Frankfurt cases: the fine-grained response revisited


Frankfurt cases are supposed to provide us with counterexamples to the principle of alternative possibilities. Among the most well known responses to these cases is what John Fischer has dubbed the flicker of freedom strategy. Here we revisit a version of this strategy, which we refer to as the fine-grained response. Although a number of philosophers, including some who are otherwise unsympathetic to Frankfurt’s argument, have dismissed the fine grained response, we believe there is a good deal to be said on its behalf. We argue, in particular, that reflection on certain cases involving omissions undermines the main objections to the response and also provides the groundwork for an argument in support of it.

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  1. 1.

    For further details about how Black might accomplish all this, as well as a defense of the claim that scenarios like this are metaphysical possible, see Mele and Robb (1998) and (2003). There are numerous other “Frankfurt cases” in the literature. We focus here on those like Assassin, which were first developed by Mele and Robb (1998), because we think that they have the best chance of avoiding various difficulties often thought to plague other Frankfurt cases.

  2. 2.

    van Inwagen (1978, p. 224, n. 24) was the first to suggest this sort of response. See also van Inwagen (1983, p. 181). Naylor 1984 subsequently developed the response in greater detail. More recent defenders of it include O’Connor (2000), Robinson (2012), and Speak (2002).

  3. 3.

    According to Eleonore Stump, the flicker strategy “requires the supposition that doing an act-on-one’s-own is itself an action of sorts,” one that is distinct from the action the agent would have performed had the neuroscientist’s device been among the causes of the agent’s behavior. She then argues that this supposition is either “confused and leads to counterintuitive results; or, if the supposition is acceptable, then it is possible to use it to construct [Frankfurt cases] in which there is no flicker of freedom at all.” (1999, pp. 301–302). This objection, however, runs together the fine-grained response with another version of the flicker strategy, which we might call the act-individuation version. According to the act-individuation version, Jones is indeed blameworthy for the decision to kill Smith that he made on his own. However, proponents of the act-individuation version of the flicker strategy contend that Jones could have avoided making that token decision, for while Black’s device would have caused him to make a decision to kill Smith, that decision wouldn’t have been identical to the one he made on his own, owing to its radically different causal history. Unlike proponents of the act-individuation approach, proponents of the fine-grained approach are not committed to saying that the decision Jones made on his own in the actual sequence of events is distinct from the one he makes in the counterfactual sequence of events in which his decision is caused by Black’s coercive device. The fine-grained version of the flicker strategy therefore does not require the assumption that doing an act-on-one’s-own is itself an action of sorts. To suggest that it does would be to conflate it with the act-individuation version of the flicker strategy. But once we clearly distinguish these two versions of the flicker strategy, we can see that Stump’s criticism of the flicker strategy has no force against the fine-grained version of the strategy, as that version does not turn on what she regards as the implausible assumption that doing an act-on-one’s-own is a distinct action. For further discussion of this issue, see Capes (2014).

  4. 4.

    Our definition of a robust alternative is pretty much the standard one. For a slightly different use of the term “robust alternative,” see Mele (2006, p. 92).

  5. 5.

    This example is from Fischer and Ravizza (1998, p. 125).

  6. 6.

    Clarke (2014, pp. 96–97) makes similar observations about a different sort of case.

  7. 7.

    Robinson (2014, pp. 439–440) also makes this point.

  8. 8.

    To be sure, Jones’s decision in the alternative sequence was a product of manipulation. But this does not show that his failure to decide on his own was a result of manipulation. Recall that whether the device causes Jones’s decision is contingent upon whether Jones decides on his own or not. Moreover, as even Frankfurt acknowledges, it was up to Jones whether he decided on his own to kill Smith. Jones’s failure to decide on his own in the alternative sequence was thus not triggered by coercion but was itself a trigger of the coercion. Cf. [redacted for blind review].

  9. 9.

    See Fischer (1986, pp. 254–256). The example is originally due to van Inwagen (1983, pp. 165–166).

  10. 10.

    Zimmerman (2002) draws a similar distinction between the degree of an individual’s responsibility and the scope of responsibility. It is worth pointing out that this distinction appears to provide a promising way to handle a wide range of cases involving moral luck. Consider, for example, the problem of distinguishing the culpability of a murder from the culpability of an attempted-but-luckily-unsuccessful murderer. It is intuitively plausible, some might say, that (since the difference between them is just a matter of luck) both agents deserve the same amount of blame. But it is also intuitively plausible that the murder is blameworthy for killing the victim, while the attempted murder is not. Fischer’s distinction between the content and degree of blameworthiness accounts for this. The successful murder is blameworthy for an additional state of affairs, but he is not worthy of more blame.

  11. 11.

    Robinson (2012, p. 184) makes a similar point.

  12. 12.

    This example is from Fischer and Ravizza (1998, p. 125).

  13. 13.

    One might worry that the fine-grained approach will make moral responsibility too fine-grained. For example, will it turn out that agents are responsible for states of affairs such as their A-ing-given that the entire history of the universe can truly be described as follows: e1 occurred, e2 occurred, etc.? Our answer is that an agent can only be responsible for facts when the agent satisfies certain epistemic requirements. Since normal agents do not have the requisite epistemic access to the complete history of the universe, they will not be responsible for extremely fine-grained facts about that history. Notice, though, that Jones was presumably aware that he decided on his own to kill Smith. He did not know about Black’s device, to be sure. So he was not aware that he had a choice about deciding as a result of Black’s device. But he was presumably aware at the time that he was deciding on his own (i.e., not as a result of coercion or force). Hence, he can be responsible for making the decision to kill Smith on his own.

  14. 14.

    Cf. Swenson (2015 and 2016).


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Thanks to John Martin Fischer and an anonymous referee for very helpful comments.

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Correspondence to Justin A. Capes.

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Capes, J.A., Swenson, P. Frankfurt cases: the fine-grained response revisited. Philos Stud 174, 967–981 (2017).

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  • Moral responsibility
  • Alternative possibilities
  • Frankfurt cases
  • Flicker of freedom
  • Omissions