Responsibility and "The Actual Sequence"
John Fischer

27 March 2005

John Locke came up with the original "Frankfurt-type example".  (The examples have been called "Frankfurt-type examples after Harry Frankfurt's ingenious development of them in a 1969 Journal of Philosophy paper, "Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility."

Here is Locke's version.  A man is asleep, and while asleep, he is transported into a room.  When he awakens, he thinks about leaving the room, but he decides (based on his own reasons) to stay in the room.  Unbeknownst to him, the room was locked, and thus he could not have left the room.  Locke did not say that the man stayed in the room "freely," because Locke held that acting freely entails freedom to do otheriwse.  But he did say that the man voluntarily stayed in the room, although he could not have left the room.

In Locke's example, the fact that the man could not have left the room plays no role in his practical reasoning or behavior. It thus seems irrelevant to his moral responsibility. I would say that the man can be held morally responsible for staying in the room, even though he could not have left the room.

Now of course the man could have chosen to leave the room, could have tried to leave, and so forth. So (apart from any special assumptions, such as God's omniscience or causal determinism) he did in fact have SOME alternative possibilities. Harry Frankfurt seeks to expunge even these alternatives, envisaging an agent, "Black", who can control even the poor man's brain, anticipating his choices in such a way as to render it true that the man could not even have chosen or tried to do otherwise.

The "Locke/Frankfurt" examples have become a template for testing the relationship between moral responsibility and the sort of freedom or control that involves alternative possibilities. I agree with Locke and Frankfurt; in my view, one can choose and act freely, and thus exhibit the kind of control that grounds moral responsibility, without having freedom to choose or act otherwise. I have thus defended an "actual-sequence" approach to moral responsibility. But this is highly contentious. What do you think?

Comments (14)


Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, March 27, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

I definately distinguish between unfreedoms and co

I definately distinguish between unfreedoms and constraints. A constraint is what I call something physical - like a wall, or how fast you can run. Being unable to win the Olympic sprint doesn't make you unfree - it's just another aspect of reality that constrains your options beyond mere imagination.
Unfreedom is what I call the reduction in ones options that occurs because of the will of another person. If you would like to speak your mind, but someone doesn't let you, then you don't have any freedom.
The example above is, to me, fairly clear. The man is not free to leave the room. He is free to stay in the room. Thus, if he chooses to stay in the room, then the consequences are his responsibility. If he tries to leave the room, but cannot, then the consequences are the responsibility of the interlocutor.
-Tennessee

nick's picture

nick

Sunday, March 27, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

"I would say that the man can be held morally resp

"I would say that the man can be held morally responsible for staying in the room, even though he could not have left the room." -- I disagree. Maybe it's my thinking in how I see the dilemma here. The man cannot, according to the example, leave the room. He could try, sure, but his attempt would be futile and the door would not open because it is locked. Therefore, he has no choice but to stay in the room. I don't think he chooses to stay in the room simply because he cannot leave. There is not choice in this situation, there is no free will.
I may be mistaken here, but I don't think so. Am I setting up a fallacy of false alternatives (false dilemma) if I see the man is either in the room or out of the room? His choice, his free will is not present if the door is locked. It constraints his ability to choose one OR the other. Tennessee agreed with your statement when he said "He is free to stay in the room. Thus, if he chooses to stay in the room, then the consequences are his responsibility." It's like holding a ball in your hand and hanging your arm out in front of you: you have two choices, (a) continue holding the ball in your hand, or (b) drop the ball to the ground. There is no third option, it's a clear cut two-option situation. Except, like the man in the locked room example, suppose that the ball is glued to the man's hand. If your statements about this man in the room example are true, then so would saying this about the ball in hand example: because the ball is glued to his hand, he has chosen to continue holding it..... Similar, or no?

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, March 27, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

The only way a person can be a slave is through al

The only way a person can be a slave is through allowing their will to be enslaved
There are too many absolute statements. Just because the door was locked does not mean he could not have left the room. The only way a person can be made a slave is through their own will, which allows itself to be coerced. The slave allows himself to be a slave through their own will. Hegel stated that ?As a living thing man may be coerced, i.e. his body or anything else external about him may be brought under the power of others; but the free will cannot be coerced at all, except in so far as it fails to withdraw itself out of the external object in which it is held fast, or rather out of its idea of that object. Only the will which allows itself to be coerced can in any way be coerced (Hegel-Philosophy of Right).? The man could have altered the form of the door or walls through various means and tools present in the room. When describing that the room was locked, and he could not have left the room, you are taking an absolute position similar to God-but only God would know that the man absolutely cannot get out/there is no other wise. You have not even described the room, or how what the locking mechanism is, and yet you jumped to the fact that he can?t get out. All physical doors are finite, that means there is a way to get out; it has a flaw in its being finite. Locke was made fairly good contributions to epistemology, but they were greatly superceded by those that came after.
For further a further explanation on how the man could be able to get out of the room through Possession of the lock consult Hegel?s Philosophy of Right.
?Based on his own Reasons he decided to stay in the Room?
Most people before deciding they want to stay in the room would want to find out if they could get out. Kant wanted to know if there are limits to Reason, concerning such question as God, Immortality of Soul, and Freedom.

nick's picture

nick

Sunday, March 27, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

Ok, Homer, so there's lots of neat, tricky ways to

Ok, Homer, so there's lots of neat, tricky ways to figure your way out of the room (picking the lock, pushing the door really hard, or having the man physically transubstantiate into a liquid in order to pass under the door like Terminator II).
Those are all nice and great, but for the sake of argument suppose that there REALLY is NO way to get out of that room. Suppose that it is absolutely impossible, there is no way in hell that he's getting out until someone else outside of the room unlocks the door (from the outside, let's say). Now the question is: is he "choosing" to stay in the room? Can he possibly be held responsible for staying inside when (go with me here) he cannot possible escape the inescapable room?
My answer: no, he should not be held responsible because he cannot get out. Choice requires alternatives (there are none in this case) and so does morality.

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, March 27, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

?Those are all nice and great, but for the sake

?Those are all nice and great, but for the sake of argument suppose that there REALLY is NO way to get out of that room. Suppose that it is absolutely impossible, there is no way in hell that he's getting out until someone else outside of the room unlocks the door (from the outside, let's say).?
Let?s say this abstract problem really exists in the real world. Lets say that I one of us plays the role of God-which is completely absurd, a person cannot infinitely imagine the being God or that which moves all of nature. Let?s say clouds are really marshmallows. Lets say that we listen to someone?s theology which creates a God, and this problem is included in his Summa Theologica, so clearly the man should stay in the room because he can?t get out/follow the rules.
You are giving into another person?s absolute ideas to easily. The person who wrote this problem knows how to use words as chains. Now if this is just a game that is OK, but if you plan to build some kind of morality and ethics out of this Logic, it is absurd. You say that ?until someone else outside of the room unlocks the door,? then that guy has an option of convincing the guy to open the door for him-therefore he has a way to get out.
There is no such thing as an inescapable room in the real world. If there is a Lock, there is always someone who knows how to pick it. You are always in control of your Will, and just because you can?t think of an alternative does not mean that it does not exist. That is why you constantly need to increase your Education (collection of principles) and sharpen your judgment, so that you can perceive and use alternatives. Anyone who tells you that there are no alternatives is seeking to manipulate you into their slave.
What about the whole idea of making ?no choice? is a choice within itself? I choose not to choose.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, March 28, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

I think that the "Locke/Frankfurt Examples" provid

I think that the "Locke/Frankfurt Examples" provide us with intuitions that the Principle of Alternative Possibilities (which itself is supposed to be intuitive) may too strong or even completely wrong. I think that PAP comes from our intuition that when someone is forced to do something against their will then they can't be held responsible for it. It seems that this sort of intuition was the basis for PAP, which in my opinion completely misinterpreted that intuition. It seems that responsibility becomes an issue of will not choice, therefore making alternate possibilities irrelevant.

nick's picture

nick

Monday, March 28, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

Homer, I don't see why you just can't take the hyp

Homer, I don't see why you just can't take the hypothetical as it stands (just assume, for the sake of argument, that the man really cannot get out of the room). But whatever.
Jamie, I agree that the example seems to hint at the intuitive belief about PAP, as you said (Principle of Alternative Possibilities), but not necessarily that this belief is "too strong or even completely wrong."
But you said something interesting, of which I take note. "It seems that responsibility," you said, "becomes an issue of will not choice..." You imply, I think, a difference between WILL and CHOICE. That's a good distinction to make, I didn't think of it earlier. There can be a choice without will, and of course there can be a will present without a choice; or they can correspond. And yes, responsibility rests more one will than choice. But suppose there's a situation in which a man has a will but no choice, i.e. the man in the room example (above). It seems to me that he has a will to stay in the room, surely, and he acts on his will. However, he has no choice but to stay in the room because it is locked. I still don't see him as being responsible for staying in the room, even if it is his will. Saying otherwise takes for granted the fact that, in the example, the man was not aware of the fact that the door was, in fact, locked. He had no knowledge of that fact. Had he known this or not know this, he would not be responsible for "staying" in the room. After all, either way, he could not leave.
Yeah, so I guess my intuitions are pretty strong in assuming PAP. And the responsiblity part rests on perhaps a mixture of will and choice, instead of simply taking the former to have exclusive domain.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, March 28, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

?I think that PAP comes from our intuition that

?I think that PAP comes from our intuition that when someone is forced to do something against their will then they can't be held responsible for it. It seems that this sort of intuition was the basis for PAP, which in my opinion completely misinterpreted that intuition. It seems that responsibility becomes an issue of will not choice, therefore making alternate possibilities irrelevant,? said Jamie.
You mean like when a person (X) is holding a gun to another person?s (Y) head and forces him to do something? In that case I might agree that there is no alternative for (Y) and that person (Y) cannot be held accountable for what they do, since their life is being immediately threatened. But I will not submit to the abstract problem by Locke. His abstract problem will not hold in the real world, it is too absolute and requires that one player take the role of God. If you want to create a morality or ethics from your logic (such as this problem) it must be applicable to the real world. Sure we can play abstract games (filled with empty concepts) and then create some abstract morality out of that, but the end is superfluous. Suppose, Assume, and other words like that are wastes of time. We are looking for Truth. Stop playing with empty concepts, and start using concepts agree with the conditions of experience.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, March 28, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

Nick, The fact that we are unaware doesn't seem

Nick,
The fact that we are unaware doesn't seem to limit our responsibility. If that was the case then ignorance would negate responsibility. For example, If I am driving down the road and am unaware (or even ignorant) of the speed limit signs (which are in plain sight), then according to your statement I am not responsible for speeding when I get pulled over. Or perhaps I am unaware of the child playing the street and I hit him with my SUV. Is it the case that I not responsible for hitting the child and possibly killing him.
Homer,
I am curious to the statement about one of the players playing the role of God. I don't see this as the case. There is a person in a locked room and ultimately all the needs to be is one player. What if the person in Locke's example voluntarily walked into a room and shut the door himself, unbenounced to him however once the door was shut it was impossible to open it. In this case there is only one person involved in the example. There is no one playing the role of god in this instance is there?
How are terms like suppose, assume,... wastes of time? These types of words help us to come to an understanding that makes the truth more meaningful. Is Einstein theory of Special Relativity a waste of time because its assumptions about gravity? In logic, when arguing reductio ad absurdum, we assume the opposite of what we think the conclusion is in order to show that the truth of the matter is that the assumption is not the case (hopefully).

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, March 28, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

In third sentence of the second paragraph it shoul

In third sentence of the second paragraph it should say "ultimately all THERE needs to be ..." sorry

nick's picture

nick

Monday, March 28, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

Jamie: Oh no. That isn't my position. I feel that

Jamie: Oh no. That isn't my position. I feel that awareness is strongly tied to responsiblity, and vice versa, that unawareness is tied to un-responsibility. As a general statement, that is my view.
This kind of viewpoint rests on (what I would call) a sliding horizontal scale, however. Go with me here, see if you get where I'm going. On the left end is full awareness; on the other is total unawareness, no knowledge whatsoever--in any way, including pre-knowledge, any "general idea," or hint, or clue, or whatever inkling of potential knowledge whatsoever at all. The left side (full awareness) includes characteristics like full consciousness, ability to use senses and interpret bodily data, employ reason, and so on. On the right side of my scale is the area of no knowledge, again no ability to detect or sense or take in any mental fact (say, like a person in a comatose state or whatever).
The idea of responsiblity corresponds and, you could say, lays on this scale from left to right also. If you're on the Left and fully conscious (i.e. nothing hinders your ability to take in the facts and make a conscious, rational, reasonable decision), then you are responsible to the greatest extent [which isn't to say fully, completely responsible, but responible enough to suffer punishment for not making the right decision]. If you're on the Right then you're not conscious, not awake, not "there" in the mind enough to make rational, reasonable decisions based on the given alternatives.
Now, a couple of caveats. Somewhere on this sliding scale there is negligence. That is to say, at some point on this scale (somewhere between the far left and far right), there is a level of knowledge sufficient to inform the agent that his act is possible to produce a certain (and perhapsd undesirable) consequence. Legitimate negligence is punishable and therefore subject to the requirements of responsibility, in my view. WHERE negligence exists on the scale is what we have to debate and decide, but it is somewhere along that line. Here's my diagram:
[L]_____a________N__________t___________c____[R]
L = far left side of scale, most responsible
a = normal functioning adult, responsible
N = negligent agent, not totally informed but had enough prior knowledge
t = teenager, somewhat responsible
c = child, not too responsible yet
R = far right side of scale, no responsibilty because no knowledge
Do you see where I'm going with this? I think that you're example about driving along a road and hitting some child unbeknownst to me as I drive, is a bad example. If I am able to drive, then I have been given a license (you didn't specify in the hypothetical) so I just assumed. Therefore, I have the KNOWLEDGE of my duty to watch the road and my path as I drive. I am equipped with sufficient KNOWLEDGE to operate a vehicle, and to be reasonable informed of its weight, mass, etc., and how dangerous it is if objects get in my way. With these things in mind, the driver of the vehicle that hits the child is responsible for hitting the child. It may be negligence, it may be outright wrongdoing, but it his still the driver's fault. This driver, to use my diagram, this driver's responsibility level will have to correspond to his knowledge level. Maybe somewhere between "t" and "a".

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, March 28, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

To Nick, ?Where Negligence Exists=X? Cle

To Nick,
?Where Negligence Exists=X?
Clearly teenagers, people under the age of 18, should not be held as responsible as people over 18. That is why 17 year olds can?t buy automobiles. The ?Where Negligence Exists=X? would either have to be (X=a), or (a>X>n). This could be used to judge people without disability. Now the question is where would a ?mentally disabled? person be on the scale? And how do assign responsibility to them? Do mentally disabled people drive cars legally?
Clearly X is not something as high as Kant's categorical imperative. Are you trying to construct something universal, or a standard based on the "every man?" How are you trying to construct this standard? What would you use Nick?
Jamie: Ignorance is no excuse, and it is not bliss.

nick's picture

nick

Tuesday, March 29, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

Homer, yes I agree that negligence would be somewh

Homer, yes I agree that negligence would be somewhere between (a) and (t), that's why I stuck it right between them, (N), in the above diagram. Negligence is a tricky concept because, for responsiblity to be held, the agent had to have enough information and knowledge of a duty to know that he had to, in fact, perform that duty but did not. The level of knowledge in such a case is clearly relevant to the level of responsibility.
If you still insist that there isn't a clear tie between the level of knowledge and the level of responsibility, I would cite for you as evidence the legal system. Not that the legal system is the best evidence for any proposition, but it does show the way we currently practice criminal justice. Notice how there an accused isn't just convicted of "murder," rather they are charged with either capital, first degree, second degree, or manslaughter murder. (I'm not sure of any other categories of murder.)
With each charge, there are a specific set of circumstances that must be met to convict the accused. These circumstances include how much the murderer knew and planned and intended at the time of the alleged murder. This information will determine whether he/she be accused of capital, first, second, or manslaughter. And subsequently, there are varying levels of punishment that can be doled out by a jury in these four kinds of cases. Obviously, capital murder carries with it the greatest possible punishment (death penalty), while manslaughter punishment is not so severe (two years to life, I suppose--but not the death penalty).
The point here is that, in practice, we already try to match responsibility/punishment with the level of knowledge that an apparent wrongdoer had at the time of the incident. That is the morally correct way to do these things. It would be unjust to punish someone more than they deserve for doing something they either had no idea they were doing wrong, or were given bad information to being with.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, June 2, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

I think I understand the premise of this hypotheti

I think I understand the premise of this hypothetical well enough: according to Locke, the man was not free in his action, yet he ought to be held morally responsible for his decision to stay in the room. Putting the issue of the man's freedom aside for a moment, it seems to me that Locke?s version of the ?Frankfurt-type example? is terribly incomplete. Here are my concerns:
First, what exactly are the repercussions of the man?s actions? Why is he being held morally responsible for choosing to stay in the room? This isn?t explained, yet it seems vital to the example.
More importantly: If I understand the example, the man simply awakes in a room, mulls things over, and decides to stay ? at which point he becomes morally responsible for his actions. How can we reasonably hold him morally responsible? Shouldn't he have been notified beforehand of the consequences his actions held? At what point does moral responsibility enter into the equation?

 

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