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Freedom, Foreknowledge, and Frankfurt: A Reply to Vihvelin
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Freedom, Foreknowledge, and Frankfurt:
A Reply to Vihvelin

I Introduction

In a fascinating and challenging article in this journal, Kadri Vihvelin presents a spirited and vigorous critique of the strategy of defending compatibilism about causal determinism and moral responsibility that employs (in part, at least) the ‘Frankfurt-examples.’1 Here is her presentation of such an example:

… Jones … chooses to perform, and succeeds in performing, some action X. Tell the story so that it is vividly clear that Jones is morally responsible for doing X. If you are a libertarian, you may specify that Jones is an indeterministic agent who can choose otherwise, given the actual past and the laws. If you are a compatibilist, you may fill in the details so that Jones does X in a way that satisfies your favorite account of the counterfactual or dispositional facts that make it true that Jones could have done otherwise in the sense you think relevant to responsibility. Now, add to your story the following facts: there is standing in the wings another agent, Black. Black is interested in what Jones does. In particular, he wants Jones to do X and, moreover, Black has it in his power to prevent Jones from doing anything other than X.

The addition of Black to the story means that Jones could not have done other than X. But, Frankfurt argued, Jones is still responsible for doing X. After all, though [End Page 327] Black could have intervened, he didn't. He didn't have to. Jones chose to do X and did X without any interference from Black. So the addition of Black to our story doesn't remove or in any way diminish Jones's responsibility for doing X.

Such is the recipe for telling a Frankfurt story.2

Vihvelin is a vigorous critic of the Frankfurt stories.3 Vihvelin's claims are vehement, and her argument intriguing. In light of these facts and also because I believe the issues are important, I wish to explore and critically evaluate her argument.4 I shall begin by laying out the skeletal structure of the argument, after which I shall offer some critical ruminations. [End Page 328]

II Vihvelin's Critique of Frankfurt-Style Compatibilism

The Frankfurt examples purport to show that an agent can be morally responsible for his actions (and even choices), even if he could not have done otherwise.5 The examples actually go back (in some form or another) to John Locke, who argued that a man could voluntarily stay in a room, even though, unbeknownst to the man, the door to the room is locked.6 The examples have been highly contentious, and their analysis and significance have generated a huge literature.7 Some of us have agreed with Frankfurt's claim that moral responsibility does not require alternative possibilities, and additionally we have suggested that this fact can help in an overall argument (an argument that employs other ingredients as well) for the compatibility of causal determinism and moral responsibility.8 My contention has been that, even though the arguments fall short of being decisive, there are strong plausibility arguments for the conclusion that the Frankfurt examples show that moral responsibility does not require alternative possibilities. Further, I have contended that the elements of the direct arguments for the incompatibility of causal determination and moral responsibility are considerably weaker than the ingredients of the arguments for the incompatibility of causal determinism and genuine metaphysical access to alternative possibilities (and thus the indirect arguments for the incompatibility of causal determinism and moral responsibility).9 [End Page 329]

Vihvelin believes that all of the participants in the debates about the Frankfurt examples have failed to see some fundamental distinctions and logical problems. She highlights this view as follows:

I think we should have avoided this mess. Things went wrong from the start. No one should ever have been persuaded by Frankfurt's argument.10

Vihvelin begins her diagnosis of the errors of those of us who have invoked the Frankfurt examples by drawing a distinction between ‘two ways of getting someone to do what you want’:

Suppose you want to ensure that someone does whatever you...