The Alternate Possibilities Principle

Moral responsibility is a factor that every person must deal with in life, especially as they grow older. Parents and society as a whole have goals that they hope every person who reaches adulthood will meet. Moral responsibility is one of the hopes. The community expects everyone who can be held accountable to have a moral sense of moral control over their surroundings. For example, one should be aware of how and when to react to various situations. In all cases, reactions should have a moral foundation, according to society. The Principle of Alternate Possibilities (PAP) was developed by Harry Frankfurt, a well-known philosopher, to aid in the understanding of moral responsibility (Speaks). In his principle, Harry brings in the idea of having choices. He argues that one shall only be held accountable for a decision made if there was an alternative option. The big concern is whether the ideology behind Frankfurt’s theory really defines moral responsibility. Moral responsibility does not require the truth laid down in the principle of alternate possibilities. One is not only needed to act responsible manner when there are multiple options. Even when we have one possible action to take, moral responsibility should stand.

The Principle of Alternate Possibilities (PAP) is a norm that Harry Frankfurt presented in 1961. The principle states: “A person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise (Frankfurt 139).” According to the theory, morality seems to have root in the number of choices one has on the table. It assumes that if a person makes a particular move in a case where there was no other option to pick, at no time will the individual be held morally accountable for the action taken. This principle brings a twist to when a person should have the moral responsibility for the actions taken. It holds that such obligations are only assumed when one had an option of acting otherwise.

Despite being the father of the PAP, Frankfurt came up with complicated counterarguments to face his 1961 theory. In what is widely referred to as the Frankfurt’s Demon, he comes up with a claim that the PAP is faulty (Blumenfeld 339). He says, “One may be morally responsible for what he has done even though he could not have done otherwise. The principle’s plausibility is an illusion (The Information Philosopher).” Based on this claim, Harry developed a counterexample to the principle. Despite raising the questionability of this principle’s credibility, the example creates a connection between free will and moral responsibility.

In the counterexample, Frankfurt uses two gentlemen, Black and Jones. Black wishes to have Jones carry out a particular action. Black is in dire need to see Jones take this action, and he is ready to go an extra mile to have it done his way. However, he does not want to show he has a hand in it. Therefore, Black holds back until there is certainty that Jones is about to make a decision. Black makes no move not unless he is sure the other party is going to make a decision that is contrary to what he wants. In this case, Black would take a step of doing the necessary things at his disposal to lure Jones into doing the thing he wants him to do. Supposedly, if Black gets to know that Jones is going to do what he wants, then Black would not take any step towards influencing his decision. In this case, Jones is presumed to have no other alternatives. In both cases, it should be argued that Jones has the moral responsibility for his actions. Frankfurt comments that it is unreasonable to excuse Jones from standing up for his actions just because he had no other options since Black never intruded.

In real life, people are always free to make their decisions despite the influence of the society. A perfect scenario is the case of teenagers in the modern world. Today, kids are exposed to social media and other forms of modern technology that expose them to a vacuum of being easily influenced. Peer pressure among the teens is higher in the current century than before. Consider an example of two teenagers who are close friends, Peter and John. Peter is already exposed to abuse of drugs, and he uses cannabis occasionally. On the other hand, John is raised in a family setup where he cannot abuse drugs. He is also against usage of such abusive drugs. At one point, Peter introduces the topic of eating cakes baked with cannabis. John has never heard of it. He gets shocked that cannabis cakes exist. The innocent teenager has the options of trying the bhang-baked cakes or keeping to the stand of not abusing drugs. Whether John was not given an opportunity of engaging in drugs by Peter or he was influenced, the moral responsibility still rests with him. This scenario elaborates Frankfurt’s counterexample.

Peter van Inwagen, a philosopher, came up with arguments that share the spirit of the principle of alternate possibilities and were immune to the Frankfurt counterexample. One argument he had is that one would only be morally responsible for missing to carry out a duty when he could have performed it and never did (O’Connor 346). The other one is that a person is held accountable for a given state of affairs only if he could have prevented it from happening. According to O’Connor (346), the two arguments are immune to the Frankfurt-style of counterexample due to their preciseness. In the first case, the person carrying out the actions had a known duty which he or she chose not to perform. For the second scenario, the individual had the powers to avoid the state of affairs from happening, but he or she did not prevent it. In both events, the parties in question have full knowledge of what is expected of them. Therefore, missing out an action or taking a wrong option leaves them morally responsible. The argument of Peter van Inwagen presents a principle that ties moral responsibility to free will with no room for a Frankfurt-style counterexample.

Everyone in this world has some moral obligation to meet without necessarily facing pressure. Harry Frankfurt’s principle of alternate possibilities is one philosophy that exists concerning this norm of responsibility. The PAP argues that one should only be morally liable if there were alternative actions that the person never picked. Frankfurt developed a counterexample that questioned his notion. Indeed, everyone should have a moral liability to the decisions made regardless of whether there were alternative actions to take or not.

Works Cited

Blumenfeld, David. “The Principle of Alternate Possibilities.” The Journal of Philosophy, vol.68, no.11, 1971, pp. 339-345

Frankfurt, Harry G. “Alternate possibilities and moral responsibility.” The Philosophy of Free Will: Essential Readings from the Contemporary Debates (2013): 139-148.

O’Cannor, Timothy. “Alternative Possibilities and Responsibilities.” Southern Journal of Philosophy, vol.31, 1993, pp.345-372.

Speaks, Jeff. “Frankfurt’s compatibilist theory of free will.” JSpeaks Courses, 9 March 2006, Accessed 30 Nov. 2017.

The Information Philosophers. “Frankfurt Cases – The Principle of Alternate Possibilities,” 2016, Accessed 30 Nov. 2017.

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