Actually the Frankfurt cases are already rather old. Not as old as Plato’s philosophy, of course, but Harry Frankfurt presented them in 1969. It was his contribution to the discussion on determinism and moral responsibility. So the debate lasts already more than 40 years. What’s new now is that the discussion on determinism has changed because of recent developments in brain research. If our hormones make do what we do, as some brain researchers say, or if our behaviour and actions are nothing but programmed reactions of our neural networks to the inputs from the world around us (what we see, what we hear and so on), what does remain then from the idea of free will and, in line with it, the idea that we are morally responsible for what we do? In view of this, the Frankfurt cases illustrate, under a certain interpretation, that determinism and freedom can go together. Right now, I don’t have the idea that I can give a substantial contribution to the debate, but nevertheless let me brainstorm a bit about it.
Basically it is so – and I think that nobody will deny it – that a person is morally responsible for what she does by her own free will. But say that I am riding uphill with a friend in the case in my last blog. First we decided to go straight on, but then I changed my mind, as I explained, and I decided to go to the left where the road splits, so that I am sure that I’ll be home before dark. My friend doesn’t care, for he has light on his bike, which I haven’t. So he says: “I’ll go straight on and tell you later how the road is like.” But because the road straight on was blocked, my friend had to turn to the left, too. What’s the difference between my turning to the left and my friend’s turning to the left? Can it happen that in a non-trivial case I will be held responsible for my action (and with right) and my friend will not, even though we did the same action at the same place under the same circumstances, but only for the reason that we had different intentions for our actions at the moment we couldn’t yet foresee the consequences of the alternative decisions?
Secondly, does our moral responsibility for an action depend on the moment we have taken the decision to act in a certain way? Or are there, for instance, levels of responsibility depending on the moment the decision has been taken? In the trivial case of me riding uphill and downhill: Is my responsibility for turning left before I could see that the road straight on had been blocked different from my responsibility for turning left at the moment I could see the blockade, although I had the intention to turn left anyway?To end this quite abstract blog (which is a bit unusually for me, I think, but the readers may protest) I give an example, adapted from the philosophical literature. There are better cases, but presently I cannot find them: A locomotive is running downhill. I don’t know what went wrong but what I do know is that there is no engine driver in it. There is a man on the track who doesn’t see the loco coming. I cannot stop it but I can shift a switch and lead the loco to another track and the man will be saved. As for the responsibility question it’s a simple case, you’ll think. But there are many variations possible. For instance, there is a man on the other track, but you cannot see him from your point of view. Or you can see him, but one of the persons is your son. Or you see the second man at the last moment. Or your daughter is on one track, and on the other track there are 2, 3, 4 … persons. With some creativity you’ll be able to think up a lot of cases, but are you able to solve the responsibility problem? I wonder who can.