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Higher-order volitions (or higher-order desire), as opposed to action-determining volitions, are volitions about volitions. Higher-order volitions are potentially more often guided by long-term convictions and reasoning.

A first-order volition is a desire about anything else, such as to own a new car, to meet the pope, or to drink alcohol. Second-order volitions to parallel these examples would be to desire to want to own a new car; to desire indifference about meeting the pope; or to desire to not want to drink alcohol. A higher-order volition can go unfulfilled due to uncontrolled lower-order volitions.

An example for a failure to follow higher-order volitions is the drug addict who takes drugs even though he would like to quit taking drugs. According to Harry Frankfurt the drug addict has established free will, in respect to that single aspect, when his higher-order volition to stop wanting drugs determines the precedence of his changing, action determining desires either to take drugs or not to take drugs.

Following this definition the establishment of free will is a continual challenge with a changing degree of difficulty. This view of free will conforms with compatibilism.

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