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Capes on the W-Defense


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. Widerker (Philosophical Perspectives 14: 181-201, 2000) offers an intriguing argument for PAP as it applies to moral blameworthiness. His argument is known as the “What-should-he-have-done defense” of PAP or the “W-defense” for short. In a recent article, Capes (Philosophical Studies 150: 61-77, 2010) attacks Widerker’s argument by rejecting the central premise on which it rests, namely, the premise that a person is blameworthy for his action only if in the circumstances it would be morally reasonable to expect him not to have acted as he did. In this paper, I show that Capes’ criticism does not undermine this premise and, to this extent, Widerker’s argument is safe from Capes’ attack.

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  1. To whom must it be morally reasonable to expect S not to have done A? Widerker argues that it must be morally reasonable “for someone who is morally competent and knows all the relevant non-moral facts pertaining to the situation the agent is in” (2005: 297, footnote 20).

  2. In an earlier paper, Widerker (1995) argued that the Frankfurt cases cannot be coherently presented. Roughly, the objection was that the agent’s alternative possibilities cannot be eliminated without illicitly assuming determinism. Recently, Widerker (2006) has changed his mind on this issue: he now thinks that the cases can avoid this coherence objection. But he still considers his W-defense argument “one of the strongest challenges” (p. 184) that anyone rejecting PAP must face. In the rest of the paper, I set aside the issue of the coherence of the Frankfurt cases. Nothing I say in this paper requires taking a side on this issue.

  3. Though I acknowledge that some of Widerker’s remarks suggest that he might have had this stronger claim in mind. For instance, at one point Widerker implies that an expectation that the person not have acted as he did “is essential to our moral disapproval of his behavior” (p. 192, emphasis added).

  4. Part of the problem here, I suspect, is that the phrase ‘holding blameworthy’ is ambiguous between actually blaming someone on the one hand and simply regarding him as being blameworthy on the other. If I hold someone blameworthy, this might suggest that I am engaging in some sort of blaming activity. Or, alternatively, my holding someone blameworthy might imply only that I regard the person as being blameworthy, in the same sense in which I ‘hold’ – that is, believe to be the case – that 2 + 2 = 4.

  5. I thank an anonymous reviewer for raising the following objection.

  6. The claim is underwritten by the following general principle: If S is non-culpably ignorant of an atypical causal connection between events of kind K and events of kind K*, then it’s not morally reasonable, in the circumstances, to expect S not to have produced an event of kind K* via an event of kind K, even if it would be morally reasonable, in the circumstances, to expect S not to have produced an event of kind K. This general principle strikes me as plausible. At any rate, it strikes me as sufficiently plausible that unless we’re given good reason to doubt it, we can justifiably appeal to it to explain what it is that the objector wants explained.

  7. Thanks to E. J. Coffman and two anonymous reviewers for extremely helpful comments on this paper.


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Correspondence to David Palmer.

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Palmer, D. Capes on the W-Defense. Philosophia 41, 555–566 (2013).

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  • Moral responsibility
  • Alternative possibilities
  • Blameworthiness
  • Principle of alternative possibilities
  • Widerker
  • Frankfurt
  • Capes