Skip to main content

Deterministic Frankfurt cases

Abstract

According to the principle of alternative possibilities (PAP), people are morally responsible for what they do only if they could have done otherwise. Over the last few decades, this principle has dominated discussions of free will and moral responsibility. One important strand of this discussion concerns the Frankfurt-type cases or Frankfurt cases, originally developed by Frankfurt (J Philos 66:829–839, 1969), which are alleged counterexamples to PAP. One way in which proponents of PAP have responded to these purported counterexamples is by arguing that they fall prey to a dilemma, both horns of which undermine their cogency. Recently, Fischer (Philos Rev 119: 315–336, 2010) has defended the Frankfurt cases against one horn of this dilemma. In this essay, I criticize Fischer’s defense of the Frankfurt cases and argue that he does not successfully show how the cases can avoid this horn of the dilemma. If I am right, then, despite Fischer’s claims to the contrary, the original dilemma plaguing the cases still stands.

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

Notes

  1. If decisions occur at times (rather than being temporally extended), then proponents of the dilemma will argue that, without a deterministic cause as a sign for Black to rely on, Jones could have done otherwise in the sense that he could have decided differently than he did, rather than begun to decide differently than he did.

  2. Fischer suggests that the Frankfurt cases can also avoid the dilemma on its other horn, the indeterministic horn, but he does not develop this point himself (pp. 321–323). Instead, he cites work by other philosophers that he thinks demonstrates this (Hunt 2005; Pereboom 2001). Since my aim in this paper is just to assess Fischer’s own novel contribution to the debate about the dilemma defense, I focus here solely on his discussion of the deterministic horn. For a criticism of the sort of Frankfurt cases developed by Hunt and Pereboom that attempt to escape the dilemma on its other horn, see Ginet (2002).

  3. Fischer then argues that “there are no other reasons that constitute good and sufficient reasons to believe that causal determinism rules out moral responsibility” (p. 324), and, so, he concludes that causal determinism does not rule out moral responsibility. I set aside this further argument in this paper.

  4. Cf. Fischer (2010): “Black knows that, given that Jones has exhibited the Democratic sign at \(t1\), he need not intervene at all since Jones is going to vote for the Democrat. But, given our assumptions [that causal determinism alone does not rule out alternative possibilities], Jones can exhibit the Republican sign at \(t1\) [even though his behavior is causally determined]. But Black will be there monitoring the situation, and if he were to see the Republican sign at \(t1\), then he would immediately zap Jones’ brain and thereby prevent Jones from choosing to vote for McCain at \(t2\) (or voting for McCain at \(t3\)). Without Black, there is nothing in the example that rules out Jones’ power to choose and do otherwise; but with Black (together with causal determinism), we get the result that Jones cannot choose at \(t2\) to vote for McCain (and cannot so vote at \(t3\)). (Without the assumption of causal determinism ... even if Jones shows the Democratic sign at \(t1\), Jones might still begin to choose to vote for McCain at \(t2\))” (p. 329).

  5. Fischer later argues that even if we assume that causal determinism does in itself rule out alternative possibilities, this does not mean that causal determinism together with Black cannot also (as a separate factor) rule out Jones’ alternative possibilities as well (pp. 331–333). This move might help Fischer respond to the objection, for which I thank an anonymous reviewer, that by assuming that determinism alone does not rule out alternative possibilities, Fischer begs the question against alternative possibilities-incompatibilists, those who hold that determinism does rule out alternative possibilities. For the sake of argument, I will grant Fischer this controversial point, but set it aside in what follows. As I explain in the next section, my criticism of his argument occurs after the premises that (i) causal determinism does not in itself rule out alternative possibilities, but (ii) causal determinism together with Black does rule them out. So, even if I grant Fischer the claim that even if causal determinism alone rules out alternative possibilities, causal determinism together with Black can also rule them out as well, my criticism if sound, will still undermine his argument.

  6. In his first presentation of this argument in his 2010 paper (p. 328), Fischer does not include the premise that licenses the move from (3\(^\prime \)) to (4\(^\prime \)), but he later acknowledges that such a premise is needed to make the argument valid (p. 330). When he later outlines this validity-ensuring premise, a premise he calls (C), he presents it as:

    (C) The fact that Black’s device (and dispositions) in a causally determined context rule out Jones’ freedom to choose and do otherwise is irrelevant to Jones’ moral responsibility (p. 330).

    But strictly speaking, in order for this premise to license the transition from (3\(^\prime \)) to (4\(^\prime \)), we must reword it, as I have done here, as (C\(^\prime \)). I am intending this to be a friendly amendment to Fischer’s argument to make it clear that his new argument is valid.

  7. In an important recent article, Widerker and Goetz (2013) offer three criticisms of Fischer’s argument, all of which are different from the one I develop here. First, Widerker and Goetz argue that Fischer does not succeed in “describing a deterministic scenario in which an agent can be said to lack access to (robust) alternative possibilities, without invoking the incompatibilist assumption that determinism eliminates access to alternative possibilities” (p. 291). Second, they criticize Fischer’s assumption that an agent’s beginning to choose to A (as opposed to her choosing to A) is a robust alternative possibility (p. 292). Finally, they criticize the overall logical form of Fischer’s argument (pp. 293–294). Fischer (2013) has replied to these criticisms. Leaving aside the details, those who are sympathetic to Widerker and Goetz’s criticisms can view my criticism as a further “nail in the coffin” for Fischer’s argument, while those who think that Fischer’s response to Widerker and Goetz’s criticisms is persuasive can view my criticism as a new challenge to Fischer’s argument.

  8. More specifically, the first of the argument’s conclusions, (4\(^\prime \)), is that if Jones is not morally responsible, it is not by virtue of the mere fact that he lacks alternative possibilities (i.e., that PAP is false). The second, (5\(^\prime \)), is that, since PAP is false, if causal determinism rules out moral responsibility, it is not by virtue of ruling out alternative possibilities. (I thank an anonymous reviewer for asking me to clarify this).

  9. I consider some other reasons to think that (C\(^\prime \)) is true before assessing the one hinted at by Fischer because (i) Fischer only implicitly, rather than explicitly, offers this support for (C\(^\prime \)), and (ii) assessing these other lines of support first puts us in a better position to evaluate the one hinted at by Fischer.

  10. Widerker’s original case focuses on responsibility for overt physical actions, but I focus here on responsibility for decisions.

  11. Another way of responding to van Inwagen’s example, inspired by some remarks from Frankfurt (2003), is to argue that what explains why the person cannot be blameworthy for not calling the police is that there is nothing that she did or omitted to do that plausibly amounts to her not calling the police. But even if this is an explanation for why she is not blameworthy for not calling, it does not follow from this that this is the only explanation for why she is not blameworthy for not calling. So long as one explanation for why she is not blameworthy for not calling is that her phone service was out, then this case successfully refutes RIP.

  12. This line of reply assumes that Jones is blameworthy to at least some degree in the instance in which he does not know that his decision was morally wrong. I will grant this assumption for the sake of argument. But notice that if this assumption were false, then Promise-breaker would plausibly undermine IP-W. This is because Jones would not be blameworthy at all in the ignorance case but he would be blameworthy in the knowledge version and, so, Jones’ acting in spite of his knowledge would bear on whether or not he is blameworthy at all, contrary to IP-W. To complicate matters, however, if this assumption were false, then it might be argued that Promise-breaker no longer undermines IP-D. This is because, so the objection would go, in order to undermine IP-D, we need a case in which a person is at least blameworthy to some degree in the initial scenario in which he does not know that his action was wrong (since what is at issue is whether a fact that is irrelevant to the causal explanation of a person’s action can be relevant to the degree to which he is morally responsible for his action given that he is responsible for it to some nonzero degree in the first place) and we are now assuming that Jones is not blameworthy at all for his decision in this scenario. In reply, we could modify the case to suppose that, in the first scenario, Jones has a suspicion that his decision would be wrong but he’s not sure about it whereas, in the second scenario, he knows that his decision would be wrong. Claim: Jones is to some degree blameworthy in the first case (where he acts despite his suspicion that he is doing wrong) but he is more blameworthy in the second case (where he acts despite knowing that he is doing wrong). This version of the case would seem to undermine IP-D even if, under certain assumptions, the initial Promise-breaker case would not.

  13. It might be argued that it is more plausible, psychologically-speaking, to suppose that Jones finds himself with an irresistible desire to break his promise, rather than with an irresistible desire to decide to break his promise (on the grounds, perhaps, that we tend to desire to perform actions, rather than desiring to make decisions). But it is surely possible for us to desire to make decisions or choices (that is, it is surely possible for decisions or choices to be the objects of our desires, even if it is usually bodily actions or non-actional states of affairs that are the objects of desires). And this concession is all I need for the example to work.

  14. It might be argued that the fact that Jones tried his best to resist his desire is not a reason why he is not blameworthy for deciding to break his promise. Instead, it is a reason why he is not blameworthy for not trying to resist his desire. In response, I agree that this is a reason why he is not blameworthy for not trying to resist his desire. But I maintain that this is also a reason why he is not blameworthy for deciding to break his promise. Unless there is a good reason to think that Jones’ trying his best to resist his desire cannot be a reason why he is not blameworthy for not trying to resist his desire and also a reason why he is not blameworthy for deciding to break his promise, then Modified-promise-breaker escapes this criticism. (I thank an anonymous reviewer for raising this objection).

  15. Some might argue that Jones could be blameworthy for deciding to break the promise if he were responsible for having the desire in the first place. But this is irrelevant. If Jones were blameworthy for deciding to break his promise by virtue of being blameworthy for having the desire, then his blameworthiness for deciding would be derivative: it would derive from his blameworthiness for having the desire. However, the sort of responsibility at issue in IP-W, as well as that at issue in IP, RIP, and all the premises in Fischer’s argument against PAP, is non-derivative responsibility.

  16. This reminder helps to respond to the objection, helpfully suggested by an anonymous reviewer, that Jones’ trying unsuccessfully to resist his desire is a part of the causal explanation of his decision because it shows that the desire was truly irresistible, shows how forceful it was. While it is true that by unsuccessfully trying to resist his desire, Jones will come to realize what in fact is actually moving or leading him to decide as he does—namely, his irresistible desire—it does not follow from this that his trying to resist his desire is itself a part of the causal explanation of his decision in the sense at issue. The fact that if we were to subtract his effort to resist his desire from the example, he would still have made the same decision strongly suggests that his effort to resist is not a part of the causal explanation in the relevant sense.

  17. An anonymous reviewer astutely notes that, on a natural reading, JEP applies only to actions which are morally wrong and, hence, does not apply to actions like Jones’ decision to vote for Obama which seem to be morally neutral. However, even if we grant that JEP applies only to actions that are morally wrong, it is not obvious that decisions to vote for political candidates are morally neutral. After all, people are often praised or blamed for their voting decisions. So, I will assume that Jones’ decision to vote for Obama is the sort of action that could be morally wrong and, hence, the sort of action to which JEP could, in principle, apply. Alternatively, if it is maintained that Jones’ decision to vote for Obama is morally neutral, JEP could still apply if we assume that in speaking of whether a fact that cannot serve as a justified excuse for what a person did can be relevant to “the issue of the person’s moral responsibility,” we are speaking of whether that fact can be relevant to “what degree of praise or blame or neither the decision merits, i.e., to where it belongs on the spectrum from very blameworthy to very praiseworthy.” (I thank the reviewer for this last point).

  18. Alternatively, perhaps what explains why the elimination of Jones’ alternative possibilities in this way cannot serve as a justified excuse for his action is not that their elimination did not causally affect his action but that he was ignorant of their elimination. (I thank an anonymous reviewer for this suggestion). But arguably it does not follow from a person’s being ignorant of some fact that that fact cannot serve as a justified excuse for that person’s action (in the sense that it cannot get the person off the hook). For instance, borrowing from Modified-promise-breaker, suppose Jones was ignorant of the fact that his desire to decide to break his promise was irresistible; suppose he believed merely that it was a very strong desire. However, even though Jones was ignorant of this fact, the fact that his desire was irresistible is a justified excuse for his action in the sense that the fact that it was irresistible gets him off the hook. (In addition, his trying his very best to resist it also gets him off the hook, demonstrating, as I explained earlier, that a fact that is irrelevant to the causal explanation of a person’s action can be relevant to whether or not the person is morally responsible for that action).

  19. McKenna (2008) rejects the view that something can be used as a justified excuse for a person’s action only if the absence of that thing would have ‘made a difference’ to what the person did (p. 782). Instead, he argues that something can be used as a justified excuse for an action only if its presence reveals either that the agent did not act from a culpable motive or that the agent’s action arose from a causally deviant source. But (arguably) there are cases that show that this account of excuses is not correct. Suppose Green decides not to go to work because he does not feel like it. As it happens, Green is also sick but this is not the reason for which he decides not to go to work (cf. Widerker 2003). Green’s sickness is (it seems) a justified excuse for his not going to work. Yet this fact—his being sick—does not reveal that Green did not act from a culpable motive (in fact, the motive from which he acted was culpable), nor does it reveal that his action arose from a causally deviant source.

    McKenna disputes this reading of the Green case, arguing that Green is blameworthy for deciding not to go to work. He supports this claim by arguing that although Green is blameworthy it would not be appropriate for his employer to hold him to blame since “it is jarring to imagine the propriety of ... [the employer] holding a person like Green to fire when he reports that he is sick” (p. 780). But if the fact that he is sick casts doubt on whether he can be held to blame, I don’t see why this fact wouldn’t also cast doubt on whether he can be blameworthy at all. In addition, a plausible reading of this case, for which I thank an anonymous reviewer, is that Green is not blameworthy for deciding not to go to work—since he has an excuse, being sick, that gets him off the hook for that—but he is blameworthy for being willing to take his simply not feeling like working today as sufficient reason to decide to stay at home.

  20. I thank an anonymous reviewer for offering this reason on Fischer’s behalf.

  21. Modified-promise-breaker is also a counterexample to (ii) since the fact that Jones tries his very best to resist his desire is not something that forces or coerces him to act as he does (what forces or coerces him is the desire itself, not his effort to resist it) nor is it something that prevents him from knowing how to act differently, yet, contrary to (ii), his trying his best to resist his desire is relevant to his moral responsibility.

  22. Perhaps the thought is that since all sides should agree that had Black not been present, then Jones would be morally responsible for his decision, it is not clear why the mere presence of Black (and his dispositions) should make a difference to Jones’ moral responsibility; in particular, we might think that whatever underwrites Jones’ moral responsibility in the first case (without Black) should also underwrite his responsibility in the second case (with Black). But first, it is not clear that incompatibilists will agree that had Black not been present, Jones would be responsible (after all, Jones’ decision is causally determined). Second, if the critic wants to maintain that whatever underwrites Jones’ responsibility in the first case should also underwrite it in the second case, she presumably needs to give a reason why the presence of Black, in the second case, is irrelevant to Jones’ moral responsibility; but now we are back where we started: trying to find a reason to think that Black’s device and dispositions are irrelevant to Jones’ responsibility.

  23. Although I will not pursue this here, notice that (B) is equivalent to premise (3) in Fischer’s original argument. So, if I am right in casting doubt on (B), then we will have a further reason to reject Fischer’s original argument: as well as rejecting premise (2) of that argument (that Black cannot himself, aside from the truth of determinism, eliminate Jones’ alternative possibilities), we can also argue that premise (3) is open to question as well.

  24. I thank an anonymous reviewer for suggesting this, and the following, justification for (B) on Fischer’s behalf.

  25. Notice that using this claim as a special reason for thinking that Black’s device and dispositions are not irrelevant to Jones’ moral responsibility does not beg the question against the PAP-rejecter. After all, all this claim says is that it is natural to think that we need alternative possibilities in order to be responsible. It does not say that we do need alternative possibilities in order to be responsible. Most PAP-rejecters will surely concede that it is natural to think that PAP is true, even if they conclude that, on balance, it is false.

  26. McKenna (2008) makes a slightly different but related point, arguing that if principles like (C\(^\prime \)) are not given further justification, then proponents of the counterexample strategy leave themselves open to the following response: “Why not instead react to the example by saying that, as jarring as it seems, and despite our strong inclination to hold Jones blameworthy, the proper judgment is that he is not. For, as the objection might go, it turns out Jones could not do otherwise in acting as he did, and since PAP is such a powerful principle within out arsenal of moral reasoning, in adhering to PAP, we must resist our intuition regarding the example” (p. 772).

  27. I do not mean to suggest that there will be an answer for why something strikes us as intuitive for all of our intuitions. Perhaps there are some intuitions we have that are so basic that they cannot be further explained in this way.

  28. I would like to thank three anonymous reviewers, and E. J. Coffman, John Martin Fischer, Carl Ginet, Robert Kane, Carolina Sartorio, and David Widerker for extremely helpful comments on this paper.

References

  • Fischer, J. M. (2000). Problems with actual-sequence incompatibilism. Journal of Ethics, 4, 323–328.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fischer, J. M. (2006). My way. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fischer, J. M. (2010). The Frankfurt cases: The moral of the stories. Philosophical Review, 119, 315–336.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fischer, J. M. (2013). The deterministic horn of the dilemma defense: A reply to Widerker and Goetz. Analysis, 73, 489–496.

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Frankfurt, H. (2003). Some thoughts concerning PAP. In D. Widerker & M. McKenna (Eds.), Moral responsibility and alternative possibilities. Aldershot: Ashgate.

  • Ginet, C. (1996). In defense of the principle of alternative possibilities: Why I do not 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 

  • Goetz, S. (2005). Frankfurt-style counterexamples and begging the question. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 29, 83–105.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Haji, I. (2009). Incompatibilism’s allure. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hunt, D. (2005). Moral responsibility and buffered alternatives. Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 29, 126–145.

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Google Scholar 

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

    Article  Google Scholar 

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

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Van Inwagen, P. (1983). An essay on free will. Oxford: Clarendon 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 

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

    Google Scholar 

  • Widerker, D. (2003). Blameworthiness and Frankfurt’s argument against the principle of alternative possibilities. In Widerker, D. & McKenna, M. (Eds.), Moral responsibility and alternative possibilities. Aldershot: Ashgate.

  • Widerker, D. (2006). Libertarianism and the philosophical significance of Frankfurt scenarios. Journal of Philosophy, 103, 163–187.

    Google Scholar 

  • Widerker, D., & Goetz, S. (2013). Fischer against the dilemma defense: The defense prevails. Analysis, 73, 283–295.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David Palmer.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Palmer, D. Deterministic Frankfurt cases. Synthese 191, 3847–3864 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-014-0500-8

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-014-0500-8

Keywords

  • Moral responsibility
  • Determinism
  • Frankfurt cases
  • Free will
  • Principle of alternative possibilities