Action, responsibility and the ability to do otherwise


Here it is argued that in order for something someone “does” to count as a genuine action, the person needn’t have been able to refrain from doing it. If this is right, then two recent defenses of the principle of alternative possibilities, a version of which says that a person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have refrained from doing it, are unsuccessful.

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  1. 1.

    See Copp (1997, 2003), Speak (2005), and Widerker (1991).

  2. 2.

    This argument is at the heart of David Widerker’s “W-Defense.” See Widerker (2000). For a recent critical discussion of the W-defense, see Capes (2010).

  3. 3.

    See, for example, Glover (1970).

  4. 4.

    See Steward (2008) in particular.

  5. 5.

    For these points, I’m indebted to Clarke (2009, p. 340).

  6. 6.

    Some consequences of actions are themselves actions, but others are not. Also, some readers might deny that omissions can have consequences because they deny that omissions can be causes. But even if omissions cannot be causes, there is a perfectly ordinary and acceptable sense in which our omissions have consequences. Even if my omitting to water your flowers is not among the causes of the flowers withering, it would still be perfectly acceptable to say that the flowers withered in part because I omitted to water them. Fortunately, nothing I say here hinges on these issues. The key thing to note for present purposes is that direct responsibility is typically restricted to actions.

  7. 7.

    For a good overview of the recent literature on Frankfurt-style cases, see the introduction to Widerker and McKenna (2003).

  8. 8.

    Fischer (1982) first used the term “actual sequence” to describe theories of free action and moral responsibility according to which freedom and responsibility depend on the nature of the actual sequence of events leading up to the action and not on whether the agent has access to alternative possibilities for action.

  9. 9.

    See, for example, Fischer (1982, 2003). I’m grateful to an anonymous referee for reminding me of Fischer’s views here.

  10. 10.

    The example is from Fischer and Ravizza (1998, p. 32). They use it to distinguish between two different kinds of control, and they go on to argue that just because a person lacks one kind—the kind that involves having access to alternative possibilities—it dos not follow that the person lacks the kind of control necessary for moral responsibility. I use the example to make a similar point about the sort of control involved in performing an action.

  11. 11.

    For a different defense of 5, see Larvor (2010). I think Larvor’s argument is defective as well, but I have elected not to discuss it here, as doing so would take us too far afield.

  12. 12.

    Cf. Frankfurt (1999, pp. 110–112).

  13. 13.

    With one exception, “t” is a period of time longer than a moment. The exception is in the case of momentary actions such as decisions.

  14. 14.

    See Dennett (1984, p. 133).

  15. 15.

    See, for example, Frankfurt (1999, p. 111) and van Inwagen (1989, pp. 406–407).

  16. 16.

    Some might object that I am not entitled to this second conclusion until I falsify views according to which what makes an event an action is something intrinsic to that event (e.g., Ginet 1990). Such views do not count as actual sequence theories, since an event’s being an action, on these views, will not depend on its relation to past events. I think this is a fair criticism. Still, the arguments of this paper constitute a partial defense of actual sequence theories insofar as they succeed in showing that an agent needn’t have access to alternative possibilities in order to perform an action. A comprehensive defense of an actual sequence theory would need to deal with this third type of theory as well.


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For helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper I would like to thank Andrew Bailey, Randy Clarke, Al Mele, Michael McKenna, and an anonymous referee for Philosophical Studies.

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Correspondence to Justin A. Capes.

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Capes, J.A. Action, responsibility and the ability to do otherwise. Philos Stud 158, 1–15 (2012).

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  • Action
  • Free will
  • Moral responsibility
  • Alternative possibilities
  • Frankfurt-style cases