Wednesday, October 06, 2004

On Frankfurt Examples and Illusions - I Mean, Intuitions

Suppose you have a man (he's usually called 'Jones') who is deliberating whether to vote Democrat or Republican. He chooses to vote Democrat. Meanwhile, however, a neurosurgeon (usually called 'Black') has implanted a device in Jones's brain that has this effect: if Jones is going to choose to vote Democrat, it leaves him alone; but if he is going to choose to vote Republican, the device kicks in and makes him choose to vote Democrat.

Now, what can be said of this? It is commonly held that examples like these show that moral responsibility, and at least some sort of freedom, does not require that we could have done otherwise. Jones, after all, can't do otherwise than vote Democrat, but he is responsible for choosing to vote Democrat anyway, and freely did so. Such is the intuition, anyway. However, we need to ask ourselves two questions:

1) What is the origin of this intuition (in the example)?
2) What is the status of this intuition?

My view is that examples like the above, which are often called Frankfurt examples, are, in fact, a sort of philosophical sleight of hand. Essentially they are trying to find a middle ground between a scenario in which Jones has moral responsibility and could have done otherwise, and one in which Jones has neither. I would suggest that it does not, in fact give us such a middle ground; rather, it gives the illusion of such a middle by superimposing the two extremes. In particular, I suggest that the origin of the appearance of moral responsibility and freedom is the original characterization of the choice as being drawn from two genuine possibilities (to vote Democrat or to vote Republican), strengthened by the fact that 'choice' as normally used in English involves choice from among possibilities; and this is combined with a situation in which there are no genuine alternative possibilities (Black's intervention) in order to give the appearance that we have here a situation in which there is moral responsibility and freedom but no alternative possibilities. If this is so, it is an illusion.

This is not entirely different from other criticisms that have been made, and it has sometimes been claimed that we can build an example where there are no robust alternatives and yet there is moral responsibility; I tend to interpret PAP in a rather weak way in the first place, so if there are any alternative possibilities, that is enough to satisfy me. I take, for instance, the view that consent to action can involve a sort of derivative freedom and moral responsibility through some sorts of close derivation from prior choices involving alternative possibilities; in such a case the consent can itself be without alternative possibilities, but there are alternative possibilities deriving from the prior choice in virtue of which we are morally responsible for certain sorts of things that follow, including things set in motion that we can divert into alternative possibilities. (Incidentally, this is a weakness in all Frankfurt examples I have seen; they assume a choice that is artificially simplified. But in reality, such narrowings only occur through other choices that are not so simplistic. In real life, Jones, after all, doesn't have to vote; he doesn't have to choose to vote; he can choose instead to deliberate more about how to vote; he can choose to deliberate more about whether to vote; he can choose to think about other things for a moment; and so forth. Frankfurt-style situations are usually set up as very artificial scenarios. I'm not sure this is endemic to the style; but it seems very common. The reason this is potentially an issue is that if I were convinced that Frankfurt examples did not commit the sleight-of-hand above, I would still need more to accept the conclusions: I would need to have an example in which there were no derivative moral responsibility and freedom involved to mess with the intuitions. In other words, contrary to common philosophical opinion, Frankfurt examples do not, on their own, show that alternative possibilities are not a necessary condition for moral responsibility and freedom, even on the most optimistic assessment. They are just too simple to do so.)

So I am not convinced Frankfurt examples are coherent even in a very basic sense. I have other concerns with them, but this is my primary one at the moment.

(The paper by Frankfurt that started the discussion of Frankfurt examples can be found here.)

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