Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Principle of Alternate Possibilities and Ought Implies Can in Frankfurt Scenarios

**This is from guest blogger, Michael Dean.**

In class we discussed the Principle of Alternate Possibilities (PAP) and the Principle of Ought Implies Can (OIC). The PAP states that one is morally responsible for their actions only if they could have done otherwise. The OIC states that for action x that someone ought to do, it must be the case that they can do it. So, the OIC states if someone cannot do x, then it is not the case that they ought to do x. This can be read as entailing that one cannot be held morally responsible for failing to do something they could not do. 

Frankfurt’s scenario with Jones and Black is meant to be a counterexample to PAP. The scenario, very briefly, is as follows. Jones is contemplating murdering someone, say Jesse. Unbeknownst to Jones, Black is in the position to force Jones to murder Jesse if he decides not to follow through. Black is extraordinarily good at knowing when this is the case. So there are two possibilities. First, Jones simply decides to murder Jesse and does so without Black needing to step in. Second, Jones decides not to murder Jesse, but then is coerced into murdering Jesse by Black. Hence, Jones cannot do otherwise than murder Jesse. This is a great counterexample to the PAP, since I think we would want to hold Jones morally responsible in the first scenario but not in the second, even though he could not have done otherwise than to murder Jesse. What seems to be morally relevant here are intentions. In the first scenario Jones does intend to murder Jesse, in the second he does not.

This was also presented as a possible counterexample to the OIC. This line of thinking is as follows. If Jones ought not murder Jesse, than it must be possible for Jones not to murder Jesse. That is, it is not the case that it is only possible for Jones to murder Jesse if he ought not murder him. But in this situation the only possibility for Jones is to murder Jesse. So the OIC must be wrong if we say it is true that Jones ought not murder Jesse. Though I’m not entirely convinced by the OIC as it is, I think there are two ways for the defender of the OIC to wiggle out of this argument, which are both somewhat related. Again, what is morally relevant are intentions. First, the defender of OIC might argue that it isn’t true that Jones ought not murder Jesse in this scenario. Rather, Jones ought not <i>intend</i> to murder Jesse. If Jones does not intend to murder Jesse it places the moral responsibility on Black, who then ought not coerce Jones into murdering Jesse. The second way of wiggling out of this argument is by pointing out that the concept of murder has intention built into it. Jones only murders Jesse if he intends to do so. If he does not intend to do so, he is merely a prop through which Black murders Jesse. Hence, Jones does not murder Jesse and the OIC is maintained. 

I’m interested in where the comments might go from here!


Cassy K. said...

A thought on intentions that seems relevant:

My mom has somehow become hopelessly addicted to ID, which, if you don't know, is yet another really awfully narrated homicide TV show. That point aside, I was watching one of the shows with her awhile ago and this discussion of intentions reminded me of it.

In the show, there's this huge court case going on over this woman who killed someone in self-defense (her husband maybe?). If I remember correctly, he was abusive and she claimed that either he was going to kill her, or she was going to kill him. The controversy lies in the fact that in "defending" herself, she stabbed this guy 80 times, or some excessive number like that. Basically, she must've stabbed this guy until he was dead like 5 times over. So of course the debate here is: at what point does stabbing someone to save yourself become something more than self-defense? It seems like there is a point (10 stabs? 20 stabs? 80 stabs???) in which we cross over from "intending to save ourselves" and "intending to stab the shit out of someone" due to something that seems less like self-defense and more like extreme hatred. In this case, I think Michael might be onto something.

Again, this discussion of intentions reminded me of this example. Given our conversations over the semester and, specifically, in our discussion of intentions here - what would we say about this case?

T. Stoehr said...

I think the distinction between self defense and something more is a really interesting point to bring up, Cassy. Personally, my instinct is to say that doing anything beyond that which accomplishes your goal should err on the side of being, as you say, "extreme hatred." So, in this case, the number of stabs necessary to kill her husband (I'd assume 1-3, but I'm not a murderer, so dont take my word for it) would be accepted as self defense, whereas anything beyond that would be excessive and unnecessary.

Dan S said...

I think the outcome of the suggested scenario also holds some weight in this discussion. For instance, let's assume that there is this massive billionaire who decides that upon his death he is going to give all of his money to various charities. This is enough money to create ground-breaking research not only in cancer, but also AIDS. It will also help education and give shelter to the homeless. He decides to write this in his will to make it concrete. Now, one day, he makes an announcement saying that he is going to the courthouse to change his will to state that all of his money that he was going to give to charity will now instead be destroyed after his death. We know that he lives about 20 miles from the courthouse, and what route he is going to take to get there. If you're a utilitarian, you really ought to kill him BEFORE he legally changes his will, and you have the capability to do so. You know that you'd be morally responsible for his death, and you know that you could do otherwise, like just sit at home and let the jerk change his will. I think that, if this case actually happened and was common knowledge, somebody ought to kill the guy, because his death would mean possible savings thousands of lives though medical research (and for the sake of the argument we can say that it would save thousands of lives), but the question is whether or not you think somebody would kill him. The outcome of the event seems to influence if we ought to do something if we are a capable of performing the necessary actions. At the same time though, we believe that we ought not to murder someone, and what we're talking about is downright murder just for the guy's money. It seems like we're at an impasse. We ought to murder the guy, but we ought not to murder the guy. To tie this in with your blog post, so as to not sound like a giant rant, I would say that this counterexample I have presented is in some ways similar to the one Frankfurt suggests. It seems as though you hit an impasse on two contradictory oughts. Jones ought not to murder Jesse, but at the same time he ought to murder Jesse out of fear that Black will murder him if he doesn't.