The Failure of the Frankfurt Style Counterexample

By Neil Campbell.

Published by The International Journal of Critical Cultural Studies

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Harry Frankfurt has provided an extremely influential challenge to the principle of alternate possibilities. According to this principle, an agent is morally responsible only if he or she could have acted otherwise. This claim has long served as a central assumption in debates about free will, determinism, and responsibility. Indeed, it seems natural to assume that determinism entails that an agent lacks alternative possibilities (more than one course of action), in which case the agent cannot be held morally responsible. Frankfurt argues this principle is false, thereby opening the door to a new variety of compatibilism. His argument involves a counterexample in which coercive forces remove alternate possibilities, yet the coercive forces to not lead to the action in question. I argue that Frankfurt’s example mischaracterizes the situation because he does not individuate actions finely enough. Once we appreciate that actions should be individuated according to both their causes and effects, it becomes clear that the agent in Frankfurt style examples had alternate possibilities after all. Hence, Frankfurt fails to provide a counterexample to the principle of alternative possibilities.

Keywords: Harry Frankfurt, Principle of Alternate Possibilities, Actions, Individuation

The International Journal of Critical Cultural Studies, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp.35-42. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 190.750KB).

Dr. Neil Campbell

Professor, Department of Philosophy, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

My work deals with two central issues in the philosophy of mind. The first explores the problem of consciousness. We are conscious beings; yet, we lack an adequate account of how the brain generates consciousness, and it seems impossible to explain the subjective character of experience in physical terms. I am particularly interested in what these obstacles to understanding consciousness physically entail about the limits of physicalism—the view that human beings are entirely physical creatures. The second issue is the problem of mental causation. This concerns questions about how thoughts and desires in the mind can result in physical actions involving the body. I am currently working on a book in which I argue that nonreductive versions of physicalism offer a viable account of mental causation without lapsing into a pernicious form of epiphenomenalism. A central part of this project involves distinguishing reason-giving as a distinct species of explanation from causal explanation.