Frankfurt cases

Frankfurt cases (also known as Frankfurt counterexamples or Frankfurt-style cases) were presented by philosopher Harry Frankfurt in 1969 as counterexamples to the principle of alternate possibilities (PAP), which holds that an agent is morally responsible for an action only if that person could have done otherwise.

Principle of alternate possibilities

The principle of alternate possibilities (PAP) forms part of an influential argument for the incompatibility of responsibility and causal determinism, often called the core argument for incompatibilism.[1][2][3] It was formulated by libertarian Robert Kane. This argument is detailed below:

(1) PAP: An agent is responsible for an action only if said agent could have done otherwise.[4]

(2) An agent could have done otherwise only if causal determinism is false.

(3) Therefore, an agent is responsible for an action only if causal determinism is false.

Traditionally, compatibilists (defenders of the compatibility of free will and determinism, like A. J. Ayer, Walter Terence Stace, and Daniel Dennett) reject premise two, arguing that, properly understood, free will is not incompatible with determinism. According to the traditional compatibilist analysis of free will, an agent is free to do otherwise when he would have done otherwise had he wanted to do otherwise.[5] Agents may possess free will, according to the conditional analysis, even if determinism is true. Critics point out that compatibilists are making a circular argument here: An agent is free if an agent is free. The incompatibilists believe free will refers to genuine (e.g., absolute, ultimate) alternate possibilities for beliefs, desires, or actions, rather than merely counterfactual ones.

Frankfurt's objection

From the PAP definition "a person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise", Frankfurt infers that a person is not morally responsible for what he has done if he could not have done otherwise – a point with which he takes issue: our theoretical ability to do otherwise, he says, does not necessarily make it possible for us to do otherwise.

Frankfurt's examples are significant because they suggest an alternative way to defend the compatibility of moral responsibility and determinism, in particular by rejecting the first premise of the argument. According to this view, responsibility is compatible with determinism because responsibility does not require the freedom to do otherwise.

Frankfurt's examples involve agents who are intuitively responsible for their behavior even though they lack the freedom to act otherwise. Here is a typical case:

Donald is a Democrat and is likely to vote for the Democrats; in fact, only in one particular circumstance will he not: that is, if he thinks about the prospects of immediate American defeat in Iraq just prior to voting. Ms White, a representative of the Democratic Party, wants to ensure that Donald votes Democratic, so she secretly plants a device in Donald's head that, if activated, will force him to vote Democratic. Not wishing to reveal her presence unnecessarily, Ms White plans to activate the device only if Donald thinks about the Iraq War prior to voting. As things happen, Donald does not think about Iraq prior to voting, so Ms White thus sees no reason to activate the device, and Donald votes Democratic of his own accord. Apparently, Donald is responsible for voting Democratic although, owing to Ms. White's device, he lacks freedom to do otherwise.

If Frankfurt is correct in suggesting both that Donald is morally responsible for voting Democratic and that he is not free to do otherwise, moral responsibility, in general, does not require that an agent have the freedom to do otherwise (that is, the principle of alternate possibilities is false). Thus, even if causal determinism is true, and even if determinism removes the freedom to do otherwise, there is no reason to doubt that people can still be morally responsible for their behavior.

Having presented his counter argument against the principle of alternate possibilities, Frankfurt suggests that it be revised to take into account the fallacy of the notion that coercion precludes an agent from moral responsibility. It must be only because of coercion that the agent acts as he does. The best definition, by his reckoning, is this: "[A] person is not morally responsible for what he has done if he did it only because he could not have done otherwise."[4]


One of the first objections raised by opponents of the Frankfurt-style cases is the two-horned dilemma. This objection was most notably raised by philosophers such as Widerker, Ginet, and Kane.[6][7][8] The two-horned dilemma focuses on the connection between the agent's inclination and the agent's decision. This connection can be either deterministic or indeterministic.

If the connection between the agent's inclination and the agent's decision is deterministic, then proponents of the Frankfurt-style cases are charged with begging the question. A deterministic connection begs the question because proponents of Frankfurt-style cases are assuming the very thing that is being debated, that moral responsibility does not require alternate possibilities or the ability to do otherwise. Suppose the agent's inclination is causally sufficient for bringing about the agent's decision. This would mean that the agent was determined to make that decision prior to any kind of decision-making. Thus, the agent did not freely come to the decision for reasons of her own. Opponents of the Frankfurt-style cases would immediately contend that the agent is not morally responsible. This is because they are operating from the get-go that moral responsibility requires free will. Therefore, if the Frankfurt-style cases are operating within a metaphysically deterministic framework, then proponents of Frankfurt-style cases cannot reasonably expect their opponents to be convinced. Furthermore, Frankfurt-style cases would be begging the question since they are deriving moral responsibility from a completely deterministic scenario.

On the other hand, if the connection between the agent's inclination and the agent's decision is indeterministic, then opponents of the Frankfurt-style cases argue that the agent has the ability to do otherwise. This is problematic for proponents of the Frankfurt-style cases because they are supposed to show a situation where an agent is morally responsible for the decision and yet is unable to truly do otherwise. Suppose the agent's inclination and the agent's decision is indeterministic. This means that the agent's inclination is not necessarily indicative of what the agent's decision will be. Thus, it is possible for the agent to show the correct inclination, evade the computer device, but then make the "wrong" decision. Even if the computer device kicks in after the "wrong decision", the agent still encountered the ability to do otherwise. This kind of Frankfurt-style case would fail to present a situation where an agent is morally responsible while lacking alternate possibilities.


There have been a number of responses to the two-horned dilemma. One response has been to argue that a deterministic connection does not actually beg the question. Fischer has argued for this response by arguing that the Frankfurt-style case cannot stand alone, but must be taken in conjunction with other arguments.[9] These other arguments are supposed to show that causal determinism in and of itself and apart from ruling out alternate possibilities does not threaten moral responsibility.

A second response is to revise the Frankfurt-style cases. This revision consists in creating a case with an explicit indeterministic connection where the agent is still morally responsible without any alternate possibilities. These kind of Frankfurt-style cases do it by incorporating buffer zones that act to eliminate alternate possibilities.[10]

The success of these responses are still being debated. It remains to be seen whether the Frankfurt style cases are successful in showing what Harry Frankfurt intended them to show.


Michael Otsuka provides a more specific answer to proposed problems with Frankfurt's counterexamples. In his article, Otsuka says,[11] "my strategy is to propose that the Principle of Alternate Possibilities be rejected in favor of a different incompatibilist principle," that is, different from Frankfurt's, "that I call the 'Principle of Avoidable Blame'."


  1. See p. 442 in David Copp (1997). "Defending the principle of alternate possibilities: Blameworthiness and moral responsibility". Noûs. 31 (4): 441–56. doi:10.1111/0029-4624.00055. On-line version found here.
  2. Gerald Harrison (2005). "Frankfurt-style cases and the question begging charge". Facta Philosophica. 7 (2): 273–82. doi:10.3726/93520_273.
  3. Kevin Timpe (2013). "Chapter 5: Frankfurt and weak compatibilism". Free Will: Sourcehood and its alternatives (2nd ed.). Bloomsbury. pp. 77 ff. ISBN 9781441189936.
  4. Frankfurt, Harry (1969). "Alternate possibilities and moral responsibility". Journal of Philosophy. 66 (23): 829–39. doi:10.2307/2023833. JSTOR 2023833.; reprinted in: Dirk Pereboom, ed. (2009). "Chapter 15". Free Will (Paperback 2nd ed.). Hackett Publishing. p. 194. ISBN 978-1603841290. On-line version found here
  5. Alfred J. Ayer (1954). "Freedom and Necessity". Philosophical Essays. Macmillan. pp. 271–84. Reprinted in: Dirk Pereboom, ed. (2009). "Chapter 12". Free Will (Paperback 2nd ed.). Hackett Publishing. p. 139. ISBN 978-1603841290. On-line version found here.
  6. Kane, Robert (1996). The Significance of Free Will. New York: Oxford University Press.
  7. Ginet, Carl (1996). "In Defense of the Principle of Alternative Possibilities: Why I Don't Find Frankfurt's Argument Convincing". Philosophical Perspectives. 10: 403–417.
  8. Widerker, David (1995). "Libertarianism and Frankfurt's Attack on the Principle of Alternative Possibilities". Philosophical Review. 104 (2): 247–261. doi:10.2307/2185979. JSTOR 2185979.
  9. Fischer, Martin (1999). "Recent Work on Moral Responsibility". Ethics. 110: 93–139. doi:10.1086/233206.
  10. Hunt, David (2005). "Moral Responsibility and Buffered Alternatives". Midwest Studies in Philosophy. 29: 126–145. doi:10.1111/j.1475-4975.2005.00109.x.
  11. Otsuka, Michael (1998). "Incompatibilism and the Avoidability of Blame" (PDF). Ethics. 108 (4): 685–701. doi:10.1086/233847. JSTOR 10.1086/233847.

Further reading

  • Kadri Vihvelin (Mar 1, 2011). Edward N. Zalta (ed.). "Arguments for Incompatibilism". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 ed.).
  • 'Free Will' at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy[1]
  • Frankfurt, Harry (1969). "Alternate possibilities and moral responsibility". Journal of Philosophy. 66 (23): 829–39. JSTOR,
  1. "Free Will". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. August 2018.
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