Question Edwin Social Sciences

The principle of alternate possibilities

What is the principle of alternate possibilities and what does it hope to achieve?

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Answer Internal Staff

The principle of alternate possibilities is an attempt to describe the conditions under which a person can be said to have free will. It argues that an action could only have been freely undertaken if it were possible for the person to have acted otherwise. So, for example, if a driver loses control of their car and swerves left into a cat when they could have swerved right into open road, their killing the cat was carried out freely. On the other hand, if the driver were to have a seizure which causes them to swerve left, they would have no control over their actions and therefore could not do otherwise – their action cannot be free, as there was no alternative action they could take.

The reason why it is important to come up with a theory like this is that free will is said to bear on the moral status of actions. To demonstrate this principle in action: if the driver in the example above was not able to avoid killing the cat, then it is unreasonable of us to blame them for doing so. The moral status of their behaviour is therefore in some part determined by their capacity to choose how to act.