The W-defense


There has been a great deal of critical discussion of Harry Frankfurt’s argument against the Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP), almost all of which has focused on whether the Frankfurt-style examples, which are designed to be counterexamples to PAP, can be given a coherent formulation. Recently, however, David Widerker has argued that even if Frankfurt-style examples can be given a coherent formulation, there is reason to believe that an agent in those examples could never be morally blameworthy for what she has done. Therefore, such examples do not undermine a version of PAP restricted to blameworthiness. Widerker refers to his argument for this claim as the W-defense. I examine the W-defense in some detail, along with three recent replies to it by defenders of Frankfurt’s argument. I contend that each of these replies is problematic and, indeed, that two of them play directly into the hands of those seeking to defend PAP. I then develop my own reply to the W-defense by calling into question an assumption which is at the heart of that argument regarding the nature of moral blame.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. 1.

    It is best to think of PAP as restricted to direct, as opposed to derivative, responsibility even though the principle is not explicitly set out as such. An agent might be indirectly (or derivatively) responsible for performing some action that she couldn’t avoid performing, if her performance of that action is the result of previous acts of hers that were avoidable. So, to take the classic example, a drunk driver may not be able to avoid hitting a pedestrian given his intoxicated state. This does not falsify PAP, however, since in typical cases the driver is derivatively responsible for hitting the pedestrian. In most cases, the driver’s responsibility for hitting the pedestrian derives from his responsibility for previous acts of his—for example, his decision to drink and drive. The question at issue with respect to PAP, however, is whether an agent might be directly (or non-derivatively) responsible if she is unable to do otherwise.

  2. 2.

    Kane (1985), Widerker (1995), and Ginet (1996) have each developed versions of this dilemma.

  3. 3.

    It is generally agreed by all participants in the debate that no non-question begging example can be constructed that does not involve at least some alternative possibilities. The question, then, becomes whether the alternatives that remain in the new Frankfurt-style examples are morally significant, where a morally significant alternative (sometimes also called a ‘robust alternative’) is the sort of alternative that a defender of PAP would claim transforms a case from one in which the agent is not responsible to one in which the agent is responsible, and does so in such a way that the addition of the alternative would aid in explaining or “grounding” the claim that the agent is morally responsible. For my own part, I tend to think the remaining alternatives in the new examples are morally significant, but I cannot argue for this here.

  4. 4.

    My own view is that some of the new examples probably do succeed in avoiding the dilemma, though I shall not argue for this here.

  5. 5.

    A similar response, which was suggested to me by Al Mele, is that Jones should not have shot Smith freely. What he should have done instead is shoot Smith unfreely; that is, he should have brought it about that he is forced to shoot Smith. Since this is something he could have done, it is a reasonable answer to Widerker’s question. The same sorts of worries I raise for Stump’s response apply, mutatis mutandis, to this response.

  6. 6.

    The flicker of freedom strategy is developed in different ways by van Inwagen (1978), Naylor (1984), Otsuka (1998), and Wyma (1997). The term flicker of freedom was first coined by Fischer (1994) as a way of characterizing these sorts of responses to Frankfurt.

  7. 7.

    See, e.g., van Inwagen (1978), Otsuka (1998) and Wyma (1997).

  8. 8.

    I am grateful to Al Mele for pointing me to this first reading.

  9. 9.

    Fischer (in personal correspondence) has suggested to me that, while perhaps not “completely disarming” the W-defense, denying the Maxim might make the W-defense substantially less plausible, for why should one find either PAE or PAE* plausible if one has jettisoned the Maxim? I concede that there is something to this suggestion, but notice too that there might be reasons for accepting PAE or PAE* even if the Maxim is false. For instance, as I suggest later, in contexts in which one makes judgments about what a person morally ought to do, there is often an accompanying expectation or demand that the person behave as she ought. It is arguably part of our moral practices that we demand of others that they behave as they ought, but such demands seem reasonable only in cases in which people can behave as they ought. Thus, one might find the underlying principles behind the W-defense plausible even if one denies that being morally obligated to act in a certain way implies that one is able to act in that way.

  10. 10.

    One response to the W-defense that I do not discuss is Zimmerman (2003). He raises some interesting questions about what precisely Widerker means when he speaks of morally reasonable expectations. In the present essay I have been content to rely on an intuitive understanding of this notion.

  11. 11.

    For instance, the Frankfurt-defender might appeal to the two arguments (mentioned in Sect. 1) given by Frankfurt in support of M. If these arguments could be defended, then the force of the W-defense might well be outweighed by these arguments together with L-reply. For a defense of Frankfurt’s further arguments regarding M and how they can be used to counteract the W-defense see McKenna (2008).

  12. 12.

    I owe this example to Michael McKenna.


  1. Fischer, J. M. (1994). The metaphysics of free will: An essay on control. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Fischer, J. M. (2006). My way. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Frankfurt, H. (1969). Alternate possibilities and moral responsibility. The Journal of Philosophy, 66, 829–839. doi:10.2307/2023833.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Frankfurt, H. (2003). Some thoughts concerning PAP. In D. Widerker & M. McKenna (Eds.), Moral responsibility and alternative possibilities (pp. 339–348). Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Press.

  5. Ginet, C. (1996). In defense of the principle of alternative possibilities: Why I don’t find Frankfurt’s argument convincing. Philosophical Perspectives, 10, 403–417. Reprinted with an addendum in Widerker D., & McKenna, M. (Eds.), Moral responsibility and alternative possibilities (pp. 75–90). Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Press.

  6. Hunt, D. (2000). Moral responsibility and unavoidable action. Philosophical Studies, 97, 195–227. doi:10.1023/A:1018331202006.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Hunt, D. (2005). Moral responsibility and buffered alternatives. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 29, 126–145. doi:10.1111/j.1475-4975.2005.00109.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Kane, R. (1985). Free will and values. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

    Google Scholar 

  9. McKenna, M. (2005). Where Strawson and Frankfurt meet. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 29, 163–180. doi:10.1111/j.1475-4975.2005.00111.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. McKenna, M. (2008). Frankfurt’s argument against the principle of alternative possibilities: Looking beyond the examples. Nous (Detroit, Mich), 42, 770–793.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Mele, A., & Robb, D. (1998). Rescuing Frankfurt-style cases. The Philosophical Review, 107, 97–112. doi:10.2307/2998316.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Naylor, M. (1984). Frankfurt on the principle of alternate possibilities. Philosophical Studies, 46, 249–258. doi:10.1007/BF00373108.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Otsuka, M. (1998). Incompatibilism and the avoidability of blame. Ethics, 108, 685–701. doi:10.1086/233847.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Pereboom, D. (2000). Alternate possibilities and causal histories. Philosophical Perspectives, 14, 119–138.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Stump, E. (2003). Moral responsibility without alternative possibilities. In D. Widerker & M. McKenna (Eds.), Moral responsibility and alternative possibilities (pp. 139–158). Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Press.

    Google Scholar 

  16. van Inwagen, P. (1978). Ability and responsibility. The Philosophical Review, 87, 201–224. doi:10.2307/2184752.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Widerker, D. (1995). Libertarianism and Frankfurt’s attack on the principle of alternative possibilities. The Philosophical Review, 104, 247–261. doi:10.2307/2185979.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Widerker, D. (2000). Frankfurt’s attack on alternative possibilities: A further look. Philosophical Perspectives, 14, 181–201.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Widerker, D. (2003). Blameworthiness, and Frankfurt’s argument against the principle of alternative possibilities. In D. Widerker & M. McKenna (Eds.), Moral responsibility and alternative possibilities (pp. 53–74). Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Press.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Widerker, D. (2005). Blameworthiness, non-robust alternatives, and the principle of alternative possibilities. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 29, 292–306. doi:10.1111/j.1475-4975.2005.00118.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Wyma, K. (1997). Moral responsibility and leeway for action. American Philosophical Quarterly, 34, 57–70.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Zimmerman, M. J. (2003). The moral significance of alternate possibilities. In D. Widerker & M. McKenna (Eds.), Moral responsibility and alternative possibilities (pp. 301–326). Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references


I am extremely grateful to both John Martin Fischer and Al Mele for their helpful comments on previous drafts of this essay. I owe a special debt of thanks to Michael McKenna, who read and commented on several drafts of the essay and who through his published work and many personal conversations has helped me think more clearly about the nature of human freedom and moral responsibility.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Justin A. Capes.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Capes, J.A. The W-defense. Philos Stud 150, 61–77 (2010).

Download citation


  • Frankfurt
  • Alternative possibilities
  • W-defense
  • Moral responsibility
  • Blame
  • David Widerker