In his paper, Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility, Harry Frankfurt argues that the principle of alternate possibilities (PAP) – the principle stating that an agent is only morally responsible for an action if there were alternative possibilities open to him at the time the action is executed – is false. Frankfurt reasons to this conclusion on the basis of a shrewd observation: there are cases in which an agent is morally responsible for his action even though it is in some sense true that he “could not have done otherwise”. Though I agree with Frankfurt’s observation, I believe that his reasoning to this conclusion is muddled by a misunderstanding of the relevant notions of action, causality and intervention.
Frankfurt wants to leave room for the following case in which an agent is morally responsible for an action even though it is not true that he could have done otherwise:
Suppose someone-Black, let us say-wants Jones to perform a certain action. Black is prepared to go to considerable lengths to get his way, but he prefers to avoid showing his hand unnecessarily. So he waits until Jones is about to make up his mind what to do, and he does nothing unless it is clear to him (Black is an excellent judge of such things) that Jones is going to decide to do something other than what he wants him to do. If it does become clear that Jones is going to decide to do something else, Black takes effective steps to ensure that Jones decides to do, and that he does do, what he wants him to do. Whatever Jones’s initial preferences and inclinations, then, Black will have his way. (Harry G. Frankfurt, Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility, The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 66, No. 23, (Dec. 4, 1969), pp. 829-839)
The metaphysics of Frankfurt’s intervener case will depend on what it is that the intervener is intervening on. If it is an event like ‘the killing of Smith’ or a state like ‘Smith is dead’ then these are the kind of things that can brought about through external intervention but these interventions will have no effect on the freedom or responsibility of the agent through whose action the intervener brings about the desired state or event. This is because it is actions and not events or states that confer upon an agent moral responsibility and that unlike the latter two metaphysical categories, actions are partly constituted by the self-conscious reasons in light of which they are performed. I want to argue that though external events and states can catalyze actions, they cannot cause actions.
Consider the following: If Black wants Jones to perform the action of ‘killing Smith’ then he wants something more than the event of Smith’s murder and the state of Smith’s being dead, namely he wants Jones to kill Smith and this action is not separable from the state of Jones’s being morally responsible for the killing of Smith. This is something Black can want or hope for but not something that he can himself bring about for it is part and parcel of the concept of action that it is performed self-consciously, that is, for reasons internally represented and motivating for the agent in action. But if the event of Smith’s murder and the state of Smith’s being dead are caused by Black’s puppeteering of Jones then the action ‘to kill Smith’ was performed not by Jones but by Black and the event of Smith’s murder and the state of his being dead are both things that Black, not Jones, will be morally responsible for since they will be traceable to Black’s action rather than to Jones’s. This is all the case because actions are not the kind of things that can be externally caused whereas events and states are.
Another way to put this is to say the following: an action is that which can only be caused in the first-person and which can be thwarted or provoked but never stopped or started by solely external , third-personal conditions. This is because it is internal to the concept of action that it be precipitated by the rational will of the acting agent. Thus, no matter what the scenario we can say generally that if an action is the expression of a rational will, then the action is necessarily free and the agent is necessarily morally responsible for that action.
The metaphysics of this case do not change whether the intervener is thought to be another person, an evil demon, or a material malignancy in Jones’s brain. For interveners can only be either events or states and neither has the power to cause an action though they may catalyze (or provoke) an action. Jones can only be responsible for events and states caused by his actions and his actions can themselves only be called actions if they were performed for reasons internal to Jones’s rational thinking, or, in other words, because he willed or intended to act in just this way in light of the facts he is able to judge rationally.
If Jones is able to examine the facts and decide for himself that he must murder Smith then Jones is morally responsible for the action of killing Smith, the event of Smith’s murder and the state of Smith’s being dead. For if Jones is the kind of thing of which actions and moral responsibility can be predicated, i.e., a rational agent, then it is necessarily and a priori the case that Jones’s actions will be caused by reasons represented self-consciously as necessary grounds for action. If Black wants Jones to kill Smith then Black must be able to make it the case that Jones has reasons which are self-consciously motivating for him to believe that he should, and is going to, kill Smith. But if Black actually has the power to do this – that is, by making it a fact that Jones has good reason to kill Smith – then he succeeds only in facilitating and ‘luring out’ Jones’s rational autonomy but then nothing Black does here prevents Jones from acting freely or from incurring moral responsibility for his actions.
Consider what happens if Black is an evil demon and has the power to make Jones decide to perform the following action: ‘to kill Smith because Smith is in intense pain and suffering due to a critical, incurable illness’. If Black has the power to make Jones believe that he should kill Smith for this reason then Jones is still exercising his rational ability to act for good reasons and thus his autonomy and therefore moral responsibility are intact.
Now, results differ if Black, the demon, has the power to make it the case that Jones decides to perform the following action: ‘to kill Smith because the Vancouver Canucks lost the Stanley Cup to the Boston Bruins’. Here, Black has the ability to destroy one agent, call him Jones, and create ex nihilo another agent, call him Evil Jones. But even in this scenario Black is still powerless to cause Jones to perform an action since he must erase Jones’s original (shall we say healthy) rational faculty of responsiveness to reasons in order to get a new agent, Evil Jones, whose rational faculty is corrupted, to freely decide to kill Smith. That we can be certain we are dealing with a new agent is ensured by considering the fact that Jones, previous to his molestation at the hands of the demon, would not have taken the loss of a hockey game to be good reason to murder someone, (even if Jones is a Canuck and Smith is a Bruin). On the other hand, if Jones is and always has been the kind of person to go on a killing spree whenever his team loses an important game then nothing the demon did jeopardized Jones’s acting autonomously and from his own nature. Here, Jones is simply a wretched individual with a murderous, violent character. Black merely put him in a state whereby he could freely express his own nature.
The point to realize is this: if Jones is the kind of person to kill people for no good reason then Black’s intervention has no effect on Jones’s freedom and responsibility since nothing Black does has prevented Jones from exercising his natural autonomy, wretched though it is. Conversely, if Jones is not the kind of person to kill people for no good reason then the fact that the demon is able to make him do so means that Black has robbed Jones not only of his agency but also of his identity and has in fact created a new agent, Evil Jones, who is responsible for killing Smith. Either way, Black has not succeeded in “getting his way” if we understand the latter to be intervening to bring about the fact that Jones (and not Evil Jones) kills Smith. For neither Black nor Evil Jones can bring this about, only Jones can.
Our reflections tease out a hard fact to swallow about human beings: our identities as rational agents are fragile, perishable and to a large extent externally conditioned. We can lose our identities as persons though maintain our identities as animals, bodies, and collections of molecules largely through the contingencies of circumstance and outrageous fortune. We also begin to see why the mind and body have been strongly differentiated in the tradition of metaphysics and why it is not an easy matter to put them back together. But this is a topic for another time.
Our reflections also illuminate Frankfurt’s substitute for the principle of alternative possibilities, namely, the principle that an agent is not morally responsible for an action if he performed that action only because he could not have done otherwise. For now we are in a position to understand what is meant by “only because”: it is a vague attempt to articulate the essential relevance that self-conscious representation of reasons has in relation to the concepts of freedom and moral responsibility. I can only be morally responsible for killing someone if my reasons for doing so are other than the fact that I am coerced to do so for good reason. If Smith dies at the hands of Jones only because (i.e. only in light of the knowledge that) Black has made it the case that Jones is powerless to prevent Smith’s death then Jones is not morally responsible for killing Smith because in fact Jones did not kill Smith; Black did. And if Smith dies at the hands of Jones only because or in light of the knowledge that the Canucks fell to the Bruins in game 7 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs then again, Jones did not kill Smith; Evil Jones did, for Jones is not the kind of person to kill ‘for sport’, so to speak.
Here, we get a picture of the causality of action that is distinct from the causality of mechanism for though it is true that Jones is in some obvious way the efficient cause of Smith’s death, it is still not the case that Jones killed Smith. Contemplating action theory should give us clues leading to the discovery of a unique concept of causality that goes beyond the limits of naturalistic explanation that appeal only to mechanical or efficient notions of cause and effect. But this is a topic for another time.