Frankfurt’s Counter Examples of the Principle of Alternate Possibilities

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Are Frankfurt’s counter examples of the principle of alternate possibilities enough to show that compatibilism is tenable?

Before attacking Frankfurt’s criticisms to the principle of alternative possibilities I must first establish that throughout this essay I will assume that we live in a deterministic universe. This meaning that the facts of the past, in conjunction with the laws of nature, entail every truth about the future. (McKenna, 2004). This view of the universe instantly threatens free-will. It explains that I do not decide the past or the laws of nature in the universe and therefore am not acting at my own discretion. If free-will is compatible with determinism, this is known as compatibilism. Frankfurt cases are used by many to try proving that compatibilism is true.

We should also clarify that free-will is to have a voluntary act. This involves having the ability to do different things. (Libet, Do We Have Free Will?, 1999) Most people feel as if they do have free-will, it seems like something that you cannot deny. (Libet, 1999). However not only does it seem counterintuitive to dismiss it is also extremely important if we want any form of moral responsibility. We should also clarify that moral responsibility is the idea that we hold agents responsible for right or wrong actions. This can also come with praise or Blame. It is also intuitive that moral responsibility is dependent on free-will.

The problem with determinism is it seems to dismiss free-will just from its description and therefore entails that we also don’t have moral responsibility for our actions. According to Frankfurt a person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise. (Frankfurt, 1969) Meaning they had a choice. Frankfurt calls this the ‘principle of alternative possibilities.’ 

To clarify this is the view that an agent’s decision (choice) is free in the sense of freedom required for moral responsibility only if:

  1. It is not causally determined, and
  2. In the circumstance the agent made that decision, he could have avoided taking it (Widerker, 1995)

It is important to show that we do have freewill, otherwise how can we hold anyone accountable for any of their actions. For example, I could murder someone, and I would have no moral responsibility. This clearly seems counter intuitive.

The main obstacle of compatibilism is that free-will is the ability to do otherwise. But Frankfurt asks, why do we assume that? The main motivation is the principle of alternate possibility that gives us moral responsibility. Also, it is important to see if this is the kind of freedom people care about. Does freedom really just mean the ability to do otherwise? If Frankfurt shows that moral responsibility does not require the possibility to do otherwise compatibilism may be tenable. (Frankfurt H. G., 1969)

Frankfurt tries to do this by giving counter examples to the principle of alternate possibilities, with cases in which a person is morally responsible for their actions despite having no ability to do otherwise. The simplest counter example is the Black and Jones example. It is as follows:

Black wants Jones to perform an action. He wants this so much that he will do anything to make jones perform this action. However, he does not want jones to know he is trying to make her perform the action. When jones is about to make up her mind on what to do, he does nothing unless she is going to do something different than what he wants. If Jones will do something different, Black intervenes to make her do what he wants. However, imagine Jones only performs actions that Black would have wanted, but not because of black, but out of her own reasons. She would be held morally responsible for the action even though she could not have done otherwise (Frankfurt, 1969)

This counter example becomes clearer when applied to a real situation. If we say that the action Black wants Jones to do is kill someone, and Jones does it anyway. Without Black intervening Jones would have moral responsibility for killing someone. However even if she didn’t want to kill someone Black would make it so she does. This therefore means that she had no other alternate possibility but is still morally responsible for killing that person.  (Frankfurt, 1969)

Intuitively Frankfurt’s argument makes sense, however there seems to be a very serious problem in all Frankfurt style counterexamples. It is important to establish how Black knows Jones is going to not do what he wants. (Danahar, 2011) In the example where Black wants Jones to kill someone we know that black has the power to change what Jones is going to do, however he can only act if Jones decides not to kill the person.  Black’s intervention only becomes operative if Jones performs, begins to perform or thinks about the opposite action. In this case not kill someone. Yet the conclusion claims that Jones cannot perform the opposite of what Black wants. (Danahar, 2011)  In this case Jones also has to be able to decide other than what Black wants in order for Black to intervene. This means she is able to decide on an alternate possibility. This is known as the ‘flicker of freedom’ (Fischer, 2006) Jones would get a flicker of freedom before Black could intervene.

Another example would be that of a driving instructor. A driving instructor watches a student ready to intervene if something is about to go wrong. If the student is supposed to be turning right but starts turning left the instructor will instantly intervene. The flicker of freedom is that moment between the wrong turn and the intervention of the instructor. (Danahar, 2011)

Not only does the idea of a flicker of freedom show that their alternate possibilities available to Jones, and therefore we should not abandon the principle of alternate possibilities. (Fischer, 2006) But also, that Frankfurt cases prove nothing in terms of whether we can have moral responsibility and ultimately free-will in a deterministic world. In a deterministic world the flicker of freedom would not be possible. (Danahar, 2011) Therefore, he has done nothing that can help show that compatibilism is tenable.

An objection to the flicker of freedom could involve Black creating a device that monitors all of Jones’s thoughts and changes Jones’s behaviour with the information. This device would detect thoughts that could lead to Jones going against Black’s wishes, this giving Black more time to manipulate Jones before Jones makes a conscious decision. So, for example if Jones starts having thoughts that could lead to not killing someone Blacks device could change them and steer them in the direction Black wants. This ultimately leading to Jones killing someone. Therefore, Jones would never experience the flicker of freedom and you could argue that she still has moral responsibility without the ability to do otherwise. (Fischer, 2006)

This still doesn’t work. Even in this example there is some sense that Jones has an alternate possibility of not killing the person. For the device to do what Black wants it needs to pick up something that could lead Jones to doing otherwise, no matter how small it is. In this example the new device monitors small subconscious changes that could lead to an alternate possibility. Therefore, Frankfurt counter examples are still not successful as they rely on the ability to predict (in our example) Jones’s actions. This entails that there must be some alternate possibilities.

Now let’s assume that Frankfurt counterexamples are successful and that we could use them to reject the principle of alternate possibility. There are no alternate possibilities however you could still hold someone morally responsible for their actions. This still fails to give compatibilism credibility. Frankfurt gives us an argument only on moral responsibility, but nothing on free-will. For compatibilism to be tenable Frankfurt needed to show how Free-will is compatible with a deterministic universe. However, he has only shown that moral responsibility is compatible.

To clarify free-will is simply defined as having a voluntary act (Libet, Do We Have Free Will?, 1999) a voluntary act involves being able to do otherwise. This is different to principle of alternate possibilities as we are not talking about moral responsibility. So, we can reject the principle of alternate possibilities, however there is not a reason to reject that free-will involves the ability to do otherwise. Therefore, he is untimely shown that free-will is not necessary for moral responsibility. (M Fischer, 2000)

Frankfurt counter examples fail to devalue the principle of alternate possibilities. They also do not provide any credibility or reason to accept compatibilism. They firstly fail in terms of their composition, where they neglect the any flicker of freedom needed for the examples to function. This renders them useless in disproving the principle of alternate possibilities. They also suffer being useless to proving that we have free-will at all. They only concern moral responsibility and has done nothing on the problem of the compatibility of free will and a deterministic universe.    

Bibliography

  • Danahar, J. (2011, January 12). Fischer, Frankfurt and Flickers of Freedom (Part 1). Retrieved from Philosophical Disquisitions: http://philosophicaldisquisitions.blogspot.com/2011/01/fischer-frankfurt-and-flickers-of.html
  • Fischer, J. M. (2006). The flicker of freedom strategy. In My Way: Essays on Moral Responsibility (pp. 41-45).
  • Frankfurt. (1969). ALTERNATE POSSIBILITIES AND MORAL RESPONSIBILITY. Journal of Philosophy, 831.
  • Frankfurt, H. G. (1969). Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility. The Journal of Philosophy, 829.
  • Libet, B. (1999). Do We Have Free Will? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 56.
  • Libet, B. (1999). Do We Have Free Will? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 1-2.
  • M Fischer, M. R. (2000). In Responsibility and Control: A Theory of Moral Responsibility (pp. 66-67).
  • McKenna, M. a. (2004, April 26). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from Compatibilism: https://seop.illc.uva.nl/entries/compatibilism/#Det
  • Widerker, D. (1995). Libertarianism and Frankfurt’s Attack on the Principle of Alternative Possibilities. The Philosphical Review, 247-261.
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