Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Frankfurt Counterexample Defended - Nucci

I recently discovered (amazing really, after all this time) the journal Analysis. It is fast becoming one of my favourites. “Why?” you ask. Well, for one simple reason: brevity. Many of the pieces in Analysis are short (under 10 pages), highly relevant and to the point. You have no idea how refreshing this is, particularly for one like me who comes from a legal background where articles can be often over 100 pages (check out US Law Reviews if you don’t believe me).

(Philosophical Trivia: Analysis is the journal in which Edmund Gettier's famous 3-page revolution of 20th century epistemology was published.)

Anyway, I thought I might do a post on the following piece that I recently read in Analysis:

It covers some material that has already been discussed on this blog.

1. Frankfurt defeats PAP
According to one of the standard positions in the philosophical debate, an agent (X) can only be held responsible for an action (A) if they were able to do something else (~A). In other words, the agent is only responsible for A if they could have done otherwise. This position is captured by something called the principle of alternative possibilities (PAP).

Harry Frankfurt suggested that PAP can be undermined by certain counterexamples, of which the following is one:

Frankfurt Case: Black wants Jones to perform a certain action A. Suppose Black is an amazingly reader of body language cues such that he can tell, in advance, what Jones has decided to do. If Jones decides to perform A, then Black will do nothing; If Jones does not decide to perform A, then Black will intervene and force him to do A. Now imagine that, as it happens, Jones decides to perform A and Black never has to intervene.
Question: Is Jones responsible for A?

Most say “yes”. This seems to create a problem for the defender of PAP because, in the scenario described by Frankfurt, Jones could not have done otherwise. So there appears to be a dilemma: either we accept that Jones is responsible for A and discard PAP, or we retain PAP and discard the belief that Jones is responsible for A.

More formally:

  • (1) In the Frankfurt Case, Jones is responsible for A.
  • (2) Jones is responsible for A if and only if Jones could have done otherwise (PAP).
  • (3) Jones could not have done otherwise in the Frankfurt Case.
  • (4) Therefore, either Jones is responsible for A and PAP is false; or PAP is true and Jones is not responsible for A.

2. Larvor Defuses Frankfurt
All is not lost for the defender of PAP. Assuming they do not wish to give up on (1), they can always try to challenge (3). In other words, they can argue that Jones can actually do otherwise in the Frankfurt case because alternative possibilities are available to him.

This is exactly what Larvor argues in a previous article in Analysis. Larvor points out that in the counterfactual scenario, i.e. the scenario in which Black intervenes and forces Jones to perform A, it is not actually the case that Jones performs A. In the counterfactual scenario it is Black who performs A. The fact that he does so through the medium of Jones’s body is incidental.

Larvor then argues if it is not the case that Jones performs A in the counterfactual scenario, then it is the case that Jones can do otherwise in the factual scenario. Why is this? Because Jones actually does face two possibilities in the Frankfurt case: (i) he can perform A of his own volition or (ii) he can get Black to perform A through the medium of his own body.

More formally, we can say that the conjunction of the following two premises defeats (3):

  • (5) In the counterfactual scenario, Jones does not perform A, Black does.
  • (6) If Jones does not perform A in the counterfactual scenario, then Jones could have done otherwise in the actual scenario.

3. Nucci Defends Frankfurt
We’ve now reached the point in the dialectic at which Nucci’s article actually becomes relevant. Nucci, you see, tries to respond to Larvor’s argument. He does so by drawing a distinction between:

  • (a) Not A-ing; and
  • (b) Avoiding to A.

He claims that the former does not entail the latter and that this is crucial to the success of Larvor's objection. To put this in slightly less abstract terms: Suppose in the Frankfurt scenario, Black wants Jones to kill a man named Smith. In the actual scenario, Jones decides to kill Smith without any interference from Black. This means, following Larvor, in the counterfactual scenario Jones manages to not kill Smith because Black ends up doing it through the medium of Jones’s body.

Nucci’s point is that not killing Smith is a very different thing from avoiding to kill Smith. Avoiding to kill Smith implies that it is somehow up to Jones whether or not Smith is killed. This is akin to Jones having some kind of power or ability to prevent Smith’s death. Clearly, in the Frankfurt scenario, Jones lacks this ability. After all, Black’s intervention in the counterfactual scenario is not up to Jones; it is something within Black’s control.

How does this save the Frankfurt counterexample from defeat? Well, the idea is that in order for PAP to truly hold, it must be the case that not killing Smith is up to Jones. Since even on Larvor’s interpretation this is not the case, PAP does not hold true in the Frankfurt counterexample. Thus Frankfurt’s original dilemma is preserved.

  • (7) To not A is not the same thing as to avoid A-ing.
  • (8) To be able to do otherwise is to be able to avoid A-ing.
  • (9) In the Frankfurt scenario, Jones cannot avoid A-ing.

So goes it for Nucci’s defence of Frankfurt. I am unsure whether it is successful or not.


  1. Thanks as usual for finding interesting articles, John. Unfortunately, I can't get Analysis without paying for it, so I haven't read the actual article.

    There seems to me to be a big problem with the following:
    "Avoiding to kill Smith implies that it is somehow up to Jones whether or not Smith is killed."

    Suppose I am driving on the road and a squirrel runs in front of the car. I swerve to avoid running it over. This does not by any means determine whether or not the squirrel gets run over: it could be run over by the next car, or the next, .... But I have avoided that the squirrel was killed by me.

    Likewise, in the counterfactual scenario, the relevant factor should be whether Smith was killed by Jones. Whether or not Smith was killed by Black in control of Jones's body, or by a heart attack, or by lightning, seems totally irrelevant.

  2. Hi Robert,

    I'm pretty ambivalent about Nucci's paper, but it was short and easy to summarise.

    The objection your making (and have made in the past) is a general one, of course. All Frankfurt counterexamples rely on the presence of a counterfactual intervener to prevent some morally significant alternative possibility from arising. The problem is that this still allows for some kinds of alternative possibilities to arise prior to the activation of the counterfactual intervener.

    It is possible then to claim that pre-intervention deviations from the actual sequence could ground the intuition of moral responsibility in the case as described.

    To overcome your objection you'd have to construct an example which precluded all alternative possibilities and which still suggested the agent was morally responsible. I'm not sure if that's possible, but there's a pretty good paper from David Hunt that tries to do it (unfortunately, it's too long for me to summarise on the blog right now and it's pretty intricate):

    David Hunt "Moral Responsibility and Unavoidable Action" (2000) Philosophical Studies 97: 195

    And another (somewhat related) one by Stephen Kearns which argues people can be responsible for necessary truths (which I confess I haven't read properly yet):

    Kearns "Responsibility for Necessities" (2010) Philosophical Studies Online First (maybe published by now, not sure).

    You can get those through SpringerLink (maybe elsewhere) if your university has a subscription. If not you can email me. I'll make my address available via my "complete profile" page for a couple of days.

  3. I don't think 8 holds in the argument. To be able to do otherwise seems like an ability to choose to do otherwise. I'm responsible for the outcome if my choice does in fact lead to whatever outcome I've chosen.

  4. Also my choice would have to be the deciding factor for this outcome to come about.

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