Frankfurt noted that all parties to the traditional debate about the compatibility of free will and moral responsibility with determinism had subscribed to a common assumption. They had assumed the truth of something Frankfurt called “the Principle of Alternate Possibilities”, which he expressed as follows:
(PAP) A person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise.
In the traditional debate incompatibilists had argued that if determinism is true, then no one could ever have done otherwise, while compatibilists argued that there is a morally relevant sense in which even a deterministic agent could sometimes have done otherwise. Frankfurt proposed to show that PAP is false, thereby undercutting the traditional debate.
Whatever we think of Frankfurt's argument, we must agree that Frankfurt succeeded in changing the way philosophers think about these issues. A principle which was once almost universally accepted as a commonsense truism or even an a priori truth is now widely regarded as false, or, at the very least, highly controversial. Among compatibilists, I think it fair to say, the received view is that PAP is false and that therefore the traditional free will/determinism debate -- the debate about whether determinism has the consequence that we are never able to do otherwise -- is irrelevant to questions of moral responsibility. More surprisingly, some incompatibilists have also been convinced that someone might be responsible even though he is unable to do otherwise. The upshot is that there is now a literature devoted to the challenging task of providing a new rationale for thinking that determinism deprives us of freedom and responsibility. At the same time, there are philosophers who strenuously deny that Frankfurt has succeeded in showing that PAP is false.
It’s difficult to explain, to someone not working in this area, just how peculiar the situation is. On the one hand, Frankfurt stories, as they have come to be called, have had an impact in free will circles that is comparable to the impact of Gettier stories in epistemology. On the other hand, after forty years of debate and discussion, it is still controversial whether Frankfurt or any of his followers have succeeded in providing a genuine counterexample to PAP.
If Frankfurt’s aim was to convince incompatibilists that, even if determinism renders us unable to do otherwise, it does not undermine responsibility, he has failed. If his aim was to make it easier to defend compatibilism, he has failed. And if his aim was to bypass questions about how, exactly, we should understand locutions like 'he could have done otherwise', he has also failed, for the debate that has arisen in the wake of his original thought experiment is now mired deep in the very metaphysical questions he sought to avoid.
But in a way Frankfurt has been successful. The main debate in the current free will/determinism literature is no longer about whether a person at a deterministic world is able to do otherwise; it is about whether the person in a Frankfurt story is unable to do otherwise.
It is my view that this literature is a philosophical dead end. Although I am a compatibilist, I think that Frankfurt’s strategy for defending compatibilism is a bad one. If we begin with the commonsense view that someone is morally responsible only if she could have done otherwise, then Frankfurt stories will not and should not change our minds. If we are persuaded by Frankfurt, it is because we have been taken in by a bad argument.
Frankfurt is not usually thought of as providing an argument. The literature talks about Frankfurt stories as if they were, like Gettier stories, ingenious counterexamples to a once widely accepted philosophical thesis. So let’s begin by seeing how such stories are supposed to change our minds about what’s necessary for moral responsibility.
Frankfurt’s argument against PAP is based on a simple thought experiment. It begins by inviting you to tell a story about an agent, Jones, who chooses to perform, and succeeds in performing, some action X. Tell the story so that it is vividly clear that Jones is morally responsible for doing X. If you are an incompatibilist, you may specify that Jones is an indeterministic agent who is able to choose and do otherwise, given the actual past and the laws. If you are a compatibilist, you may fill in the details so that Jones does X in a way that satisfies your favorite account of the counterfactual or dispositional facts that make it true that Jones could have done otherwise in the sense you think relevant to responsibility. Now, add to your story the following facts: There is standing in the wings another agent, Black. Black is interested in what Jones does. In particular, he wants Jones to do X and, moreover, Black has it in his power to prevent Jones from doing anything other than X.
Just how Black might force Jones to do X is, Frankfurt averred, not vital to the story. Perhaps Black is standing in the wings ready to offer Jones a coercive threat that would "stampede" Jones into doing X. Or maybe Black has a drug or a hypnotic procedure that would give Jones an irresistible desire to do X. Or maybe Black has a device in place which would directly affect Jones’ nervous system in such a way that Jones’ body would be forced to move, puppet-like, through an execution of X. Fill in the details as you like, so long as it is clear that Black can and would prevent Jones from doing anything but X.
The addition of Black to the story means that Jones could not have done other than X. But, Frankfurt argued, Jones is still responsible for doing X. After all, though Black could have intervened, he didn't. He didn't have to. Jones chose to do X and did X without any interference from Black. So the addition of Black to our story doesn't remove or in any way diminish Jones’s responsibility for doing X.
Such is the recipe for telling a Frankfurt story. And such stories can be told. Stories, that is, in which everyone should agree that an agent is responsible for doing something even though everyone should also agree that the agent could not have avoided doing that thing. And such stories do indeed tell us something interesting about responsibility. Such stories show us that it is false that:
PAP* A person is morally responsible for doing X only if that person could have done other than X.
Thus, whatever your views about freedom, if you thought that John Wilkes Booth freely chose to kill Lincoln and hence is responsible, it would be absurd to change your mind if you discovered that there happened to be a Black-like figure waiting passively in the wings, prepared to force Booth’s hand had Booth changed his mind. Given the choices he made and the actions he took, Booth is responsible for killing Lincoln even if he could not have avoided killing Lincoln.
This much everyone should agree to. We’ve always known that there is a gap between the choices an agent makes and the outcomes of those choices. Two drivers choose to drink and drive, but only one has a fatal accident; we hold the second driver responsible not just for his choice but also for the death regardless of whether he was able, at the time of the accident, to avoid causing death. And we've always held agents responsible for the outcomes of their actions even if these outcomes would have come about anyway, due to a back-up cause. Thus we all agree that Booth was responsible for Lincoln's death even if there was a back-up assassin ready to kill Lincoln if Booth's attempt failed. Black is like the second assassin, except that he would operate by forcing Booth's hand should Booth fail to attempt the assassination. Black's presence on the scene guarantees that Lincoln will end up dead, by Booth's hand, but he does not deprive Booth of responsibility for either the death or the murder. After all, in the actual world Booth acts as he does, not because of anything Black does, but because Booth chooses to act that way. And, we could add here, no matter what happens to come of that choice, Booth's choice is free and he is responsible for it precisely because there is at least one moment at which Booth could have chosen otherwise.
Reflection on cases of real life causal pre-emption shows how far PAP* is from PAP. In real life, we hold persons responsible for outcomes they could not have prevented, provided that these outcomes are the foreseeable consequences of actions they could have avoided. Frankfurt stories show that we are also prepared to hold someone responsible for an action he could not have avoided, provided that the action is the foreseeable consequence of a choice he could have avoided making. This is enough to refute PAP*. But PAP says that an agent is responsible only if he could have done otherwise. Otherwise than he actually does. To refute PAP one would have to tell a story in which an agent is responsible for what he did even though he could not have done anything other than he actually did. But Frankfurt stories of the sort just told do not fit that bill. They do nothing to subvert the view that moral responsibility requires the agent’s ability to do something otherwise --- even if that is only to make a different choice.
What is needed to refute PAP and sustain Frankfurt’s claim that alternatives are unnecessary for responsibility is a different kind of story. What’s needed is a story in which Jones does X and is responsible for doing X, but we must concede that Jones cannot do anything, even deliberate, decide, or choose, other than he actually does.
Frankfurt himself never tells such a story. When speaking of PAP he speaks only of responsibility for overt actions - the things we do by moving our bodies -- as opposed to responsibility for mental acts like choices or decisions, and he seems to think that demonstrating the falsity of PAP* suffices for demonstrating the falsity of PAP. But he also seems to assume that such a story can be told. That is, he seems to assume that the schema for the thought experiment sketched above can be filled out in a way that ensures that Jones can neither do nor decide (deliberate, try...) otherwise.
Whether or not that is so has turned out to be the central issue in the post-Frankfurt debate. Forty years later, no one has succeeded in telling a story that uncontroversially meets Frankfurt’s specifications. Not that there has been a shortage of attempts. Lots of philosophers have been convinced by Frankfurt, and they have tried to convince the rest of us. Their stories typically depict Black as a highly skilled neurosurgeon who has cunningly inserted devices in Jones’ brain that allow him to monitor and alter Jones’ brain states without Jones ever noticing. Black can intervene, if need be, causing brain states in Jones which are the physical realizations of the choices and decisions Black wants him to make. But as luck would have it, Jones deliberates, decides, and acts in just the ways that Black wants, so Black never has to intervene. Since Black never intervenes, Jones’ moral responsibility remains intact. But Black’s intentions and power guarantee that Jones can neither do nor even decide otherwise.
The philosophers who remain unpersuaded by these kinds of stories divide into two main camps. Some philosophers have argued that since the choices of an indeterministic free agent are not predictable in principle, Black cannot intervene until after Jones has chosen and this ensures that there is at least a moment during which an indeterministic Jones remains free to choose otherwise.
Other philosophers do not appeal to the unpredictability of Jones’ free choices but insist that even if Jones is predictable and controllable, Frankfurt stories, by their very nature, cannot rule out all of Jones’ alternative possibilities. They argue that there is necessarily a difference between the causal history leading up to Jones’ action in the actual scenario and the causal history leading up to Jones’ action in the counterfactual scenario in which Black intervenes. Because there is this difference, there is something that remains up to Jones, even if it is only whether he does or chooses X with or without Black’s intervention.
There are replies to these sorts of arguments. Against the claim that indeterminism entails unpredictability, defenders of Frankfurt have argued that even the choices of an indeterministic agent might be reliably correlated with – even though not caused by – some prior “blush” or other involuntary sign, and therefore predictable on that basis. Others have told stories in which Black has a godlike omniscience to predict what even an indeterministic agent will decide.
As for the second argument – that there is a difference between choosing X and choosing X because Black makes you, John Fischer has argued that this difference is not “robust” enough to “ground” attributions of responsibility. After all, if it is conceded that Jones’s choice is predictable because, say, Jones (deterministic or not) always blushes in a certain sort of way before he even begins to try to make his choice, then we can imagine a Black who can prevent Jones from even beginning to choose by watching for the blush. But in that case the only difference between what Jones actually does and what he would have done if Black had intervened is the blush or some other involuntary sign that Jones manifests before he even begins to try to decide what to do. Surely, Fischer argues, such a mere “flicker” of freedom – the freedom to “do” something that is not even an action – is not significant enough to be relevant to Jones’ responsibility.
And so it goes. Incompatibilists insist, for the most part, that they are unconvinced by Frankfurt’s claim to have refuted PAP. Compatibilists almost unanimously insist that PAP is false and that Frankfurt has shown that the traditional debate is irrelevant. New and ever more arcane Frankfurt stories continue to be told. Inevitably, the discussion turns to an argument about which side has the burden of proof, always a sure sad sign of a philosophical impasse.
I think we should have avoided this mess. Things went wrong from the start. No one should ever have been persuaded by Frankfurt’s argument.
I agree, as I have already said, that Frankfurt stories succeed in showing that we don't think about moral responsibility in quite the way we thought we did. They show that we reject PAP*; they show that we are prepared to hold someone morally responsible for doing something even if he could not have avoided doing that thing. More specifically, they show that we are prepared to hold responsible -- and even to blame -- someone whose actions do not depend, causally or counterfactually, on his decisions, choices, or efforts. If our intuitive response to the stories is justified, then we may be morally responsible for our actions even if it turns out that the movements of our bodies are never up to us in the way we think they are. This is a surprising result, not sufficiently appreciated by Frankfurt's opponents, and it at least partly explains why Frankfurt stories have dominated the free will literature for so long. However, the stories do not show what they need to show, in order to undermine the traditional debate; they do not show that the Moral Premise of the No Alternatives argument is false. Nor do they show that PAP is false. In order to show that PAP is false, Frankfurt needs a story about someone who is morally responsible even though he has no choice whatsoever; that is, even though he is unable to decide otherwise, or deliberate otherwise, or even to begin or try to deliberate or decide otherwise. I will argue that no such story can be told.
Before I can do this, I need to draw a distinction between two very different ways in which Black might operate.