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Moral Responsibility and Determinism Essay


often do, to be sure, excuse

people for what they have done
when they tell us (and we believe them)
that they could not have done otherwise
(Harry Frankfurt “Alternate Possibilities & Moral Responsibility”)

Harry Frankfurt’s work “Alternate Possibilities & Moral Responsibility, ” is a philosophical paper on determinism and moral responsibility and their compatibility with the “principle of alternate possibilities” and freedom of choice.

The paper is only one example of the great amount of “freedom and determinism” debate papers.

The free-will problem, as the author calls it, is, in his opinion, closely related to the principle of alternate possibilities, which states that a person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise.

Mr. Frankfurt in his work completely disagrees with such a wording of the principle and offers his own, more relevant one: a person is not morally responsible for what he has done if he did it only because he could not have done otherwise.

The author is particularly disturbed with the correlation of this formulation with the idea of the compatibility of moral responsibility and determinism. According to Frankfurt, anyone who accepts it is thereby committed to believing that these principles are incompatible. He, on the other hand, is an advocate of the Compatibilist ideas that state the opposite. Frankfurt and other followers of the Compatibility concept believe that there is a correlation between the determinism and the moral responsibility, depending on the circumstances which advocate for the individual’s actions.

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Harry Frankfurt in his article “Alternate Possibilities & Moral Responsibility” offers for different situations and patterns of behavior of an individual that is facing alternate possibilities and coercion.

Trying to solve the free will or of moral responsibility debate, Harry Frankfurt questions the principle of alternate possibilities itself (in its most commonly accepted wording). The problem is, he mentions, “that some philosophers have even characterized it as an a priori truth” [1]. Frankfurt provides the cases, which significantly change the meaning and the exact wording of the alternate possibilities concept and the compatibility of free will and moral responsibility. For, indeed, “a person may well be morally responsible for what he has done even though he could not have done otherwise” [1].

Frankfurt’s refuting ideas are based on the cases that show inconsistencies between the coercion and moral responsibility. The author uses the term ‘coercion’ to describe the situations in which the same circumstances both bring it about that a person does something and make it impossible for him to avoid doing it. These circumstances “make it impossible for the person to do otherwise, and these very circumstances also serve to bring it about that he does whatever it is that he does”[1].

But the author makes a fair observation that “there may be circumstances that constitute sufficient conditions for a certain action to be performed by someone and that therefore makes it impossible for the person to do otherwise, but that do not actually impel the person to act or in any way produce his action”[1]. This means that there may be cases, when an individual may do something not because of he or she not coerced into it, but for other (e.g., personal) reasons.

Frankfurt then provides four different situations that deal with coercion and moral responsibility compatibility from different sides. According to him, there is a generalization that “being coerced deprives a person of freedom and moral responsibility simply because it is a special case of being unable to do otherwise”[1]. By introducing four cases with Jones, the author refutes the idea that “moral responsibility is excluded by coercion”[1].

The first three examples, though, have certain limitations that do not allow accepting the cases as the counterexamples to the doctrine that coercion excuses moral responsibility. Case 1 offers a situation, where a person has for some personal reasons decided to do something, and he is soon threatened with a very “harsh penalty” (coerced into doing the very same thing), and the person acts.

Thus, the threat had no “coercive effect” upon the individual. The second case shows a situation where an individual performed some action as a result of the coercion to which he was subjected, and his earlier decision did not influence his actions at all, so we can to say she could bear full moral responsibility. The third case brings about an even more controversial example, where Jones was impressed by the threat as any reasonable man would be but acted more by a decision made earlier, which coincided with the action he was coerced into. As Frankfurt puts it, “he did what he did just as if the threat had not been made at all.” [1]

Harry Frankfurt’s point here is that a person “who does something cannot do otherwise because he is subject to coercive power” “may still be morally responsible for what he does if it is not because of the coercion that he does it.”[1] This is where the new wording of the principle of alternate proposed by Mr. Frankfurt possibilities begins to form. A person should not be excused for having done something only because there were circumstances that made it impossible for him to avoid performing it, for as we already know, the decision might have come up from a different source (earlier personal decision, for example). And a person, therefore, could bear full moral responsibility for his actions. On the other hand, if the person acted only because he could not have acted otherwise, he will not be morally responsible for his actions.

The ideas and examples Harry Frankfurt presented in his article “Alternate Possibilities & Moral Responsibility” are interesting and quite persuasive. He, in fact, offers a hypothetical situation that proves his opinion that differs from those who believe that determinism is incompatible with freedom, has a solid reason for existence.

For lifetime experience always proves that there are many nuances and latent motives to many actions individuals perform. This, in turn, makes the correlation of coercion and moral responsibility a very controversial issue. Indeed, we often hear excuses from people we know for some actions they performed. These excuses are often followed by an excusable “I was forced into is”/“I could not have done otherwise”. And we believe it because we want to believe it and we think that the coercion/the situation were the only reasons why this particular individual acted this way (in Harry Frankfurt’s words it was: “We understand the person who offers the excuse to mean that he did what he did only because he was unable to do otherwise, or only because he had to do it. And we understand him to mean, more particularly, that when he did what he did, it was not because that was what he wanted to do”[1]). And here we meet the general idea of the principle of alternate possibilities, which excuses individuals and accepts the incompatibility of the coercion and the moral responsibility. This, in fact, is not always true. Well, how would you know, if this person wanted to do it and the coercion/the situation was only a useful excuse for his/her actions? You wouldn’t! But this does not relieve this person from the responsibility he/she should bear.

Frankfurt, Harry. “Alternate Possibilities And Moral Responsibility.” The Determinism and Freedom Philosophy Website. n.d. 19 Apr. 2006.

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