Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility

Author: Rebecca Renninger
Category: Ethics
Word Count: 1000

Intuitively, a person is morally responsible for what she has done only if she could have done otherwise. This is the Principle of Alternate Possibilities (PAP). For any person and any action, that person is morally responsible for performing or failing to perform that action if and only if she had a genuine alternate possibility open to her at the time. An alternate possibility is simply another option that an agent has at the time that he or she acts. This principle may hold in part because of the Ought Implies Can principle, which states that a subject ought to do something only if she can do that action.1 So, someone ought to refrain from a morally incorrect action only if she has the option, or an alternate possibility, to do so.

But, is this really the case? Is it truly the case that you need to be making a choice between two genuine alternatives in order to be responsible for your actions?

Harry Frankfurt famously argued that alternate possibilities are not necessary for moral responsibility, and therefore that PAP is false. Consider a case in which one subject, Jones, wishes to vote Democratic in a forthcoming election. Now suppose that another subject, Black, wants very badly for Jones to vote Democratic. He is, in fact, prepared to go to considerable lengths to ensure that Jones votes accordingly. If it becomes clear that Jones is going to refrain from voting Democratic, Black will intervene to ensure that Jones casts a Democratic vote. Perhaps Black is even able to manipulate the minute processes in Jones’ brain to ensure this. Now, suppose that Black never has to intervene, and that Jones goes ahead and votes for the Democratic candidate. Intuitively, Jones is responsible for the action that he has performed, but it is also the case that, at the time that he acted, he did not have the ability to do otherwise due to Black’s imminent intervention.2

Let us look at a more morally significant case. Suppose that Jones is a disgruntled postal worker. He goes to work on Monday unaware that his boss is going to fire him before just before noon. Black is aware of the fact that Jones will be fired, and he hopes that getting fired will make Jones so angry that he will decide to burn the post office to the ground. Though he would prefer that Jones act on his own, Black does not want to take any chances. So, Black has, unbeknownst to Jones, implanted a small device in Jones’s brain which will enable him to cause Jones to decide to set fire to the post office (and do so), should Jones give any indication that he will refrain from burning the place down. If just before noon Black is able to tell that Jones is not going to set the fire on his own, Black will activate the device implanted in Jones’ brain via remote control, causing Jones to set fire to the post office. As it happens, upon being fired, and without any interference from Black, Jones burns the post office to the ground.3

It seems as if Jones is responsible for his action, even though he had no ability to do otherwise. PAP, is it stands, is therefore false. Cases similar to this are now dubbed “Frankfurt-style” cases. These are cases in which a subject does something, is responsible for doing that something, but could not have done otherwise.

Some argue that these types of cases are flawed, however, and therefore they do not show PAP to be false.4 One objection to Frankfurt has been dubbed the “flicker defense”.5 Defenses of this kind generally argue that there are alternate possibilities in Frankfurt-style cases. These “flickers of freedom” constitute the alternatives necessary for moral responsibility. So, Jones is morally responsible for his action, but he also had an alternate possibility open to him. This allows us to preserve PAP in its original form.

Jones is responsible for what he does because he decided to do it on his own, when he could have been coerced into doing it by Black. It is therefore within Jones’ power to act on his own or to not act on his own. And, therefore, there is an alternate possibility open to Jones. There seems to be a “flicker of freedom” here, such that Jones actually does have multiple possibilities open to him, however small they might be. In the post office case, for instance, Jones has the freedom either to burn down the post office voluntarily or to be compelled by Black to burn down the post office. This kind of alternate possibility leaves room for moral responsibility, and allows for the truth of PAP.67

Whether these possibilities are genuine, or whether they are robust enough to ground moral responsibility, is open to question. The problem of alternate possibilities and moral responsibility is one that philosophers continue to pursue, and understanding this issue is important for understanding our moral assessments of people and their actions.

Notes

1See Widerker, David. “Frankfurt on ‘Ought Implies Can’ and Alternative Possibilities”. Analysis, Vol. 51, No. 4 (Oct. 1991). pp. 222-224. Also see Schnall, Ira. “The Principle of Alternate Possibilities and ‘ought’ implies ‘can’”. Analysis, Vol. 61, No. 4 (Oct. 2001). pp. 335-340.

2Frankfurt, Harry. “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility”. The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 66 (1969). pp. 829-839. pg. 835-836.

3Robinson, Michael. “Modified Frankfurt-type Counterexamples and Flickers of Freedom”. Philosophical Studies, Vol. 157 (2012). pp. 177-194.

4See Naylor, Margery. “Frankfurt on the Principle of Alternate Possibilities”. Philosophical Studies, Vol. 46, No. 2 (1984). pp. 249-258. See also, Mele, Alfred and Robb, David. “Rescuing Frankfurt-Style Cases”. The Philosophical Review, Vol. 107, No. 1 (1998). pp. 97-112.

5Robinson (2012), and Timpe, Kevin. “The Dialectic Role of Flickers of Freedom”. Philosophical Studies, Vol. 131 (2006). pp. 337-368.

6See Glatz, Richard. “The (Near) Necessity of Alternate Possibility for Moral Responsibility”. Philosophical Studies, Vol. 139, No. 2 (2008). pp. 257-272. See also, Zimmerman, Michael. “Moral Responsibility, Freedom, and Alternate Possibilities,” Pacific PhilosophicalQuarterly, Vol. 63 (1982). pp 243-254.

7Also see Blumenfeld, David. “The Principle of Alternate Possibilities”. The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 68, No. 11 (1971). pp. 339-345.

References

Blumenfeld, David. “The Principle of Alternate Possibilities”. The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 68, No. 11 (1971). pp. 339-345.

Frankfurt, Harry. “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility”. The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 66 (1969). pp. 829-839. pg. 835-836.

Glatz, Richard. “The (Near) Necessity of Alternate Possibility for Moral Responsibility”. Philosophical Studies, Vol. 139, No. 2 (2008). pp. 257-272.

Mele, Alfred and Robb, David. “Rescuing Frankfurt-Style Cases”. The Philosophical Review, Vol. 107, No. 1 (1998). pp. 97-112.

Naylor, Margery. “Frankfurt on the Principle of Alternate Possibilities”. Philosophical Studies, Vol. 46, No. 2 (1984). pp. 249-258.

Robinson, Michael. “Modified Frankfurt-type Counterexamples and Flickers of Freedom”. Philosophical Studies, Vol. 157 (2012). pp. 177-194.

Schnall, Ira. “The Principle of Alternate Possibilities and ‘ought’ implies ‘can’”. Analysis, Vol. 61, No. 4 (Oct. 2001). pp. 335-340.

Timpe, Kevin. “The Dialectic Role of Flickers of Freedom”. Philosophical Studies, Vol. 131 (2006). pp. 337-368.

Widerker, David. “Frankfurt on ‘Ought Implies Can’ and Alternative Possibilities”. Analysis, Vol. 51, No. 4 (Oct. 1991). pp. 222-224.

Zimmerman, Michael. “Moral Responsibility, Freedom, and Alternate Possibilities,” Pacific PhilosophicalQuarterly, Vol. 63 (1982). pp 243-254.

 

Rebecca is a doctoral candidate at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She has a B.A. in philosophy from Davidson College. She is currently interested in philosophy of mind, philosophy of cognitive science, action theory, and free will and moral responsibility. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, cycling, and participating in other outdoor activities in the Boulder area.

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