Frankfurt Cases, Alternate Possibilities, and Prior Signs

Erkenntnis 78 (5):1037-1049 (2013)
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In his seminal paper ‘Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility’, Harry Frankfurt argues against the principle of alternate possibilities (PAP)—the principle that persons are morally responsible for what they have done only if they could have done otherwise—by presenting a case in which, apparently, a person is morally responsible for what he has done even though, due to the presence of a counterfactual intervener, he could not have done otherwise. According to a compelling (yet relatively under-discussed) response to Frankfurt’s attack on PAP, Frankfurt has not succeeded in showing that the principle is false, since in the scenario he asks us to imagine the agent has an alternate possibility: he can (unwittingly) force the intervener’s hand by revising his decision to perform the action in question and thereby avoid performing the action himself. This response to Frankfurt has been objected to, however, on the grounds that the agent does not avoid performing the action since the intervener acts upon an involuntary prior sign. The goal of this article is to show that this objection fails. While it is true that the prior sign upon which the intervener acts is involuntary, it is a consequence of a change of mind that is voluntary. It follows that the agent does what is needed to avoid performing the action in question (in the counterfactual sequence)



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Greg Janzen
University of Calgary

References found in this work

Freedom and Resentment.Peter Strawson - 1962 - Proceedings of the British Academy 48:187-211.
Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility.Harry G. Frankfurt - 1969 - Journal of Philosophy 66 (23):829-839.
The Significance of Free Will.Robert Kane - 1996 - New York, US: Oxford University Press USA.
Living Without Free Will.Derk Pereboom - 2001 - New York: Cambridge University Press.
Freedom and Resentment.Peter Strawson - 2003 - In Gary Watson (ed.), Free Will. Oxford University Press.

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