Principle of Alternate Possibilities

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Principle of Alternate Possibilities (PAP)

A person is morally responsible for doing something only if they could have avoided doing it.

Determinism and Desert
  • Assuming free will and determinism incompatible, if Determinism is true, no one can avoid doing what they do.
  • A person is morally responsible for doing something only if they could have avoided doing it.
  • A person deserves blame, praise, reward or punishment only if they’re morally responsible.
  • Therefore, if Determinism is true, no one ever deserves blame, praise, reward or punishment.
Lifeguard Counterexample to PAP and Critique
  • Counterexample
    • A child drowns while a lifeguard is on duty.  But the lifeguard, who’s lied about her qualifications, is unable to swim.  The lifeguard is thus morally responsible for the child’s death though she could not have saved her.  PAP is therefore false.
    • Based on an example in Ability, Arnold Kaufman, J-Phil, 1963
  • PAP can be reformulated to bypass the counterexample:
    • A person is morally responsible for doing something only if at some point there is something they could have avoided doing. 
  • Thus the lifeguard is responsible for failing to rescue the child because there’s something she could have avoided doing: lying about her qualifications.
Frankfurt-style Counterexample to PAP and Critique
  • Counterexample 
    • Mack Velli desperately needs the governor to sign a piece of legislation.  The governor had been leaning in that direction but Velli can’t take any chances.  He’s been recording the governor’s conversations, emails, texts, tweets, and phone calls, looking for any indication the governor might change his mind.  Indeed, Velli is prepared to take drastic measures if he sees even the slightest hint of a veto, measures that would force the governor to sign the bill. As things turn out, no indications appear and the governor signs the legislation of his own accord. The governor is thus morally responsible for the legislation.  Yet he couldn’t have done otherwise since Velli would have intervened had the governor displayed any sign of changing course.
  • Why couldn’t the governor have simply vetoed the bill, despite every indication she would pass it and no indication she wouldn’t?
    • If the governor had vetoed the bill, there would have been some indication beforehand.  But if there had been prior indication, Velli would have interceded, forcing the governor to pass the bill.  Therefore if the governor had vetoed the bill, she would have been forced to pass the bill, which is absurd. Therefore she couldn’t have vetoed the bill.
  • The argument is a Hypothetical Syllogism:
    • V→I
    • I→P
    • So, V→P
      • where
        • V = the governor had vetoed the bill
        • I = there would have been some indication beforehand
        • P = the governor would have been forced to pass the bill.
  • But Hypothetical Syllogism is invalid for counterfactuals:
    • If I win the lottery, I will give half my annual income to charity.
    • If I give half my annual income to charity, I will not have enough to live on.
    • Therefore, if I win the lottery, I will not have enough to live on.
  • The valid form of Hypothetical Syllogism
    • V→I
    • (V&I)→P
    • So V→P
  • Restatement of the argument
    • If the governor had vetoed the bill, there would have been some indication beforehand she would have.
    • If the governor had vetoed the bill and there had been prior indication beforehand she would have, Velli would have interceded, forcing the governor to pass the bill.
    • Therefore if the governor had vetoed the bill, she would have forced to pass the bill
  • The second premise is false
Related Critique from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

“The success of Frankfurt-style cases is hotly contested. An early and far-reaching criticism is due to David Widerker (1995), Carl Ginet (1996), and Robert Kane (1996, 142–43). According to this criticism, proponents of Frankfurt-style cases face a dilemma: either these cases assume that the connection between the indicator and the agent’s decision is deterministic or not. If the connection is deterministic, then Frankfurt-style cases cannot be expected to convince incompatibilists that the ability to do otherwise is not necessary for moral responsibility and/or free will, since Jones’s action will be deterministically brought about by factors beyond his control, leading incompatibilists to conclude that Jones is not morally responsible for his decision. But if the connection is nondeterministic, then it is possible even in the absence of showing any inclination to decide to vote for Bush, that Jones decides to vote for Bush, and so he retains the ability to do otherwise. Either way Frankfurt-style cases fail to show that Jones is both morally responsible for his decision and yet is unable to do otherwise.”

Addenda
Frankfurt’s Original Counterexample

“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’ initial preferences and inclinations, then, Black will have his way. … Now suppose that Black never has to show his hand because Jones, for reasons of his own, decides to perform and does perform the very action Black wants him to perform.  In that case, it seems clear, Jones will bear precisely the same moral responsibility for what he does as he would have borne if Black had not been ready to take steps to ensure that he do it. … In this example there are sufficient conditions for Jones’ performing the action in question. What action he performs is not up to him. … But whether he finally acts on his own or as a result of Black’s intervention, he performs the same action. He has no alternative but to do what Black wants him to do. If he does it on his own, however, his moral responsibility for doing it is not affected by the fact that Black was lurking in the background with sinister intent, since this intent never comes into play”

Harry Frankfurt, “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility,”
Journal of Philosophy 66 (1969), pp. 829-839.