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Moral Responsibility and Alternative PossibilitiesReview - Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities
on the Importance of Alternative Possibilities
by David Widerker and Michael McKenna (editors)
Ashgate, 2003
Review by Neil Levy, Ph.D.
Jul 29th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 31)

It seems obvious that responsibility for an action requires the ability to do otherwise. If I could not have acted otherwise than I did -- say because I was hypnotized, coerced, or physically restrained -- then it seems that I cannot be blamed for my act. Moral responsibility, we might say, requires alternative possibilities.

The essays in this volume explore this question. There are, it seems, good reasons to doubt that moral responsibility requires alternative possibilities. The starting point for this debate is Harry Frankfurt's now classic 1969 paper, 'Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility', which is duly reprinted here. Frankfurt sketches a kind of scenario which has come to be called a 'Frankfurt-style' case. There are two important agents in these scenarios. The first -- let's call her Jones -- is faced with a significant choice, say between voting for Bush and Gore. Unbeknownst to her, a second agent, Black, who is a neuroscientist working for the Democrat Party, is monitoring her mental states. Black has installed a device in Jones's brain, that will allow him to cause her to choose to vote for Gore, if she gives a prior sign which indicates that she will vote for Bush. However, Black does not need to intervene: Jones chooses to vote for Gore on her own, and does vote for Gore.

It seems that Jones is responsible for voting for Gore. After all, she has chosen to vote for Gore on her own. Black has not intervened in any way in her choice. But it also seems that she could not have done otherwise than to vote for Gore (since if she had given a sign that she was going to vote for Bush, Black would have intervened, to cause her to vote for Gore). Thus, it seems that moral responsibility does not require alternative possibilities.

The essays in this volume explore this scenario in great, sometimes (it must be said) excruciating detail. Some libertarians (for instance Carl Ginet, in a well-known article which is included here in a revised version) claim that Frankfurt-style cases beg the question against them. The cases are built on the assumption that there is a deterministic relation between the prior sign (or its absence) and the decision. If determinism is false, however, then it seems that agents can make choices without giving prior signs, and that therefore it is simply false that Jones couldn't have acted otherwise. Several of the papers in this collection are centred around attempts to construct Frankfurt-style cases that avoid this objection. Prominent here is a 1998 paper by Mele and Robb, entitled 'Rescuing Frankfurt-Style Cases'. The original paper does not appear here, but a successor paper by Mele and Robb does appear. This paper defends the original case against various objections, such as those of Robert Kane (Kane's response to Mele and Robb is included here).

The Mele-Robb cases threatens to start a mini-industry on its own. But Derk Pereboom's Frankfurt-style case, in which the prior sign is a necessary but not sufficient condition of a particular decision, deserves equal attention. It could be, for instance, that an agent might decide to refrain from a particular action only if certain moral considerations occurred to her -- but that she might go ahead in any case, even after these considerations occur to her. Thus, the occurrence of certain thoughts is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for her refraining from a particular action. Such a prior sign could be utilized by a counterfactual intervener, without begging any questions against libertarians. If this is so, libertarians might have to admit that though determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility, alternative possibilities are not required. Yet, as John Martin Fischer argues in the first of his two contributions to this volume, it is difficult to see why determinism might rule out moral responsibility if it is not by way of ruling out alternative possibilities.

Another question explored by Fischer, and pressed by Copp in his contribution, is the relationship between the principle of alternative possibilities and the maxim, accepted by almost all moral philosophers, that 'ought' implies 'can' (that is to say, that you are morally required to perform an action only if you can perform that action). If Jones ought to vote for Bush, then it must be true that she can vote for Bush, if the maxim is true. But if it is not the case that she ought to vote for Bush, then it is hard to see how she could be responsible for failing to do so. Thus, the rejection of the principle of alternative possibilities clashes with the maxim.

The apparent conflict between the maxim that 'ought' implies 'can' and the view that the principle of alternative possibilities is false is also threatening to become an industry in its own right. Fischer's position, articulated here, and defended in a recent issue of Analysis, is that the conflict is real, and that the maxim must therefore be abandoned. Copp also holds that the conflict is real, but holds that this gives us good reason to retain the principle of alternative possibilities. Other participants in this debate, not represented here, argue that the conflict is only apparent.

This is a fascinating collection of articles, by some of the leading figures in contemporary moral philosophy, exploring a topic that has generated considerable interest in recent years. The work here is of the highest quality. However, I have two gripes with this volume, one relatively trivial, the other less so. The trivial gripe is that we are given no easy way to distinguish the previously published work from that appearing here for the first time. If, like me, you have kept up with this debate, you will find it difficult to avoiding a large amount of rereading.

The second complaint does not concern what is here, so much as what isn't. In the end, I am unconvinced that these duelling counterexamples actually move the debate very much further. As the thought experiments grow more complex, our intuitions grow less and less trustworthy. More than ever more elaborate counterexamples to the principle of alternative possibilities, we need to know what principles actually govern moral responsibility and obligation, if not the principle and the maxim. Why are people excused from responsibility in typical cases in which they cannot do otherwise, such as those in which someone is restrained or hypnotized? Is there some successor principle to the principle of alternative possibilities, that captures these cases and which is not falsified by Frankfurt-style cases? What is the relation between 'ought' and 'can'?

These gripes aside, this is a valuable volume. For a good example of the work and interests of some of our best moral philosophers, look no further.

 

2003 Neil Levy

 Link: Publisher's webpage for book

 

Dr Neil Levy is a fellow of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University, Australia. He is the author of two mongraphs and over a dozen articles and book chapters on Continental philosophy, ethics and political philosophy. He is currently writing a book on moral relativism.


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