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ROBUST FLICKERS OF FREEDOM

  • Michael Robinson (a1)

Abstract:

This essay advances a version of the flicker of freedom defense of the Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP) and shows that it is invulnerable to the major objections facing other versions of this defense. Proponents of the flicker defense argue that Frankfurt-style cases fail to undermine PAP because agents in these cases continue to possess alternative possibilities. Critics of the flicker strategy contend that the alternatives that remain open to agents in these cases are unable to rebuff Frankfurt-style attack on the grounds that they are insufficiently robust (that is, morally significant in a way that could ground ascriptions of moral responsibility). Once we see that omissions are capable of constituting robust alternatives, even when they are not intentional, it becomes clear that agents in these cases do indeed possess robust alternative possibilities—alternatives that are ineliminable from cases of this sort. The upshot is that Frankfurt-style cases are theoretically incapable of providing us with good grounds for rejecting PAP.

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This essay benefited enormously from many discussions of this issue with Al Mele, Michael McKenna, and Randy Clarke. I am grateful to the other contributors to this volume—as well as to Carolina Sartorio, David Shoemaker, and Dana Nelkin—for their many helpful questions and comments on the essay. I also wish to thank an anonymous referee for this journal for the most thorough and thoughtful feedback I have ever received from a referee.

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1 Frankfurt, Harry, “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility,” Journal of Philosophy 66 (1969): 829–39.

2 The term “flickers of freedom” was coined by John Martin Fischer to refer to those alternatives that remain open to agents in Frankfurt-style cases. See John Fischer, Martin, The Metaphysics of Free Will: An Essay on Control (Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1994), 137–47.

3 See Robinson, Michael, “Modified Frankfurt-type Counterexamples and Flickers of Freedom,” Philosophical Studies 157 (2012): 177–94.

4 Counterexamples to PAP need not be restricted to cases involving actions. Since PAP is generally taken to apply to both actions and omissions, a case in which an agent is genuinely morally responsible for omitting to perform some action she could not have done otherwise than omit to perform would also serve as a counterexample to this principle. Here, following custom, I focus on cases involving moral responsibility for actions (as opposed to omissions) merely for the sake of simplicity.

5 An agent is basically morally responsible for some action she performs when her responsibility for that action is not inherited from (or in virtue of) her responsibility for other actions. Moral responsibility that is inherited in this way is derivative, or indirect. See Mele, Alfred R., Free Will and Luck (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 86. For arguments that agents can be basically morally responsible for things other than certain mental actions, see Adams, Robert, “Involuntary Sins,” Philosophical Review 94 (1985): 331, and Smith, AngelaResponsibility for Attitudes: Activity and Passivity in Mental Life,” Ethics 115 (2005): 236–71, and “Control, Responsibility, and Moral Assessment,” Philosophical Studies 138 (2006): 367–92.

6 See Widerker, David, “Libertarianism and Frankfurt’s Attack on the Principle of Alternative Possibilities,” Philosophical Review 104 (1995): 247–61, Kane, Robert, The Significance of Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), and Ginet, Carl, “In Defense of the Principle of Alternative Possibilities: Why I Don’t Find Frankfurt’s Argument Convincing,” Philosophical Perspectives 10 (1996): 403–17.

7 For arguments to the effect that there is in fact nothing illicit in the way traditional Frankfurt-type counterexamples make use of prior signs, see John Fischer, Martin, “Recent Work on Moral Responsibility,” Ethics 110 (1999): 93139, and Haji, Ishtiyaque and McKenna, Michael, “Dialectical Delicacies in the Debate about Freedom and Alternative Possibilities,” Journal of Philosophy 101 (2004): 299314.

8 It should be noted that, relying as it does on the decidedly incompatibilist intuition that determinism and moral responsibility are mutually exclusive, this is not a line of argument available to compatibilist defenders of PAP. Compatibilists who wish to resist the conclusion of Frankfurt’s argument cannot do so on the grounds that it is question-begging to assert that agents can be morally responsible for their actions despite their being causally determined.

9 See, for example, Haji, Isthiyaque, Moral Appraisability (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), Hunt, David P., “Moral Responsibility and Unavoidable Action,” Philosophical Studies 97 (2000): 195227, McKenna, Michael, “Robustness, Control, and the Demand for Morally Significant Alternatives: Frankfurt Examples with Oodles and Oodles of Alternatives,” in Widerker, and McKenna, , eds., Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2003), 201–18, Mele, Alfred and Robb, David, “Rescuing Frankfurt-Style Cases,” The Philosophical Review 107 (1998): 97112, Mele and Robb, “Bbs, Magnets, and Seesaws: The Metaphysics of Frankfurt-Style Cases,” in Widerker and McKenna, Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities, 127–38, Pereboom, Derk, “Alternative Possibilities and Causal Histories,” Philosophical Perspectives 14 (2000): 119–38, and Stump, Eleonore, “Libertarian Freedom and the Principle of Alternative Possibilities,” in Howard-Snyder, Daniel and Jordan, Jeff, eds., Faith Freedom and Rationality (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996), 7388.

10 Mele and Robb, “Rescuing Frankfurt-Style Cases,” 101–102 (footnotes omitted).

11 The remainder of this section is based on Robinson, “Modified Frankfurt-type Counterexamples.”

12 See Mele, Free Will and Luck, 84–86.

13 Some philosophers have argued that the particular modified Frankfurt-style scenario offered by Mele and Robb, insofar as it involves actually blocking off every alternative to Bob’s deciding to steal Ann’s car, is one in which the agent’s action appears to be causally determined. See Kane, Robert, “Responses to Bernard Berofsky, John Martin Fischer and Galen Strawson,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 60 (2000): 157–67, Pereboom, Derk, Living Without Free Will (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), and Ekstrom, Laura, “Libertarianism and Frankfurt-Style Cases,” in Kane, Robert, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Free Will (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 309–22. Others have challenged the coherence of the occurrent preemption on which their case relies. See David Widerker, “Theological Fatalism and Frankfurt-Counterexamples to the Principle of Alternative Possibilities,” Faith and Philosophy 17 (2000): 249–54. Here I set these worries aside in order to show that, even if we grant that these worries can be allayed, PAP is able to accommodate cases of this sort. For their reply to these concerns, as well as a detailed account of the type of mechanism they have in mind, see Mele and Robb, “Bbs, Magnets, and Seesaws.”

14 At this point, some readers might find themselves asking just what it means here for an agent to decide on his own to A and how this is related to an agent’s deciding to A simpliciter. Are these intended to designate distinct actions or events? Are they distinct act types, of which there could be indefinitely many act tokens? Is deciding on one’s own to A just a way of deciding to A and is it the way the agents decide to A for which they are basically morally responsible? I think there are plausible arguments that can be offered in favor of each of these ways of viewing the relationship between deciding on one’s own to A and deciding to A simpliciter—some of which can be found in this essay, others of which I have defended elsewhere. (See Robinson, “Modified Frankfurt-type cases,” 184–85.) Because I think the central line of argument advanced in this essay is flexible enough to accommodate different ways of answering these questions, I will not attempt to settle this issue here. As for the meaning of the “on one’s own” locution, the first thing to say is that this is a question best posed to Frankfurt and the other defenders of Frankfurt-style cases. Recall that they are the ones who have been at such pains to construct elaborate scenarios precisely to ensure that either the agents will decide on their own to act in the desired ways or else they will be forced to so decide. They are also the ones who have argued in support of the agents being morally responsible for what they do in these cases primarily by appealing to the fact that the agents in these cases made the relevant decisions on their own, just as they would have had the special ensuring conditions not been present. Nevertheless, what I mean (and what I presume they mean) in saying that an agent decides on his own to A is simply that he decides to A and that he does so without being causally forced or interfered with (in the way that he would have been in the alternative scenario in a Frankfurt-style case).

15 An anonymous referee for this journal suggests that another way to account for this difference in responsibility could be to focus on the directness of control (rather than on susceptibility to external interference). Recall that, following Mele, I say that an agent is indirectly (or derivatively) responsible for something when that agent is responsible for it in virtue of being responsible for something else, and an agent is directly (or basically) responsible for something when the agent is responsible for it but not in virtue of being responsible for anything else (see n. 5). Analogously, we might say that an agent has indirect control over something when she controls it by controlling something else, and an agent has direct control over something when she controls it but not by controlling anything else. One who is willing to accept this would then be in a position to argue that agents are directly responsible for deciding on their own to A (rather than for so deciding simpliciter) on the grounds that (i) agents are directly morally responsible only for that which is in their direct control and that (ii) just as agents control whether they will A by controlling their decisions, so too do they control whether they will decide to A by controlling whether they will so decide on their own.

16 Some might wonder whether proponents of this strategy wish to maintain that, as a general matter and not just in Frankfurt-style cases, it is deciding on their own to A (rather than deciding to A) for which agents are basically morally responsible. Indeed, they might worry that there is something suspiciously ad hoc about the proposal otherwise. For my own part, I am inclined to think that, on balance, the reasons offered in support of this view favor holding that it is normally the case that agents’ responsibility for A-ing derives from their being morally responsible for A-ing on their own. Importantly, however, this is not a stand that is required in order to adopt the line of argument advanced in this essay. It remains open to those who might wish to maintain that agents are sometimes basically morally responsible not only for A-ing on their own but also for A-ing simpliciter. Moreover, those convinced to adopt this stance on the grounds that the control agents have in normal (non-Frankfurt) cases over whether they will A on their own is matched by the control they have over whether they will A simpliciter can do so in a principled way that is well poised to defend against charges of being ad hoc.

17 I take it to be a comparative virtue of this particular version of the flicker strategy that it does not commit its proponents to maintaining that agents in Frankfurt-style cases are morally responsible only for A-ing on their own and not at all for A-ing simpliciter. (Cf. Marjory Bedford Naylor, “Frankfurt on the Principle of Alternate Possibilities,” Philosophical Studies 46 [1984]: 249-58.) Nor does it require reformulating PAP in a way that is prone to spur complaints of gerrymandering or diminish its intuitive force (by making it overly complex). (See, for example, Shabo, Seth, “Flickers of Freedom and Modes of Action: A Reply to Timpe,” Philosophia 35 [2007]: 6374. Cf. Timpe, Kevin, “A Critique of Frankfurt-Libertarianism,” Philosophia 34 [2006]: 189202.)

18 Fischer, The Metaphysics of Free Will, 140.

19 Ibid., 141.

20 Ibid., 141. This argument can also be found in John Martin Fischer, “Responsibility and Self-Expression,” The Journal of Ethics 3 (1999): 278–86, and in Fischer, “Recent Work,” 109–23.

21 For more on this point, see Robinson, “Modified Frankfurt-type Counterexamples.”

22 The remainder of this section derives from Robinson, Michael, “The Limits of Limited-blockage Frankfurt-style Cases,” Philosophical Studies 169 (2014): 429–46.

23 Fischer, “Recent Work,” 121.

24 Ibid., 99. See also Fischer, The Metaphysics of Free Will, 140–41, and Fischer, “Responsibility and Self-Expression,” 283–84.

25 Michael McKenna, “Robustness, Control,” 204.

26 See Derk Pereboom, “Source Incompatibilism and Alternative Possibilities,” in Widerker and McKenna, Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities, 188. David Widerker has offered a similar account of what are here referred to as robust alternatives. See Widerker, , “A Defense of Frankfurt-friendly Libertarianism,” Philosophical Explorations 12 (2009), 87108.

27 Fischer, The Metaphysics of Free Will, 142. Though Fischer seems to allow that an agent’s performing no act at all could qualify as a robust alternative, this is conditioned on its being the result of a decision to do so. Thus, he grants that robust alternatives can at least partly consist in omissions, but only insofar as they also involve an act of intention formation (that is, a decision).

28 Fischer, “Responsibility and Self-Expression,” 283.

29 Here I borrow from my argument for this point in Robinson, “The Limits of Limited-blockage.”

30 Deterministic Frankfurt-style cases are unable to serve as good counterexamples to PRAP for the same reason they are unable to do so for PAP (see Sec. II).

31 Recall that, following custom, the focus of this discussion has been restricted to cases of moral responsibility for actions (as opposed to omissions) for the sake of simplicity.

32 For an extended discussion of this point, see Robinson, “The Limits of Limited-blockage.” Cf. McKenna, “Robustness, Control.”

33 Certainly, there may be cases in which agents are morally responsible for the performance of actions that they are forced to perform, provided that they are morally responsible for the fact that they are forced to perform them. For instance, if Jones freely arranged for Black to force him to perform a given action, Jones could be morally responsible for the performance of this action even though this is not an action he performs on his own. In all such cases, however, agents will be only derivatively morally responsible for the performance of those actions they do not perform on their own. Since PAP and PRAP are theses about basic moral responsibility, these cases have no bearing on the present point.

34 Returning this alternative to within the scope of agents’ voluntary control was one of the results of the general move away from Frankfurt-style cases that relied on determinative prior signs. See McKenna and Widerker, 6–10.

35 It is generally accepted that in order for an action to be intentional it must be suitably related to an intention of a certain sort (e.g., an intention to perform that action, or an intention to try to perform that action). Plausibly, the same is true of intentional omission. See Randolph Clarke, “Intentional Omissions,” Nous 44 (2010): 158–77. Insofar as this is correct, (indeterministic) Frankfurt-style scenarios can eliminate agents’ ability to intentionally omit to decide on their own to act as they do simply by blocking them from coming to have the relevant intention(s).

36 I have also argued for this point in Robinson, “The Limits of Limited-blockage.”

37 See Mele, Alfred and Moser, Paul, “Intentional Action,” Nous 28 (1994): 3968, and Mele, Alfred and Sverdlik, Steven, “Intention, Intentional Action, and Moral Responsibility,” Philosophical Studies 82 (1996): 265–87.

38 This example comes from Mele and Sverdlik, “Intention, Intentional Action, and Moral Responsibility,” 274.

39 Ibid. See also Mele and Moser, “Intentional Action,” 45.

40 While I have argued that omissions can be nonintentional in a way that is analogous to actions, there is a potential asymmetry that is worth highlighting here. Typical examples of nonintentional action involve side-effects of other actions performed intentionally: a runner who wears down the soles of her shoes in the course of running a marathon, a sniper who alerts the enemy to his presence in the course of shooting at his target, a dentist who inflicts pain upon her patient in the course of performing a needed medical procedure. As such, they are only indirectly within an agent’s voluntary control. Although these nonintentional actions are indeed performed voluntarily, their voluntariness derives from their relation to other, intentional actions, which the agent performs voluntarily. By contrast, there is nothing else an agent needs to do in order to knowingly and voluntarily (that is, nonintentionally) omit to perform some action; he simply omits to do so. To be clear, this is not to say that omitting to A always involves knowingly and voluntarily omitting to A. Certainly there are other conditions that must be met in order for an agent who omits to A to knowingly and voluntarily omit to A—namely, that the agent is aware that he is omitting to A and that his omitting to A is within his voluntary control (and perhaps free from coercion). The main point here is that there is nothing else he needs to do in order for his omitting to A to qualify as an instance of knowingly and voluntarily omitting to A. Thus, whereas nonintentional actions might only ever be indirectly within agents’ voluntary control, nonintentional omissions are (or at least can be) within an agent’s direct voluntary control.

* This essay benefited enormously from many discussions of this issue with Al Mele, Michael McKenna, and Randy Clarke. I am grateful to the other contributors to this volume—as well as to Carolina Sartorio, David Shoemaker, and Dana Nelkin—for their many helpful questions and comments on the essay. I also wish to thank an anonymous referee for this journal for the most thorough and thoughtful feedback I have ever received from a referee.

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ROBUST FLICKERS OF FREEDOM

  • Michael Robinson (a1)

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