Incommensurable Goods, Alternative Possibilities, and the Self-Refutation of the Self-Refutation of Determinism

American Journal of Jurisprudence 50 (1):165-171 (2005)
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In his paper, "Free Choice, Incommensurable Goods and the Self-Refutation of Determinism,"' Joseph Boyle seeks to show how the argument for the self-refutation of determinism - first articulated over twenty-five years ago - is an argument whose force depends on (first) a proper understanding of just what free choice is, and (secondly) a proper understanding of how free choice is a principle of moral responsibility. According to Boyle, a person can make a genuinely free choice only if he is presented with alternative options that are incommensurable in their goodness or desirability. If the goodness or desirability of alternative options could be commensurated, or compared in accordance with some common standard, then it would be possible in principle for a person to determine which of the two options offered more, and which offered less, of the same sort of good represented by the two options. But if this sort of commensuration or comparison were possible, according to Boyle, then there would really be no need to choose. Rather, the only task that would have to be performed in order to determine the person's selection among alternative options would be the task clarifying or calculating which of the alternative options offered most fully what it is that makes both options desirable in the first place. Once the clarification or calculation is done, there would be no need-and in fact, no possibility--of really choosing: the calculation alone would settle which option is the best option, and thus which option is to be selected. Now if genuinely free choice requires that the choosing person be presented with options that are incommensurable in goodness or desirability, then it also seems to be the case that genuine choice-and the moral responsibility that goes along with it-requires that the person be presented with alternative possibilities from which to choose. And yet some compatibilist thinkers have held that moral responsibility does not really require the presence of alternative possibilities. In particular, Harry G. Frankfurt has sought to show (by means of counter-example) that a person can be a moral agent and morally responsible, even if the person did not, in fact, have any alternative possibilities available to him (that is, even if the person could not have done otherwise). Frankfurt's counter-example offers a direct challenge to the sort of incompatibilism that Boyle seeks to defend; and so Boyle is quite right to address Frankfurt head-on. For if Frankfurt is right, then it is erroneous to hold "the principle of alternative possibilities" (the principle that a person can be morally responsible for what he has done, only if he had alternative possibilities, or only if he could have done otherwise). But if it is erroneous to hold the principle of alternative possibilities, then it also seems erroneous to hold the more robust position that Boyle wishes to defend: namely, the position that moral responsibility requires not only alternative possibilities, but also alternative possibilities representing options that are incommensurable in their goodness.

Author's Profile

Michael Baur
Fordham University


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