The principle of alternate possibilities: Finding freedom after Frankfurt

Matthew F Pierlott, Marquette University


The focus of this dissertation is the principle of alternate possibilities (PAP), a fundamental principle of much libertarian or incompatibilist theory on the perennial problem of reconciling freedom and determinism, that claims that an agent's moral responsibility depends on the agent having open alternative courses of action available to her. I will limit myself for the most part to how it has figured in the contemporary debate following Harry Frankfurt's seminal article, "Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility" ( Journal of Philosophy 1969; 66: 829-839). My critique will focus on the inadequacy of using the concept of overdetermination to disprove the principle of alternate possibilities, since it does not remove the very basic ability supposed to be possessed by agents that plays the key role in the debate about compatibility. I am not offering an argument that we are, in fact, free beings, or that we are morally responsible beings. I am also not arguing that PAP is in fact a true principle. As part of my methodology I will take PAP as a working hypothesis, placing the burden on the compatibilists to disprove it. My argument is not that PAP is true, but that compatibilist attempts to disprove it have failed. I will argue specifically against the Frankfurt-style case and its ability to undermine PAP, while placing this argument within a general analysis of PAP and the main compatibilist arguments against it. Additionally, I will draw attention to the connection PAP has to agent-causal theory. Finally, I will offer some concluding remarks on how the philosophical discussion should proceed, offering a position developed from the inquiry that I will call semi-incompatibilism . This position distinguishes the senses in which we can be morally responsible under determinism and the sense in which we cannot. Throughout, I draw on some historical figures, such as Aristotle, Locke, Pelagius and especially Chrysippus the Stoic, as well on some contemporary thinkers, such as Fischer, van Inwagen, Stump, Ekstrom, Chisholm, O'Connor, Kane and Clarke, among others.

This paper has been withdrawn.