What good is a will?

In Anton Leist (ed.), Action in Context. De Gruyter (2007)
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Abstract

As a philosopher of action, I might be expected to believe that the will is a good thing. Actually, I believe that the will is a great thing - awesome, in fact. But I'm not thereby committed to its being something good. When I say that the will is awesome, I mean literally that it is a proper object of awe, a response that restrains us from abusing the will and moves us rather to use it respectfully, in a way that does it justice. To say that the will is a good thing, however, would imply that having a will is better than not having one, or that using it is better than not using it - neither of which I am prepared to assert as a general rule. Speaking metaphorically, I would say that the will is like a magic wand. In fairy tales, the character who looks upon a magic wand as an unalloyed good is destined to be sadder but wiser in the end. Being a magician isn't better than being an ordinary human, just different; and a magician must value his powers by respecting them and therefore using them appropriately, even sparingly, not by using them as much as possible.

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J. David Velleman
New York University

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