Departing From Frankfurt: moral responsibility and alternative possibilities

Palmer, David William
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One of the most significant questions in ethics is this: under what conditions are people morally responsible for what they do? Assuming that people can only be praised or blamed for actions they perform of their own free will, the particular question that interests me is how we should understand the nature of this freedom – with what kind of freedom must people act, if they are to be morally responsible for what they do?

A natural answer to this question – and the one I think is correct – is to point to the freedom to do otherwise. This is encapsulated in the principle of alternative possibilities (PAP), the principle that a person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise. PAP has led many to believe that the freedom required for moral responsibility must be incompatible with determinism or the existence of God because it is plausible to argue that if determinism is true or if God exists, then people would lack genuine freedom of choice and hence could not be morally responsible for their behavior.

In the light of two important articles by Harry Frankfurt almost four decades ago, which challenged the claim that moral responsibility requires the freedom to do otherwise, compatibilism – the opposing view that the freedom for moral responsibility is compatible with determinism – has experienced a resurgence. Inspired by Frankfurt’s work, those wanting to reject PAP – typically compatibilists – attack the principle on two main grounds: directly and indirectly. First, they have argued directly that PAP is false by developing alleged counterexamples to it. Second, they have challenged PAP indirectly by arguing that there are alternative conceptions of freedom from freedom of choice that, it is claimed, are not reliant on alternative possibilities but are sufficient to capture the freedom required for moral responsibility. My dissertation evaluates these two lines of attack on PAP. In particular, I attempt to defend the truth of PAP against both kinds of challenge.