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Interesting post! I'm inclined to accept the idea that moral responsibility does not require alternative possibilities and is thus compatible with a kind of necessity and even "fatalism" (construed in a certain way).

You write: "In such cases, an agent’s actions are explained by his beliefs, desires, values, etc. in normal ways, but had there been a risk that he would have performed some alternative action, some intervening mechanism secretly implanted in him by an outside party would have ensured that he nevertheless performed the same action. So whatever the agent’s state of mind (within the range that the mechanism can handle), he would have performed the same action: he was fated to perform that action, we might say." You of course concede that there are different versions of Frankfurt-style cases. I was just thinking that a more standard version (if there are "standard" versions of such cases) would have it that the individual would have the same mental state, no matter what--i.e., the intervener would ensure the same desires/choices, even if the individual were to show some indication of being about to begin to choose otherwise.

If this is the way the FSC is set up, then it might still be the case that the individual would indeed have done otherwise, IF he had had a different desire and made a different choice.

Gunnar, great post.

I'd distinguish "weak fatalism" from stronger forms. Your definition appears to me to be the weak form, that is, that an event must occur no matter what comes before (even if narrowed to certain possibilities). This is precisely weak because it designates no particular metaphysical relationship between the fated event and prior events. Further, there is no given account of under such weak fatalism why we should thus understand the event's occurrence as fated unless there is some prior intent or knowledge of the event's occurrence, and weak fatalism fails to specify that. If we remedy both lacking features--we employ determinism or--as with FSC examples overdetermination of the fated (as John suggests) mental event type--and we have a FSC overseer, then we could say in a stronger way that the particular mental event was fated in some sense in a metaphysically adequate way and foreseen as well.

This could have implications for responsibility from a wider perspective at least, as I suggested in an earlier post on Flickers that we might not find a gambler responsible for her losses if we discovered that, although she lost only due to a run of bad luck, the house had arranged fixes for the games she played that required her to lose if she was about to win, but luckily did not have to employ them against her. I'd call that a fix, or fated loss, and feel the gambler was not responsible for her losses in the sense that she had the cards of fate stacked against her (in addition to house odds).

I need to think more about this interesting challenge (thanks for this and your earlier posts, Gunnar, and sorry I haven't been able to post more responses). Off the cuff, I'd say, first, that I'm with the dispositionalists (e.g., Vihvelin) who say that F-cases do not take away the relevant abilities of agents; they just fink or mask them, though I also have the intuition (suggested by Alan's case) that F-cases do remove relevant *opportunities* for action that, depending on the details, might mitigate responsibility. I typically understand fatalism as suggesting bypassing of the relevant mental states because the universe/gods/Fate has arranged it so that you'll do what they want regardless of what mental states you happen to have. But I suppose they could more easily ensure that you'll carry out your fate by making sure you have the right mental states (so that it looks like a manipulation/zygote case). Maybe Oisin and I can bring in causal modeling to make it all work out the way a compatibilist should want it to ;-)

The Greek gods were nothing but Frankfurtian CIs, controlling the fates of mere mortals. If Oedipus couldn't avoid killing Laius, if in every possible world in which he exists he commits patricide, then blaming him for his father's death seems out of the question, whether he was fated or simply determined to bring it about. (And, yeah, it's hard to explain the difference.) But, of course, he could have stayed his hand, he wasn't being controlled by the gods or anyone else, nor was their a sequence of impersonal causes leading inexorably to him responding violently to Laius' provocation. (Sophocles just thought he was at the mercy of Zeus.) As for the whole (incredibly icky) thing with his mother, I think we have some non-culpable ignorance going on there.

For what it is worth, I'm with those who accept the second horn of the dilemma, i.e., it seems to me that fatalism (of this form) does not always undermine the responsibility. When it does undermine responsibility, it seems to me, it is because the fated case is one in which there is a breakdown in the requisite connection between the agent's psychology and world.

But, Alan, the games she actually played weren't rigged. How, then, can the house's mere intention to fix them nullify her responsibility? Did she not lose 'fair and square'? They were going to cheat her, but it didn't come to that: without having interfered, I can't see how THEY could be blamed for her losses. Thus, either no one is responsible or she must take the blame, for having gambled in the first place, ruing her bad luck.

Let's suppose favor-seeking Obama is determined to let me win a game of one-on one; he will ease up at the end if need be (subtly, of course, so as not to defeat his purpose). But tanking it proves unnecessary. Fueled by disappointment over his do-nothing presidency, I bury 10 straight shots for the W. Later, when it leaks out in the press what he was up to, why should I feel any less proud of my accomplishment?


Interesting, and you are correct that many dispositionalists are inclined to point out that the (in their view) relevant abilities are not lost in Frankfurt cases. But, as you also point out, it seems that the opportunity to exercise those abilities is indeed gone. Going back to JL Austin, he argued that the "all-in" sense of "can" requires both a general ability and also the opportunity to exercise it. Given that the all-in sense of "can" picks out the power related by such principles as PAP to moral responsibility, the Frankfurt cases would indeed challenge the connection between moral responsibility and the relevant kind of freedom (to do otherwise).

By the way, I don't think any of us ever thought that (say) Jones loses his general abilities in a Frankfurt case (any more than when he falls asleep or is kidnapped and chained to his desk, and so forth). What *is* interesting (in my view) is whether there is a notion of "freedom" or "ability" that is "in-between" a general ability and the freedom picked out by Austin's "all-in" can that is preserved in the Frankfurt cases. I think some dispositionalists want to say this--Nelkin is a good example, I think.

It has always seemed to me cleaner and more natural to say that in a quite clear sense, in the sense of freedom typically (but not properly!) related to moral responsibility, the agents in Frankfurt cases lack that freedom to do otherwise. Frankfurt wrote that we should imagine that Black has whatever characteristics would be required to make it the case that Jones can't in the relevant sense do otherwise. I think that's the simplest, most plausible way to think about it. But arguably, at least, one can identify a notion of of freedom to do otherwise that is, as I wrote, "in between" general ability and all-in can that remains present in the Frankfurt cases. Of course, this still leads to compatibilism just as much as the actual-sequence approach does (so you and I would be on the same page here).

A couple of quick replies before shutting down for the night:

John, I certainly agree with what you say in your first comment. What sort of fatalism we are talking about will depend on what sort of possible earlier events the Frankfurt mechanism can handle, and they might not include alternative psychological states. (I see that my post was a little unclear on this point.)

Alan, you are right that I used "fatalism" in a sense compatible with a variety of metaphysical accounts of why fatalism obtains with respect to some fated event relative to some set of possible earlier events. Different mechanisms or powers might be involved, and so might knowledge, and these things might conceivably affect responsibility even if fatalism itself does not. The gambling case is an interesting one: on the one hand, one might reply along Robert's lines; on the other, one might think that because of how the games were set up by the house, the gambler cannot be fully responsible because her loss is not really a result of "bad luck" that she willingly risked.

Eddy, thanks for chiming in. Just a quick question, for clarification: if "the universe/gods/Fate has arranged it so that you'll do what they want regardless of what mental states you happen to have", do you think of that as compatible with a Frankfurt scenario or not? (Or perhaps that's what you wanted to think more about.)

Manuel, I have you down for the second horn: the assassin might be responsible for the victim's death, and the Frankfurt-case agent for his actions, fated though they are.


How could her loss NOT be a result of 'bad luck'? What else could have caused it but the fact that things didn't turn out her way in a game played according to Hoyle? Again, the house did not, as it turned out, rig the games she played. Their hands, if not their minds, ended up being clean. What would have happened, or what did happen in other PWs, is simply not relevant when it comes to assigning blame. She took her chances and lost- end of story.

Hey Gunnar,

You say: "On one way of understanding fatalism about some event, it is the idea that the event would have taken place whatever had happened before."

But there are two ways to understand this idea. On the first, the explanation of why the event would have taken place no matter what is that the event is completely disconnected from your choices and desires. This is the sort of fatalism that we are at pains to distinguish from determinism in our classes.

On the second, the explanation of why the event would have taken place no matter what is that, say, you were either going to choose to do it on your own, or someone else was going to make you choose to do it. This is the Frankfurt-type version of fatalism, and one way to articulate Frankfurt's point, I think, is to say that fatalism (i.e. inevitability) is only worrisome if it shows that your action can't be attributed to the workings of your capacities for practical reasoning, and not all cases of inevitability are like that.

(Of course, as Gary Watson has pointed out, Frankfurt has always seemed more interested in attributability than he has in accountability, and I think this is part of what explains why some version of PAP continues to be defended by incompatibilists. What Frankfurt showed was that inevitability doesn't, by itself, undermine attributability, whereas what incompatibilists are worried about is whether inevitability renders accountability unfair.)

Robert, the idea would be that talk about bad luck is misplaced in a case where there were no chance of winning. She did of course take her chances, but she was wrong (and mislead, as I understand the case) about what the chances were of coming out on top.

Look I don't believe in bad luck anyway: the term is just a biased description of THE WAY THINGS TURNED OUT, the roll of the die, the hands dealt, etc.. In the context of a game of chance, if the out outcome means I lose, then I call it 'bad luck.' So, our hypothetical player lost because of how things turned out, which outcome was fairly produced. The point is, Gunnar, the house did nothing unfair; though they stood ready to rig things. I'm focusing on the game she actually played and seeing nothing amiss. From that perspective, she seems to be solely at fault. Was it not my skill alone that produced the victory in my basketball example?

Hey Neal,

Good to hear from you. I agree with the way of putting Frankfurt's point; in a way the intention of the post was merely to bring up Frankfurt's distinction in relation to the "fatalism" heading. Part of the reason why I did this was that I've seen and heard fatalism described in ways neutral between the two proposed interpretations. But it also seems to me that when people think about fatalism, they hardly ever think about the first kind that you mention, where events are completely causally disconnected from choices and desires. In cases like Death in Damascus, for example, fate works through the agent's choice, though that choice is merely capable of affecting how, rather than whether, the fated event is brought about. (Results from Eddy's studies with Dylan Murray might seem to suggest that this first kind of fatalism is very much driving laymen to apparently incompatibilist intuitions, but as detailed here , I don't think that's the right way of interpreting these results.)

Robert, first let me say that I find the basketball case different than the gambling case (as I imagined it), as the outcome represents an accomplishment in virtue of the skill and effort involved (that is true about forms of gambling too of course, but not as i imagined it here). About the gambling case: It seems to me that although the house did nothing to the particular games, they did something to the series of games, by setting up a mechanisms (perhaps merely by forming an intention) ensuring that she couldn't win. Moreover, she presumably engage in that series thinking that she would have a chance of coming out on top, so she was misled about the nature of game. I'm not saying that the gambler isn't responsible for her loss because of this, but I can see how one might be pulled in that direction.

Thanks, Neal.

As regards your helpful and nice comment, I actually think that Frankfurt himself thinks that his examples show that accountability responsibility, and not just attributability responsibility, is fully compatible with lack of freedom to do otherwise. Frankfurt himself does not use the Watson terminology or, to my knowledge (although you would know much better than I here) himself make this (or this sort of) distinction. And apart from what Frankfurt himself might think, I certainly think (and I think it is pretty clear from the nature and structure of the cases) that they show that accountability responsibility need not require regulative control (freedom to do otherwise). When the fact that the agent could not have done otherwise is irrelevant to the explanation of the agent's choices and actions, why then would that fact mitigate accountability? As far as I can see, and perhaps I'm wrong here (it wouldn't be the first time), all the intuitions that drive my sort of analysis of the Frankfurt cases apply to accountability responsibility just as much as attributability responsibility.


To actually do something to the series it would require more than forming an intention. Moreover, she wasn't misled about the nature of the series she actually played: it was done according to Hoyle. (What you might want to say instead is that she was misled regarding the 'nature' of the house, which presented itself as even unwilling to rig games.) She was going to lose with the outcomes that actually occurred regardless of the house's intentions- just like I was going to beat Obama whether he planned on losing or not. I realize that there is more to winning a basketball game than there is to placing a bet. Still, the point holds that no one doing either one of those things has cause to complain or regret of the outcome unless IT was somehow gerrymandered. (If you don't like the sports e.g., then try: The candidate wins the election in a landslide obviating his operatives' plan to stuff the ballot boxes should things not go their way. Should he relinquish office when the press reveals their plot?) I realize that I'm just reciting boilerplate Frankfurtianism, but there you have it.

Now, I'm not an academic so I'm probably missing the point, but I can't see how you can call those cases "fatalism".

Isn't fatalism when everything is determined, not just a bit of it? "Fated" in these cases seems to me to mean "decided by someone else" - the people putting the implant in and ordering the back-up assassin are the potentially free (and powerful) ones in the cases. If that's what you call "soft fatalism" then I'm not sure it has a general use.

In those cases the person is very obviously responsible if they make the decision themselves, place the bet on the non-rigged game or kill the person, and not if they don't, but the thing they didn't do happened anyway. Right? I think the significance of that is lost on me by not understanding the context.


here is what I meant: If she plans to participate in a series of games based on an assumption of the probabilities of coming out on top after that series, but there is in fact zero probability of coming out on top after that series (because of the intentions of the house), then she is mislead about the nature of that series. Moreover, she is mislead in a way that one might think is particularly relevant when it comes to her choice to participate in the series, since she participated to win. In your basketball case, by contrast, you could, and did win, and in the voting case the politician could and did get the people's support. Whether this should ultimately mitigate responsibility is another matter; I've just said that I can see how one might think that it does in this particular case (even if one has enough Frankfurt-friendly intuitions about other cases to think that PAP stands refuted).


Thanks for contributing. I'm afraid that if this post is of any interest, it is primarily for people who are familiar with the academic debate. The issue relates to an argument by philosopher Harry Frankfurt against the idea that responsibility for an action requires that one could have performed some alternative to that action. There is plenty to read online if you are interested in looking into the basics.

With that said, I think that you are raising a good question: doesn't it matter whether what is fated – or determined – is some particular outcome or *everything*? Frankfurt's argument is concerned with a particular case, so it is a further question whether it generalises.

Gunnar, if I may suggest in partial answer to Thomas:

(i) weak fatalism df/= at least some events must occur no matter what comes before them. As I said above, this is essentially a minimal claim about inevitability because (a) it is metaphysically unclear how the fated events are inevitable and (b) it makes no claim that anyone knows/intends/controls the final events.

(ii) strong fatalism df/= at least some events occur for metaphysically intelligible reasons (determinism or multiple determinism as overdetermination or some other specified control) that some prior agency either knows the resulting events or intends them as "predeterminator" (who can obviously kick the Terminator's ass.)

Except for lacking *complete* control, a form of (ii) is programming your DVR. You foresee the event of recording, implement it by the device, and cross your fingers that the larger causal network all this is embedded in sustains ceteris paribus assumptions that imply your control.

A very strong variety of (ii) is scientific deism as held by many 18th century figures which blended belief in Newtonian causality with a creator God who starts the universe causally and it unrolls precisely as planned. (Think Newton and Calvin blended.) That of course would be universal strong fatalism of all physical and mental events. But whereas I think there are finally no really intelligible instances of (i)--it's an inchoate/mystical view--there are ones of type (ii). At least some cases of FS agents fall under the description of (ii), I'd say.

As for my gambler case, the gambler might hold herself responsible as a Frankfurt willing gambler (knowing the odds but embracing it anyway), and as a result of devastating loss might think she deserves what she got and more. But the surrounding circumstances of the potential use of the house-cheat introduces a conspiratorial context to the entire situation, even if it is actually non-invasive. The fact that she *couldn't* win in any case is certainly relevant to holding her accountable for her losses, even if in ignorance of the circumstances she holds herself accountable.

I'm sorry for not making things clearer, Gunnar, but you are not seeing the point of my examples. The agents involved in them COULDN'T LOSE, yet are no less PW for the outcomes of their actions. Our gambler couldn't win, but I think the same point applies to her. Since the house's plans were never put in effect, since the games she actually played were on the up and up, she is responsible for her losses. Yes, she participated to win and, yes, that wasn't going to happen, but she wasn't cheated in anyway and was going to lose the games she played whether anyone plotted against her or not. I don't see how the house deceived her about those games. There was some implicit promise to the effect that they wouldn't interfere; it was honored. Would she have taken her chances if she knew what they were up to? Obviously not. But I keep coming back to the fact that they (actually) did nothing to hurt her chances of winning. A loss was coming down the pike at her because of the way the hand was dealt, dice were rolled, wheel spun .... Were she to discover the house's machinations she could rightly blame them for running a dishonest business and, yeah, I'm sure the gambling commission would give her her money back. But, as far as what went down in the games she played, she can't say that she didn't lose fair and square. Why, then, to respond to Alan's most recent post, should we factor in the surrounding causally inert circumstances in assigning blame?

Robert, I do see the point of your examples and feel the pull of the Frankfurtian line, and I also agree with most of what you say, for example with the claim that "she can't say [about the games she played] that she didn't lose fair and square", or the claim that they did nothing [in those games] to hurt her chances. However, their intention to prevent her from coming out on top, they did remove her chances of coming out on top. You don't think that this is relevant because they didn't actually do anything except forming plans to intervene; I find it intelligible that one might find the formation of such plans relevant because they undermine the very point of her risk taking. (Perhaps, since we are repeating ourselves, we should save further discussion of this for some other occasion.)

Hi Gunnar,

Interesting post and a nice challenge. And I actually side with Robert and maybe Thomas's posts here. What's fated in Frankfurt's case seems to be the killer's pulling the trigger and the death of the target, just like in the gambling case, what's fated is the gambler's putting the bet and her losing the money. However, it seems a little bit awkward to say the same thing to the killer's killing the target or the gambler's losing the game. As Thomas suggests (I may misunderstand his post), context matters. Once the context changes, we should feel reluctant to say that the killer *kills* the target or the gambler loses the *game*. I am not even sure if there is still a game any more if the house cheats.

And Robert emphasizes that "But I keep coming back to the fact that they (actually) did nothing to hurt her chances of winning." It seems to me correct. IF there is no perfect version of Frankfurt-style case, a small moment of *winning* is always possible for the gambler as long as the game is not cheated. Strictly speaking, in the counterfactual situation, she wins for a second and then be beaten in a totally different "game." How could the second "game" be relevant to the first game?

Hi Jiajun,

Just a quick comment on your last question: the suggestion was not that any individual game was unfair, but that something else was, namely series of games: while she had a chance of winning individual games, she had no chance of coming out on top after the series of games.

I'm thinking that the controversy about the gambler rests on a certain vagueness of the claim, possibly on a false dichotomy, and/or possibly on (what I consider to be) a faulty understanding of responsibility.

I think we can show that the gambler is responsible for her losses (in some sense). Suppose that the money was in her care, but not actually hers. (It was the local church poor fund, say, and she was the treasurer.) She takes it to the gambling house and loses it. Clearly she is morally at fault for losing the money -- it was not hers to gamble with. And if she's morally at fault for X, then she must be responsible for X. (I've heard some people say that there can be morality without moral responsibility, but I fail to see how there could be moral fault without moral responsibility! But I'm willing to be schooled.)

Anyway, it makes no difference to HER responsibility (AFAICS) whether the house was cheating or not. She shouldn't have been gambling with the money regardless. Of course if the house WAS crooked (actually cheated her), then they are ALSO responsible for her losing the money. Now you might say that vagueness is the problem -- that the house is responsible for something slightly different than she is, even tho' both can be described as "her loss of the money". Or it might be that the problem is a false dichotomy -- that they can't BOTH be responsible for her loss of the money, so their fault cancels hers. I don't agree with that at all, but I don't think I can show that it's false.

Now if the gambler is responsible for her losses when it's someone else's money, she's still responsible when it's her own mad money -- it's just that there's no moral fault at play (on her part). Responsibility is not the same as fault. Nor is it the same thing as deserving punishment/praise. It's not (or should not be) the case that every responsibility entails some desert; it is (or should be) enuf that someone can deserve X because they are responsible for Y -- that, too, is desert entailing responsibility. Being responsible for X is just being in the right relationship with X to make you a suitable subject for praise/blame IF there's any praise or blame to be had.

But of course all these claims are part and parcel with my semi-compatibilism. Maybe anti-compatibilism is just too foreign to my way of thinking for me to even make sense of the intuitions.

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