Moral responsibility and unavoidable action

Philosophical Studies 97 (2):195-227 (2000)
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The principle of alternate possibilities (PAP), making the ability to do otherwise a necessary condition for moral responsibility, is supposed by Harry Frankfurt, John Fischer, and others to succumb to a peculiar kind of counterexample. The paper reviews the main problems with the counterexample that have surfaced over the years, and shows how most can be addressed within the terms of the current debate. But one problem seems ineliminable: because Frankfurt''s example relies on a counterfactual intervener to preclude alternatives to the person''s action, it is not possible for it to preclude all alternatives (intervention that is contingent upon a trigger cannot bring it about that the trigger never occurred). This makes it possible for the determined PAPist to maintain that some pre-intervention deviation is always available to ground moral responsibility. In reply, the critic of PAP can examine all the candidate deviations and argue their irrelevance to moral responsibility (a daunting prospect); or the critic can dispense with counterfactual intervention altogether. The paper pursues the second of these strategies, developing three examples of noncounterfactual intervention in which (i) the agent has no alternatives (and a fortiori no morally relevant alternatives), yet (ii) there is just as much reason to think that the agent is morally responsible as there was in Frankfurt''s original example. The new counterexamples do suffer from one liability, but this is insufficient in the end to repair PAP''s conceptual connection between moral responsibility and alternate possibilities.

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David P. Hunt
Whittier College

Citations of this work

Taking luck seriously.Michael J. Zimmerman - 2002 - Journal of Philosophy 99 (11):553-576.
Compatibilism.Michael McKenna - 2008 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Actions, thought-experiments and the 'principle of alternate possibilities'.Maria Alvarez - 2009 - Australasian Journal of Philosophy 87 (1):61 – 81.

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References found in this work

Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility.Harry G. Frankfurt - 1969 - Journal of Philosophy 66 (23):829-839.
Ability and Responsibility.Peter van Inwagen - 1978 - Philosophical Review 87 (2):201 - 224.
Libertarian Freedom and the Avoidability of Decisions.David Widerker - 1995 - Faith and Philosophy 12 (1):113-118.
Libertarianism and Avoid Ability.John Martin Fischer - 1995 - Faith and Philosophy 12 (1):119-125.
The principle of alternate possibilities.David Blumenfeld - 1971 - Journal of Philosophy 68 (March):339-44.

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