Free Will, Frankfurt, and the Force

Harry Frankfurt is a philosopher noted for defending a compatibilistic view of free will. He is widely recognized for his paper “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsiblity” (link) in which he  argues that the principle of alternate possibilities (PAP) is not necessary to assign moral responsibility. He does this through examples that have become quite popular, even being referred to as Frankfurt stories. This approach is considered, by some, to have successfully shown how moral responsibility can be assigned in a world in which PAP does not exist. Since Reformed theology affirms determinism and a compatibilistic view of free will (link), the Frankfurt stories are sometimes used to bolster their position (see this post as an example). But do Frankfurt stories do what their proponents claim?

What is PAP?

Frankfurt offers the following definition, which aligns with the idea of a libertarian free will (LFW).

This principle states that a person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise.

He follows that with the following assessment:

the principle of alternate possibilities is false. A person may well be morally responsible for what he has done even though he could not have done otherwise.

In order to make his case, Frankfurt presents the following story:

Suppose someone Black, let us say — wants Jones to perform a certain action. Black is prepared to go to considerable lengths to get his way, but he prefers to avoid showing his hand unnecessarily.So he waits until Jones is about to make up his mind what to do, and does nothing unless it is clear to him (Black is an excellent judge of such things) that Jones is going to decide to do something other than what he wants him to do. If it does become clear that Jones is going to decide to do something else, Black takes effective steps to ensure that Jones decides to do, and that he does do, what he wants him to do. … Now suppose that Black never has to show his hand because Jones, for reasons of his own, decides to perform and does perform the very action Black wants him to perform.

Who is Black?

Frankfurt is primarily interested in arguing for compatibilism and leaves the deterministic forces open, noting in the paper that Black can represent a person, machine, or natural forces.When the Calvinist uses the story God would assume the role of Black.

How does Black intervene?

What steps will Black take, if he believes he must take steps, in order to ensure that Jones decides and acts as be wishes? Anyone with a theory concerning what “could have done otherwise” means may answer this question for himself by describing whatever measures he would regard as sufficient to guarantee that, in the relevant sense, Jones cannot do otherwise.

Is Jones responsible for his actions?

In the story presented by Frankfurt, we are asked to consider whether Jones is responsible for doing what Black wanted him to do?  Most would affirm with Frankfurt that “Jones will bear precisely the same moral responsibility for what he does as he would have borne if Black had not been ready to take steps to ensure that he do it.”

Frankfurt than notes that there is only one possible outcome in the story – Jones will do what Black wants him to do. Therefore, Frankfurt argues, we must conclude that PAP is not required to assign moral responsibility.

Many philosophers have pointed out the problems with this story.

The most glaring is that Black, in wanting to not insert himself unnecessarily, must allow Jones to “decide what he will do”. Proponents of LFW and PAP often call Jones ability to decide at this point in the story the “flicker of freedom”. This freedom opens up alternate paths even if the outcome is fixed and Jones will always do what Black wants. In the table below the action, which can be anything from voting for a candidate, committing a crime, or putting on blue socks, will be represented as the Greek letter Φ.

Possible Scenario 1 Possible Scenario 2
Black wants Jones to Φ
Jones wants to Φ Jones does not want to Φ
Black does not intervene Black intervenes so Jones wants to Φ
Jones does Φ

While we can agree that Jones is responsible for his actions in scenario #1, things get a bit more interesting in scenario #2.

There are several questions that we must wrestle with:

  • Did Jones act freely in scenario #2?
  • Did Black do violence to Jones freedom?
  • Would we assign responsibility to Jones in scenario #2?
  • Would we assign responsibility to Black in scenario #2?

Perhaps another look at the Frankfurt stories using Star Wars might help bring more clarity to what we are considering.


Ben Kenobi is in possession of some droids who have the plans to the Death Star. He wants to deliver them to the Rebel Alliance. On his journey to Mos Eisley, to hire a ship to take him to Alderaan, he is noticed by a stormtrooper, we will call him FW-421. FW-421 recognizes that Kenobi’s droids match the description of those he is tasked with finding so he orders the speeder to stop. Kenobi wants the trooper to let him go so he uses the Force to perform a Jedi mind trick on FW-421. This persuades the trooper that “these aren’t the droids he’s looking for” so that he will “decide” to let them go.

Is Trooper FW-421 responsible for letting Kenobi and the droids go free?

I will leave it to the proponent of compatibilism (ie Reformed/Calvinists) to argue that Black in scenario #2 and Kenobi are not responsible for the actions that were performed.

The Calvinist, rather than wrestle with how to assign responsibility in scenario #2 in the Black/Jones story or the Star Wars episode, might object on different grounds. They could argue that scenario #1 in the Black/Jones story is how things really are. People (Jones) always “freely” do want they want to do and this always aligns with what God (Black) decrees that He wants them to do. There is no possibility of scenario #2. However, then we have a different set of challenges to consider. For example, why does Jones always want what Black wants. It is not enough to argue that Jones was free to do what he wanted and thus has “free will”. We must further explain why can’t Jones desires ever go against what Black wants (or God decrees).

When we consider why Jones always does what Black wants from a theistic point of view (divine determinism), there seem to be only three options.

Scenario 1 Scenario 2 Scenario 3
Black wants Jones to Φ
Jones wants to Φ Jones does not want to Φ Black insures Jones wants to Φ
Black does not intervene Black intervenes so Jones wants to Φ Jones wants to Φ
Jones does Φ

(1) We must go back to the original Black/Jones story where God (Black) must occasionally intervene to override Jones competing decision as noted in scenario #2.

(2) God (Black) must not allow a “flicker of freedom” in Jones, “intervening” so that Jones  initial desire always matches what was decreed (scenario 3 above).

(3) God (Black) must be extremely lucky.

What do you think?

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