Skip to main content

Pereboom on the Frankfurt cases


According to the principle of alternative possibilities (PAP), a person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise. In what follows, I want to defend this principle against an apparent counterexample offered recently by Derk Pereboom (Living without free will, 2001; Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 29:228–247, 2005). Pereboom’s case, a variant of what are known as ‘Frankfurt cases,’ is important for it attempts to overcome a dilemma posed for earlier alleged counterexamples to PAP. However, I will argue that by paying closer attention to the details of Pereboom’s example, we see that his example fails to show a way between the horns of the dilemma posed for the earlier Frankfurt examples.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. In his most recent work, Pereboom (2008) has amended his robustness condition. He now argues that an alternative possibility is robust if and only if the individual “could have willed something different from what she actually willed such that she understood that by willing it she would be, or at least would likely be, precluded from the moral responsibility she actually has” (p. 5). But this amendment does not affect my argument. My argument undermines Pereboom’s case using either version of his robustness condition.

  2. Pereboom writes: “For … [Joe] believes that achieving this level of attentiveness is compatible with his never refraining from making this decision, or even being seriously inclined so to refrain, and deciding to evade taxes instead” (2005, p. 232).

  3. All agree that Jones, in Frankfurt’s original case, has a robust alternative possibility open to him (whatever one’s account of robustness) should the target action not be causally determined. I return to this issue in Sect. VI of the paper.

  4. For further discussion of Mele and Robb’s example see Ginet & Palmer (forthcoming).

  5. I suspect that the critic’s worry can be further allayed by pointing out that even if we were to grant, for the sake of argument, that the device could detect that Joe made B occur right at the very instant, t1, at which he makes it occur, this would still not be sufficient for Pereboom’s needs. For I am inclined to think that the device would only be able to intervene and ‘make’ Joe choose A at an instant after it has detected that it needs to intervene—that is, at t2. Once we bring to bear the distinction between the device detecting that Joe has acted in a certain way and it intervening to make him act differently, we see that even if the device could detect Joe’s making B occur at the very instant at which he makes it occur, it is plausible to argue that it could not right then, simultaneously, intervene. This is because it has to first detect that Joe has made B occur before it can intervene and make Joe choose A. (Of course, all sides must agree that the device could not detect Joe’s making B occur at any instant prior to t1, even if we grant that it could do so at t1. This is because Joe’s behavior at t1 is not deterministically caused.)

  6. Michael McKenna suggested this objection to me.


  • Fischer, J. M. (1994). The metaphysics of free will. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  • Frankfurt, H. (1969). Alternative possibilities and moral responsibility. Journal of Philosophy, 66, 829–839.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • 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.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ginet, C. (2002). Review of Pereboom’s Living Without Free Will. Journal of Ethics, 6, 305–309.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ginet, C., & Palmer, D. (Forthcoming). On Mele and Robb’s indeterministic Frankfurt-style case. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research.

  • Kane, R. (1996). The significance of free will. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mele, A., & Robb, D. (2003). Bbs, magnets, and seesaws: The metaphysics of Frankfurt-style cases. In M. McKenna & D. Widerker (Eds.), Moral responsibility and alternative possibilities. Aldershot: Ashgate.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pereboom, D. (2001). Living without free will. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Pereboom, D. (2005). Defending hard incompatibilism. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 29, 228–247.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Pereboom, D. (2008). Defending hard incompatibilism again. In N. Trakakis & D. Cohen (Eds.), Essays on free will and moral responsibility. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  • van Inwagen, P. (1983). An essay on free will. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Widerker, D. (1995). Libertarianism and Frankfurt’s attack on the principle of alternative possibilities. Philosophical Review, 104, 247–261.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


I should like to thank E. J. Coffman, Robert Kane, Michael McKenna and, in particular, Carl Ginet for help with this paper. I also thank an anonymous reviewer for the journal whose questions helped me clarify my criticisms. An earlier draft was read at the 2008 American Philosophical Association Pacific Division meeting in Pasadena, CA. I am grateful to the audience on that occasion and my commentator, Daniel Speak.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to David Palmer.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Palmer, D. Pereboom on the Frankfurt cases. Philos Stud 153, 261–272 (2011).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Ethics
  • Metaphysics
  • Moral responsibility
  • Free will
  • Frankfurt
  • Pereboom