Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 9, Issue 3, pp 265-288

First online:

Choice, Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities

  • Vivienne BrownAffiliated withFaculty of Social Sciences, The Open University Email author 

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


Is choice necessary for moral responsibility? And does choice imply alternative possibilities of some significant sort? This paper will relate these questions to the argument initiated by Harry Frankfurt that alternative possibilities are not required for moral responsibility, and to John Martin Fischer and Mark Ravizza's extension of that argument in terms of guidance control in a causally determined world. I argue that attending to Frankfurt's core conceptual distinction between the circumstances that make an action unavoidable and those that bring it about that the action is performed – a distinction emphasised in his recent restatement – provides a new route into an analysis of Frankfurt's argument by showing how it depends on a person's ‘decision to act’ involving the exercise of choice. The implicit reliance of Frankfurt's argument on this notion of choice, however, undermines his claim that the example of the counterfactual intervener strengthens the compatibilist case by providing a counter-example to the principle of alternative possibilities. I also argue that Frankfurt's reliance on the exercise of choice for moral responsibility is also evident in the Fischer/Ravizza argument, and that a close analysis of both arguments shows that such exercise of choice is not available if causal determinism is true.


action agency alternative possibilities choice comparative decision compatibilism decision to act determinism freedom moral responsibility