The Blockage Argument is designed to improve upon Harry Frankfurt’s famous argument against the Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP) by removing the counterfactual intervener altogether. If the argument worked, then it would prove in a way that Frankfurt’s argument does not that moral responsibility does not require any alternative possibilities whatsoever, not even the weakest “flicker of freedom” (such as the possibility of avoiding voluntary action). Some philosophers have rejected the Blockage Argument solely on the basis of their intuition that the inability to do otherwise is incompatible with moral responsibility. I will argue, however, that it is not merely the inability to do otherwise by itself but rather the inability to do otherwise in combination with the absence of a counterfactual intervener that is incompatible with moral responsibility. If I cannot do otherwise and it is not because of a counterfactual intervener, then it must be the case that I am being forced to choose and therefore act as I do, in which case I cannot be morally responsible for this action. Because the Blockage Argument fails, and because it was really the only way to establish that moral responsibility does not require any alternative possibilities whatsoever, it follows that moral responsibility does indeed require at least one alternative possibility in any given situation. But it turns out that this conclusion does not tip the balance in favor of incompatibilism over compatibilism. It would have if blockage and determinism were equivalent. But they are not. Unlike blockage, determinism is compatible with certain counterfactuals that compatibilists traditionally believed the ability to do otherwise reduces to. So even though moral responsibility is incompatible with blockage, it does not necessarily follow that moral responsibility is incompatible with determinism.
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As Haji and McKenna (2011, 400–401) suggest, “By now, it must be thought that the debate has petered out, as there is little left to explore; every avenue has been traveled, every stone already turned.” Indeed, as far back as 1996, Robert Kane (1996, 41) was already noting – or lamenting – just how voluminous the literature on Frankfurt-style situations had become: “The literature on Frankfurt scenarios and what they prove is now so large that it would take an entire book to do justice to it.” Levy (2007, 124) describes the debate over Frankfurt-style situations as “increasingly convoluted.”
See Fischer (2000, 145–146); Hunt (2000, 218–220, 2003, 169–173); Hurley (1999, 236–239); McKenna (2003, 206–213); Mele (1995, 141, 192–193); Stump (1990, 1996, 1999a, 316–317, 319); Wallace (1994, Ch. 6–7, 263). Zimmerman (2003, 315) is unsure if pure blockage is possible, but he does say that it “strikes” him as “promising.”
Kane (2000, 162–163) and Levy (2011, 176–177) reject the Blockage Argument. Della Rocca (1998, 100) thinks that it is “difficult, if not impossible” to construct an example in which blockage is compatible with responsibility. Fischer (1999, 120, 2000, 145–146) is sympathetic to the Blockage Argument, but he is a bit more skeptical in Fischer (1994, 145, 1999, 119, 2002a, 295–297, 2002b, 1).
Unger (2002, 1–2, 5, 19–20) moves in a slightly different direction. He builds alternative possibilities into “full choice” (as opposed to responsibility) and argues that full choice is central to “the significance we commonly suppose our lives to have.” Similarly, Widerker (2009, 89) changes PAP to: “An agent S is morally blameworthy for performing a given act V only if S had a morally significant alternative to performing that act.” Blumenfeld (1971, 341–342) argues that Frankfurt’s argument against PAP fails if we modify PAP to PAP’: “A man is not morally responsible for what he has done if he did it because he could not have done otherwise.” Similarly, Funkhouser (2009) argues that Frankfurt is attacking a straw man because the principle that “the typical advocate of PAP really has in mind” is PAP+: “If a person could not have avoided performing a certain action or making a certain choice (due to factor x), then the agent is not morally responsible for that action or choice because that person lacked alternative possibilities (due to factor x).”
See Caruso (2012, 72–73).
See Kane (1996, 192). Arnold (2001, 54–55, 61–62) argues that coercion does not always negate responsibility. According to her “independent view”, as opposed to the “contingent view”, coercion does not negate my responsibility when I give into a threat or offer that I can be reasonably expected to have resisted.
Zimmerman (2003, 305–316) refers to transitivity arguments for PAP as “the Strategy” and offers four different ways in which the Strategy can be “employed.”
The “Manipulation Argument” suggests that if I am manipulated by an external agent to perform a given action, I am not morally responsible for this action even if I am unaware of the manipulation and therefore fully believe that I performed the action entirely on my own. For different versions of, and responses to, the Manipulation Argument, see Campbell (2011, 66–69); Fischer (2004); Fischer & Ravizza (1998, 196–201, 230–239); Kane (1996, 64–71); Levy (2011, 85–89, 105–106), McKenna (2008b); Mele (1995, 187–191, 2006, 138–144, 164–195, 2008); Pereboom (2001, 110–122).
See Fischer (2007, 467, 2008a, 215); McKenna (2005, 175–176, 178–179, 2008a, 786–787); Widerker (2009, 91). For arguments against this proposition (that I am morally responsible for W-ing in a Frankfurt-style situation), see Ginet (1996, 410–413); Levy (2008, 2011, 165–179); Widerker (2000, 2003). For a reply to Levy, see Haji and McKenna (2011). For a reply to Widerker, see McKenna (2008a, 780–787). Campbell (2006) argues that “source incompatibilists” may not assume that I am morally responsible for W-ing in a Frankfurt-style situation given that they subscribe to the “transfer principle,” which would negate my responsibility for W-ing. Waller (2011, 222–223) argues that Frankfurt is begging the question in favor of moral responsibility. Zimmerman (2003, 312) suggests that my W-ing is not “up to [me]” but is still “truly [my] own.” Similarly, Fischer (1982, 187) states, “An act can be yours without its being up to you; you can be in charge without being in control.”
See Fischer (1982, 181–182, 183–187); Frankfurt (2003, 339–340); Funkhouser (2009, 349–350, 354–355); Mele and Robb (1998, 107–108, 2003, 129–130) (but see Mele (1998, 151)); Perry (2008, 163–165); Stump (1999a, 311, 322–323); Widerker (2009, 88). Some philosophers argue that the counterfactual intervener does not negate my ability to do otherwise: Campbell (1997, 319–330); Cohen and Handfield (2007, 364–367); Fara (2008, 853–856); Fischer (1994, 157–158, 2007, 57–61); Nelkin (2011, 66–67); Pereboom (2001, 27–28); Vihvelin (2000a, 14–21, 2000b, 141–147, 2004, 2008). For a critical response to Cohen and Handfield, Fara, and Vihvelin, see Clarke (2009).
See supra note 13 and accompanying text.
Proponents of different versions of the Flicker Strategy include: Davison (1999, 245); Della Rocca (1998, 101–102); Ginet (1996, 406–409); Hunt (2000, 208–209); Kane (1996, esp. 142–143, 2003, 97–98); McKenna (1997, 72–79, 2003, 203–213); Naylor (1984); Otsuka (1998, 692–693); Rowe (1989, 321, 1991, 276–278); Speak (2002); Stump (2003, 151); Van Inwagen (1978, 157–171, 1983, 171–180); Vihvelin (2000a); Widerker (1995a, 256–258, 1995b, 2000, 2002, 326–327, 2003); Widerker and Katzoff (1996); Wyma (1997, 62–68). O’Connor (2000, 81–84) arguably belongs in this list. Hetherington (2003, 231–233) argues that while Frankfurt’s argument correctly shows that moral responsibility is compatible with my not being able to do otherwise, it fails to show that moral responsibility is compatible with the complete elimination of alternative possibilities. Frankfurt (2003) surprisingly adopts the same position. See also Timpe (2003, 141). Ekstrom (1998, 283–284) finds the Flicker Strategy “unappealing” at least for the purposes of “protecting” incompatibilism from Frankfurt’s argument. She argues that instead of trying to find a flicker of freedom on which to predicate responsibility, proponents of PAP should question whether or not this responsibility even exists in a Frankfurt-style situation in the first place.
Fischer (1994, 136–139) offers four different versions of the Flicker Strategy. I am collapsing these four versions into one here because they differ in respects that are not important for our purposes.
For variations of this argument, see Blum (2000); Clarke (2000, 166); Fischer (1994, 137–139, 144–145, 1999, 122); Fischer and Ravizza (1998, 99–101); Goetz (2002, 132); Hetherington (2003, 231–232); Larvor (2010, 507–508); McKenna (1997, 73–74); Mele (2006, 92–93); Speak (2005, 264, 266); Widerker (1995a, 256–258); Wyma (1997, 61); Yaffe (1999, 220–222); Zagzebski (2000, 241). Widerker (2003, 53) formulates PAP itself in terms of the power to avoid. Stump (2003, 151–152) suggests that weaker alternative possibilities may constitute alternative modes of action rather than alternative actions themselves. Haji (2003, 289–291) thinks that having alternative possibilities is equivalent to the power to refrain.
On this view, actionhood entails agency, agency entails voluntariness, and therefore all actions are essentially voluntary. Arnold (2001, 55) suggests that any motion of mine that is physically compelled is not an action. Funkhouser (2009, 358–359) rejects the notion that a choice can be coerced. Philosophers who believe that there can be involuntary actions include: Brand (1984, 5–6); D’Arcy (1963, 7–8); Husak (1998, 79–80); Kane (1996, 149).
See, for example, Widerker and Katzoff (1996, 419).
Campbell (2005), however, goes so far as to suggest that, in a Frankfurt-style situation, I could have done otherwise not merely in the weak sense of avoiding voluntarily W-ing but in the robust sense of performing an alternative action because the counterfactual intervener negates only my “all-in ability” to R, not my “general ability” to R. Similarly, Campbell (1997) argues that because the counterfactual intervener is causally irrelevant to my W-ing, we may consider possible worlds in which the counterfactual intervener is absent when assessing my ability to do otherwise.
According to McKenna’s “limited blockage strategy”, which he regards as a “cousin” of the blockage strategy, Frankfurt-style situations need not eliminate all alternative possibilities. Rather, they must eliminate only all robust alternative possibilities. See McKenna (2003, 206–208). Pereboom (2000, 128–134, 2001, 18–33) takes a similar position. But McKenna and Pereboom differ on whether or not these leftover non-robust alternative possibilities help to explain responsibility in the actual sequence. While McKenna believes that they do, Pereboom (2000, 131–134, 2001, 2, 18–33, 37, 2003, 187–188, 193–197) proposes the possibility that alternative possibilities may sometimes be necessary for, but not explanatory of, responsibility. Still, Pereboom does not go so far as to say that alternative possibilities cannot explain responsibility at all. Rather, he says only (a) that they cannot play a significant role in the explanation and (b) that responsibility is not explained by alternative possibilities qua alternative possibilities but rather by alternative possibilities qua indicators of indeterminism or of “a causal history of a kind that is relevant per se to explaining an agent’s moral responsibility.”
Hunt (2005) offers another argument against PAP. Contrary to the Blockage Argument, Hunt reinserts a counterfactual intervener. But what the counterfactual intervener blocks is not any alternative possibility, weak or robust. Instead, what the counterfactual intervener blocks is a necessary condition of an alternative possibility – specifically, my considering acting otherwise. The rest of the thought-experiment then goes through as Frankfurt’s original thought-experiment did: the necessary condition (my considering acting otherwise) happens not to (start to) obtain, in which case the counterfactual intervener does not activate to block it. So even though I could not have acted otherwise (because I could not have satisfied a necessary condition of my choosing/doing otherwise – again, considering doing otherwise), I am still morally responsible for the choice that I actually make and the action that I actually perform because I made this choice and performed this action on my own (without being forced to).
See also Hunt’s personal correspondence with Fischer in Fischer (1999, 119–120 n. 46). Hunt’s second example (2000, 218–219) involves backward time travel. Hunt’s third example (2000, 219–220, 222; see also 1996, 397–398, 399, 2003) involves an infallible predictor of my decision and action. See also Fischer (1999, 120); Wyma (1997, 66).
See Kane (2000, 162–163).
See Blumenfeld (1971, 341–344).
See Kane (1985, 51 n.25, 1996, 142–143, 191–192, 2000, 161, 2003, 91–92, 99–100); Widerker (1995a, 248–253, 1995b, 2000, 182–186, 2002, 324–327); Zagzebski (2000, 235). Philosophers who reject the proposition that indeterminism entails alternative possibilities include Fischer (1982, 183–187, 1994, 216, 1995, 122–124); Haji (1998, 36–37), McKenna 2009, 9); McKenna and Widerker (2003, 9–10); Mele and Robb (1998, 2003); Pereboom (1995, 27, 2001, 17, 21), and Stump (1999b, 414, 416–419). Fischer later qualifies his position. In Fischer (2000, 144), he says: “I think that my earlier confidence that Frankfurt-type examples can exist in causally indeterministic worlds was perhaps the result of youthful optimism. But even though I still do not think that it is obvious and straightforward that there can be Frankfurt-type cases in causally indeterministic worlds, I am still strongly inclined to this view.” And in Fischer (2002b, 6), he says: “I find . . . indeterministic Frankfurt-type examples, intriguing and highly suggestive.”
So I oppose Smilansky’s conclusion in (2012, 215) that “it can no longer be taken for granted that free will and moral responsibility require that the agent was able to do otherwise, namely, had alternative possibilities when deciding and acting. . . . [W]hat matters is that this common assumption of the debate, on all sides, for some two thousand years, has been overturned.”
There may be some degree of pressure or force involved. But the mere availability of a weak alternative is sufficient to show that this pressure or force cannot be 100 %. I must still have at least some, and very possibly much, freedom to avoid my actual action.
See supra note 4 and accompanying text. Perhaps the strongest of the most recent defenses of compatibilism are Dennett (1984a, 2003) and Fischer (2006). Smilansky (2000, 13–93, 2003, 2005, 250–256, 2008, 2012) argues that compatibilism is true so far as it goes, but it only goes so far and must therefore be supplemented (as opposed to negated or replaced) by “hard determinism.”
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Levy, K. Blocking Blockage. Philosophia 44, 565–582 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-016-9707-x
- Moral responsibility
- Harry Frankfurt
- Principle of alternative possibilities
- Blockage argument
- John Martin Fischer
- Flicker-of-freedom strategy
- Ability to do otherwise
- Alternative possibilities