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Against (modified) buffer cases


I defend the principle of alternative possibilities (PAP) against what are sometimes known as buffer cases, which are supposed by some to be counterexamples to the principle. I develop an existing problem with the claim that standard buffer cases are counterexamples to PAP, before responding to a recent attempt by Michael McKenna (2018) to modify the cases in a way that circumvents this problem. While McKenna’s strategy does avoid the problem, I argue that it faces a different difficulty. I conclude that (modified) buffer cases pose no threat to PAP.

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  1. 1.

    Robert Kane (1985: 51) first suggested this dilemma. Versions of it have subsequently been developed and defended by Ginet (1996), Widerker (1995), and Wyma (1997), among several others.

  2. 2.

    Hunt (2000) and (2005) and Hunt and Shabo (2013) also defend buffer cases. For Pereboom's earlier discussions of buffer cases, see Pereboom (2000, 2001, 2005, 2012).

  3. 3.

    But see Franklin (2011), Ginet (2002), and Palmer (2011) and (2013) for attempts to resist it. See Capes (2016) for some potential downsides to the sort of position defended by Franklin, Ginet, and Palmer.

  4. 4.

    I owe this sort of example to Philip Swenson, who, if memory serves, suggested something like it in conversation once. McKenna (2018: 3122) discusses a similar example, though he puts it to a slightly different use.

  5. 5.

    In Capes (2016), I develop some other difficulties with Pereboom’s argument.

  6. 6.

    An anonymous referee suggested that, in this paragraph, I have begged the question against the Frankfurt-defender. But I see things differently. Frankfurt cases like Tax Cut 2 are supposed to provide us with cases in which the agent lacks a robust alternative but is blameworthy for what she does nonetheless. But why should we accept the claim that the agent in such cases is blameworthy? It might be said that that claim is just intuitively obvious. But that’s what I deny. I claim that, when we focus carefully on the features of the case as described, it’s not intuitively obvious that the agent is blameworthy, which means that we need further reason to suppose that she is blameworthy, if the argument against PAP based on Tax Cut 2 is going to succeed. My claim, then, is that the mere assertion that the agent in a case like Tax Cut 2 is blameworthy is not intuitively obvious and thus requires further defense. By itself, that claim doesn’t beg the question; it is simply to insist that a premise in the argument against PAP needs further support. Note, moreover, that I do go on to argue below for the claim that incompatibilists at least should judge Jones not to be blameworthy for his action in Tax Cut 2.

  7. 7.

    Elzein (2017) makes a similar point.

  8. 8.

    A referee worries that the strong notion of control at play in my argument here, which involves the possibility of the agent actively bringing about an alternative possibility, will have the seemingly implausible result that we often don’t have the sort of control or free will required for moral responsibility, even when it seems like we do. While this is an issue I take seriously, it would take us too far afield to address it here. Suffice it to say that I think the result in question much less implausible than it might initially seem. Substantiating that claim, though, is the task for another article.


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Thanks to an anonymous referee for this journal for helpful feedback.


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Correspondence to Justin A. Capes.

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Capes, J.A. Against (modified) buffer cases. Philos Stud (2021).

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  • Frankfurt cases
  • Buffer cases
  • PAP
  • Alternative possibilities
  • Moral responsibility