Reformed Compatibilist Freedom. Part 1. Critique of the Principle of Alternative Possibilities by Harry Frankfurt

A. Definitions
1) Determinism:
Determination is, intuitively, the thesis that, given the past and the laws of nature, there is only one possible future. [Van Inwagen, Essay on Free Will (Oxford UP, 1983), p. 65] In theological terms, an event (such as choice or action), is determined, that is, it must occur because there are sufficient conditions for its occurrence obtained earlier by the decrees of God.

The two major contending positions in the debate on determinism and free will are:
Compatibilism is the idea that there is no conflict between determinism and free will.
Incompatibilism is the idea that determinism rules out free will.

2) The principle of alternative possibilities (PAP)
PAP: A person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise.

PAP has been at the centre of current debates about free will and moral responsibility. Harry Frankfurt, an accomplished philosopher observes: “Practically no one, however, seems inclined to deny or even to question that the principle of alternate possibilities (construed in some way or other) is true. It has generally seemed so overwhelmingly plausible that some philosophers have even characterized it as an a priori truth. (p. 1).

B. PAP Argument Against Determinism (Predestination)
Critics against predestination (as a form of causal determinism) contend that (1) causal determinism rules out free will or our ability to do otherwise. Then, they conclude via (PAP) that (2) causal determinism is inconsistent with moral responsibility.

Argument Part 1
1. If someone has free will, then he is able to do otherwise.
2. If determinism is true, then he is no able to do otherwise.
3. Therefore, if determinism is true, he does not have free will.

Argument Part 2
P1 A person’s act is free and morally responsible if and only if that person could have done otherwise. (PAP).
P2 Predestination teaches that no one could have done otherwise than what he is predestined to do.
P3 Predestination is inconsistent with moral responsibility (given PAP).
C1: Predestination is not true.

The subtext of this argument is that predestination cannot be true since it undermines human moral responsibility by denying free will and makes God culpable for the sins of his creatures.

C. Frankfurt-Type Counterexample to PAP
However, Frankfurt argues that there are possible circumstances in which a person could not have done otherwise; nevertheless that person is acting freely and is morally responsible for his act. Frankfurt elaborates, “A person may do something in circumstances that leave him no alternative to doing it, without these circumstances actually moving him or leading him to do it – without them playing any role, indeed, in bringing it about that he does what he does…The fact that a person was coerced to act as he did may entail both that he could not have done otherwise and that he bears no moral responsibility for his action. But his lack of moral responsibility is not entailed by his having been unable to do otherwise. The doctrine that coercion excludes moral responsibility is not correctly understood, in other words, as a particularized version of the principle of alternate possibilities.” (p.2)

Consider one of the so-called “Frankfurt-type counterexamples” deployed to rebut PAP.

“Suppose someone, Black, let us say wants Jones to perform a certain action. Black is prepared to go to considerable lengths to get his way, but he prefers to avoid showing his hand unnecessarily. So he waits until Jones is about to make up his mind what to do, and he does nothing unless it is clear to him (Black is an excellent judge of such things) that Jones is going to decide to do something other than what he wants him to do. If it does become clear that Jones is going to decide to do something else, Black takes effective steps to ensure that Jones decides to do, and that he does do, what he wants him to do. Whatever Jones’s initial preferences and inclinations, then, Black will have his way…

Now suppose that Black never has to show his hand because Jones, for reasons of his own, decides to perform and does perform the very action Black wants him to perform. In that case, it seems clear, Jones will bear precisely the same moral responsibility for what he does as he would have borne if Black had not been ready to take steps to ensure that he do it. It would be quite unreasonable to excuse Jones for his action …on the basis of the fact that he could not have done otherwise. This fact played no role at all in leading him to act as he did…Indeed, everything happened just as it would have happened without Black’s presence in the situation and without his readiness to intrude into it.” (pp. 6-7)

Note that typically, a Frankfurt-type counterexample involves a moral agent and a controller. The controller wants the agent to perform a specific action (for example, an assassination job). The controller plants a special mechanism, a “Frankfurt device” to ensure that the agent will do what the controller wants. Should the agent develop a sufficiently strong tendency not to perform the action planned by the controller, the mechanism will be activated and the agent will perform the action after all. In Frankfurt-type examples, the agent never develops such a tendency, and he is not influenced by the mechanism. So his action is a free, voluntary action. It is granted that an intervention mechanism could have ruled out the possibility of the agent choosing differently. However, since the intervention mechanism does not play a role in the agent’s deliberations and subsequent action, the person is still morally responsible for his action.

In other words, it is possible for a person who is coerced or is unable to do otherwise should sometimes still be morally responsible for his actions even though he had no other alternative. For example, a person X may have already decided to do an action before he was coerced by Y to do the same action. As such, coercion does not excuse X from bearing moral responsibility because X had an alternative and chose on his own to do an action. That is to say, free will was still exercised when X made the decision.

To conclude, Frankfurt-type counterexamples shows that PAP is false.

P4. An agent is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise (PAP).
P5. If PAP is true, then a Frankfurt-type case will absolve its subject from moral responsibility.
P6. Frankfurt-type cases do not absolve their subjects from moral responsibility. (Frankfurt-type counterexamples).
C2. PAP is false (modus tollens, P4, P5) [That is, If P, then Q. – Not Q. Therefore, not P].

Frankfurt concludes, “A person may well be morally responsible for what he has done even though he could not have done otherwise. The principle’s [PAP] plausibility is an illusion, which can be made to vanish by bringing the relevant moral phenomena into sharper focus.” (p.1)

The next post will present Frankfurt’s formulation of free will which demonstrates that there is no conflict between causal determination (predestination) and free will as agents make their choices in the context of a hierarchy of desires (first-order desire and second order-desire) and choices (second-order volition).

John Fischer, “Frankfurt-Style Compatibilism,” in Sarah Buss and Lee Overton ed. Countours of Agency (MIT Press, 2002).
Harry Frankfurt, The Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge UP, 1988).

Next Post: Reformed Compatibilist Freedom. Part 2.  Harry Frankfurt on Hierarchical Motives and Free Will.
Future posts will deal with John Martin Fischer, Guillaume Bignon and Jonathan Edwards.

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