Today I came across a reference to Harry Frankfurt's paper on what he called the Principle of Alternative Possibilities.
It raises some rather serious doubts about the idea that a person is only morally responsible for what he does if he could have done otherwise. That moral responsibility implies freedom. Or to put it in the way I often have, that no one should be blamed for doing something he was coerced to do.
I'm still reading the paper and probably haven't yet grasped the full point of his argument. But it's already occasioned a few thoughts:
- Even when I am being coerced, I still have the freedom to refuse. I can still be a martyr, and say with Gandhi that they can have my broken body but never my obedience. Usually it's my cowardice or my pragmatism that leads me to give in to the coercion. That, or a judgment that it isn't worth fighting over: in the grand scheme of things there are more important things to do. But surely I am responsible for my cowardice, my pragmatism, and my sense of the relative value of things?
- In my post about Oscar Wilde and the tragic sense of life, I remarked on the way we seem inexorably driven to our fates. "...it’s as if we were actors in a story written by someone else, and we had no choice except to play the part as it was written for us. We’re character studies in a Greek tragedy, brought inexorably to the final, sobering scenes by the quirks and flaws in our own nature. Even our best qualities seem to have worked to our undoing." And yet, don't we still believe, down deep, that none of this excuses us, that we are still responsible for being who we are?
- Frankfurt's paper was published in 1969, years before I studied philosophy as an undergraduate and long before I began my sojourn through libertarianism. This is the first I've heard of it, yet it is considered to be a seminal paper and one that has convinced many philosophers and libertarians that the Principle of Alternative Possibilities is false. This just goes to show that I am not familiar with the relevant literature, and therefore cannot claim to be an expert in these matters.
See this article for a discussion of the philosophical context of Frankfurt's paper.
Addendum: now that I've read the paper and the discussion of its context on the plato.stanford.edu site, I can say that it's mostly irrelevant to my own position -- which is better described by what, in another article, the SEP calls an agent-causal theory. I don't know if I would agree with everything any of the philosophers cited in that section have said about such theories, but I'm glad to add them to my already-overflowing reading list.
I should also add that I did miss Frankfurt's point at first. He is arguing in favor of the theory that free will is compatible with determinism. He is indeed rejecting the principle that moral responsibility implies the ability to do otherwise, but in doing so, he wants to suggest that the concept of moral responsibility has been incorrectly analyzed. The first SEP article linked above explores some of the ways others have followed up on that suggestion. I can't say I find any of their ideas appealing.