Notions of Freewill - Can We Be Responsible If It Is All Pre-Determined Essay

What is the principle of alternative possibilities?

The Principle of Alternative Possibilities relies on the idea that a person is morally responsible for what he does only if he could have done otherwise; the ability to have done otherwise is necessary (thought not sufficient) for placing blame. Questions arise as a result of this generally accepted understanding of moral responsibility though as surely it leads to the notion that determinism (the idea that past events determine present and future actions and these cannot be strayed from) and moral responsibility are incompatible. If determinists believe that there is only one course of events that could possibly happen given past events then surely there are never any alternative possibilities and without alternative possibilities we cannot place blame for moral responsibility as there was no real free choice in any actions. How are we to justifiably navigate the world without any sense of moral responsibility and thus duty? Although the Principle of Alternative possibilities is a well established and widely held view Frankfurt proposes that it is false. He claims that a person can still be morally responsible even if it is the case that they could not have done otherwise. This would seem to be an intuitively preferable notion as it would mean that ‘agents’ can still be held accountable for their actions no matter how predetermined it was to happen; blame can be placed in a similarly intuitive way to how it is assigned in practice today.

Coercion – Jones 1 and Jones 2

The case of coercion is often cited as a reason for removing the moral responsibility of the agent who committed an act. This is under the notion that when coerced into acting the agent cannot be held responsible as they could not have done otherwise. Frankfurt though proposes cases in which coercion is not enough to excuse the agent of moral responsibility; ‘his lack of moral responsibility is not entailed by his having been unable to do otherwise’ (Frankfurt, 831). Frankfurt presents the Jones case in which Jones himself decides to do something and after making the decision to do it Jones is threatened by Black that he will be punished if he does not do what he has already decided to do and Jones then does it. The moral responsibility held by Jones is dependent upon the role played by his original decision and by the threat in his actually carrying out the action. Thus, Frankfurt explores four scenarios for Jones. Jones1 holds that Jones is not a reasonable man; he is decisive and determined once he has made a decision no matter what. In the case of Jones1 the threat exerted no force on Jones’ decision or action and so there was in fact effectively no coercion at all. If his earlier, original decision had been different then that is the action he would have taken regardless of threats. Although Jones is responsible there is no coercion in the case as it had no effect whatsoever and so cannot be conceived as a counterexample to the principle of alternative possibilities. Jones2 would have performed the action as a result of the threat no matter his original decision. The threat in fact overwhelmed him so much that his earlier decision was forgotten and his actions were entirely as a result of the coercion. His having already decided to take the action he was then threatened into taking is not relevant as he acted purely as a result of fear. In this case Frankfurt claims that Jones2 can be held morally responsible for any decision made before the threat but he cannot be held responsible for the action as it was a result of coercion. Both Jones1 and Jones2 are compatible with the principle of alternative possibilities. However, Frankfurt does present two further cases in which the relation of coercion to the principle of alternative possibilities is brought into doubt. These two further scenarios can be cited as possible counterexamples to the principle of alternative possibilities.

Coercion Jones 3 and Jones 4

Jones3 was motivated into performing the action as a result of his original decision yet if he had not initially decided that way the threat would have made it so that he did act that way anyway; the threat would have been sufficient had he not already decided on that same action. Although the action was essentially inevitable Jones3 is only morally responsible when he is motivated, at least primarily, by his original decision before being threatened though this would usually be very difficult to determine. As Frankfurt claims ”coercion affects the judgement of a person’s moral responsibility only when the person acts as he does because he is coerced to do so – i.e., when the fact that he is coerced is what accounts for his action’ (833). Coercion though does still not necessarily negate moral responsibility. When a person is excused of their moral responsibility for performing an action due to coercion it is not because they were in fact unable to do otherwise as it could, in some cases, still be that the person acting (the threatened/coerced agent) would still be accountable for full moral responsibility. The principle of alternative possibilities relies on the notion that coercion excludes moral responsibility yet Frankfurt claims that a clear understanding of coercion and moral responsibility nullifies this claim and it’s appeal. The case of Jones3 for example seems to provide at least a challenge to the notional relationship between moral responsibility and coercion under the principle of alternative possibilities. It is not strictly the case that Jones3 cannot perform any other action, he could deny the threat and take the punishment and thus it seems that Jones3 could have done otherwise in the sense required for the principle of alternative possibilities. If the principle of alternative possibilities would in theory regard Jones3 as morally responsible even if he were acting more in response to coercion than choice then it would seem there is at least some non-intuitive results of the principle which we would be inclined to reject. For Frankfurt, Jones3 drives a wedge between the idea that coercion excuses the ability to do otherwise. Thus, it seems that, at the very least, Jones3 illuminates the relationship between the coercion excuse principle and the principle of alternative possibilities or, at most, Jones3 proves the principle of alternative possibilities false. It need be noted though that some would argue that Jones3 is not a successful counterexample as Jones3 could have done otherwise it would just have been irrational for him to do so. Jones4 is in a sense a more precise scenario than Jones3 as Black will only intervene if he is certain that Jones4 has chosen to do otherwise and so whatever Jones4’s initial preference, Black will have his way. Black will have his way through hypnosis or potion or manipulation of the workings of the brain and in such a way ensure that Jones4 cannot do otherwise than what Black wants (Frankfurt, 835). In keeping with the most common, and more precise, usage lets assume that Black has a device for seeing and controlling the inner workings of Jones4’s brain. Assuming Black never has to intervene, that Jones4 acts as Black wants without any force, then it would surely seem as though Jones4 would be morally responsible even though it is the case that he could not have done otherwise as Black would have intervened had he chosen any differently. The final action that Jones4 takes is determined no matter what choice he makes yet in the case in which Black does not need to intervene the matter of Black’s being there in the background is of no consequence or significance; it is irrelevant for Jones4’s moral responsibility in the matter. As Frankfurt states, ‘the fact that a person could not have avoided doing something is a sufficient condition of his having done it…[but] this fact may play no role whatever in the explanation of why he did it’ (836). The mere fact that a person could not have done otherwise provides no basis for supposing they might have done otherwise is they’d been able to. Therefore, as Frankfurt would claim, the principle of alternative possibilities is mistaken in asserting that;

‘a person bears no moral responsibility…for having performed an action if there were circumstances that made it impossible for a person to avoid performing it…there may be circumstances that make it impossible for a person to avoid performing some action without those circumstances in any way bringing it about that he performs that action’ (837).

Frankfurt further states that the principle of alternative possibilities claim, that a person is not morally responsible for what he has done if he could not have done otherwise, could lead to causal determinism which would result in the idea that no-one is morally responsible for anything. This total lack of moral responsibility would be an unacceptable stance for the nature of humanity and cannot be the rule people play by as people need to be held accountable.

Alternative alternative principle

Frankfurt proposes a replacement of the principle of alternative possibilities which states;
‘a person is not morally responsible for what he has done if he did it only because he could not have done otherwise’ (838).

This alternative principle aims not to conflict with the view that moral responsibility is compatible with determinism. Frankfurt’s aim seems to have been to maintain that moral responsibility can coincide with determinism. This is in opposition to the principle of alternative possibilities which, under the determinist view, would mean that no-one was ever morally responsible as all actions are necessary as there are never alternative possibilities. Although, the counterexamples of the Jones case are not necessarily as effectual as they intuitively first seem. Jones4 though does have the strongest case as a counterexample to the principle of alternative possibilities. The result for freewill and moral responsibility if Jones4 succeeds in proving the principle of alternative possibilities false is that either:

  1. 1. We maintain that free action requires the ability to do otherwise and thereby conclude that moral responsibility does not require free action, or
  2. We take Frankfurt-style counterexamples to show that free action doesn’t require the ability to do otherwise.

Both of these possibilities though require us to re-evaluate the relationship of well established concepts. If we are to adopt the first possibility then we need to rethink the relation between moral responsibility and free action while if we adopt the second possibility we need to rethink the relation between free action and the ability to do otherwise. In either case though Frankfurt’s counterexamples seem to pave the way for compatiblism between moral responsibility and causal determinism.

Problems with Frankfurts counterexamples

The dilemma for Frankfurt’s counterexample is that if causal determinism is true in Jones4’s scenario then it seems question-begging for Frankfurt to assume that Jones is morally responsible since the question at issue is whether causal determinism is compatible with moral responsibility. Estrom is one philosopher who believes Frankfurt counterexamples to be inadequate despite her agreement that the principle of alternative possibilities is false which is what Frankfurt aims to prove. Estrom accepts that the traditional conception of freewill requires an ability to do otherwise and that an incompatibilist would claim that freewill cannot exist in a deterministic world. There is though a field of incompatibilism, semi-compatiblism, which would claim that having freewill is not necessary for being morally responsible. Thus, if determinism were found to be true, although it would mean that one has no free will and that there are no alternative possibilities for our action, we could still be held morally responsible. Our everyday practices of praise and punishment for behaviours and actions would require at least this sense of moral responsibility without free will; it seems our social structure is founded on the notion of responsibility and to remove this would be very difficult in practice. Thus, for Estrom, the notion founding the principle of alternative possibilities that moral responsibility requires that we have the ability to do otherwise is not necessary. She uses an example to illustrate her point;

Justin purposefully jumps into a large pit which he cannot climb out of in order to avoid helping his brother haul fallen trees as he had previously promised to do. Once in the pit his brother begins to work and Justin cannot do otherwise than fail to help. Yet, still he is a candidate for blame for not doing the work he promised he would. (Estrom, 310)

For Estrom, the notion that a person is morally responsible only if they could have done otherwise is false. Despite this seemingly similar outlook to Frankfurt, Estrom has serious issues with Frankfurt’s counterexamples to the principle of alternative possibilities. Frankfurt’s counterexamples result in the view that the agent is still morally responsible for his actions even though his actions were inevitable because the agent still did the action on his own, of his own will. For Estrom the literature on Frankfurt-style scenarios has not managed to logically overturned the traditional belief that freewill is required in order to claim moral responsibility. Estrom believes that the assumptions of the Frankfurt-style cases need to be questioned. If proponents of Frankfurt’s cases assume causal determinism to be true then the counter-factual intervener is superfluous as the agent could have done nothing other than what they did do; he could not have decided to do otherwise. As Estrom says, ‘in a causally deterministic scenario, there are no alternative possibilities open to the agent at any point, and the mere presence of the counter-factual intervener cannot show us their irrelevance to moral responsibility’ (312). Thus, Frankfurt’s scenarios would seem to contain the addition of an intervener who in fact adds nothing to the event as they would never have been effective as the events would always pan out as they did. The examples fail to show the moral responsibility of the agent as they act only on the assumption that the moral responsibility is there. Frankfurt seems to project the, somewhat intuitive, notion of available alternative possibilities onto the situations. It is thus a mistake for libertarians to grant that the agent in Frankfurt-type scenarios is morally responsible, and for the compatiblist to assume the agent is morally responsible under the assumption of determinism is question-begging in the context in which the relation between moral responsibility and alternative possibilities is at issue. If we are to assume that determinism is not true, then Jones4 under indeterminism rules out that Black was able to predict what neural states would follow on from current ones and so Black would be unable to predict what Jones4 would be about to do. Under indeterminism it is also unclear that Jones4 lacks any alternative possibilities as Jones4 could at least initiate an alternative path that, uninterrupted, could lead to him refraining from the action willed by Black. The fact that Jones4 could have the ability to initiate an alternative path could be enough to say that Jone4 could have done otherwise. Thus, under both indeterminism and determinism there are problems with Frankfurt’s scenario for Jones. Under indeterminism it would seem that the principle of alternative possibilities would not be proved false as Jones4 could always do otherwise. If determinism is the case then Frankfurt is question-begging. It would thus seem that Frankfurt in fact failed to undermine the principle of alternative possibilities.

Further problems with Frankfurts counterexamples

Beyond these claims though there are two possible horns of the dilemma which would provide some support for Frankfurt’s counterexamples. The indeterministic horn would act to support Frankfurt’s case under the notion of indeterminism. This horn works from the notion that it is not enough to claim that Jones4 has alternative possibilities. Instead, we must prove that Jones4 has alternative possibilities which are plausibility relevant to ground moral responsibility. An example of an alternative possibility which we cannot ground moral responsibility to is a case in which Jones4 initiates an alternative neural network but this alternative is halted by Black. This alternative is not sufficiently robust for us to ground any moral responsibility onto it. Martin Fischer terms these types of scenarios as ‘flickers of freedom’ which are not adequate enough to count as alternative possibilities. Thus, Jones4’s lacks robust alternative possibilities for moral responsibility yet his still having moral responsibility in the scenario falsifies the revised principle of alternative possibilities:

Principle of Alternative Possibilities – R: A person is morally responsible for what he/she has done only if he/she can access robust alternative possibilities.

The deterministic Horn for support of Frankfurt’s counterexamples is put forward by Fischer as he denies that the argument is question-begging under the assumption of determinism. Frankfurt’s counterexamples support the claim that:
(F) if Jones is not morally responsible, it is not because he lacks appropriate alternative possibilities

Once (F) is established we would then be able to do on to argue that there are no other reasons why casual determinism renders Jones4 not morally responsible. Fischer puts forward reasons why it should be that Jones4 establishes (F):

  1. Assume that causal determinism obtains and the Frankfurt case unfolds as above
  2. Black’s presence (and device) and disposition in themselves and apart from the assumption of causal determinism rule out Jones’s access to alternative possibilities
  3. Blacks presence (and device) and disposition in themselves are irrelevant to moral responsibility.From 2. and 3. Fischer claims that it follows:
  4. Lack of alternative possibilities is in itself irrelevant to moral responsibility
  5. Thus, if causal determinism rules out moral responsibility, it is not in virtue of eliminating access to alternative possibilities

Fischer’s reasoning runs from the supposition that we ignore or are ignorant of the fact that causal determinism eliminates alternative possibilities. The existence of Black and his device are sufficient for ruling out Jones4’s access to alternative possibilities yet we would still like to think Jones4 is responsible. Thus, Black and his device are irrelevant to Jones4’s responsibility and so it cannot be the elimination of alternative possibilities by causal determinism which accounts for Jones4’s not being morally responsible.


In conclusion, it seems that Frankfurt’s counter-examples to the principle of alternative possibilities are not as falsifying as seem at first. The Jones4 case does offer a seemingly intuitive counter-example but when examined does seem to fall short. The reliablility of Jones4 is questioned by Estrom and it does seem that under both determinism and indeterminism there are issues with the case. Under determinism the presence of Black is somewhat irrelevant as the nature of the universe itself would determine Jones4s action, Black is unnecessary and thus question-begging. Under indeterminism Black would be unable to predict Jones4’s actions because his resulting actions do not necessarily follow from any state before. Also under indeterminism it would seem the Jones4 would probably have alternative possibilties, or that he could at least begin a thought process for the possibility. Fischer attempts to help Frankfurt’s case by claiming that under indeterminism we need more than just ‘flickers of freedom, while under determinism Fischer attempts to claim that Black’s presence is not question-begging. However, it seems from the case of Frankfurt’s counter-examples that the principle of alternative possibilities needs to be reviewed and adapted if it is to be considered reliable. Flaws in Frankfurt’s case does not necessitate that the principle of alternative possibilities is true, only that his particular mean of disproving it is not best.


  1. Harry Frankfurt, H. 1988. “The Importance of What We Care About”. Cambridge University Press.
  2. Ekstrom, L, W. 2011. “Libertarianism and Frankfurt-style Cases” in Robert Kane ed. The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, Oxford University Press.
  3. Fischer, J, M. 2010. “The Frankfurt Cases: The Moral of the Stories”. The Philosophical Review.199 (3): 315-336.