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Frankfurt vs. Widerker–Is Jones REALLY morally culpable for killing Smith, or did the Devil (Black) make him do it?

September 22, 2011

I haven’t been as consistent on posting these papers as I would have liked.  However, this is only due to the fact that some of them really aren’t that interesting, or I wasn’t too proud of my work.  This week’s, however, goes on my refrigerator of all-time-great assignments. 

I thought long and hard about my objection, and I even had quite the scuffle with my roommate (who is in the class as well) about whether it was a valid objection or not.  Ultimately, I received an “excellent work” comment and “A” from our metaphysician genius professor. (Seriously a genius.  Holds a Ph.D. in both Math and Philosophy—had each before he was 28.)

Without further ado…

Widerker’s Defense of the Principle of Alternate Possibilities

In “Libertarianism and Frankfurt’s Attack on the Principle of Alternate Possibilities” David Widerker makes a defense of the principle of alternate possibilities (PAP): A man is held morally culpable for his actions only if he could have done otherwise. Harry Frankfurt’s attempt to demonstrate that PAP is false results in a conclusion which Widerker labels as IRR.

IRR: A man can be in a situation where he performs an action and could not have done otherwise, although the situation does not necessarily cause his performance of the specified action.

To make IRR more clear, Frankfurt puts forth a thought experiment in which there is a man, Black, who has great clarity in determining whether another person will decide to carry out a certain action or not. He is also capable of forcing others to carry out actions (be it through threat or some other manner). Black wants another man, Smith, dead. A third man, Jones, desires to kill Smith, but he has not yet decided whether to kill Smith or not. Black waits for Jones to decide. If Jones decides to kill Smith, then Black does nothing and allows the situation to carry itself out. If Jones decides not to kill Smith, then Black forces him to do so anyway through his unavoidable threats. Thus, Jones only has the option of killing Smith. However, it seems clear that if Jones decides to kill Smith of his own accord, then he is morally culpable. If he decides not to kill Smith and is forced by Black to commit the murder, then he is not morally culpable. Thus, Jones could not have done otherwise, but might still be held morally culpable depending on whether he chose to kill Smith on his own or not.

Widerker makes the following argument against IRR:

1. Jones’s signifying of his decision (e.g. blushing) to kill Smith is either causally sufficient for his actually killing Smith or it is not causally sufficient for his actually killing Smith.

2. If Jones’s signifying of his decision (e.g. blushing) to kill Smith is causally sufficient for his actually killing Smith, then the scenario does not stand as an IRR scenario (Premise from IRR).

3. If Jones’s signifying of his decision to kill Smith is not causally sufficient for his actually killing Smith, then Jones might have done otherwise (and thus the scenario does not follow IRR). (Premise)

4. If (1), then the scenario does not stand as an IRR scenario or Jones might have done otherwise (and thus the scenario does not follow IRR) (from 1,2,3 Simple Dilemma).

Because of (4), Widerker notes that Frankfurt has not given a plausible example of IRR, and thus still has work to do in order to falsify PAP.

However, I have qualms with (2) in Widerker’s argument. It might be noted that Widerker even strengthens (2) in his article by noting that even if Jones’s signifying of his decision to kill Smith (e.g. blushing) signifies (as opposed to simply being) a causally sufficient state for his actually killing Smith, then the scenario does not stand as an IRR scenario. In the thought experiment, Jones’s blushing signifies his decision to kill Smith[1]. It seems that it must be the case that Jones’s deciding to kill Smith would qualify as a casually sufficient state under which Jones kills Smith. If Jones’s decision to kill Smith does not qualify as a casually sufficient state, then it might be said that Jones has no control over his actions. For if Jones decided to do one thing but then actually did another or did nothing at all, he would be quite perplexed at the fact that his will is so inefficacious. However, this causally sufficient state is not one that is brought about by the external circumstances. The causally sufficient state is brought about by Jones’s thought process. Thus, it does not violate IRR.


[1] If Jones’s blushing is not taken as a signifier of Jones’s decision, then Widerker might be said to contradict his own thoughts on decision making being a simple mental action. But that is not within the scope of this paper.

 

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In re-reading the paper, I realize how much could be expounded upon.  Let it be known that we are only allowed two pages for metaphysics assignments, and I simply have too much to do to go about adding to this paper.  I’ll save that brain power for future assignments.  However, if you have questions, feel free to place them in the comments.  I know I’m gaining readers by the thousands, so it’s a crazy suggestion, but I’m willing anyway (kidding—I am grateful for the three/four loyal readers I have).

Don’t be too concerned if you misunderstand some parts.  While the paper is meant for any person to understand (as is the nature of the assignment), it’s really not realistic to explain some of these concepts in such a small space.  I hope you enjoyed it in some manner.  I really enjoyed the mental workout it took to write the paper.

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