Frankfurt Cases & Moral v. Legal Responsibility

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 89 min.

moral-responsibility-and-alternative-possibilities
I draw a lot here from this book.

[NOTE: A long first draft that could use some focused trimming. It began as an attempt to briefly engage Frankfurt’s famous attack on the Principle of Alternative Possibilities, but quickly turned into a not-so-brief meta-philosophical engagement with questions about philosophical impasses—most importantly, what they mean (or at least what this one means) for real-world problems.]

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In his much-discussed 1969 paper, “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility,” Harry Frankfurt challenges PAP:

The Principle of Alternate (or “Alternative”) Possibilities: A person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise.1

Frankfurt develops a counterexample to PAP that, if successful, makes a strong case for determinism’s compatibility with free will or, more specifically, with moral responsibility—that is, even if all your beliefs, thoughts, desires, inclinations and so on are determined by forces outside your control, you may still rightly be held morally responsible, and thus deserving of blame (or praise; my focus here is on blame), for the decisions and actions resulting from those beliefs, thoughts, desires, inclinations, and so on. (Note that I’m construing determinism broadly enough to contain randomness: you didn’t determine what you did; the blind laws of nature, some features of which may be inherently indeterministic, did.)

I hope to show at least three things here. First, there are straightforward reasons for thinking PAP survives Frankfurt’s counterexample (and clever variations thereof). Second, the counterexample works against compatibilism; or, at least, it’s not hard to see why someone—e.g., an incompatibilist such as myself—would think it does. Third, whether or not Frankfurt’s counterexample succeeds, it poses a powerful challenge to a society soaked to the bone in the language and concepts of free will; my focus here will be on the implications of this challenge for the law, now and into the foreseeable future. This third aim in particular informs how I’ll proceed here—namely, with the broader hope of drawing focused attention to what’s really at stake in this discussion (rather than, say, attempting to demonstrate the immunity of PAP to ever cleverer and subtler Frankfurt cases).

I’d like to say a little more about this last point. I began this writing with the hope of contributing some modest support to those who’ve challenged Frankfurt’s counterexample. I gradually abandoned that as my primary goal, though it does still feature here. Frankfurt’s paper has spawned an ample and increasingly complicated literature, which I’ll touch on here just enough to pursue the above-stated goals, but not with the hope of converting Frankfurt or his defenders. Rather, my end goal is the meta-philosophical point that the philosophers debating these questions (a small group of whom have been at it for decades) seem to be at an academic impasse. In the meanwhile, policies surrounding punishment are being pursued, renewed, and developed—a process in which participation from philosophers is critical!

This isn’t to say that there are no practical gains to be had from these discussions and the resulting impasse. I’ll argue that there are—for example, I think Frankfurt’s argument has powerful practical (e.g., legal) implications. In addressing this, I divert my contribution to the discussion in the direction of adding one more voice to the growing swell of exhortations to heed what compatibilism amounts to in practice: the assertion that those guilty of wrongdoing deserve to be made to suffer, and indeed that it may be our moral obligation to make them suffer, even when the wrongdoer could not have done other than she did. Granted, this may seem an unnecessarily inhumane characterization of punishment, but in the grand scheme of things,”being made to suffer in direct proportion to one’s wrongdoing” seems a fair assessment of what “punishment” means for many people (and many dictionaries, for whatever that’s worth). I say this, by the way, while taking seriously the sustained psychological harm that could result from lingering sentiments and such (e.g., reactive attitudes, as P.F. Strawson called them) within those harmed by wrongdoers.

I’ll return to all that below. Now on to Frankfurt’s example:

…there may be circumstances that constitute sufficient conditions for a certain action to be performed by someone and that therefore make it impossible for the person to do otherwise, but that do not actually impel the person to act or in any way produce his action. …

Suppose someone—Black let us say—wants Jones to perform a certain action. Black is prepared to go to considerable lengths to get his way, but he prefers to avoid showing his hand unnecessarily. So he waits until Jones is about to make up his mind what to do, and he does nothing unless it is clear to him (Black is an excellent judge of such things) that Jones is going to decide to do something other than what he wants him to do. If it does become clear that Jones is going to decide to do something else, Black takes effective steps to ensure that Jones decides to do, and that he does do, what he wants him to do. …

Now suppose that Black never has to show his hand because Jones, for reasons of his own, decides to perform and does perform the very action Black wants him to perform. In that case, it seems clear, Jones will bear precisely the same moral responsibility for what he does as he would have borne if Black had not been ready to take steps to ensure that he do it. It would be quite unreasonable to excuse Jones for his action, or to withhold the praise to which it would normally entitle him, on the basis of the fact that he could not have done otherwise. This fact played no role at all in leading him to act as he did. He would have acted the same even if it had not been a fact. Indeed, everything happened just as it would have happened without Black’s presence in the situation and without his readiness to intrude into it.2

The example is intuitively compelling. Assume that the action in question is to shoot Smith3 Jones shot Smith entirely on his own and for his own reasons. If anyone is blameworthy for anything, Jones is. And yet, he could not have done anything but shoot Smith. Jones could not even have decided otherwise than he did. This is a critical point. If Jones could have changed—but did not change—his mind about shooting Smith, it’s clear that PAP survives.4 5

One option at this point is to reject the possibility of exerting such control over Jones’s mental activity. David Widerker, in a 1995 paper, for example, works to show, on libertarian grounds, that “Frankfurt’s attack on PAP … does not succeed when applied to mental acts such as deciding, choosing, undertaking, forming an intention, that is, mental acts that for the libertarian constitute the basic loci of moral responsibility.”6 The alternative, claims Widerker, is that there is some unconscious mechanism within Jones that would lead him to arrive at a particular decision. In short: If the unconscious trigger is causally sufficient to guarantee that Jones will decide to shoot Black by a certain time, then Frankfurt’s example will violate its stipulation that Jones decide on his own rather than being “impelled” and, anyway, would be rejected by the libertarian on the usual anti-deterministic grounds; thus PAP survives. If Frankfurt gives up the unconscious trigger in favor of a conscious one, PAP survives for reasons I’ll touch on below.

The point is well taken that the counterexample shouldn’t persuade a free will libertarian. Who is the counterexample meant to persuade? Those, I suppose, whom Frankfurt would like to see switch from being free will skeptics who embrace incompatibilism to being free will skeptics who embrace compatibilism. (Perhaps his aims are more modest than that; more on this below.) I’ll set libertarian concerns (as such) aside, then, and will note that I agree with Widerker and the many others—libertarians and free will skeptics—who’ve presented the problem as boiling down to two alternative: Jones’s decision must be unavoidably determined either by some unconscious process or by Black’s intervention; either way, PAP survives.

I don’t share Widerker’s (1995) puzzlement, however, that Frankfurt would attack PAP on the grounds he does, even though “Frankfurt seems to concede that to ensure that Jones’s decision to kill Smith is unavoidable, the decision has to be caused by an earlier state of Jones’s.”7 Frankfurt is a compatibilist, so I wouldn’t expect determinism of this sort to deter him. In fact, it seems to me that’s a central point in attacking PAP: if determinism is true, no one can ever do otherwise; yet we can be held morally responsible for what we do. The aforementioned “state of Jones,” even if unconscious and itself externally determined, is a result of Jones’s desires, beliefs, inclinations, sensitivity to environment and reasons, biology, and so on—a bundle of attributes I’ll simply call “moral style.”8 I’ll touch on this again below, when I consider a response from Frankfurt to such criticisms. First, I’d like to look more closely at what happens when carrying his counterexample through. Widerker uses an intervention trigger of not blushing by a certain time, and Frankfurt gives the example of a twitch. Let’s stick with the twitch for now.

Jones doesn’t twitch before shooting Smith. If he had, Black’s intervention would have been triggered, ensuring that Jones decided to—or wouldn’t change his earlier decision to—shoot Smith. The intervention is unfair, surely, but that has no bearing on Jones’s culpability: Jones shoots entirely under his own steam.9 Suppose the twitch signals that Jones is on the verge of starting to deliberate. We can presume that didn’t happen either, as he didn’t twitch. Jones at no point issued any sign of oncoming deliberation or doubt about shooting Smith.

The fact that Jones could have issued some sign of oncoming deliberation or doubt, however, seems to me enough to save PAP. Jones could have done otherwise: he could have triggered the intervention. Or put it this way: Jones did not give Black a reason to intervene, but he could have. This paints an admittedly overly simplistic picture, so I’ll fill in some details with the minimum amount of elaboration I can manage, as I share Frankfurt’s (2006) concern that “the scholarly discussion of these matters has in recent years become rather disconcertingly intricate.”10 The form those details take may vary a lot, but the salient common feature is that the only way to assemble a “could have done otherwise” picture that’s consistent with Frankfurt’s counterexample is to situate the triggering event outside of Jones’s control. In which case Jones could not have consciously done other than not trigger the intervention. But this does not preclude something within Jones triggering the intervention. And so I claim that, in some important sense that has a strong appeal to compatibilist (and perhaps folk) intuitions about moral responsibility, Jones could have triggered the intervention.

I of course don’t mean that Jones should be blamed for not trying to specifically trigger Black’s intervention, which Jones didn’t know about.11 Rather, I’m using “could have triggered the intervention” as a kind of open-ended shorthand for Jones—as a matter of course due to his moral style—issuing some signal that triggers the intervention. My claim is that, given that this is Jones’s moral style, such an issuance should satisfy (consistent) compatibilist intuitions such that PAP survives.

How might such a chain of events go? There must be some point at which Jones decides, on his own, to shoot Smith. After all, Jones wasn’t born wanting to shoot Smith. Consider two ways the decision might come about:

Spontaneously: The decision to shoot Smith just rises up in Jones out of the blue, without deliberation. If so, while this already casts Jones in a blameworthy light, the question now is whether he’ll change his mind, or at least whether he’ll experience some doubt. As it stands, he shoots Jones before experiencing any doubt.12

Deliberatively: For whatever reason, the thought of shooting Smith occurs to Jones. He thinks it over, then decides to shoot Smith. If this is how things go, and Black’s intervention wasn’t triggered, then Jones’s deliberation must have featured very little, if any, genuine resistance to, or doubt about, the idea of shooting Smith. Which again brings us to where we were at the end of the above, “Spontaneous,” condition: with the question of whether Jones will experience at least some doubt before shooting Smith. And again, as things stand, he has no such doubts.13

The question now is whether Jones could have experienced doubt. Clearly not, or at least not of the sort that would have led him to change his mind. Black’s intervention sees to this. More to the point, the counterexample would be defeated were Jones allowed to experience doubt, as, were this possibility open to him, we could then observe, “Hey, at least Jones could have entertained some doubt that would or could have changed his mind.” The significance of this is underscored by the fact that, had Jones’s entertainment of doubt been sufficient to trigger Black’s intervention, this would amount to a commandeering of Jones’s powers of judgement that, un-coerced, would have led to a decision not to shoot Smith, clearly relieving Jones of blameworthiness.

Here is a summary of the salient points so far. Jones did not experience intervention-triggering doubt, nor could he have, given the intervention. The intervention, however, would have to be poised to precede the experience of doubt. That is, the counterexample is meant to show us that Jones is blameworthy even though he wasn’t allowed to do otherwise; allowing him to experience (potentially) mind-changing doubt is too close to allowing him to do otherwise—it would make it possible for us to rightly blame Jones not just for the shooting itself, but for not having done something else that he was not prevented by Black from doing; that is, for not having doubted or, more to the point, for not having at least entertained mind-changing doubt, such that would have triggered the intervention. As it stands, however, Black must have prevented Jones from doubting in that way, or else, again, it would have exculpated Jones.

That Jones did not doubt is significant, at the very least for our moral intuitions and for legal concerns. I’ll get to that in a moment. For now, I’ll continue along with the story, which is beginning to raise the question of whether doubt would be a possibility for Jones even in Black’s absence.

In particular, the question now is whether it was available to Jones to at least exhibit signs of being on the verge of doubting. It seems so. That is, it seems that this is precisely what Black allows and is on the lookout for. As things stand, no Jones exhibits no such signs. But he could have, in a certain sense. That is, if he had a different moral style (or perhaps, as I’ll consider below, if something different had occurred in his environment). But, to be clear, he could not have done so—i.e., could not have triggered the intervention—in the sense of consciously doing something. The compatibilist intuition, as far as I can tell, doesn’t make a clear distinction between these things. I think the distinction is crucial, however, as it suggests he could have done otherwise, yet still would not merit moral blame; I’ll return to this shortly. First, I’ll make the scenario a little more concrete.

Let’s say the signal amounts to a certain sequence of neuronal firings. This event, on its own, doesn’t correspond to any experience at all in Jones, but, if not intervened upon, would likely lead to other brain activity that Jones would experience as doubt. It’d be silly to say that Jones could have intentionally fired that antecedent sequence rather than not fire it—Jones has no control here. Again, we have two ways to evaluate this. We could say that Jones could not have done otherwise, as he had no control to over whether the sequence fires. In that case, PAP survives, if only trivially, as it provides no counterexample to the principle that we should only assign blame if the person could have done otherwise. That is, this interpretation is one in which Jones could not have done otherwise, even without Black’s presence, given that the sequence would not have fired in Black’s absence, and thus not have led to doubt.

As I’ve noted, I take it that this would not convert Frankfurt or his compatibilist sympathizers. To see why, we address the question: But why doesn’t the unconscious sequence fire? While the firing is not under Jones’s control, it’s not as if there’s some homunculus chucking dice in Jones’s brain, deciding what Jones’s neurons will do. Rather, Jones’s moral style simply isn’t such that, given the situation in which he’s found himself, he would exhibit signs of being on the verge of doubting, whatever those signs may be. (This would presumably be true for many closely similar situations as well, but also not true for at least some closely similar situations; I’ll briefly consider this thought below.)

This naturally leads to difficult questions like: How did Jones’s moral style come about? Is Jones responsible how it came about? In particular, is he blameworthy for being the sort of person in whom doubt would not arise in this (and closely similar) situations? 14
If Jones were responsible for his moral style, then Frankfurt’s counterexample would seem to defeat PAP. But I don’t see how Jones could be. As a reminder, “moral style” refers to the bundle of attributes that determine the sorts of moral choices a person will make. These attributes may consist of a person’s beliefs, desires, sensitivities to environment and reasons, and so on. How that bundle develops will depend on the person’s history, biology, and everything implied by those things (ongoing environment [going as far back as the womb], upbringing, education, bio-chemistry, good and bad luck, brain development [which will also depend on environment], life experiences, and on and on).15 A central question to the present debate is: When we say that a bundle of attributes determines a person’s moral choices, is it correct to say that it is a mindless bundle of attributes—and the events etc. that resulted in those attributes—that determine the person’s moral choices and actions, or is it, rather, that the bundle is a sufficiently robust subset of the person that it is correct to say that it is the person who determines her own choices and actions? (Indeed, we might say the bundle just is the person, or, less strongly: without the bundle, she wouldn’t be the same person, or wouldn’t be a person at all.) The latter sort of determinism (i.e., self-determinism) is one way we might characterize what it is to have have free will, or at least to be a morally responsible agent. I claim that the former statement is the true one (i.e., the bundle of attributes, even if it just is what we consider to be the person, in fact, is something the person cannot freely determine).*

[*I fear I’m being unclear, so I’ll try saying this another way. The question I’m trying to articulate comes down to asking whether we can hold Jones morally blameworthy for the fact that his present sensitivities—which are a complex of his history, experiences, developed biology, cultural conditioning, gene expression, past choices and behaviors, and so on—are not such that, given the situation in which he’s found himself, the unconscious, doubt-triggering neuronal sequence fires. The things that account for his present sensitivities, I am interchangeably calling his “moral style” or “bundle of attributes that determine his moral choices.” We may very well want to also say that this bundle of attributes is an essential—perhaps the essential—part of who Jones is, i.e., what makes Jones a person (or at least the person he is).

But there’s an important conceptual difference between saying “Jones’s moral style determined what Jones did,” and saying “Jones determined what Jones did.” (This difference will come up again when I consider Frankfurt’s response to Michael McKenna.) I’m going to argue that the conceptual difference doesn’t amount to a distinction in whether to assign moral blame, even though it makes a difference for legal responsibility. This threatens to get into a harrier discussion about the metaphysics of personhood than I can get into here; I’ll try to keep things as reigned in as I go along. The underlying point in that regard is that, however we conceptualize Jones’s personhood (which I readily admit may not be conceivably distinct from his moral style), so long as the events relevant to his blameworthiness are grounded in goings-on of which he has no control—e.g., the unconscious firings of some neurons—it’s very hard to see how he can be held blameworthy for those things happening or not, or for that matter for his moral style (i.e., for who he is). I may still not be saying this well, and might indeed be confused in some important respects about what I want to say. But there you go.

Finally, by “self-determinism,” I don’t necessarily mean self-creation from scratch. Hopefully the term is open-ended enough so that it doesn’t build a straw man of compatibilist and libertarian positions, which do not rely on a notion of total self-creation.]

There might, at this point, be productive discussions to be had about whether the person Jones is today can be held responsible for the things past versions of Jones freely did that, in accumulation, resulted in today-Jones’s moral style. Could those moral-style-shaping events have occurred in a distant enough past—e.g., when he was a young child—that it would be reasonable to view today-Jones and the past-Jones as different people? Or, put more in terms of moral blame: Could the Jones who shot Smith be a victim not just of biology, nurturing, and circumstances, but of earlier versions of himself? (Not that his earlier self would be blameworthy for this.) Though at least worth putting on the table, I won’t pursue those questions here. Nor will I pursue the, I take it plausible, possibility that each of the choices past-Jones made that led to his later moral style were, in themselves, morally permissible (either because Jones was too young to be held accountable, or because the acts were simply not of the sort we’d consider morally impermissible). Perhaps an accumulation of morally permissible, neutral, or even required acts could shape the sort of moral style that would make it such that the doubt-triggering sequence wouldn’t fire before shooting Smith.

Instead, I’ll briefly consider the broader idea that, however Jones’s moral style came about, it seems unreasonable to blame him for the relevant sequence not firing. Imagine that, until shooting Smith, Jones had not done anything as bad as shoot a person. We can even imagine that no such thoughts had ever before seriously occurred to Jones, but let’s suppose they had, but had always been squelch by his better judgement, a process whose local beginnings start with something like the relevant sequence firing. This time, the sequence doesn’t fire. Presumably, some event would have to have initiated the sequence. This event would have been sufficient (assuming Jones doesn’t suddenly suffer an aneurysm, the world doesn’t suddenly explode, etc.), though not necessary (perhaps many events could have done the trick) to trigger Black’s intervention, as the initiation of the firing sequence is itself sufficient to trigger Black’s intervention. The sequence-initiating event, which may have been internal or external to Jones’s body, did not occur. Why not?

I don’t think it matters whether the pre-sequence event is internal or external to Jones, but let’s consider both. Assume for a moment that it could have been external (though, even if it had been, this will always come back to the question of Jones’s idiosyncratic internal sensitivities to external stimuli—i.e., an internal-external interplay).16

I noted earlier that, in some closely similar situations, the sequence might have fired. The idea here is that there might have been some external events that, had they happened, the doubt-sequence would have been triggered. Some of such events might have been reasonably uninteresting, indeed common, on their own, but had they happened, they would have played on Jones’s peculiar sensitivities such that the sequence would have fired. Perhaps some of these almost happened. Maybe a little more or little less sugar in his breakfast would have done it. Or maybe there was a nearby inspirational poster featuring a puppy much like the one his mother gave him on his 12th birthday, just before she died. Maybe Jones barely misses seeing the poster due to being momentarily distracted by a particularly striking, laser-like sparrow song. Or maybe his phone just now ran out of power, so he misses a call from his sister and is unable to stick to his regular phone appointment with his anger-management sponsor, and so on.*

(*LATER UPDATE: This hints at the fascinating possibility of absences making causal contributions to Jones shooting Smith. “Absence causation” is argued for by Carolina Sartorio in her 2016 book, Causation and Free Will, in which she carefully develops an alternative to the “alternative possibilities/could have done otherwise” criterion for freedom; her alternative amounts to her own brand of an “actual-sequence” view that I won’t get into here, but will say that I am now two chapters into the book and, while I find it quite thought-provoking, I’m still waiting to be convinced that, say, being brainwashed by evil scientists to have immoral values before deliberating poorly is any different than arriving at those values through early education and so on. I’m eager to see how the view develops. For example, how certain problems with absence causation are ironed out, as Sartorio puts it [where instead of Jones she refers to Frank]: “Absence causation is notoriously ‘explosive:’ if one is prepared to count some absences as causes, then one should also be prepared to count innumerably many of them as causes. For example, the absence of an alien attack on Earth (one that would have wiped us all out in seconds) is one of the causes of Frank’s making his choice. … I don’t think that we should dismiss the negative causes as unimportant; on the contrary, I believe that some negative causes are extremely important. However, it should be clear that the absence of the alien race I have described is not one of them” [pp. 33–34].)

Some of these examples are silly, but make the point that the slightest things might play on us in powerful ways, especially in accumulation over a lifetime. This isn’t to suggest that we shouldn’t be worried about someone with Jones’s particular set of sensitivities; we don’t want people walking around who’ll shoot someone if they miss breakfast. The point I’ll flag here is that this is a safety, and thus legal, concern rather than a moral one. More on this below.

At any rate, Jones’s sensitivities are such that he’d shoot someone—Smith, in particular—under circumstances most people would not (thanks, of course, to the accumulation of accidents that resulted in their particular moral style). Perhaps Black is enough of a genius predictor to be aware of how the slightest things will affect Jones; maybe Black, from afar, has monitored Jones since Jones’s infancy (or perhaps this starts in the womb)—keeping an eye on Jones’s environment, diet, what songs his mother sings to him, education, and so on.* All these things in some way or another may contribute to whether or not the sequence fires on the day in question. The fact that Jones, from infancy onward, was not situated in such a way that leads to the sequence firing is not something he could have avoided. And perhaps on the day in question, Black simply seeing Jones turning his head in the direction of the puppy poster would be enough to trigger Black’s intervention. The more arbitrary the source of the trigger, the less threat there is to PAP.

(*Imagine a variation in which Black, keeping in the background, makes micro-adjustments to Jones’s environment, catered perfectly to Jones’s sensitivities, thus planting seeds of the future Jones who will shoot Smith. These little interventions, that lead Jones to feel no less responsible for his actions than he otherwise would, and no less the “owner” and “author” of his beliefs and thoughts, no less free—I see no difference between these little interventions than should the actual circumstances and people of Jones’s life playing essentially the same role, even though they have no clue of the seeds they’re planting.)

What sorts of internal bodily event might have led to the doubt-sequence firing? Not, for our purposes, seemingly random alternatives like, “he was sitting with his eye closed with no thoughts at all, then just happened to remember something his mother told him that led to doubt.” I struggle to think of something that wouldn’t have an external starting point. Suppose the following counts: he was contemplating a dream he had the night before, and through a series of associations, he remembered something his mother once told him. Maybe this is a better example: He didn’t get enough sleep the night before due to insomnia (he had no sleeping pills on hand, because they’ve never really helped him anyway). This leads to him being in a worse mood than usual and unpredictable spikes in blood pressure. Had his blood pressure spiked just a little more than it did at just the right moment, he would have remembered to do a mindfulness exercise that would have calmed him. And perhaps not having the insomnia at all would have left his mood better, opening a window for doubt.

Setting aside my comments in the previous footnote about what counts as internal and external, the long and short of all this is that Jones doesn’t have control over whether the sequence fires, nor over having been shaped into the sort of person in whom the sequence doesn’t fire given the situation in which he’s found himself. I thus conclude that Jones could not have decided or done other than he did, even without Black’s presence. Turns out Jones doesn’t turn the knobs of his own steam. His brain, history, and environment do. (Or, in some worlds, Black does.) In other terms: The combination of Jones’s history, environment, and biology come together to form an exculpating machinery not all that different from Black’s intervening mechanism.

It seems to me that this is enough to show that Frankfurt’s counterexample doesn’t touch PAP. Which is to say that PAP survives, if only trivially, as it hasn’t been touched by a counterexample. (PAP can be seen as true—e.g., as counterfactually true—even if no situation ever arises in which it can be applied; one conclusion of my claims here is that no such situation will ever arise.) If Jones couldn’t have done otherwise even without Black’s presence, then the intuition Frankfurt relies on doesn’t emerge. The intuition, that is, that Jones should be seen as morally responsible even though he couldn’t have done otherwise than he did. In the counterexample, it’s meant to be Black’s presence that ensures Jones couldn’t have done otherwise. But it turns out Jones, in a certain sense, could have done otherwise: he could triggered Black’s intervention. The problem with this is that this would require the initiation of a sequence of neurons firing—an initiation over which Jones has no control. So it’s more like, “Jones’s body could have done otherwise.” I don’t know how many compatibilists would be swayed by this or accept that wording, given that deliberating is like, say, having an epileptic seizure (assuming it’s the first time the person’s had a seizure and it came as a surprise, and there’s no way to look to the past so as to say, “You are responsible for not being previously diagnosed in order to get future seizures under control through medication, surgery, not driving a car, etc.”).

And so, I wouldn’t expect Frankfurt sympathizers to be deterred by the deterministic story I’ve told here. Indeed, part of the point of the Frankfurt case is to show that an agent can deserve blame even when the agent’s acts are determined by outside pressures, so long as those acts are the unrestrained—e.g., in the sense of duress or overt and direct Black-like manipulations—expressions of the agent’s own deliberation, beliefs, desires, etc. This would be true, I take it, even if Black, over the years, had a deliberate hand in contributing to Jones’s beliefs, desires, etc., so long as Jones was left to deliberate in accordance with his own reasons and beliefs at the moment in question. (Or am I committing the compatibilist to too much here?)

At any rate, this lays out my case both for why I think PAP survives Frankfurt cases, as well as for why I think working through Frankfurt’s counterexample hurts, rather than bolsters, the notion that moral responsibility and determinism are compatible.

Others, aside from Widerker, have defended PAP on similar grounds over the years. While others have defended or aimed to strengthen Frankfurt’s attack on PAP. Widerker responds to some of the most notable of the latter his 2000 paper “Blameworthiness and Frankfurt’s Argument Against the Principle of Alternative Possibilities,” revised and extended for the aforementioned collection, Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities. I recommend that collection, or even just McKenna and Widerker’s excellent introduction to it, for getting an overview of where the arguments now stand, as well as for bibliographies tracing the history of the debate. I won’t go deep into the major views on offer (there are plenty of other resources for that), but will make some (somewhat meta-philosophical) comments about the history of the debate.17

The history of the debate, as my readings have led me to understand it, consists of increasingly convoluted attempts by Frankfurt supporters to show that Jones’s failure to issue a pre-mental trigger doesn’t save PAP, only to have PAP defenders point out that PAP continues unharmed. This isn’t to say that some of these convolutions haven’t been instructive—Mckenna’s recent “make-it-so machine” example (see below) strikes me as thought-provoking, and the very fact that the intuitions of so many philosophers remain convinced of Frankfurt’s damage to PAP is itself interesting. Still, the discussion has become, to again quote Frankfurt, “disconcertingly intricate,” and seems to have run into an impasse.18

That said, I’ll again summarize the debate to date as follows: Jones’s being able to do otherwise comes down to the initiation of some unconscious trigger over which Jones has no immediate control. To many incompatibilists, such as myself, this strongly suggests that Jones cannot be held any more morally responsible than he could have were Black’s intervention to have been imposed on Jones. To compatibilists, however, Jones can be held morally accountable despite the trigger being outside of Jones’s immediate control, so long as Jones’s decisions and behavior are aligned with his own beliefs, desires, reasons, deliberation, etc.19

For a sense of where the debate now stands, or at least stood in 2003, consider McKenna’s fascinating essay, “Robustness, Control, and the Demand for Morally Significant Alternatives: Frankfurt Examples with Oodles and Oodles of Alternatives”20, in which he defends “Frankfurt’s compatibilist-friendly attack on the demand for alternative possibilities as a condition of moral responsibility”:

If Frankfurt cannot make use of reliable indicators of freely willed action at moments prior to any loci of free will, then any attempt to construct such examples must wait until the very moment of a basic mental action that is freely willed. But then it will be too late for Frankfurt to work his magic! The agent will have retained an open possibility to do otherwise, a possibility within the agent’s control. This, the incompatibilist assumes, will provide morally significant alternatives within the control of the agent. Hence, they will be sufficiently robust to aid in the grounding of judgments of moral responsibility in Frankfurt cases. This is where we are now. The debate over the success of the Frankfurt examples is the debate over whether it is possible to get around the excellent point made by those incompatibilists defending the loci protection strategy.21

One response to this challenge is to cut off all alternatives for Jones “at the locus of a freely willed action,” while acknowledging that “a prior triggering sign presupposing a deterministic relation is illicit and that any convincing Frankfurt example must avoid this assumption.”22 This move is often referred to as “blockage” of available action, or “actional,” pathways.23 McKenna rightly points out, however, that “effectively polluting all alternative actional pathways within an agent’s control comes dangerously close to making that problematic deterministic assumption.” He proposes a new sort of blockage tactic—one in which the agent has oodles and oodles of morally insignificant alternatives “entirely open and within [her] control … alternatives that could not aid in grounding the judgment that an agent in a Frankfurt example is morally responsible for what she does.”24

To illustrate, McKenna offers a handful of examples, the most interesting of which is, I think, the Brain Malfunction case (developed with Widerker):

The mild-mannered philosophy professor Casper comes upon a completely unexpected and highly unusual opportunity. He has just entered a room and is standing in front of a technologically state of the art ‘Make-it-the-Case Device.’ Assume that Casper is justified in his true belief that the Make-it-the-Case Device is reliable and not merely a hoax.

On a large television screen at the top of the Make-it-the-Case Device appears a man dressed as a genie. The genie speaks:

Casper, just beneath this screen are two buttons, one marked ‘The Morally Good Thing to Do’ and another marked ‘The Morally Bad Thing to Do.’ Let us abbreviate them as ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ respectively. If you press the Bad button you will immediately make it the case that one million dollars are deposited into your bank account. The money will be drawn, in one-dollar increments, from the savings accounts of one million college professors. The transaction will be untraceable. If you press the Good button you will immediately make it the case that an entire village of people in the Amazon is cured of an otherwise fatal disease. Saving the villagers will not involve any money and by doing so you will not be stealing from your peers. You cannot select both buttons and this opportunity will not present itself again. You have ten seconds to select your option.

A timer appears on the screen and begins to count down from ten.

Casper pauses to consider these two options, quickly assessing the import of each. He considers the article he read in last Sunday’s New York Times on the villagers’ plight. He is fully aware of the urgency of their condition. He also considers his sparse salary as a philosophy professor and he squirms at the thought of stealing from his peers. Imagining that shiny red Mercedes convertible roadster in the window, as the counter ticks away from 3 seconds to 2 greedily he takes the plunge and presses the Bad button. ‘Ah, dinner out tonight!’ Casper thinks to himself.

As it turns out, although Casper was unaware of this difficulty, and although there is no reason Casper should have been aware of this difficulty, at the time at which Casper greedily decided to press the Bad button, Casper had a small lesion on his brain that blocked the neural pathway constitutive of (or correlated with) a decision to push the Good button during that ten second interval. Casper could not have decided to press the Good button.25

Before discussing the example, I should note that McKenna does not view it as a counterexample to PAP, but rather to PSA, a PAP upgrade that he proposes “ought to serve as the incompatibilist demand for alternative possibilities”:26

Principle of Morally Significant Alternatives for Blame: An agent S is morally blameworthy for performing action A at t only if she had within her control at t performing an alternative action B such that (1) performing B at t was morally less bad than performing A at t, and (2) it would have been reasonable for S to have considered performing B at t as an alternative to performing A at t given S’s agent-relative deliberative circumstances.27

Granting PSA, the first thought that springs to my mind is that Casper could have satisfied the principle by deciding not to push the Bad button. (He wouldn’t have done the best available option, i.e., pushing the Good button; but pushing no button is better than pushing the Bad button.) McKenna points out in Footnote 24 that “in conversation or correspondence, Carl Ginet, Al Mele, John Martin Fischer, and Randy Clark have each pressed this point.” McKenna thinks this could be resolved by building into the example the blockage of that decision. I don’t see how this would fix the problem, but the actual solution he pursues is “to convince the defender of alternative possibilities that the option of Casper’s simply deciding not to press the Bad button is deliberatively insignificant from Casper’s perspective.”28 In other words, that (2), and thus PSA, is violated given that it would not have been reasonable for Casper to consider not pushing the Bad button; and yet we still view Casper as morally responsible.

To convince us, McKenna compares Brain Malfunction to less farfetched cases he presented earlier in the paper. I don’t think I need to review those, though I of course recommend you read the paper for yourself. I think the relevant point is the following (bolded emphasis is mine):

Knowing something about Casper’s general framework of values, we might simply build into the case that Casper would find [the option of not pushing the Bad button] irrelevant. We might reason as follows: why in the world would such an alternative have occurred to him as a morally significant one? From his perspective he can either steal one million dollars from his peers in minor increments, or he can save a village from a deadly disease. Why would it occur to him to not steal a petty sum from each of one million of his peers, but to forgo saving the lives of the villagers? For Casper, it would be a perverse appreciation of the weight of moral reasons if Casper found the former compelling but not the latter. A different but related objection is that Casper had open to him the option of continuing to deliberate during the ten-second interval of time. He could have allowed the possibility of pressing either button to pass as he fretted over the various courses of action. Given the weightiness of his options, this is not implausible, and stopping to reflect upon the moral import of such a choice would seem a deliberatively significant option. But again, we can simply build into the case that Casper is just not this kind of deliberator.29

As I understand it, the claim here is that it wouldn’t occur to Casper to not push the Bad button because, in the context given, this would mean not pushing the Good button, either. In other words, it would mean he’s decided, on moral grounds, not to steal from his peers an amount of money so small that none of them would notice, while also deciding to not save the villagers. If the former is morally repugnant, the latter must be much more so. And yet, Casper chooses to steal from his peers—or, more accurately, opts for the cash payout—rather than save the villagers. In the end, Casper did something morally worse than push neither button, and he did so because of the kind of deliberator he is, or, in other words, due to his moral style.

It seems to me this leads us right back to the same two options we’ve had all along. That is, now, instead of the lesion playing the role of Black, it is Casper’s history, experience, genetic makeup, genes that determines what he finds relevant and thus what counts for him as a reasonable deliberative alternative. And so, as with Jones, Casper could have done otherwise by deciding not to push the button (or, more generally, by issuing some pre-decision signal “triggering” the lesion), but he didn’t because his moral style—i.e., some state of affairs he himself did choose—didn’t allow him to.

In other words, even if we accept the importance of (2)—which I do—it seems wrong to say that someone can be held morally responsible for the fact that the less moral outcomes are not within their scope of deliberation. Casper’s moral style didn’t even allow him to consider the possibility of deciding not to push the Good button, and instead led him to push the Bad button.

It seems, then, that if we’re meant to blame Casper, it’s not just for pressing the Bad button, but rather for not being the kind of deliberator who would consider morally relevant alternatives that would be blatantly obvious to the majority of people reviewing the case.* In short, for being too greedy. I reject this option, for reasons that must be obvious by now. Though McKenna might put take issue with putting it in these terms, I’m inclined to think he would not reject this option, given that Casper’s greed, or vulnerability to greed, seems to be what underlies Casper’s decision to do the worst thing; and yet this is not meant to get Casper off the moral hook, as the lesion would have. At any rate, I suppose the most I can assume, given the article, is that McKenna is committed to Casper being blamed for pressing the Bad button, despite the conditions of PSA failing.

(*In case this isn’t already clear: Casper not only has a brain lesion, but, most importantly, simply doesn’t view, for example, not pushing any button as a morally relevant alternative. The idea here is that Casper has loads of alternatives that simply aren’t morally significant, even though they might have resulted in not pushing either button. Examples given:

[Casper] could have allowed the possibility of pressing either button to pass as he fretted over the various courses of action. Given the weightiness of his options, this is not implausible, and stopping to reflect upon the moral import of such a choice would seem a deliberatively significant option. But again, we can simply build into the case that Casper is just not this kind of deliberator. Knowing his time was limited, Casper was well aware that dilly-dallying was as foolish a path to adopt as simply chucking it all and combing his hair slow and cool like James Dean. Casper knew that the time to act was brief, and Casper, being the ‘take charge’ kind of guy he is, would not allow this chance to pass. …

Imagine, for example that, unbeknownst to Casper, if in deliberating as to whether to press either button, were he to comb his hair, he would explode. Were he to have combed his hair (and exploded) he would not have pressed the Bad button. However, in his deliberative circumstances, it would not have been reasonable for him to have considered combing his hair as an alternative to pushing the Bad button. Hence, combing his hair is not a morally significant alternative to pushing the Bad button. As things transpired, he did not comb his hair and he did press the Bad button. …

Casper could have sung a little ditty and done a cutesy jig like Shirley Temple, finishing off with a set of jazz hands; or begun citing nursery rhymes; or made an attempt to eat his fist; or any of a number of equally ludicrous and irrelevant things.30

These silly examples are meant to emphasize the point that there are many alternatives open to Casper that simply wouldn’t occur to him. Some subset of these are less silly and, more importantly, may actually be morally significant, like explicitly deciding to not push the bad button. Notice that McKenna writes, “we can simply build into the case that Casper is just not this kind of deliberator,” which doesn’t strike me as all that different than saying, “a brain lesion made Casper do it.”)

It seems that McKenna’s solution to any viable alternative for Casper that would have entailed not pushing the Bad button is to either block that alternative with the brain lesion or simply make Casper “not that kind of deliberator.” Granted, it would be strange to suggest that Casper decide to instead, say, go pop some popcorn. But it also seems that Casper is smart enough to realize that that would entail not pushing the Bad button. Does anything that entails not pushing the Bad button need to be blocked? This isn’t how Brain Malfunction is meant to go: Casper has lots of alternatives open to him. Just not morally relevant ones. Unlike Jones, who only had one option open to him: decide to shoot Smith. Jones could not have decided to go pop some popcorn instead, even if he would not have explicitly decided not to shoot Smith, as it would have triggered Black’s intervention.  I assume we’re meant to grant that a decision entailing not shooting Smith would trigger the intervention.

Brain Malfunction seems to be set up differently than this: the lesion isn’t monitoring Casper for a decision not to do something the lesion wants accomplished (that Casper has already decided to do), so much as blindly blocking “the neural pathway constitutive of (or correlated with) a decision to push the Good button.” In other words, the lesion insures against deciding to perform, rather than not perform, a particular act. Does this allow for Casper to decide to do things that entail pushing the Good button? Could Casper, have, in his panicked indecision, decided to do whatever a flipped coin says to do? In this alternative, he doesn’t decide to push a button, but rather to do what the coin says. (If he pushes the Bad button in that case he’d not be let off the hook: [maybe] he could have changed his mind and decided to do the opposite of what the coin says; but pushing the Good button here, I bet we’d view him with suspicion, with the intuition that he should be held morally blameworthy for not making the decision himself; but it’s still better than simply giving into greed). Maybe, though, McKenna can just build into the example that the lesion blocks any decision that would entail—or might result in—pushing the Good button, including just leaving it up to fate by closing his eyes and throwing his cellphone at the machine with the hope that one of the buttons will be hit; in this context, doing that would be, I suppose, a morally significant alternative, and precisely the sort of act McKenna aims to close off.

Finally, it seems to me that the question of moral responsibility goes out the window once an agent’s range of available courses of action consists only of equally morally bad options, whether due to circumstances making those the only physically possible alternatives or, as might effectively be the case for Casper, due to the agent’s moral radar being equipped to detect only those alternatives as the viable ones (particularly when the agent didn’t design that equipment). This is true even if the agent navigates those alternatives with an utterly unfettered free will. To choose freely between equally morally bad alternatives is not to freely choose to do some morally bad thing; it is, rather, to freely choose among the only things one can do, all of which happen to be morally bad.

In the end, McKenna accepts that Brain Malfunction might not be the best example of what he’s driving at—for instance, on the grounds that there may be good reasons to think Casper did have available some deliberatively significant alternative. However, claims McKenna:

It is difficult to see what theoretical basis there could be for denying that no Frankfurt example could be constructed that closed off all and only the deliberatively significant alternatives while leaving open some of the insignificant ones. Thus, even if the example Brain Malfunction fails, some example should serve as an adequate counterexample to PSA.31

Perhaps there is PSA counterexample that isn’t vulnerable to the criticisms I’ve noted here, but I can’t think of one. And I wonder—and this goes for PAP counterexamples as well—what broader value would be added to our understanding of moral responsibility by an invulnerable counterexample that difficult to develop, particularly if it’s outlandish.32

Still, while I find McKenna’s cases both fascinating and instructive for exploring, as McKenna puts it, the reasonable sense there is “to be made of the difference between the class of deliberatively significant and deliberatively insignificant alternatives,”33 I take it the point of his argument is to persuade PAP-defenders, and so I can’t help but think that at some point it will make sense for PAP-deniers to let go of the PAP-attack project as such*, perhaps leaving that particular debate where it is, so that future philosophers interested in taking in the progress thus made in our understanding of the conceptual difficulties surrounding moral blame actually have a chance of digesting the important bits of the conversation.

(*Below, I’ll note that Frankfurt has fairly recently pointed out that what we should be primarily taking from his counterexample to PAP is a similar conceptual distinction.)

Otherwise, I’d be surprised to hear of an argument emerging victorious in this battle of the intuitions—for example, of someone constructing the sort of intuition-swaying theoretical basis whose possibility McKenna has a hard time imagining. For whatever reason, while McKenna’s intuition is that there must be some solid enough—maybe even undeniably solid—counterexample out there, it seems to my intuition a fair estimation that, nearly 50 years after Frankfurt’s original paper, any attempts at developing a counterexample to PAP (and clever variations, adjustments, etc. thereof) will run into the sorts of difficulties I’ve repeatedly pointed to here, and others have been pointing to for decades.

At any rate, there is certainly still a very important sense in which Frankfurt and McKenna are correct: the standard moral intuition—which guides our meting out of praise, blame, sentencing, clemency, and so on—is such that Jones and Casper should be held culpable for their deliberate actions.Indeed, Jones and Casper may themselves believe they have it coming to be—and might even desire to be—held morally accountable, blameworthy, responsible, etc. for their misdeeds. I think this a deeply important observation about how we tend to view human nature.

[NOTE: Over much of the below, my thoughts become increasingly inchoate, speculative, and rambling as I grapple with some of the finer points of this discussion that may be best saved for another day (if indeed worth developing at all). This is, after all, a rough first draft in need of trimming. One day maybe, if I have the time and motivation…]

And so, I’ll now re-center the discussion on a weaker claim that strikes me as getting to the heart of what’s at stake in this discussion; that is, how we should answer the question: Under what conditions do people deserve to be punished? There are different ways of parsing out that question. For example, given the usual meaning of words like “desert” and “punishment,” a reasonable parsing may be: Under what conditions is it morally Ok, or required, to make someone suffer, purely with the goal in mind of making them suffer  because the person has earned—i.e., is owed—that suffering, to a degree commensurate with the act(s) that earned that debt of suffering. Such punishment may take many forms, on a spectrum from cruel to humane; rather than get into that, I’ll simply assume that any reasonable discussion of the questions assumes that punishment should be fair, and a central goal in answering the question is to figure out what “fair” looks like.

It may be, though, that a different view of punishment should be adopted. This is, in fact the weaker claim I’ll promote here. Namely, I’d like to promote a view of punishment that has a different goal in mind than suffering for its own sake. Whatever suffering punishment brings would not be earned, so much as it would not be avoidable—for example, when there is no other option than to remove a dangerous person from society34, or for rehabilitation, or perhaps most utilitarian but, unsavory, of all, as a deterrent (unsavory as it amounts to a kind of human sacrifice if not genuinely deserved).35. I’ll say more about this elsewhere, but for now will simply make an appeal to those deep thinkers who believe suffering is owed for its own sake: If there is any doubt in your mind about whether I (and so many others) might be right in rejecting that view, then, whatever you actually believe, please consider that your safest moral bet might be to err, in practice, on the side of under-punishing. In other words, I wouldn’t want to cause suffering for its own sake unless I were really, really certain that it was morally required, and I wouldn’t want to inflict suffering as a means of deterring, rehabilitation, etc., except insomuch as it’s the best, or perhaps only, way of achieving those ends. (And if you believe in God, I imagine you believe the right punishment will be meted out eventually. Just in case we get it wrong, punishment need not be meted out by us. Right? If you’re a free will libertarian atheist… I’m not sure any of this is for you.)

I suppose this amounts to a kind of practical agnosticism about the compatibility of moral responsibility and determinism. (“Determinism,” or whatever word(s) we’d like to use to encapsulate the idea that people aren’t responsible for, in the sense of being the direct cause of, their desires, hopes, dreams, wills and, by extension, their actions, given that the action they ultimately perform was due to a will they didn’t cause. There are other ways—determinism friendly, or semantically compatible, ways—to use the word “responsible,” more about which below.) Put into practice so as to err on the side of under-producing suffering, this agnosticism would be well-served by the intuitive distinction emphasized by Frankfurt’s counterexample—that is, there do indeed seem to be critical differences between someone doing something un-coerced and doing it coerced. It certainly has important legal and social implications. More so, I think, than for discrediting PAP’s role in many people’s assignment of moral blame—i.e., it’s not as if coming up with some delicately successful Frankfurt case could somehow undermine the idea that PAP is ever really among those things that ground folk intuitions when assigning moral responsibility.

So, one way or another, Frankfurt’s example maintains power: whatever you mean in your daily life by terms related to moral responsibility, there is an important sense in which those locutions are compatible with determinism, such that PAP will often fail when those locutions are uttered within the context of a Frankfurt case. This semantic point strikes me as obvious.36

The 50-year impasse about Frankfurt problems and the like suggests to me at the very least cause for agnosticism, perhaps permanently so, such that should be reflected in the creation and administration of institutional policies, and so on. As things stand, we have a predominately retributivist legal system that views malefactors as deserving to suffer—as being owed suffering—in proportion to their malefactions. From what I’ve observed, however, there seems to be a growing move towards a compatibilist view of moral responsibility among legal practitioners37, which is a move in the right direction towards where a growing minority seem to be ending up—namely, that one cannot reasonably be blamed for one’s moral style.38 I think the next correct move—or at least the one most in line with the generally held view in the industrialized world of what counts as a morally progressing world—is semantic compatibilism.

Furthermore, we very well may be headed into an era in which arguments from scientists convinces increasing numbers of people—perhaps even lawmakers—that they don’t have moral responsibility for their actions. The effects such a widespread belief could have are yet to be seen (despite what a few, tightly controlled lab studies seem to suggest). In case such views become more common, having ready a transitional semantics that at once are non-retributivist and compatible with earlier meanings of terms like “desert,” “responsibility,” and “punishment” (perhaps the hardest word on the list39) might be handy for making the transition cleaner.

I’ll attempt to motivate the need for and plausibility of, rather than develop, such a lexicon here, while highlighting some of its difficulties, and difficulties in general with the view I’m promoting.

Something to observe early on is that we perhaps do not need alignment between the language of moral and legal responsibility, as morality and law are, of course, not the same thing. I’m using law, however, as a concrete example of a society-wide, institutionalized, codified application of our local intuitions about how human beings should be treated when they’ve brought harm to—or is an outstanding source of danger to—themselves or others.

This will certainly not always amount to a fair treatment of the person who is the source of danger. Consider the question of whether Jones should go to jail. In the standard telling of the story, his shooting of Black amounts to a deliberate, unjustified shooting; so, on the face of things, it does seem he should be separated from society and, in some shape or form, punished. In today’s usual meaning of the word “deserve,” we’d say Jones deserves to go to prison. Others, like me, might say Jones is legally, if not morally, responsible for shooting Smith. Some complications may arise here as the details of this story become more refined, which I’ll touch on in a moment. And what about the alternative scenario, in which Black’s intervention is triggered? Would Jones then deserve to go to prison? At first glance, it seems not. But now consider this question: Should Jones, once cleared by virtue of being made a puppet by Black, be let back into the world to get back to his usual life? Maybe.

Suppose it turns out that Black’s intervention is detected in Jones’s brain, but cannot be removed. Suppose Black remains at large, and thus likely able to maintain control of Jones at some point. What do do with Jones? What sort of behavior do we expect from Jones once he learns of Black’s past, and maybe continued, control over him? (We can of course imagine similar situations in which the person definitely should not be allowed to walk the streets. Imagine that, while you were sleeping, a foreign invader implanted in your body an un-removable nuclear bomb.)

Real-life situations tend not to be as clearcut as this, of course—sometimes the source of the behavior is as “simple” as a brain tumor; other times, who knows.

Under this view, from the legal and, more locally, interpersonal perspectives, the fundamental question of whether to remove someone from society—which precedes questions about what that removal looks like (quarantine? capital punishment?40)—has to do with the extent to which the person is a persistent (potential) source of harm. This comes with a lot of foreseeable challenges. As things stand, people are so removed for crimes that don’t seem to directly harm  anyone, such as for marijuana possession (apparently even if that person is a quadriplegic, as in the case of Jonathan Magbie).41Nor, as far as I know, is there any law on the books for arresting and trying people who are reasonably evaluated to be, say, 51% likely to be of harm to themselves or others at some point in the future; nor should there be, as that would be pretty much everybody (particularly if we consider indirect harm, and depending on how loosely we define “harm”). Indeed, how such things less formally play out in the U.S. has often been troubling (e.g., harsh sentencing or parole terms due to sharing too much in common with others who have committed worse crimes; nasty eugenicist programs; internment of Japanese Americans during WWII; racial profiling more generally; perhaps many other examples). In other cases, precautions are more justifiably taken as likelihood for causing harm increases (e.g., not allowing someone with a seizure disorder to drive despite not having had an accident; revoking the driver’s license of a drunk driver despite not having had an accident). Surely there’s much more to discuss here, particularly as quantitative approaches to such things become more common—from putting increasingly refined numbers on likelihood to commit suicide based on observable behavioral cues to risk assessment algorithms being used in the courtroom to predicting mental states and/or behavior based on Google searches and gene sequencing and measurable physiological changes when shown pictures (e.g., what to do if you find out your 5-year-old is likely to grow into a pedophile?).*

(*For more on these things, see:

Annual Research Review: Suicide among youth—epidemiology, (potential) etiology, and treatment” (2017 article by Christine B. Cha, et al)

Suicide (with Matthew Nock)” (2018 Very Bad Wizards podcast episode)

Algorithms in the Criminal Justice System” (webpage at Epic.org, seems to be from 2016)

Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are (2017 book by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz)

Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us (2013 book by Jesse Bering)

See the Wikipedia entry: “Fruit machine (homosexuality test)” for a real-life, dystopian flavored taste of this sort of tech being used quite poorly, tech-wise, but that’s not the point; the point is the moral dimension, which will become harder to navigate as the tech improves and we confront the question of when, if ever, it should be used for rooting out internal states we (at a given moment) hold as morally inappropriate; more on that another day.)

Another kind of complication goes: Imagine, after the shooting, Jones is given a pill that suitably alters his moral style so that we’re confident he’ll make morally acceptable choices in the future. Now should Jones be sent to prison or be punished? Neither, I think, but here’s the complication: I presume a consistent retributivist would maintain that Jones owes Smith’s family (and/or society) suffering. Some retributivists might think Jones should get the pill after time well served (which may also be seen as a deterrence measure), and only once he’s to be released into good society (where’s the punishment in a prison full of peaceful folks who’ve been cured of their bad judgement and violent inclinations?).

Similarly, but perhaps even more unsettlingly for some: Imagine that, after shooting Smith, Jones convinces the experts that the only person in the world Jones would ever want to harm is Smith, and that, going forward, he’ll behave admirably. Assume the experts are right. Should Jones be sent to prison? Again, under a retributivist system, Jones owes a debt of suffering (a sort of debt that many would consider it wrong of Jones to avoid paying, even if by suicide, unless it was of a particularly painful sort—turning oneself in and admitting guilt are often rewarded in such a system). Under a source-of-harm system, however, it might make no sense to punish him in any way that would be considered retributively just (or sufficiently scary for deterrence). This case is harder for me to make intuitive sense of than in the pill case. Perhaps because in the pill case, a procedure has taken place that has effectively rewired Jones’s brain so that he becomes a sufficiently different person—e.g., his sensitivities are now tuned so that, next time, the doubt-sequence of neurons will reliably fire.

Rationally, I don’t take this distinction to be significant, but perhaps it’s what my intuition is responding to. Rather than try to unravel that, I’ll comment on one of the central concerns with letting Jones go free. Note that deterrence seems to be a clear concern, but I’m focused here on whether someone deserves to be punished, particularly in the sense of owing suffering to someone else. Our answer to that question should play a crucial and transparent role in how punishment is carried out (transparent in the sense that, if, for example, people are punished primarily for reasons of deterrence rather than desert, this fact should be both worked into legal codes and made widely known).

Assume Smith’s death has left behind emotionally distraught family members, and that, unsurprisingly, they would consider it a further harm were Jones to go unpunished. They also believe, let’s assume correctly, that for him to be punished would bring them some degree of therapy; it might be going too far to say that their desire for retribution, their resentment and such, would be satisfied to completion given the right sort of punishment of Jones, but I think we can grant that at the very least it could bring them further harm to simply call it a day and send Jones off to live as if nothing had happened. I’ll call the family’s resentment and such “reactive attitudes,” after P.F. Strawson.

There are various ways of dealing with these attitudes.42 One is to say that they are owed retribution; such a sentiment is, of course, what grounds a retributivist justice. (For an argument holding essentially this view, see James Rachels’ 1997 article “Punishment and Desert,” which I’ll I respond to elsewhere.)

Another, and I think more promising, approach is restorative justice. Indeed, restorativejustice.org summarizes the approach as “a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior.” I’ll explore this more closely later, but for now will highlight the notion of “repairing harm,” towards which our aims should be redirected (rather than creating yet more suffering for its own sake). (For an argument drawing a line from Strawson to restorative justice, see Victoria McGreer’s 2010 article “Co-Reactive Attitudes and the Making of Moral Community,” which I’ll respond to elsewhere.)

So, restorative justice, let’s suppose, contributes to the project of helping victims of crime heal, something that can be administered in better or worse ways. I’ll again say that I think this project immensely important. I think the harm suffered by those victimized by crime should be thoroughly addressed, and I recognize how sensitive the issues surround that project can be. That in mind, I have limited sympathy for reactive attitudes, per se, as grounds for what happens to criminals. I don’t have space here to fully explain myself, but will briefly note that I fear that, left unchecked, reactive attitudes threaten to become justification for retribution, or worse I suppose, revenge. 43 Rather, reactive attitudes should, I think, be regulated in at least two ways. Namely, they should be sensibly tuned and directed. It would not seem sensible to crave retribution from a hurricane, or to seek revenge on someone who didn’t actually commit a crime (for example, if it turned out your wallet wasn’t stolen after all, but had fallen under your sofa, yet you still insisted on finding someone upon whom to take vengeance for its being stolen). We also might need to re-tune our attitudes towards Jones in the worlds in which we find out that Black’s intervention had been triggered after all; and it would be sensible to redirect our attitudes towards Black.

We retune and (at least try) to suppress our resentment at the behavior of loved ones with dementia, diabetes, certain mental disabilities and pathologies (e.g., brain tumor), while simultaneously in no way being committed to accepting abuse on these grounds. Resentment and anger and such don’t disappear in these cases (nor should we expect them too!), but we are excepted to at least strive to tune them appropriately. People will need to learn to do the same more generally, whatever the root causes of unfortunate behavior happen to be, if we wish to work towards a genuinely just society.

Determining what counts as an appropriate degree of resentment is, of course, a difficulty in itself. Behaviors that are currently considered innocuous and cause no discernible harm or trauma could in the future be seen as causing great harm, correctly or incorrectly. Imagine, for example, a future in which the false idea is spread that squirrels cause great harm and are to be avoided at all costs, resulting in widespread phobia. The mere sight—or even mention—of a squirrel could cause harm. And it would be genuine harm, perhaps even life-threatening. Those who, for whatever reason, are immune to the phobia, perhaps due to being aware of its history and groundlessness, would need to be very careful about what they do with their immunity. They might feel a duty to relieve people of their unnecessary suffering, as well as for the sake of squirrels and whatever role they play in ecological stability, but would also need to recognize the suffering and harm as real, and thus in at least some cases a rightly punishable offense. There are, in any society, harms that, though not as obvious as squirrel phobia, lie on a spectrum of socially constructed or subjective to objectively harmful (e.g., being set on fire requires no attendant ideas to be harmful; though even that could cause more or less psychologically suffering depending on why and how it’s done).*

(*An example from my own childhood. My kindergarten teacher told us children that the Devil lived in our classroom’s closet. We were to never go near it. I remember—or at least think I remember—at least one occasion in which Satan came out and chased us around the room. It was terrifying. He was bright red from head to toe—the classic style. Had I been told at the time, in particular before any of these goings-on, that the closet was home only to a mop and bucket and that the Devil was a man in a costume, not to mention entirely fictional, I might have been spared years of recurring nightmares.)

The point, or at least hope, is that as our reactive attitudes will be regulated, naturally and without too much protest, in accordance with our deepening understanding of the root causes of one’s beliefs, desires, behaviors, and so on. I regularly experience a small version of this when the subway conductor announces why our train is delayed (so much better than the natural assumption: you’re holding this train in order to make me annoyed and late).

It’s also important to consider the view one has of oneself as a worthy object of blame and punishment under a given understanding of such things within a given cultural context. It would not be surprising if Casper and Jones desired to see themselves punished in proportion to their crimes, nor that the expected form the punishment takes would be influenced by that understanding. This is, of course, a commonly cited worry among those who’d rather not see widespread acceptance of skepticism about free will (and the existence of God), and view that skepticism as a kind of license to harm at will. I don’t share that particular concern, at least not to the degree many others seem to, but certainly recognize that it requires addressing.

At any rate, I have been weaving here between concerns about what society demands and the shape of the law itself. As for the latter, the history of the law, at least as I understand it in the West, thankfully amounts in large part to a gradual peeling away of misconceptions about the nature of human psychological freedom—from the realization that a confession under extreme torture is not in fact freely made44, to the more recent understandings of the unreliability of witnesses and the susceptibility of people to remember things that never happened, including while being questioned as suspects who as a result may sincerely tender false confessions45—so that progress in the law amounts to a growing case against the compatibility of moral responsibility and determinism. In other words, to view malefactors as victims of biology and experience and, in a certain sense, earlier versions of themselves.

How far will—or should—this go? I don’t know, but it seems clear to me that we’re not there yet—i.e., even if there is a limit to this way of thinking, we haven’t yet taken it as far as we should. I take it this is largely due a critical conceptual and intuitive distinction whose importance proponents and skeptics about the compatibility of determinism and moral responsibility should agree on. This distinction grounds Frankfurt’s 1969 essay and provides its sticking power: there is an undeniable, morally tinged intuitive difference between Jones acting under his own steam, and acting under the influence of Black’s intervention. While I’ve pushed against the moral dimensions of that difference, I’ve accepted that it does reasonably point to important practical (i.e., legal) implications; my hope is that we can separate the two in some sensible way that preserves the moral integrity of individuals while also providing them with due protections. I think Frankfurt’s paper provides a nice starting point for teasing apart these concepts, and for then discussing whether we think the example provides evidence not only of the shape of our intuitions, but that they should take that shape (e.g., that they should lead to the conclusion that wrongdoers deserve to be punished). It seems to me that the latter claim is the critical move Frankfurt makes, and for which he most owes justification.

In a 2003 response to critics, “Some Thoughts Concerning PAP,” 46 Frankfurt responds to critics by firmly restating this distinction, thus homing in on the essence of his 1969 thesis. The response is aimed at Widerker in particular, but is broadly applicable to the “disconcertingly intricate” literature inspired by Frankfurt’s original paper. Some relevant passages:

It seems to me that Widerker, when he rejects the examples in question as ineffective, misses their most essential point. To be sure, if IRR47 can be successfully illustrated, so much the better. But the usefulness of the examples that Widerker finds unsatisfactory does not really depend upon supposing that they describe circumstances that actually make an action altogether unavoidable while playing no role in bringing the action about. The examples effectively undermine the appeal of PAP even if it is true that circumstances that do not bring an action about invariably leave open the possibility that the action might not be performed….

What the examples are essentially intended to accomplish is to call attention to an important conceptual distinction. They are designed to show that making an action unavoidable is not the same thing as bringing it about that the action is performed….

But are we also to suppose that [Jones] is off the hook when he makes the decision entirely on his own?…

We [who reject PAP] claim, in other words, that it may be entirely reasonable to blame a person for having done something that he cannot reasonably be expected to have avoided doing. In our judgment, this may be reasonable when the person has performed the action in question—like Jones—entirely for reasons of his own and thus of his own free will. The fact that he could not reasonably be expected to have done otherwise is morally irrelevant when the circumstances that make it unreasonable to expect him to have done otherwise had nothing to do with leading him to do what he did.48

The final paragraph above closes the essay, but is topped off with the only substantial footnote in this roughly six-page essay. Here, Frankfurt elaborates on the practical implications of the intuitions stoked by his conceptual distinction—what I draw from this amounts to a practical distinction between moral and legal blame. In other words, determinism may be exculpatory in a moral, but not legal, sense. This note also doubly reinforce my sentiments, expressed above, that it shouldn’t be puzzling that Frankfurt and similarly minded PAP-denying compatibilists are not deterred by determinism, so long as as the relevant deterministic mechanisms are a feature of the wrongdoing agent (bold emphasis is mine)49:

In fact, a person may be blameworthy for performing an action that he could not reasonably have been expected to avoid performing, even when the circumstances that made that expectation unreasonable did actually lead him to do what he did. Suppose that someone wants very much to perform a certain morally reprehensible action, that he has no inclination to avoid performing it, that no one manipulates or even influences him in any way, and that he finally performs the action just because he wants to perform it. Let us suppose further that his attitudes and tendencies in this matter are so deeply and so transparently entrenched in his character as to be entirely predictable. Given the sort of person that he plainly is, in other words, there is really no possibility that he will not perform the reprehensible action. The fact that he does perform it is no surprise. Indeed, it would be quite unreasonable to expect him to do otherwise. But would it make sense, in a situation of this sort, for the person who performs the reprehensible action to maintain that the inevitability and predictability of his action are exculpatory? Could he claim, with any plausibility at all, that he is to be exonerated for what he did in view of the fact that it was unreasonable to expect him to have done otherwise? Surely not. After all, the expectation was unreasonable just because he is known to have such a reliably awful character that he can be counted on to behave badly. Being a bad person is not exculpatory. The fact that someone has a bad character, although it may make reprehensible behavior impossible for him to avoid, does not provide him with a good excuse.50

Do these comments provide reasonable hope for a practical compromise between determinism-accepting compatibilists and incompatibilist free will skeptics? This would amount to an agreement that, despite determinism being true, those who harm or are a danger to others must be dealt with in some way that doesn’t simply let them off the hook, but that also recognizes the possibility that their harmful behavior was impossible to avoid. In other words, while those in sustained and serious engagement with these questions may disagree about moral responsibility, I take they do agree about legal responsibility. The question then becomes what form dealing with wrongdoers should take given the nature of this agreement.

With that, I restate my weaker plea: to center future discussions of Frankfurt cases on this their practical implications as a question of legal culpability. Otherwise, we are remain at an impasse of intuitions. Focusing on legal responsibility still of course carries over the most relevant intuitions—namely those having to do with conditions for deserving to suffer, which will be grounded in moral concerns; but does so with, I think, a more appropriate degree of nuance. Perhaps this means encouraging agnosticism all around about the moral dimensions of these cases, though I also recognize that this might seem like a move to vindicate the incompatibilism of free will skeptics, in practice if not in name.

Addendum: Brief Thoughts Concerning Philosophical Impasse

[Note: These are some quickly jotted down meta-philosophical thoughts that’ve been lurking in the background here—ill formed, disorganized, naive. In short, word-vomit. I include them, if against my better judgement (you should see the stuff I’m not including), as I’d like to have them attached here—specifically here—if I ever look back on this writing. I also have some other drafts stashed away dealing with related topics, where maybe this stuff’ll one day find better homes.]

Maybe, then, as is seemingly common with philosophically fraught questions*, the impasse of intuitions observed here will endure, at least among some philosophers, leaving practical discussions to the intuitions of neuroscientists, psychologists, social scientists, lawyers, judges, folk psychologists, journalists, jurors, and, broadly, “common sense.” Not to say there aren’t some philosophers doing work that has practical application beyond abstract arguments about evil-genius neuroscientists. In the meanwhile, the call for reform is obvious, and retribution is a heavy weight to hold up, especially for those on the giving and receiving ends.

(*Which, of course, is not restricted to academic philosophy, but also underlies arguments in mathematics and the social and hard sciences. I take these arguments to all come down to intuition [or, in more cynical instances, whatever best suits personal ambitions]. And I take attempts to bear out those intuitions to be philosophical when they aren’t arguments that can be explicitly agreed on, at least intersubjectively, by observation. Indeed, the point is that all those engaged in such discussions observe precisely the same phenomena or data. They all understand the math, they understand—at least to some intersubjectively efficient degree—one another’s arguments for the superiority of a given pet theory. Yet each of us seems content—or sometimes with conviction—to continue on with intuitively grounded pet theories.

In this condition, one seems to hold onto the thought that: “In arguing with you, I aim to trap you into the maze of your own twisted logic, then lead you out the other side, where my conclusions lie.” “Right back at you,” says the interlocutor. Such mutual attempts at guidance, at their most refined, boil down to an ongoing exchange of appeals to intuition about which way to turn next down a pitch-dark path. These appeals may take the form of elaborate thought experiments, or they may be small and simple. “Whatever the truth of the universe, expect it to be highly counterintuitive,” has become a common trope among theoretical physicist’s appeals to intuition (perhaps most often the intuitions of non-experts; especially when the “truth” in question sounds radically silly). And I’m beginning to think there’s some law binding consciousness researchers who, when pressed to justify their intuitive denial of the Hard Problem of consciousness’s intractibility—even to other experts (if there is a such a thing as an expert about consciousness per se, rather than about the operational categorizations [e.g., for anesthesiologists, coma researchers, dream researchers], and the history and literature of consciousness-related pet theories)— to do so with, “Well, we’ve scienced away our belief in an élan vital, therefore the same will happen with the Hard Problem.” Neither of these “arguments” appeal to my intuition, certainly not as grounds for some specific radically silly sounding theory*, nor do they convince many experts in those fields who understand the evidence as well as they do.)

(*A recent example that stakes [what at least I would consider] farfetched claims in cosmology and consciousness research, that I might say more about later: “Could Multiple Personality Disorder Explain Life, the Universe and Everything?” It essentially argues that the universe is a singular conscious entity that has multiple personality disorder (or dissociative identity disorder, or DID) and that we are its alters. The article is fascinating at least for its discussion of DID. I haven’t read the original paper, which is here: The Universe is Conscious; I would of course want to read it, rather than relying on the brief SciAm post, before saying anything further for fear of not doing it justice [which, if you’re going to read it and aren’t familiar with the basics of pansychism, the hard problem of consciousness, idealism, and mereology, you might want to read up on those things first; perhaps I’ll write up a quick post at some point giving an overview of how these things relate, with some thoughts on the DID theory, which is also interesting to consider in the broader context of the fact that we are still so far from knowing how to even begin addressing the hard problem of consciousness that there has been made possible—there is plenty of room for—an explosion of incompatible theories rendered untestable due to their heavy reliance on intuition; I think this explosion is fueled more than just by a desire to understand consciousness, but also by increasingly strange arguments coming from serious thinkers about the nature of reality [e.g., do we live in a computer simulation? does everything that can happen somewhere in the multiverse? there a non-zero probability that a black hole somewhere just spit out a replica of Charles Darwin.], a need for click-bate, and a desire to catch up with SciFi [even Silicon Valley is science fiction compared to what we’re actually able to do; much less Westworld].

Finally, I mentioned the law of ambitious consciousness researchers referencing the élan vital. I did a search, and found that the paper’s author—Bernardo Kastrup, an ongtological idealist and computer engineering PhD—has a blog post in which he discusses élan vital in a related, though somewhat different context; namely, he describes its discrediting as one of many contributions to the broader, more gradual scientific [or at least scientific-community-run] project of rejecting meaning in nature: “Taboo Against Meaning.”)

Perhaps a basic role of philosophy now is to point out when debates—especially purportedly empirical ones—have devolved to a battle of intuitions. I’d say that’s an important role to have. The Greeks—Zeno, Socrates, etc.—had their aporia, and we’ve not yet come to terms with at least some of that content in the thousands of years since (intuitive responses to those problems tend not to hold up to close scrutiny—often, at best, they ground what turn out to be technical responses within a fairly well-established domain, of the sort that makes it possible to say, for example, that honeybees are “altruistic” [in a specialized meaning of that word] or that there are different sizes of infinity [in a specialized meaning of that word; math chmess?]; in essence, a conflation of rigidly defined models with the relatively messy world those models are meant to map onto; I’ll pose some of my deeper questions about these things elsewhere). But I’d like to think philosophers have something more than this to contribute—something more than being a gadfly with a microscope. I’d like to think philosophers can help solve problems. Not just as servants to scientists, but as architects of applicable concepts and build-able structures—where “structure” refers to any sort of scheme that connects objects, animals, concepts into a coherent and functional system.

Around 2013, Frankfurt (who received his PhD in 1954) wrote, “I believe that there is, at least in this country, a more or less general agreement among philosophers and other scholars that our subject is currently in the doldrums. … Except for a few contributors of somewhat less general scope, such as Habermas, no one has replaced the imposingly great figures of the recent past in providing us with contagiously inspiring direction. Nowadays, there are really no conspicuously fresh, bold, and intellectually exciting new challenges or innovations. For the most part, the field is quiet. We seem, more or less, to be marking time.”51 He goes on to say that he thinks there’s a good likelihood that end of this period of “intellectual quiescence” will come “from the direction of religion.” (He explicitly refrains from saying whether this will be a good or bad thing.) If he’s right about the doldrums, I don’t know what will bring that end about, but, whatever direction it comes from, I hope it serves to bring philosophy back in from the margins, which I can’t imagine happening without addressing problems that matter to people.

I’m inclined to think Frankfurt’s right about the doldrums and that “marking time” amounts, in its most unproductive forms, to working hard to uncover high-order truths about what Daniel Dennett has called “chmess”—a game like chess, but with slightly altered rules and that no one actually plays. And yet, a densely complicated—a “disconcertingly intricate”—literature grows about chmess.52

Perhaps too many philosophers are chmess-obsessed. But I’m not an academic and have had only an inside glimpse into that world. Not to mention that many of the whackiest theories I’ve seen recently haven’t come from philosophers, but from scientists engaging in philosophical speculation about things like consciousness and “the nature of reality” as ostensibly inferred (or wildly speculated) from grounds framed as mathematical or empirical, but come across as intuitive or even faith-based (interestingly, they often seem to be influenced by some of the more radical views coming out of philosophy in recent decades).

On the other hand, I’m familiar with plenty of philosophers who don’t seem to me (note the emphasis) to be chmess-obsessed—in fact, who seem to be anything but. That’s in large part why I majored in philosophy in college, a decision I not only don’t regret, but to which I still don’t see any (for me) viable alternative; and why I still try, as my resources and time allow, to pay attention to the field. And perhaps the numbers of non-chmess-obsessed are growing. In this 2015 Leiter Reports blog post, it’s pointed out that “lots of younger philosophers dissented from [Frankfurt’s] proposition that their field is in the doldrums” (it also included a survey, the results of which are sadly no longer up). On the other other hand, I earlier mentioned the Very Bad Wizards podcast, which is hosted by a philosopher and social psychologist. A common theme on the show is for the philosopher, Sommers, to rant about his disdain for the prevalence of philosophers arguing over ever-finer examples in an attempt to solve impossible conceptual problems: e.g., knowledge, Sommers often notes, has never been taken to be justified-true-belief in all cases of the word’s usage, and so there’s simply nothing to be concerned about in the face of counterexamples (primarily, Gettier cases).

That said, it seems plausible that historians looking back may view mid- to late-20th-century philosophy as an era of people spinning their wheels in the muck of ever-stickier thought puzzles—of chmess. Not that chmess hasn’t existed in the past. I’m sure it has. Pet theories most certainly have. I’ve been too hard on pet theories. Goethe’s pet theories about light and color may have lost to Newton as far as cultural acceptance goes, but they still had a valuable contribution to make—e.g., see the account in James Gleick’s 1987 book, Chaos: Making a New Science, for a fascinating account of Goethe’s research and thought on mathematical physicist and chaos theory pioneer Mitchell Feigenbaum. And there have been plenty of instances when what seemed like intellectual pursuits made for their own sake, especially into math, have ended up being of value (e.g., non-Euclidean geometries for Einstein); though I think what we think of as tech/scientific progress more often happens when the tinkering is with physical stuff (e.g., leading to the invention of lasers); for contemporary philosophy, there may be less of a case for this (I mean, it seems we’re actually seeing some applications for mereology in the discussion of consciousness, due to a seemingly increasing number of scientists taking up panpsychism, in which one finds a combination problem).

Chmess, on the other hand, is not just a pet theory. It’s a set of pet theories bolsters by a structure that exist—indeed are understood to exist?—only for the sake of supporting those pet theories.

I’m sure that, in many cases, pet theories do more good than harm. It’s not clear that work on chmess does. (Then again, if you and your friends invent your own game and get something out of the interaction, that’s your business. There seems to be something more at stake, some opportunity lost, some kind of negligence [perceived, though perhaps quite unfairly so!, as being enacted with something like an air of smug self-righteousness] that attends a lifelong dedication to chmess. Insert here 1,000 nuances and alternative interpretations: “Chmess” is what I’m supposed to call the interests happen to have that I don’t share or don’t understand in a technical sense or don’t understand the broader significance of. I myself have thought a lot about things I’m convinced are important but that other people have vehemently declared a waste of time. Do people ever self-identify as working on chmess but keep doing it for whatever reason? Could one of these reasons [self-identified or not] be a fear or even a kind of well-intended respect, particularly felt by certain social groups, of wandering into socio-politically charged [or in some cases and contexts off-limits] territory, and so one focuses on abstraction and Frege puzzles and math and multiverses and other [seemingly] apolitical minutia?…)

Notice also that the scholastics—i.e., those theologically inclined philosophers working especially before the the Scientific Revolution and Modern Philosophy were ushered in by the likes of Galileo, Descartes, Spinoza, Newton, Leibniz—had their own version of “chmess,” but it was far more culturally relevant (e.g., regarding such metaphysical questions as how transubstantiation works). Perhaps then, the comparison is unfair: people actually played that “game.” And at such high stakes.

Perhaps the more abstract puzzles of the past, some semblance of which have seeped over into the current day (set theory, however axiomatized; diachronic identity; getting something from nothing). But at least math has enough consistency to admit of proofs. And science has its predictive power (one need not be a realist about it). Probability, too, with all its fascinating philosophical problems, is powerful (I sometimes wonder if its most attractive feature is giving one the ability to say, “see, I was right: I said that it was objectively true about the world that there was a 33% chance that event X would happen, and event X did happen!”—I heard tell that Nate Silver said something like this about his Trump predictions; if so, he’s right: 33% is a significantly greater probability than, say, tossing two heads in a row; yet, there’s something funny about this picture). And logic may be tested and refined in application; e.g., computer science. But the seemingly most relatable domains of discourse—those involving natural language and the concepts resulting from that and other sorts of human interaction—may be irrevocably messy, vague; and thus the least relatable of all, if the most representative of Reality. Perhaps philosophers would do well to enter the space separating these realms: that of the ill-defined and the well-defined. There’s a temptation to view this as a hybrid species—part analytic part continental (or postmodern) philosopher; but I imagine it as something altogether new. We’ll see.

Finally, maybe it’s not just philosophy that’s in the doldrums. Indeed, maybe philosophy isn’t in the doldrums at all, but other fields are—namely those that have a history of relying too much on a strict rejection of metaphysics (something I’m not advocating here: I believe in the compatibility of metaphysical notions of personhood and deterministic blockage of free will, for example, something explicitly argued against in the aforementioned book on law-meets-neurosciences by Alces; I don’t know that I’d go so far as to accept that there’s meaning in nature per se, however, aside from what conscious minds put there—see again the aforementioned blog post by Kastrup).

There seems to be an increased reliance on metaphysics in the harder sciences, which, for example, are beginning to take an interest in things like emergence and, again, more radical ideas about consciousness (if not in the field of physics per se, I’m noticing it a lot of what may turn out to be physicists otherwise bored with their native discipline). Speaking of which, on my short to-read list is this book, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, in which theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder seems to cast physics as being in a kind of doldrums over the last 30 or 40 years, a problem that due to various reasons (economic, groupthink, what she calls beautiful theories…) is leading physicists to accept and pursue silly ideas and come up with quick-fix patches (in the tradition of “let’s just add more epicycles”) rather than try to actually fix a broken field. Physics chmess? (One commenter there, defending the book against a one-star review, echoes sentiments similar to those I’ve been expressing here: “Indeed, the world could use the brilliant minds now chasing beautiful math illusions, to use their minds to create and understand more real physics and maybe create new GPS and MRI.”) (Maybe Hossenfelder will explain how multiple physicists can look at the exact same math and confidently determine that theirs is the best interpretation of that math among the several competing interpretations. That happens, right?)

Maybe it’s not philosophy at all that’s in the doldrums, but that is uniquely poised to pull other “serious” areas of intellectual endeavor (including some of the social sciences) out of their own, isolated doldrums; or perhaps it can serve as a kind of moderator between fields for that process. Perhaps this should be done in collaboration with the arts. Alright, this is getting a bit romantic.

(It’s often noticed that students of architecture, art history, psychology, [cultural] anthropology, sometimes psychology, and plenty of other fields find themselves reading and responding to philosophers; usually mid-20th-century “continental” folks, with some earlier stuff thrown in. I’ve wondered what benefit there may be to updating that reading list to living philosophers.)

Other relevant observations: I’ve seen complaints that philosophy is muzzled by increasing political intentions and, simultaneously, polluted by overemphasis of the value of personal opinion—of pet theories; as when an undergraduate or even younger student is expected to have opinions on a range of questions that not even longterm academics and researchers have developed a consensus about (“Was math developed or discovered?” “Do chimps have theory of mind?” “Why did that 12th century Japanese village have that particular rule of etiquette that you just learned about five minutes ago?” “Are multiverses real?”—a positive product of a democratic ethos? or a tyranny of unearned confidence on the part of the ignorant?); I don’t know what any of this might have to do with intellectual stagnation, but I do think the latter is responsible for why we see, for example, so many YouTube commenters confidently asserting that all mathematicians are wrong about what to anyone familiar with probability would consider to be a trivially obvious problem (e.g., whether, when flipping two quarters, to include twice as many H and T results in a sample space than either HH or TT; or perhaps they are simply taking advantage of YouTube as a forum for venting their frustration for some of the difficult ideas they must simply nod their heads along with in school… perhaps it’s a mix; I don’t know; I’m certainly on board with not simply accepting something one doesn’t believe [which is precisely the attitude I encouraged in a writing I posted about the sample space phenomenon], though I presume there are less and more productive ways to go about it).

This glorification of personal opinion might also be responsible for the annoying and seemingly increasingly common rhetorical move in which Person A says X, to which Person B responds, “Your mouth produced the sounds of X, but what you really meant to say—that is, what you actually said—is Y.” Where X is something fine to say and Y is something horrible to say, and Y makes Person A out to be precisely the sort of villain Person B would like for Person A to be. In its worse manifestations, Person B feels entitled to say, “It’s my opinion that you mean something other than X, and in fact not only that you are merely pretending to mean X, but that you believe you believe X, but, in my correct opinion, are incorrect in that belief.

Or maybe people are just bored and need something to do while waiting for the next big thing.


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Further Reading

Footnotes:

  1. Harry G. Frankfurt, The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 66, No. 23 (Dec. 4, 1969), pp. 829-839. At JSTOR as well as in this 2006 collection devoted to discussion of Frankfurt’s argument: Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities: Essays on the Importance of Alternative Possibilities. The collection was republished in 2016, seemingly with no updates.
  2. Pages 17, 21, 22 of Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities.
  3. I believe this example is due to David Widerker, originating in a 1995 paper I’ll discuss below.
  4. Of course, blameworthiness does not just come down to what one finally decides. The fact that Jones, left to his own devices, would seriously deliberate over such a decision at all brings with it at least an air of blameworthiness. Rather than spend time on this, much less its many variations (e.g., How blameworthy will Jones be viewed when he changes his mind right after deciding to pull the trigger, but before he is able to veto that action as his finger is already in motion?), I’ll assume that deciding not to shoot Smith is the least blameworthy thing Jones can do here. This, while acknowledging that, all else being equal, we tend to view as more blameworthy—and more dangerous?—the shooter who aimed for a leg but hit the head, than the shooter who aimed for the head but hit a leg.
  5. In order to avoid discussions about determinism versus fatalism, I’m assuming that every relevant thing that happens in Jones’s body and environment is exactly what would have happened with or without Black’s presence, with the exception of two things: the event issuing from Jones that would have triggered the intervention, and the physical implementation of the intervention mechanism (though perhaps this need not amount to anything physically different occurring within Jones). One way to challenge Frankfurt’s counterexample is to argue that Jones’s triggering of the intervention amounts to “doing otherwise.” That’s my central claim, in fact. But I’d like to pose this challenge under the assumption that Frankfurt is not conflating fatalism (i.e., X is going to happen, one way or another) and determinism (X is going to happen in a particular way). An example of fatalism would be if Jones changes his mind about shooting Jones, but then slips on a banana and falls, accidentally pulling the trigger. Jones might still have the wherewithal to shoot into the air, but the bullet traces a series of improbable ricochets—starting with being deflected back to Earth by a sheet of metal that had fallen off a passing airplane—that results in the bullet entering Smith’s eyeball. Frankfurt’s example is clearly not meant to be of this sort, but rather requires that Jones comes to the same decision, resulting in the same willful actions and so on, with or without Black’s presence.
  6. “Libertarianism and Frankfurt’s Attack on the Principle of Alternative Possibilities,” David Widerker, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 104, No. 2 (Apr., 1995), pp. 247-261. At JSTOR. For a later response from Widerker, see “Blameworthiness and Frankfurt’s Argument Against the Principle of Alternative Possibilities,” Chapter 3 of Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities (2006).
  7. See Footnote 8 of Widerker’s paper and Footnote 3 of Franfurt’s
  8. Admittedly, I don’t make fine distinctions here about differing compatibilist views. For example, what I refer to here as “compatibilism,” others might call “semi-compatibilism,” where the former sees determinism as compatible with free will and moral responsibility; while the latter sees determinism as compatible with moral responsibility (whether or not determinism is compatible with free will). For a discussion of this distinction in a context that refers to Frankfurt’s argument, see John Martin Fischer’s essay “Semi-Compatibilism” in The Routledge Companion to Free Will (2016), in which Fischer refers to the sort what I’ve just called “compatibilism” as “classical compatibilism.” See also Bernard Berofsky’s article “Classical Compatibilism” in that same volume, and Berofsky’s use (in a discussion of Frankfurt cases) of the terms “classical compatibilism” and “strong compatibilism” in his 2006 essay “Classical Compatibilism: Not Dead Yet” in the aforementioned volume Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities.
  9. I borrow the “under his own steam” wording from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s “Compatibilism” entry.
  10. Page 339, Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities.
  11. A strange idea. Suppose Black’s plan is leaked to Jones before his confrontation with Smith, but after Black’s mechanism is already rigged up. There is no act we’d morally require of Jones that wouldn’t trigger the intervention. At any rate, suppose Jones does in fact wish to shoot Smith, and Jones presumes this to be his own free wish (let’s assume he’s right, though I don’t think it matters). Jones concocts a plan to secretly trigger the intervention in order to be let off the hook for shooting Black. If Jones’s plan is uncovered, it may seem that he shouldn’t be let off the hook, as he’s now using Black just as much as Black is using him. But I’m not so sure. For example, suppose Black’s tech is too sophisticated for Jones’s plan. To trigger the intervention, Jones would have to actually change his mind, or at least issue the unconscious signal that he was about to. This makes it appear that Jones should be let off the hook. But he only endeavored to fool the trigger in order to shoot Smith blame-free. Jones would have ended up shooting Smith whether or not he learned of Black’s plan. Should he or should he not be let off the hook here? We could also consider a variation where Jones was on the fence about shooting Smith, and learning of Black’s plan tipped him.
  12. I’m assuming that if Jones experiences doubt, his body or physiology exhibit some corresponding material or behavioral representation that Black can reliably detect. In other words, I hope I’m not begging the question by framing Jones’s issuing of a “doubting” signal as “experiencing” doubt—i.e., so that doubt is something that happens to Jones, rather than something Jones does. I emphasize this because I will argue that the appearance of doubt is indeed something that either happens to Jones or doesn’t, and is out of his control. It just so happens that “experiences doubt” is a natural way of speaking, and strikes me as less question-begging than something impersonally robotic like, “issues some materially or behaviorally detectable doubting signal.” Nor do I think it helps matters to use language like, “Jones doubts” or “Jones exhibits/has doubt” etc.
  13. We might suppose Black can recognize if Jones’s doubt is a threat, or even whether it will lead to a decision not to shoot Black. Accounting for this simply requires adjusting the story to ask whether Jones could have experienced the sort of doubt that would have triggered the intervention—what we might call “non-perfunctory” doubt.
  14. As I finish this writing, I’ve just started reading Peter van Inwagen’s 2017 collection, Thinking about Free Will. I’ve read the Introduction and “The Problem of Fr** W*ll” (Chapter 13). Both are gems. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about the collection later (which I find as intriguing for van Inwagen’s meta-philosophical insights as for his thoughts on free will), but for now will share, with no comment, some points van Inwagen makes in the Introduction relevant to Frankfurt’s attack on PAP and to the question of how Jones’s moral style came about; I presume these ideas are further elaborated in the book (perhaps the first and third chapters). Note that van Inwagen writes here about himself in the third person:

    Consider a man who is, in middle age, a corrupt politician and is, owing to his corrupted nature, unable to refuse bribes when he believes there is no significant likelihood of the bribery coming to light. That is how he is, but how did he get that way? Suppose the answer is this: As a young man, he made a certain series of free choices, choices preceded by genuine deliberation, which collectively had the effect of establishing him in settled and unbreakable habits of venality. Van Inwagen argued—guided, I suppose, by Aristotle—that this politician can properly be held morally responsible for the baleful effects on the public welfare of the informal services he renders to his political cronies in return for money. And this despite the fact that he is unable, in middle age, to reject the bribes he is offered. He can properly be held responsible for, say, the deaths of the four children in the fire in the building that wasn’t up to code, because he could, as a young man, have avoided becoming the sort of man who would be unable to resist the bribe offered by the slumlord who owned the building….

    Van Inwagen has always thought that Frankfurt’s argument—which, of course, consists in the presentation of a certain sort of counterexample to the Principle of Alternative Possibilities—has a great deal of force and has never been shown conclusively to be mistaken. His position has never been that Frankfurt’s proposed counterexamples to the Principle of Alternative Possibilities fail; his position has been rather that even if these counterexamples succeed, even if the Principle of Alternative Possibilities is false, the existence of moral responsibility nonetheless requires the existence of free will.

    I have used the qualified phrases “has a great deal of force” and “has never been shown conclusively to be mistaken” because, although van Inwagen is inclined to think that Frankfurt’s counterexamples show that the Principle of Alternative Possibilities is false if it is meaningful at all, he’s also inclined to think that it’s meaningless….

    Van Inwagen has never been able to convince himself that he understands sentences like ‘Bill is morally responsible for lying under oath’. It has always seemed reasonably plain to him that what one is morally responsible for is not one’s acts but the consequences of one’s acts, or, more exactly, certain of the consequences of one’s acts—for no one would suppose that one could be responsible for all the consequences of one’s acts….

    Van Inwagen, as I have said, has long doubted whether the Principle of Alternative Possibilities does make sense. But he has also been fairly sure that if he’s wrong about this and the sentence ‘A person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise’ does express some proposition, the proposition it expresses is false, and that Frankfurt’s counterexamples show this. To recapitulate, van Inwagen thinks that (a) the Principle of Alternative Possibilities is either nonsensical or false, and that (b) moral responsibility nevertheless requires free will – that if anyone is morally responsible for anything, there must be something that person had a free choice about. (Pages 8–10 of the Cambridge University Press Kindle Edition.

  15. There is, of course, a more complicated and careful story to be told here. For example, I’ve included sensitivity to environment as an attribute of moral style, and have also implied that it is one of the things that contributes to the development of the attributes of moral style. In other words, an earlier sensitivity to environment will contribute to how one’s sensitivity to environment develops over time. This isn’t all that strange. A critical point here is that sensitivity to environment extends back to the womb, at a point when it would make no sense to talk about sensitivity to reasons.

    That in mind, in addition to the philosophical considerations Frankfurt’s arguments engender about the development of moral style (e.g., as a function of one’s earlier free choices; see previous footnote on van Inwagen), one might approach the question from a scientific perspective that examines psychological, biological, environmental, cultural, social, evolutionary factors, and so on. The best starting point I know for that is Robert Sapolsky’s 2017, 800-page Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. In Chapter 13, Sapolsky considers, on a more philosophical note, the moral and legal implications of free will skepticism—a skepticism I share with him, and that I agree seems to be the natural conclusion to arrive at given our current understanding of the world. Such conclusions are, of course, ultimately intuitive, and thus come down not to arguments about what the data are, but rather what they mean.

  16. It think it relevant to point out when considering the forces that act on the entity—i.e., the set of a certain kind of events—we call a “person,” that, from a certain metaphysical perspectives, biology is a feature of the person’s external environment. A dualist view in which the soul is the person’s true essence would be an obvious example of such a view, but I think there there are much better examples to be found in physicalist accounts that view “external” and “internal” as different categories, if only for conceptual convenience. Standard interoception may be interesting to consider here, but I think a more interesting example is the experience of a phantom limb, which is, in some obvious sense, an “internal” mistake about the physical, or “external,” world. In this sense, the body is external to the internal subject.

    What counts as a “mistake” is difficult to parse (thus my wording: “some obvious sense”), but interesting to consider here. It’s not a “mistake” to examine a mirror’s surface and perceive it as smooth, even though blowing it up to a much greater size would reveal deep canyons in the glass. Nor is it a “mistake” to experience the frequencies 440 Hz and 440.0000000000000000001 Hz as the same pitch. But there does occur a “mistake” of a certain kind (even if it’s a useful one) when one is taken in by an optical illusion, or is unable to distinguish 440 Hz and 450 Hz (or some wider interval), or when believing that the stick really does take on an L shape while submerged in water (a kind of optical illusion we’re expected to not be taken in by), or when hallucinating. What’s interesting here is that these are question about certain sorts of correspondence relations between experience and the presumed sources of those experiences, the former being “internal,” the latter “external.” It’s not clear at what point, if any, that shift (even conceptually) happens from external to internal—it’s not strictly the body (see again the phantom limb).

  17. In the first version of this draft, I began a survey of the literature, summarizing and considering responses from, for example: “Responsibility and Control,” John Martin Fischer The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 79, No. 1 (Jan., 1982), pp. 24-40. (At JSTOR.); “Frankfurt on the Principle of Alternate Possibilities,” Margery Bedford Naylor, Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the AnalyticTradition, Vol. 46, No. 2 (Sep., 1984), pp. 249-258. (At JSTOR.); and Philosophical Perspectives, Vol. 10, Metaphysics (1996), pp. 403-417. (At JSTOR and in the 2016 volume Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities, which includes a 2001 Addendum responding to criticism from Alfred Mele and David Robb).

    My primary goal in conducting the survey was to both get a better understanding of the scene and to emphasize that the basis for my defense of PAP has been noted by many others. I abandoned the survey, however, for several reasons, not the least of which was fear of misrepresenting people’s views as they were first introduced and as they developed over the years, often in dialog with one another. (Notice that in Ginet’s paper, in n7, he notes the instructive value of having discussed Widerker’s 1995 paper with Widerker, and he thanks Fischer for helping him represent Fischer’s views more accurately. And Naylor thanks van Inwagen for discussions of Frankfurt’s counterexample. I’m not in that world and have only their publications to work with.)

  18. I don’t work in academia, but get the impression that the impasse hasn’t brought the convolutions to a halt. The (updated in) 2015 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry “Compatibilism” notes that the debate, which involves an “enormous (and intricate) literature,” is “very much alive, and no clear victor has emerged.” I wonder how much of the convolution is due to genuine philosophical concerns and how much has to do with meta-philosophical concerns (e.g., folks simply not wanting to concede; or graduate students and professors needing something to write about and on which to woodshed/show off their philosophical chops). Consider also this 2014 exchange among academics on the Very Bad Wizards podcast:

    Joshua Knobe: Suppose someone’s working on and on in this tradition that’s just just writing these papers about moral responsibility. They get tenure, then they’re writing more papers and then getting more grants or whatever. And then every once in a while they feel a little voice within themselves that’s just, like, “What am I doing? Why am I engaging this dried up academic…”

    David Pizarro: “Do watercolors…”

    Knobe: Yeah, they think, you know, maybe … there’s something more to life than just writing these kind of papers. And then they just start, like, “Ah, yeah just forget it. I’m just gonna go back and write even more of these papers.”

    Tamler Sommers: Another Frankfurt Case variation.

    Knobe: Yeah, right, then you could ask: Ok, so what is that person’s true self? Is the true person’s self the thing that they most frequently do, being like, “Now here’s a subtle variation on the variation of the variation on Frakfurt’s original case”? Or is their true self that little voice that’s speaking to them, being like, “Maybe there’s something more to life than what you’re doing.”

  19. There are other sorts of incompatibilism that I don’t touch on here. See again the writings of van Inwagen.
  20. Chapter 11 of Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities.
  21. Page 205.
  22. Page 205.
  23. For an oft-cited example, see Alfred Mele and David Robb’s “‘Rescuing Frankfurt-Style Cases,” Philosophical Review 107 (1998), pp. 97–112. (At JSTOR.)
  24. Page 206.
  25. Pages 209–210.
  26. Page 201.
  27. Page 209.
  28. Page 211.
  29. Page 211
  30. Pages 211–213.
  31. Page 212.
  32. Daniel Dennett, in his 1984 book Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Having, seems to point out something similar, noting that while he accepts Frankfurt cases as useful, “in spite of their invocation of imaginary bogeymen,” for the attention they draw “to the importance, for responsibility, of the actual causal chain of deliberation and choice running through the agent—whatever may be happening elsewhere,”… “[Frankfurt’s] counterexamples are rather special and unlikely cases, and they invite the defender of [PAP] to try for a patch: modify [PAP] slightly to take care of Frankfurt’s troublesome cases. Exotic circumstances do little or nothing to dispel the illusion that in the normal run of things, where such overdetermination is lacking, the regnant principle is indeed that if a person could not have refrained (could not have done otherwise), he would not be held morally responsible. But in fact, I will argue, it is seldom that we even seem to care whether or not a person could have done otherwise. And when we do, it is often because we wish to draw the opposite conclusion about responsibility from the one tradition endorses” (pages 144–145).
  33. Page 212.
  34. Perhaps as a kind of quarantining, as suggested by Gregg Caruso in his (forthcoming, at the time of this writing) paper “The Public Health-Quarantine Model” (notice also the references in that paper to Derek Pereboom’s work; listen to an interview with Caruso on this topic in the April 26, 2016 episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast). In the aforementioned Behave, Sapolsky mentions this as well:”People must be protected from individuals who are dangerous. The latter can no more be allowed to walk the streets than you can allow a car whose brakes are faulty to be drive. Rehabilitate such people if you can, send them to the island of Misfit Toys forever if you can’t and they are destined to remain dangerous” (page 609).
  35. See the Wikipedia article, “Deterrence (legal).” This also brings to mind a particularly weak straw man often volleyed against free will skeptics, in which humans are portrayed as insensitive to reasons. Obviously humans are responsive to reasons. If you believe the theater is on fire, you leave the theater. No free will denier would predict you’d just sit there saying, “Well, I don’t have free will, so I have to sit and burn.”

    There will of course always be folks who aren’t responsive to reasons, and certain actions that simply aren’t controllable by reason, such as the crime of being Jewish in Nazi Germany; or the crime of sneezing, as imagined by Sam Harris, in his 2012 book Free Will: “If we made sneezing illegal, for instance, some number of people would break the law no matter how grave the consequences. A behavior like kidnapping, however, seems to require conscious deliberation and sustained effort at every turn—hence it should admit of deterrence” (page 59).

    I think loss of freedom may be punishment enough for many, which Sapolsky touches on as well in Behave: “Perhaps the loss of freedom that occurs when a dangerous person is removed from society must be deterrence enough. Perhaps some conventional punishment will still be needed if it is sufficiently deterring. But what must be abolished are the views that punishment can be deserved and that punishment can be virtuous” (page 611).

    At any rate, most of us are reasons-responsive enough, especially when given a moment to soberly consider the potential consequences of our actions. If someone is not so responsive (e.g., due to a brain tumor, psycopathy, being in a state of panic, having eaten too many Twinkies, etc.), or acts despite reasons (e.g., due to the alternative actions being even worse, political motivation, a distorted assessment of the reasons, etc.), this should figure in to determining how to assess that person’s degree of responsibility.

  36. Of course, such language often has nothing to do with one’s actual beliefs about free will or desert, as when we tell our friend she doesn’t deserve her low test grade due to how hard she studied, and congratulate our other friend for acing the same test without studying at all, following both locutions with: “Sure, have a second helping of cake, you’ve earned it.” And I imagine that, between friends and loved ones, there is a different sort of positive utility to adopting the language of moral responsibility than exists at a society level; I certainly wouldn’t take the time to tell parents their metaphysics are out of order when they praise their child for an otherwise common crayon drawing. (I’m happy to leave the evaluation of that sort of behavior to psychologists.) Though as the rewards for praise and meritocracy lead to greater disparity of wealth, and the punishment for blame becomes more severe so that the suffering of those deemed blameworthy becomes more intense, the liabilities seem to overcome the benefits. I’ll consider such examples—e.g., the liabilities of meritocracy—more closely elsewhere.
  37. Check out this excellent 2016 episode of the All in the Mind podcast: “Neurolaw.”
  38. See, for example, law practitioner and professor Peter A. Alces’ 2018 book, The Moral Conflict of Law and Neuroscience, which I’ve recently begun reading.
  39. An equally hard term might be “to consent.” For example, if we say “to choose” is, roughly, to do what you most desire in a given situation, if such a choice amounts to consent, then the usual problems related to consent may arise. So, the idea of “freely consenting” might prove a difficult special case when attempting to make “to choose” semantically compatible with free will skepticism, because there would need to be a meaningful distinction between freely consenting and believing you’ve freely consented when you haven’t. Perhaps this problems exists for other forms of choosing as well (e.g., you only believe this is what you most desire—i.e., that this desire is the strongest desire of your competing desires), and perhaps the difficulties encountered in attempting to make these concepts compatible would reveal deeper conceptual issues on all sides of the equation.
  40. I’m reminded of a comment from philosopher (and neurophilosophy pioneer) Patricia Churchland—a hardcore physicalist whose views on free will, self-control, and moral responsibility are too complicated to summarize here (for a start, I recommend her 2013 book Touching a Nerve: The Self As Brain, see Chapter 7 in particular; a YouTube search would also be well worth your time)—in discussion on the Rationally Speaking podcast (episode #62, 6/4/2012; note that I don’t mean to infer anything from this comment about Churchland’s broader views on capital punishment, something I’ve not heard her discuss):

    Now sometimes people will say to me, “Well! What are you going to do about Hitler? I mean if you’re talking to Hitler and Hitler says that the Jews should die, how are you going to deal with that?!?” My answer is, “Do you honestly think that if I reason with Hitler that I’m going to get anywhere? I’ll tell you what I will do with Hitler. I will kill him.” And you might say, “But that’s not what philosophers want to do,” in which case my answer is, “Bless ’em, let ’em just do what they feel they need to do, but this is how I, being a good Humean and Aristotelian see it,” because I think you have, at the end of the day, to deal with the real world. And the real social world and the real political world is not a world in which you can maximize aggregate utility, it’s not a world in which the categorical imperative is gonna’ get you very far. It’s a world in which people are tuned up, that is, their brains are tuned up from a very early age to see certain things as acceptable and other things as not acceptable. And, given human brains, in many cases there is flexibility and they can change their mind. But if someone does not change their mind and holds terribly dangerous and very horrible views, then you don’t just say, “Well, there must be a philosophical response to that.” There may be no [NOTE: or does she say “a”?] philosophical response.

  41. I suppose evil neuroscientists and the like may run their intervention schemes from the confines of a bed, with nothing more than verbal commands to an obliging computer, genie, or team of lackeys. Being removed from society may at times be more about a particular set of communication lines than the physical space one occupies.
  42. Not all of which will I address here. For example, I won’t address the idea that we might be better off endeavoring to be rid of them, either by way of drugs, meditation, as a matter of religion (e.g., unconditional forgiveness as a virtue), and so on. I’ll assume here that such attitudes are not only unavoidable for most of us, but that it’s hard to imagine what the personal and societal costs might be for being rid of them.
  43. This has implications beyond formal legalities. At a societal level, we end up with relentless public shaming in which people are generally granted permission to build up and feed their appetite for a kind of self-righteous enjoyment of the suffering of others—indeed, permission is granted, or even encouraged, to participate in the creation of that suffering, and to participate in the creation of frameworks (i.e., social media) suited to efficiently inflicting that suffering (though more ambitious vigilantes will make use of phones and ground mail; you know, to call the employers of, and send death threats to, people who happen to have the same name as this week’s high profile subject of pillory). It’s interesting to note that these campaigns don’t seem to care one bit about the “malefactors” free will or choice. There have been been high-profile public-shaming campaigns in which the subject is called mentally ill while being laughed at and great pleasure taken in her suffering (including the accumulated, sustained suffering inflicted by those simultaneously calling her mentally ill and laughing at her; though I’m not sure how much they really mean what they saying [see the buzz-term of the day, “virtue signaling”], and it’s worth noting that it’s not always clear whether a taboo behavior is in itself cause for a diagnosis of mental illness, or, rather, leads to apparently strange and dysfunctional behavior precisely because it’s taboo, and thus leads to psychological stress and anguish due to the response to violation of the taboo). This sort of case seems to fall under the purview of dualism, in which mental illness amounts to a kind of corrupted soul—something that can’t be helped, but, just as it’s in its nature to be evil, it’s natural to condemn it to suffer. Thankfully our legal, philosophical, and scientific views are leaving behind that sort of view. I hope that departure continues. As it stands, though, I fear that the aforementioned dualist view persists not because people believe it, but because it justifies such pleasures. Similarly, I think people often don’t care if they misquote a public figure in order to shape that person into one worthy of shaming, or call the wrong person’s employer, or really have identified a Nazi in their “punch a Nazi” campaign: they just want to punch someone, and they want it to look like justice. But, of course, the shamers are not the designers of their moral style. At any rate, a step towards alleviating this problem is, I hope, to better relegate reactive attitudes in at least the ways I discuss in this writing.
  44. For example, in gaining a confession from an accused witch. For a fascinating discussion of this, see Daniel P. Mannix’s 1964 book The History of Torture, as well as Stephen Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature (which makes frequent reference to Mannix’s book).
  45. See Julia Shaw’s 2017 book The Memory Illusion for a recent discussion of this.
  46. See again the aforementioned essay collection Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities.
  47. “IRR” is the term Wideker uses to refer to the principle meant to be borne out by Frankfurt cases, which Wideker calls “IRR-situations.” See, for example, Wideker’s aforementioned essay, “Blameworthiness and Frankfurt’s Argument Against the Principle of Alternative Possibilities,” which he extended for the collection Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities.
  48. Pages 339–344.
  49. Perhaps compatibilists owe us some ontological account—some boundary condition—for what counts as “the agent”: the person, the body, the extended body, the person as defined how in relation to others? And so on. I won’t get into this here, but will offer that, in “extended mind” scenarios, as described for example by Andy Clark and David Chalmers in their 1998 paper, “The Extended Mind,” and which have led to much discussion demonstrating, for example, that one may persuasively argue that a mechanism implanted into Jones’s brain is as much a part of Jones as any other part of his brain; we might imagine the mechanism is the microscopic and as well structurally and functionally integrated into Jones’s brain structure as any other part of Jones’s brain. I’ll save these concerns (which need not involve anything as intricate as a brain-implant) for another day.
  50. Footnote 9, Page 345.
  51. Portraits of American Philosophy (2013). Pages 125–126.
  52. Higher-Order Truths about Chmess,” Topoi (2006), pp 39–41.

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