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Are Frankfurt-style cases successful

Harry Frankfurt defined the ???ability to do otherwise??™ as the Principle of Alternative Possibilities. It seemed unquestionably accepted that in order to be morally responsible one must be able to choose a course of action or behaviour. Without this apparent freedom of will it seems that a person can not be held morally responsible for an action which he did not himself choose to do. Frankfurt who was a compatiblist held the position that the world could be determined yet one could maintain moral responsibility within it. He put forward examples, Frankfurt-style cases, to prove that ???the ability to do otherwise??™ was not necessary in order to have freewill and hence be held morally responsible. He attempted to revise our concept of moral responsibility, which seemed to logically entail the need for alternative possibilities.

I shall begin by giving examples of Frankfurt style cases and go on to look at its strengths and weakness. I would like to argue that the importance of Frankfurt style cases lies in its ability to highlight a certain type of control, which I would like to call intention. I will expand on this and conclude with an attempt to justify the claim that inspite of incompatibilist criticism, the success of Frankfurt style cases lies in the ability to show that the absence of alternative possibilities does not entail in itself that we are not morally responsible.

Through a thought experiment Frankfurt attempted to show that one can be morally responsible without having ???the ability to do otherwise.??™ For example I woke up this morning and decided that I wished to have a cup of coffee. In my sleep my brain waves had been intercepted by an intelligent machine that upon my waking would intercept in my drinking habits, and I would drink a cup of coffee. So if I were about to decide to make tea this morning this interceptor would not allow me to do so and I would make coffee. But as it transpired when I awoke my room was filled with the alluring aroma of fresh coffee brewing and I decided to have a coffee. The machine did not have to intervene as I had chosen in line with its wants.

Another example could be that I am taken hostage by a terrorist. He forces me to kill another hostage. Through coercion I have no choice but to do what I am told, my actions are determined by this terrorist. Even if I thought I had a choice to simply do nothing, the terrorist would take my hand and force me to stab my fellow hostage.

The first is an example where it seems I do not have the ability to do otherwise because of the intervener who would manipulate my choice and hence I am not morally responsible for my actions. In the second example, I do not have the ability to do otherwise due to physical coercion and hence it seems I am not morally responsible. Both of these examples, Frankfurt would argue, do not logically entail that a person is not morally responsible although on the face of it this appears to be the case.

An argument against Frankfurt style cases is that they are an illusion and do not prove that one does not require alternative possibilities in order to be morally responsible. In the case where someone or something had tampered with my brain so that if I did not already choose to make a cup of coffee he would intervene and cause me to do it, there are two apparent problems.

The first problem is that the very act of creating an intervener suggests that some sort of choice is available. If no choice were available then there would be nothing with which to intervene. If there was genuinely no alternative possibilities then I could not comprehend drinking anything other than coffee when I awoke this morning. However if this was the case then Frankfurt style cases loose their credibility as what then comes to light is that if there was genuinely no other possibility, and I was compelled to drink coffee, I could not be held morally responsible. What this problem seems to highlight is that we need possibilities, genuine or not, as may be the case, in order to make a moral choice. If we did not know what is wrong we would not know what is right. If I were brought up in a neighborhood where every child was beaten by its parents and I had known nothing else then for me to beat my child also, would seem natural. It could be argued that in such a case I could not be held responsible for my actions, as I knew no other way. This seems to imply however that had I had alternative possibilities, had I known that some people did not beat their children, as this was not in actual fact the natural way to discipline your child, then it would be said that I was morally responsible. Alternative possibilities seem necessary for moral responsibility then.

The second problem with the ???intervener??™ example is that even if we accept that there are no alternative possibilities and had we not chosen a course of action the intervener would have compelled us, it does not follow that we are morally responsible. If the intervener intervenes then my actions are not caused or controlled by myself but by an external or foreign source, which I cannot be held accountable for. It seems convenient that had I attempted to make the wrong choice the appropriate one would have been made for me but as long as I make the correct choice then I am morally responsible as there was no need for intervention.

Widiker argues that Frankfurt??™s argument can be understood as follows:

???IRR: There may be circumstances in which a person performs
some action which although they make it impossible for him to
avoid performing that action, they in no way bring it about that
he perform it.??™

In the case of my drinking coffee this morning then, the intervener would at some point previous to my actual action need to know that I was about to make coffee and so intervene. Frankfurt would argue that the intervener was a very good judger of such things. He knew if I found it incredibly difficult to get out of bed this morning I would most likely go to make coffee. Widiker argues that the problem with this is that the intervener is relying upon a sign, which seems to be a ???deterministic cause??™ of my getting up and making coffee. If this is the case then my making coffee is predetermined and the IRR situation is false. If however this is not the case and the sign of my being exhausted is not a deterministic cause then it seems it is ???possible??¦to have done otherwise.??™ This being the case, again the IRR situation is not applicable.

I wish to expand on the example of the intervener. What if I decided against having a coffee at t1 but at t2 I changed my mind. I can conceive of numerous instances where I have changed my mind. If the intervener should intervene at t1, and at t2 I should change my mind such that it was inline with the intervention, would I have no moral responsibility for my choice This seems to create some moral ambiguity.

It seems then that when we talk of moral responsibility we must talk of freewill. When we talk of freewill we assume it entails the ability to do otherwise and hence we need alternative possibilities in order to be held morally responsible. Frankfurt did not argue against the need for alternative possibilities but against its necessity in comprehending freewill. A simple yet succinct argument against his view which seems inline with our commonsense understanding of freewill can be found in Jean-Lue Nancy??™s article on the ???Impossibility of the question of Freedom.??™ ???Existence as it??™s own essence is nothing other than the freedom of being.??™ Our very existence seems to be a living testimony to the ability to have freewill. We could still argue for some sort of compatibilism here; we did not choose to exist yet we choose to live, for example. in some sense our existence is determined, however, every day we are free to kill ourselves yet we choose to live. Here is freedom at it??™s most relevant and it seems that the ability to do otherwise, to have the possibility of death, yet choose to live is necessary in order for us to be held morally responsible for that choice. Here is an instance where the weight of moral responsibility requires opposition in order to be fully understood. Without the alternative possibility of death we cannot appreciate the value of life nor comprehend the moral consequence of suicide.

The strength of Frankfurt style examples can be explained more clearly in the case of coercion. Here we see that although I was forced by a terrorist to inflict pain on my fellow hostage it genuinely seems I could not have done otherwise. Had I attempted to do nothing, the terrorist would have lifted my arm and forced me to hit my fellow hostage. On the face of it, it seems that I cannot be held responsible as I had no alternative but to do what I did. Unbeknownst to you, the reader or even the terrorist himself I secretly hated my fellow hostage. He had killed my brother in a gang fight and although he had done his time I had always wanted revenge. I had no other option but to inflict pain on him and I even pretended that I didn??™t want to but I truly enjoyed it. Justice was being served. It seems then in this instance I could not have done otherwise but upon hearing the full story I am in actual fact morally responsible for my actions.

What this highlights is not that we don??™t need alternative possibilities to be morally accountable but that it is simply not enough to assume that the ability to do otherwise alone renders us morally responsible agents. It is a special type of subjective control that governs our actions. It is our intentions that we must take into account.

In his article ???Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities??™ John Martin Fischer aptly outlines the importance of Frankfurt style cases. He explains that what such cases highlight is that we need a certain degree of control in order to be morally responsible but we do not necessarily need the type of control that allows for us to have alternative possibilities. He distinguishes two types of control; guidance and regulative. To comprehend the difference between the two I shall give an example. I can hop on my left foot then hop on my right foot but I cannot choose to keep both feet in the air. In this instance then I have guidance control over which foot I wish to lift but I do not have regulative control over the capabilities of my body.

Fischer??™s point is that Frankfurt style cases breaks the notion of control apart and shows that you only need one type of control, guidance control, in order to be morally responsible. I need control over my interactions with my bike, not over the mechanisms of the bike itself in order to be held morally responsible for my actions. Fischer concludes that the point of Frankfurt style cases are ordinary and remarkable at the same time, ?????¦moral responsibility for action depends on the actual history of an action and not upon the existence or nature of alternative scenarios.??™ Here lies the significance of such cases and a sound compatibilist reasoning against the notion that without alternative possibilities we cannot be held morally responsible.

It seems that where Frankfurt style cases fail is in their ability to prove that determinism, particularly hard determinism, is compatible with moral responsibility. The problem is that if our actions as well as our mental states are determined to such a degree that we could not possibly have the ability to do otherwise, then we cannot be held morally responsible as we are merely acting out of compulsion. It is almost as if our actions would be a reflex. When I walk down the street I move my legs. Moving my legs is not a possibility for walking, it is a necessity and so it would seem true of our actions and mental states. They are merely a product of our determined design.

For Frankfurt cases to be found successful we must argue for a softer determinism. Our actions it seems can be determined to a certain extent, however our mental states cannot to the same extent. It seems I may find myself in a situation where my actions seem determined, by the terrorist for example, yet my mental state has not been coerced or manipulated. I still find myself in a situation where I do not have the ability to do otherwise. I cannot choose not to kill my fellow hostage nor can I do nothing as the hostage would lift my arm and force me to kill the man. On this basis alone however it is not enough to assume that I am not morally responsible. It could be argued that if I am aware of the intervener then I cannot be held morally responsible, however here is a case where I am aware of the intervener, the terrorist, yet upon hearing of my intentions when killing my fellow hostage it cannot be denied that I am morally responsible. Had I not been coerced I would have gladly done it anyway. I had in actual fact been waiting for the perfect moment to wreak my revenge and luckily enough it was presented.

In attempting to establish whether or not Frankfurt style cases are successful we looked at two examples and discussed their strengths and weaknesses. There are obvious problems with such cases. They do not seem to be compatible with hard determinism and in this sense it could be argued that such cases fail as they do not show how determinism is compatible with moral responsibility. This seems to have devastating consequences for the whole theory. It seems to need revision, Frankfurt could argue for a soft determinism to be compatible with moral responsibility for example. I wish to argue that Frankfurt style cases are however successful inspite of these problems. Their success lies in the ability to highlight the need for us to assume more than just the condition of alternative possibilities in order to be held morally responsible. We need not have regulative control but we need guidance control over our actions. It seems we need control over our intentions rather than our actions to be morally responsible. The ability to highlight this is what makes Frankfurt style cases successful.

Word count: 2501

Fischer, John Martin. ???Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities??™ from Widerker, David. & McKenna, Michael (eds.) Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities (Hants: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2003) pp.28-49

Frankfurt, Harry G. ???Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility??™ from Watson, Gary. (ed.) Free Will, Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) pp.167-176

Mele, Alfred R. Robb, David. ???Rescuing Frankfurt-Style Cases??™ The Philosophical Review, Vol. 107, No. 1 (Jan. 1998). pp.97-112

Nancy, Jean-Luc, The Experience of Freedom (California: Stanford University Press, 1993) Chptr.3 pp.21-32

[ 1 ]. Mele & Robb ???Rescuing Frankfurt-style cases,??™ The Philosophical Review p.99
[ 2 ]. Mele & Robb ???Rescuing Frankfurt-style cases,??™ The Philosophical Review p.100
[ 3 ]. Mele & Robb ???Rescuing Frankfurt-style case,??™ The Philosophical Review p.100
[ 4 ]. Nancy, The experience of freedom p24
[ 5 ]. Fischer ???Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities,??™ Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities p.28
[ 6 ]. Fischer ???Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities,??™ Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities p.28
[ 7 ]. Fischer ???Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities,??™ Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities p.48

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