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The (near) necessity of alternate possibilities for moral responsibility


Harry Frankfurt has famously criticized the principle of alternate possibilities—the principle that an agent is morally responsible for performing some action only if able to have done otherwise than to perform it—on the grounds that it is possible for an agent to be morally responsible for performing an action that is inevitable for the agent when the reasons for which the agent lacks alternate possibilities are not the reasons for which the agent has acted. I argue that an incompatibilist about determinism and moral responsibility can safely ignore so-called “Frakfurt-style cases” and continue to argue for incompatibilism on the grounds that determinism rules out the ability to do otherwise. My argument relies on a simple—indeed, simplistic—weakening of the principle of alternate possibilities that is explicitly designed to be immune to Frankfurt-style criticism. This alternative to the principle of alternate possibilities is so simplistic that it will no doubt strike many readers as philosophically fallow. I argue that it is not. I argue that the addition of one highly plausible premise allows for the modified principle to be employed in an argument for incompatibilism that begins with the observation that determinism rules out the ability to do otherwise. On the merits of this argument I conclude that deterministic moral responsibility is impossible and that Frankfurt’s criticism of the principle of alternate possibilities—even if successful to that end—may be safely ignored.

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  1. 1.

    Frankfurt (1969).

  2. 2.

    Ginet (1983) and van Inwagen (1983).

  3. 3.

    Frankfurt (1969), p. 829.

  4. 4.

    The details of the means that enable Black to ensure that Jones shoots the mayor need not concern us here because the argument of this paper will grant to Frankfurt that Black has the ability in question. Nonetheless, we will return to this point shortly to discuss a certain response to Frankfurt that is current in the literature on the matter.

  5. 5.

    It might be thought that Mele and Robb (1998) have described a case in which the inevitable-making conditions are not merely counterfactual. The case that Mele and Robb describe is a case in which an agent performs an action as a result of his own indeterministic deliberative processes while some deterministic process has been initiated that would cause the agent to decide and act as he actually does if he had not so decided and acted on his own. I grant that such a case involves an inevitable-making condition—the deterministic process—that is in some sense “actual.” However, Mele and Robb are careful to specify that when the agent acts on his own (as he actually does) the process that they imagine to make his action inevitable for him is not causally efficacious. Thus, the case described by Mele and Robb is (like Frankfurt’s case) one in which the conditions that make Jones’s action inevitable for him are active only counterfactually. It is in this sense that I am insisting the inevitable-making condition to be merely counterfactual. We will return to the argument of Mele and Robb shortly.

  6. 6.

    See especially: Widerker (1995); Kane (1996); Ginet (1996); Wyma (1997). For a discussion of what is or is not essential to the dilemma-style reply see also Ekstrom (2005).

  7. 7.

    Kane (1996).

  8. 8.

    Widerker (1995).

  9. 9.

    For what it is worth, Mele and Robb argue at some length that it is coherent to stipulate this, and I am not inclined to dispute their argument.

  10. 10.

    Frankfurt (1969, p. 830).

  11. 11.

    See Gettier (1963).

  12. 12.

    I am indebted to an anonymous referee from this journal for helping me see how best to advance this charge that (PAP*) is ad hoc.

  13. 13.

    For the record, I did not rip this thesis off from any students.

  14. 14.

    The idea behind this principle is present in the literature—although put to different uses than the use to which I shall put it. Fischer and Ravizza (1998) argue for an account according to which the kind of control necessary for moral responsibility is sensitive only to matters pertinent to the actual causal sequence that has resulted in action. Naturally, any such “actual sequence” account will imply that the counterfactual removal of causally irrelevant features of a case cannot affect moral responsibility. See also, and especially, Campbell (1997, pp. 325–326) where he argues for the truth and relevance of a counterfactual pertaining to what would have been the case had the means of manipulation been absent from a Frankfurt-style case. I think that Campbell and I are of like minds regarding such a thesis as (MRP). Interestingly, Campbell uses (MRP)-style considerations to argue that an agent in a Frankfurt-style case actually has the ability to do otherwise; Campbell argues further—in part on the basis of this conclusion—that compatibilism is true. Clearly, then, Campbell and I are not of entirely alike minds.

  15. 15.

    Although I state these principles with necessity operators as is required for the validity of the argument in which they figure, I will (for ease of presentation) often dispense with those operators in the assessment of the principles and their roles in the argument under discussion.

  16. 16.

    Warfield (2000).

  17. 17.

    Warfield goes on to argue for the conclusion that determinism and freedom are genuinely incompatible. The argument that he employs for this conclusion involves various theses that are not of concern here. If my reader does not find my defense of the necessity of (*) to be compelling, I invite said reader to consider Warfield’s argument as his conclusion is logically equivalent to \((\square *)\)

  18. 18.

    At this stage I have collapsed some unnecessary formal complexity. By contraposing the consequent of (3)—namely, “(D(S, A) \(\wedge\,\sim\phi(S, A))\) \(\rightarrow \;\sim\hbox{MR}(S, A)\) ”—we get (with a touch of elementary logic) “MR(S, A) → (∼D(S,A) ∨ ϕ(S, A))”. Because it is trivial that an agent cannot be morally responsible for doing something that he didn’t do, I have suppressed the first disjunct of the consequent of this conditional leaving only “ϕ(S, A)”—the consequent of (4).

  19. 19.

    It seems obvious that if there is a closest world to w in which the antecedent of the counterfactual on (7) is true, then that world will be deterministic. If there is not a closest world but a family of closest worlds, then I suspect that all of them will be deterministic. Even if not, at least one of them will be – and this is all that is required for coherently defining w * as I have.

  20. 20.

    Every inference prior to this one is endorsed by any standard system of modal logic—that is, any system at least as strong as the minimal system T. This last inference requires the S4 axiom that whatever is necessary is necessarily necessary because the inference from (9) to (10) requires that we apply (3) neither at the actual world nor at the possible world w (accessible from the actual world), but at the possible world w * (accessible from w). Although S4 is not without detractors (including Salmon (1989)), I see no difficulty in employing S4 here. The reasons that have been given for doubting the validity of S4 have to do with de re modality and issues of essentialism whereas the application here has to do with (strict) consequences of determinism and (strictly) necessary conditions of moral responsibility.

  21. 21.

    It has been suggested to me that the proponent of Frankfurt’s criticism might use the intuitive appeal of (MRP) together with some argument like this to argue against (PAP*). I claim that because the argument under discussion involves the assumption (for reductio) that an agent is morally responsible for performing some action in a deterministic case, the argument here given cannot be adapted by a compatibilist to cast doubt on (PAP*). Such an argument would illicitly pre-suppose the possibility of deterministic moral responsibility in the course of assessing (PAP*). This would land one squarely on the first horn of the dilemma-style reply mentioned above. A compatibilist pursuing this strategy of response to my argument would be assuming that deterministic moral responsibility is possible and arguing (in part) from this assumption to the conclusion that there must be some counterexamples to (PAP*)—that is to say, some non-Frankfurt-style counterexamples to (PAP). Such boot-strapping would be illicit—the only plausible reason I can see for thinking that there are non-Frankfurt-style counterexamples to (PAP) would be the description of a case that seems to be a non-Frankfurt-style counterexample to (PAP).

  22. 22.

    This compatibilist strategy is so common that it is difficult to know who to reference on the matter. John Martin Fischer uses the term “semicompatibilism” to refer to “the doctrine that causal determinism is consistent with moral responsibility, even if causal determinism rules out alternative possibilities.” See, especially, Fischer (1994, chapters 7 and 8), Fischer (1999, pp. 93–139, especially pp. 129–130, the foregoing quote is on p. 129) and Fischer and Ravizza (1991, pp. 258–278, especially pp. 277–278). Frankfurt himself, having argued in 1969 against the incompatibilist’s premise linking responsibility with alternate possibilities, has sought to defend an account according to which we might be free and responsible no matter whether we have alternate possibilities. See, especially, Frankfurt (1971, 1988). In a criticism of Frankfurt’s position, Gary Watson develops an alternative account which also falls into this category of compatibilist positions. See Watson (1975). Other authors have defended accounts according to which responsibility requires being suitably responsive to, or having the ability to act on, reasons—where being so responsive, or having such an ability, does not in general require the possession of alternate possibilities. See, for example, Wolf (1990), Wallace (1994), Fischer and Ravizza (1998). I am inclined to regard any such account as plausible only if we have independent reasons for rejecting the position that the link between moral responsibility and alternate possibilities has been sufficiently severed so that the incompatibilists’ arguments for the thesis that determinism rules out the ability to do otherwise cannot be straightforwardly extended to the realm of moral responsibility. The argument of this paper has been that the link in question has not been sufficiently severed so as to support this result.

  23. 23.

    This objection to (MRP) was suggested to me by an anonymous referee from this journal.

  24. 24.

    Formally speaking the strategy that I have here sketched simply involves redefining ‘ϕ(S, A)’ in the formal argument above to accommodate whatever inevitable-making conditions are involved in the new counterexamples. This adjustment will change the content of (PAP*) and (MRP) as identified in the text; the revised principles will be plausible for the reasons identified in the text.


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This paper has benefited from helpful comments and discussions for which I would like to thank Tony Brueckner, Anand Vaidya, Jesse Steinberg, and an anonymous referee from this journal.

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Correspondence to Richard M. Glatz.

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Glatz, R.M. The (near) necessity of alternate possibilities for moral responsibility. Philos Stud 139, 257–272 (2008).

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  • Determinism
  • Moral responsibility
  • Frankfurt
  • Principle of alternate possibilities
  • PAP
  • Incompatibilism
  • Agency
  • Freedom
  • Free will