity view has to say about wholeheartedness and hence
about agency in the case of such conflicts.
It will, once again, be useful to have a concrete example to work with
in thinking through this question. Imagine a lawyer like the one we
described earlier, but without significant doubts about her career. From
the beginning she is wholeheartedly identified with the project of being
an attorney, and she maintains this attitude throughout her career. At
some point, however, she has a child and wholeheartedly identifies also
with her role as mother. This does not make her question the value of
being an attorney or her commitment to that career, but sits alongside
that practical identity as one equally valued about which she is equally
wholehearted. Predictably, a day comes when an important work-related
event is scheduled at the same time as an equally important event in her
daughters life say her first ballet recital about which she is immensely
excited and which she desperately wants her mother to attend. This womans wholeheartedness about her career and about parenthood do not tell
her how to choose between these demands. Indeed, the fact that she is
so deeply committed to each project is precisely what makes things so
difficult. Whether she goes to work or to the recital she is likely to wonder
whether she is doing the right thing and whether it would not have been
better to do the other.2
On the surface, the conflict this mother faces seems to be just the sort
that, according to the strong unity view, prevents there from being a fact
about what she wants to do, undermining her unity as an agent and making
a truly autonomous action impossible. It is just this kind of ambivalence
that strong unity theorists insist we must overcome in order to be agents.
Frankfurt, for instance, asks [...] what good is it for someone to be free to
make significant choices if he does not know what he wants and if he is
unable to overcome his ambivalence? What is the point of offering a beguiling variety of alternatives to people who can respond to them only with
irresolute vacillation (1999a, 102)?3 He concludes that [...] unless a person
is capable of a considerable degree of volitional unity, he cannot make

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coherent use of his freedom (1999a, 102). And in Personal Identity and
the Unity of Agency: A Kantian Response to Parfit, Korsgaard considers
the dilemma of a fictional split brain patient. We are to imagine someone
in whom the connections between the two hemispheres of the brain have
been severed and in whom each hemisphere has the capacity to form intentions. Suppose, she says, that they do not try to resolve their differences,
but each merely sends motor orders, by way of the nervous system, to your
limbs. Since the orders are contradictory, the two halves of your body try
to do different things. Unless they can come to an agreement, both hemispheres of your brain are ineffectual (1989, 110-111). She concludes: You
are a unified person at any given time because you must act, and you have
only one body with which to act (1989, 110-111). Our lawyer is in a relevantly similar position one part of her is telling her to go to the recital
and another to go to work and, since she cannot be in two places at one
time, she must overcome this conflict if she is to act at all.
But there is a puzzle here when we try to think about these kinds of
conflicts within the broader claims of the strong unity view. What we
need to understand is exactly how the relevant lack of wholeheartedness
is to be described. The strong unity view tells us what is important for
agency is that we are unambivalent in our identification with the project,
plan or relationship that motivates what we do. In this case, our subject
no matter which action she takes will have that kind of wholeheartedness, since she is committed wholeheartedly to each practical identity.
So where is the lack of wholeheartedness that undermines her identity?
The obvious answer is that she is not wholehearted about which
course of action to take. This means, as the earlier quotations suggest,
that she is in danger of going neither to work nor to the recital but, like
Buridans ass, vacillating between the two. But this cannot be the whole
story. If it were, all she would need to do to acquire agency would be to
do something, and this has little to do with endorsing general principles.
This woman could, after all, settle the conflict by meeting whichever of
the two demands happens to have more saliency due to some contingent

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factor (e.g. her daughter stands before her in the tutu looking cute while
work is out of sight). This does not seem to be the kind of decisionmaking the strong unity view sees as agential; she is simply letting the
stronger of the two impulses pull her because she does not know which
one she wants to follow.4
There are two different ways in which strong unity theorists might
respond to this kind of challenge. One is to say that because each of the
two commitments making a claim on the attorney/mother is a commitment she wholeheartedly endorses, she in fact is acting as an agent if she
lets impulse decide between them. The kind of ambivalence she experiences, it might be argued, is vastly different from that experienced, for
instance, by the attorney who is ambivalent about whether to go to work
because they are not sure they truly value their career and want to maintain it. Frankfurt suggests in his early work that there are different kinds
of conflicts a person can experience. One is a common kind of contingent conflict between desires that cannot both be fulfilled. His example
here is desiring both to go to a concert and to a film that are scheduled
at the same time. Conflicts of this kind, he says [...] require only that the
desires at issue be ordered (1988b, 66). This is contrasted with a conflict
in which one of the desires is to be rejected altogether. His example here
is of someone who wishes to congratulate someone on a recent achievement but notices also a jealous wish to injure this person, a desire he or
she does not endorse and with which he or she does not identify. In the
first kind of conflict, Frankfurt says, if the more highly-rated desire cannot be fulfilled the natural course of action is to try to fulfil the other;
this is not so for the second. When a person is frustrated in his desire
to see a film, he naturally turns to his second choice and goes to a concert. In the present example, however, the alternative of injuring his
acquaintance is not second to the persons first choice of offering him a
compliment (Frankfurt 1988b, 67). The desires to go to the concert and
the film are, he says, on the same level, while the desires to compliment
and injure his acquaintance are not.

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Since the attorney/mothers desires to go to her daughters recital


and to go to the work event are on the same level, we might think, acting
on impulse or flipping a coin or letting the fates decide does not undermine agency. This does not seem compatible with the overall position of
strong unity theorists, however, and is in tension with claims they make
elsewhere. In a much-discussed footnote, for instance, Frankfurt says that
Agamemnon at Aulis is destroyed by an inescapable conflict between
two equally defining elements of his own nature; his love for his daughter
and his love for the army he commands. He continues that stories like
Agamemnons cannot have sequels because [...] there is a sense in which
the person he had been [before making his decision] no longer exists.
Hence, there can be no continuation of his story (1999b, 139). Here it
seems as if conflict between wholehearted desires goes to the very core
of ones identity.
It may, admittedly, seem hyperbolic to compare the dilemma of the
attorney/mother to that of Agamemnon. He was faced, after all, with
destroying one of the things he loved. The attorney/mother does not
need to kill her daughter, only to disappoint her by missing her recital,
and she can make that up by giving her daughters needs priority over
work next time or spending some quality time with her that evening. This
is undoubtedly right, and I think a plausible account of agency must allow
for these kinds of compromises and negotiations. It is not evident, however, that the strong unity view, which defines the agent in terms of
wholehearted commitment, can do so. From this perspective, the difference between Agamemnons dilemma and the mothers is really one of
quantity rather than of kind. We are finite beings with finite resources and
to this extent conflicts between our wholehearted commitments are never
entirely contingent. Pursuing one will always mean compromising others.
If the attorney/mother is genuinely wholehearted about her identity as
mother, acting against the legitimate claims this identity makes on her by
going to work instead of the recital is going to require acting against a
wholehearted commitment and so acting in ways that are non-autonomous

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and threaten her integrity as an agent. Korsgaard, in fact, says something


like this, claiming that the demands of all of our practical identities
are completely categorical, and so when they come into conflict we are
necessarily caught between competing unconditional obligations that
cannot be mutually satisfied, and must do violence to ourselves (Korsgaard
1996, 102; 2009, 23-26).
If this perspective is to be accommodated it seems that I can constitute myself as an agent in the face of conflicts between wholehearted
commitments only by establishing firm priorities among them. Our
attorney, for instance, might decide that career comes first, and if she
does she now has a principle of choice in cases of conflict; there is a
fact about where she stands with respect to these desires. But this is a
very strong requirement. In order to preserve agential unity people must
be wholehearted not only about their projects, plans and practical identities, but also about their relative importance. And since wholeheartedness has a diachronic aspect, these priorities must be stable over time.
This seems an unrealistic and not entirely desirable demand. Obviously
we must prioritize to some extent, but, as already discussed, when it
comes to central features of our lives like career and family we must
sometimes simply try to negotiate as best we can, adjusting priorities on
a case-by-case basis and learning to live with a certain amount of stress
and guilt.
As with my questions about how consistent wholeheartedness
must be, there are undoubtedly further responses that strong unity
theorists could offer to these challenges. I hope to have shown, however, that there are real perplexities here. Our consideration of questions of consistency and multiplicity has thus demonstrated not only
that the demand of wholeheartedness seems too strong for agency and
autonomy, but that in a diachronic context it is not even clear what it
would mean to be wholehearted. It suggests further that the strong
unity view cannot offer an internally consistent account of diachronic
wholeheartedness. This problem thus signals a tension in the structure

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of the view. Understanding this tension can help us determine a way


to move beyond it.
IV. THE SOURCE OF THE PROBLEM AND A POSSIBLE SOLUTION
To see the deeper implications of the problems with wholeheartedness
outlined above, it will be useful to review the original motivation for this
requirement. The strong unity view starts with a question about the autonomy of a particular action. Someone ingests drugs, or insults a colleague,
or accepts a job offer, and we want to know what makes it the case that
this act is truly ones action rather than an impulse acting through one.
The initially-proposed answer is that the act is truly ones action if one
endorses it. But endorsement is itself only an act of the very same person,
so we can ask how we know that the act of endorsement is truly ones own.
It would seem that one would need to endorse ones endorsement of the
earlier act to make it ones own, but for this to work one would then need
to endorse this endorsement. Wholeheartedness is brought in to stave off
the threat of infinite regress. A particular act at a time is an autonomous
action if the actors endorsement of it is wholehearted in a way that closes
off the possibility that that endorsement would be overturned by appeal to
a higher level of reflection.5
Whether one feels that this is a good solution to this particular problem or not, we can at least make some sense of the requirement of wholeheartedness with respect to a particular action at a given time. Individual
actions are amenable to the kind of definitive, binary structure expressed
in this requirement. At a particular time I either take a particular action
or I do not either I take drugs or I abstain; either I insult my colleague
or walk quietly into the office; either I sign the acceptance letter or I do
not. And if I do take an action at a given time, either I am fully resolved
in my attitude toward it or I am not. There is, however, another fundamental element of the strong unity view that complicates matters, and
that is the insight that when we are interested in questions of agency and

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identity, the real target of our endorsements and repudiations is not an


individual act taken in isolation, but the project, plan, or way of life that
that action represents.
According to the strong unity view, when unwilling addicts step back
from their impulse to take drugs at a particular time and ask if this is what
they really want to do, the question they are asking is whether they want
to continue their addictive lifestyles. When the acerbic colleague asks if
he or she really wants to insult his or her colleague, he or she is asking if
he or she wants to be the kind of person who lashes out in envy or
instead wishes to be a more gracious and generous friend, and when the
young woman considers whether she wants to sign the acceptance letter
to law school she is wondering whether she wants to pursue a career as
a lawyer. It is a key insight of the view that this fact necessarily introduces
a diachronic aspect into questions of agency and autonomy. Getting
clean, being a more gracious person, and pursuing a career as a lawyer are
not things that can be done at a particular time, but must be done over
time, and to endorse an action at a particular time in the relevant sense
is to endorse the temporally-extended plan, project, or way of life it
represents. If we must be wholehearted about individual actions in order
to be autonomous, and if endorsement of individual actions is an endorsement of the plans or projects they represent, it follows that we must also
be wholehearted about those plans and projects to be autonomous.
What we have seen is that these two elements diachronicity and
wholeheartedness do not sit well together. The kind of binary structure
wholeheartedness requires is not found in plans, projects, and ways of
life. This is because there is no set of particular actions at particular times
that one must take to kick a drug habit, pursue a career as a lawyer, or be
a good mother; there are many different ways to do any of these things.
Some patterns of behaviour will, of course, be incompatible with undertaking these goals, but no template exists for any of them and so, at any
given time, there is no simple yes or no answer to the question of
whether someone is trying to get clean or pursuing a career as a lawyer

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or being a good mother in the same way that there is a yes or no answer
to the question of whether someone is ingesting drugs, or signing an
acceptance letter for law school, or attending a recital. Because of this,
there is no simple answer either to the question of whether someone is
wholeheartedly committed to the pursuit of these goals. They can be
pursued with more or less vigour, success, constancy, and gusto; but there
is no clear-cut fact about exactly what being wholeheartedly committed
to one of these plans or projects would mean. To say that I endorse such
a plan or project does not yet settle the question of whether I will, or
even should, take any particular action at any particular time. This is what
we demonstrated in the previous section.
The strong unity view thus gets into trouble when it takes a notion that
is suited to questions about particular actions at particular times viewed as
isolated events and conjoins it with the claim that questions about agency
and identity necessarily make reference to plans and projects that stretch
over time. To avoid these difficulties one part of the view or the other
either the claim that the targets of our reflective endorsement are plans,
projects, and ways of life rather than isolated actions or the claim that
wholeheartedness is required for autonomy must be relinquished. I hope
that it will be clear from the discussion so far that the better path is to give
up the requirement of wholeheartedness. This leaves us, however, with the
problem that this requirement was originally introduced to answer, the
problem of infinite regress. How is this to be addressed without demanding
wholeheartedness? This is not a question I can answer fully here, but I can
point to a strategy for developing an answer. The seeds of a solution to the
problem of infinite regress are, I suggest, embedded in the very claim that
causes difficulties for the notion of wholeheartedness, the claim that questions of autonomy are not about isolated actions but rather about temporally-extended plans and projects.
The perceived need for a requirement of wholeheartedness arises
when we are asking about autonomy with respect to a particular act considered on its own the question, for instance, is whether an addict is

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autonomous with respect to a particular instance of drug use. An initial


response is that this depends upon whether he or she endorses the use
of that drug, but then we are left with the problem of how to give his or
her endorsement or non-endorsement any more weight in determining
what is truly attributable to him or her than the fact of what he or she
does. This is where wholeheartedness comes in. If we take seriously the
idea that the relevant target of endorsement or non-endorsement is a
temporally-extended project or plan, however, we should not expect to
be able to answer questions about particular actions taken in isolation;
they are not even well-posed. Questions of autonomy can only be
answered diachronically and answers to such questions require an understanding of where what is happening now fits into broader patterns of
conduct and affect.
To see what this difference amounts to, consider Frankfurts unwilling addicts overwhelmed by their powerful desire to ingest the drugs that
are in front of them despite their wholehearted desire to kick the habit.
According to the original perspective, this description of the circumstances provides all the information we need to determine that they are
not autonomous with respect to the action and that it is not truly theirs.
But even within the strong unity view there is a glimmer of another perspective, which suggests that we will need to know much more to make
this determination. According to this view, commitment cannot occur for
just a moment, and so to know if the act of taking drugs is autonomous
or non-autonomous we need to know not just about the addicts current
repudiation of his or her action, but also where he or she stands with
respect to the temporally-extended project of getting clean. We have seen
that the question of whether he or she is wholehearted with respect to
this project is not going to be very useful in deciding this, but there is a
straightforward alternative description of what we do need to know to
determine whether someone is truly committed to a project of this sort.
To know whether unwilling addicts are committed to the project of
getting clean, and hence non-autonomous in their drug use, we will need

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to know not just that they repudiate it fully as they do it, but also what
happened before and after; how they got to this point and where they
go from it. Did they regularly attend their therapy sessions? When their
old friends from their drugging days called them up, did they call their
sponsor as they said they would or did they instead agree to meet up
with them and lie about where they were going? How often has this
happened? What resources have they been given to help them kick their
addiction and how actively and aggressively have they sought out such
resources? Do they use their slip as an excuse to go on a months-long
binge or do they immediately check themselves back into the hospital
for inpatient treatment? Depending upon the answers to these questions
we might want to say that the action is truly theirs, even if just at that
moment they were overwhelmed or that it is not theirs even if at the
moment they were not.
The suggestion, then, is that the special weight we are looking for
from wholeheartedness can come instead from a narrative of the individuals relation to a long-term project or plan and the role of individual
actions within it. If we want to understand the depth and type of commitment someone has to a temporally-extended project we will want to
know about the ups and downs of their attitudes toward it and how
these translate into behaviour. This is just what we saw in the case of
the lawyer who stuck it out through periods of doubt, and it is why we
do not have to doubt that a woman is committed to being a good mother
if she chooses, on some particular occasion, to attend a meeting rather
than a recital as long as she makes it up to her daughter later. This
approach does not so much offer a solution to the problem of infinite
regress as to show why it need never arise. The level and type of commitment we have to an action is understood by looking at the full story
of how it arises and operates in our lives, not in terms of an attitude of
endorsement taken at a particular time.
This suggestion is obviously not yet anywhere near precise enough
to provide a full-blown account of commitment, agency or autonomy, but

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it at least points a direction for developing an account that can capture


some of the most attractive features of the strong unity view the connections it draws between identity, agency, and commitment and the recognition that questions of agency and autonomy are best directed at the
temporally-extended plans and projects individual actions represent than
at the actions themselves without the need for the problematic requirement of wholeheartedness.6
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Poltera, Jacqui. 2010. Is Ambivalence and Agential Vice? Philosophical Explorations 13:
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NOTES
1. See, for instance, Benson (2005), Calhoun (1995), Gunnarsson (2013), Lugones (1987),
Marino (2011), Poltera (2010), Schramme (2013), Velleman (2002).
2. Patricia Marino (2011) uses a similar example to argue that ambivalence is not necessarily harmful to agency.
3. Frankfurt is actually talking about ambivalence here in the technical sense in which we have
stipulated that this attorney is not ambivalent. Still, the point is that conflicts between wholehearted
endorsements can interfere with the ability to act just as much as ambivalence in Frankfurts sense does.
4. Marino (2011, 45-47) says that in such a case it seems clear that letting contingent factors
decide the issue does not undermine agency. I tend to agree, but the point here is that this move
is not open to strong unity theorists.
5. For a detailed description of these issues see, for instance, Frankfurt (1988a).
6. In the course of writing this paper I have benefited from discussions with and comments from
many people. I would like especially to thank Tamar Schapiro for comments on a much earlier draft,
and Nomy Arpaly, Thomas Nys, Beate Roessler, the participants in the Workshop on Autonomy and
Diachronic Agency at the University of Amsterdam, and two anonymous reviewers of an earlier draft.

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