Home > Free Essays > Philosophy > Philosophical Concept > Frankfurt on “Ought” Implies “Can” and Alternate Possibilities

Frankfurt on “Ought” Implies “Can” and Alternate Possibilities Essay (Article Review)

Exclusively available on IvyPanda Available only on IvyPanda
Updated: Jun 6th, 2022

That the moral laws of nature are often transgressed by man, is undeniable. If the physical laws of nature make his obedience to the moral laws to be impossible, then he is, in the literal sense, born under one law, bound unto another, which contradicts every notion of a righteous government of the world (Reid, 1895, p. 337).


Objectivism, the philosophy by David Widerker, defines the relations between “can” and “ought” – that what is, decides what one ought to do. As people suggest that morality identifies the “can” and philosophy states what we “ought” to do, that objectivity (the “can”) defines philosophy (the “ought”). This is a mistake as morality can only state what “can” in expressions described by philosophy, and for causes stated by philosophy. Morality is a tool for a human to achieve goals, and is preceded by philosophic decisions.


In order to analyze David Widerker’s article “Frankfurt on “Ought” Implies “Can” and Alternate Possibilities”, we need to refer to the Frankfurt’s and Kane’s works and maybe to some other philosophers.

If we refer to Kane, he concludes that: “We believe we have free will when it is “up to us” what we choose from an array of alternative possibilities and the origin or source of our choices and actions is in us and not in anyone or anything else over which we have no control” (Kane, 2002, p. 5).

As for me, I think that this statement suggests that people believe that, unless people are heavily deceived, when one performs freely, one actually knows that his or her action greatly involves one’s being a real source of certain change. And up until that moment when initiating certain change, it is actually within one’s person’s power not to be the initiator of that change.

In the context of the statement that “Ought” Implies “can” we need to mention some valuable features of the free will that are present in our every day lives. They include such features as: “being morally responsible, attaining life hopes, exercising practical rationality, deliberating, possessing dignity, giving and receiving forgiveness and love, being creators and authors, and being the rightful subject of a host of reactive attitudes” (Botham, 2005, p. 45).

In the context of our main question of ““ought” Implies “can””, we need to mention the importance of free will in this process. Most of the philosophers, derived from their immovable belief that moral responsibility was actually impossible without such thing as free will, were not able to regard this problem in another way.

Kane believed that one is morally responsible in the end only if one does some free independent action at some time.

Frankfurt stated that responsibility itself requires certain origination. I argue that the statement of Frankfurt fails to undermine such claim that moral responsibility itself requires one’s performance with dual power, well at least on some occasion.

I can assert that one may be reasonable in his or her thinking that such thing as moral responsibility implies itself that there is actually a free action. I can also state that the freedom is equally important in this process, as moral responsibility.

Frankfurt shows that “the freedom pertinent to moral responsibility is an agent’s acting of his own accord, and this freedom does not strictly imply that the agent has the power to act otherwise” (Frankfurt, 2000). So then we can see the Principle of Alternative Possibilities called (PAP). It states that (PAP) A person is actually morally responsible “for performing a given act only if he could have acted otherwise” (Frankfurt, 2000).

Frankfurt argues that “there could be background circumstances ensuring that someone could not have done otherwise but where these background circumstances do not in any way influence the action she performs. Since the agent could not have done otherwise, the situation in which the agent acts is an irresistible-situation – IRR” (Example with Black, Jones and Smith) (Frankfurt, 2000).

As the result we have certain opinions. It is obvious to some scientists that Jones is actually morally responsible for killing his relative Smith, and, intuitively, Jones is indeed responsible for Smith’s death.

While Frankfurt argues that responsibility indeed requires dual power. But I would like to disagree with Frankfurt and suggest the idea that Black directly causes Jones choice to kill Smith.

Making a choice is not an overt action, but we still can consider it as an action nevertheless. Also I vindicate that responsibility requires object acting freely.

Let’s return to the Frankfurt’s example. If we are reviewing the counterfactual case, then we need to say that Jones does not actually will to kill Smith by himself, and Black indeed directly causes Jones to will actually kill Smith.

We are convinced that Jones is actually responsible because he wills by himself and it are his own choice and he acts alone. Were actually Black to intervene, Jones himself would not be anyhow responsible for these because the initiator of killing Smith would be Black, but not Jones. So Jones initiates nothing in the counterfactual case and here we can see the difference in such terms as moral status between the actual case and the counterfactual case.

Frankfurt claims that the responsibility itself implies the origination.

I think that we should not confuse such terms as possession and origination. For example, if Black causes that Jones is willing to kill Smith, the act of such willingness is nevertheless Jones’s. But this possession does not require the origination.

Following this, despite Frankfurt’s claims, we can state that the difference itself between belonging to the “agent” and also belonging to the “agent simpliciter” is embodied in certain distinction between such terms as possession and origination.

I would like to say that Frankfurt-style criticisms actually fail to undermine a key implying that moral responsibility indeed requires dual power, and it does not matter whether we regard the principle of PAP or some other neighborhood principles.

I support the viewpoint of many progressive scientists that claim that PAP is false, they even state that it is meaningless. In support of my viewpoint, I would like to suggest such claim as: “It has always seemed reasonably plain to [me] that what one is morally responsible for is not one’s actions but the consequences of one’s actions, or, more exactly, certain of the consequences of one’s actions” (Inwagen, 2001, p. 12).

Here is a typical example provided by Dr. Botham that PAP is false: “Suppose that I owe you a large sum of money. I promise to repay you at Vincent’s Café next Monday at noon. I never show up. In your thoughts, you begin to blame me for being somewhere else at the appointed time. Your disgust with me, however, subsides when you learn that I was locked inside a bank vault on Monday. At noon, I could not repay you at Vincent’s Café. I could not but be somewhere else. But then you learn that I locked myself in the vault that Monday morning in order to avoid repaying you. Intuitively, I’m responsible for being somewhere else at noon even though at noon I could not be at Vincent’s Café” (Botham, 2005, p. 62).

I also can argue that Frankfurt is not able to describe an IRR situation, where the agent performs her first of morally significant actions. And I can argue that there is no IRR situation where agent does her first significant action. So, despite Frankfurt’s ideas, I think that the moral responsibility actually requires any agent’s acting freely on some occasion. So we can assert that: “The inseverable connection is this: if one is morally responsible for anything, it follows logically that one has had a free choice about something” (Inwagen, 2001, p.10).

If we relate these thoughts to the Frankfurt’s example, then we can assert that it is an IRR-situation and Jons performs his first own significant action without dual power.

In this context Black intervenes because he sees that Jones will not do the action on his own. We can say that Jones could refrain the choice to kill Smith on his own (freely). So we can see that the agent performs a certain responsible action only in that case, if performing the first significant action. Frankfurt failed in his claim that a certain agent does the first significant action only if acting with certain dual power. Following this, we can say that Frankfurt’s ideas actually itself undermine the direct meaning of PAP. So that is how it is vindicated the statement that moral responsibility requires such terms as origination and dual power.

What I am trying to say is that the moral responsibility itself requires a special kind of the free will. This free will should both imply such components as: the dual power and the origination. Despite Frankfurt’s ideas, I can assert that as well as the moral responsibility, free action matters a lot in the discussion of such issues as ““ought” Implies “can””.


So, after analyzing the Frankfurt’s ideas, on which was based Widerker’s article named “Frankfurt on “Ought” Implies “Can” and Alternate Possibilities”, I can say that I go for the David’s point of view.

And on support of my opinion, as a conclusion, I would like to say in the context of the issue of ““ought” Implies “can””, that the theory of free will represents itself the agent-causal view. The basic idea of agent causation is that a certain agent acts freely only in that case if there is an event that has a cause, where such cause is not any other event but actually the agent of the act in the issue. I assert that nothing can effectively cause, though something can contribute in a causal way to, anyone’s directly totally free action.

I can say that the agent acts freely only in that case if self-determining of understanding of that he or she is an ultimate source or certainly underived originator of certain change. I think that it is necessary to defend agent causation from such popular objections as Kane’s and Frankfurt’s ones.

After reviewing all this information, we can state that in order to be capable to talk at all, to make statements and deductions, one must previously know how to perform everything essential in standard to deploy modal and normative language.

If so, one can not be fixed in the location Widerker took himself to be in: realizing commonplace experiential, expressive language, but with that offering no grip on the application of modal and normative vocabulary. The semantic connections between what is featured by the use of experiential evocative expressions, on the one hand, and what is featured by the application of modal and what is featured by normative language, on the other, are significantly sensibly mediated ones. To realize the relation between how things simply are and how they must be or (a various matter) ought to be, one must look at what one is doing in stating how things are.

Various descriptions of the “ought” implies “can” (OIC) standard correspond to various ways of applying the terms “ought”, “can”, and “implies”. So to invent precisely OIC, namely the notion of the standard that is defended, it is necessary to explain how the terms are used.

The relations between normative and modal relation between “ought” and “can” should be defined in the further researches, showing how normative relation can serve both as a pragmatic meaning for modal notion and as the grounds for an unswervingly modal formal semantics for normal empirical notion that does not plea in any way to a statement of truth.

Works Cited

Frankfurt, Harry. “The Importance of What We Care About”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1988.

Kane, Robert, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Free Will. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Reid, Thomas. “Essays on the Active Powers of the Human”. Edinburgh: Maclachlan and Stewart. 1983.

Widerker, David. “Frankfurt on “Ought” Implies “Can” and Alternate Possibilities” Analysis 49: 222-224. Aldershot: Ashgate Press. 1991.

This article review on Frankfurt on “Ought” Implies “Can” and Alternate Possibilities was written and submitted by your fellow student. You are free to use it for research and reference purposes in order to write your own paper; however, you must cite it accordingly.
Removal Request
If you are the copyright owner of this paper and no longer wish to have your work published on IvyPanda.
Request the removal

Need a custom Article Review sample written from scratch by
professional specifically for you?

801 certified writers online

Cite This paper
Select a referencing style:


IvyPanda. (2022, June 6). Frankfurt on "Ought" Implies "Can" and Alternate Possibilities. https://ivypanda.com/essays/david-widerkers-article-on-responsibility-review/


IvyPanda. (2022, June 6). Frankfurt on "Ought" Implies "Can" and Alternate Possibilities. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/david-widerkers-article-on-responsibility-review/

Work Cited

"Frankfurt on "Ought" Implies "Can" and Alternate Possibilities." IvyPanda, 6 June 2022, ivypanda.com/essays/david-widerkers-article-on-responsibility-review/.

1. IvyPanda. "Frankfurt on "Ought" Implies "Can" and Alternate Possibilities." June 6, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/david-widerkers-article-on-responsibility-review/.


IvyPanda. "Frankfurt on "Ought" Implies "Can" and Alternate Possibilities." June 6, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/david-widerkers-article-on-responsibility-review/.


IvyPanda. 2022. "Frankfurt on "Ought" Implies "Can" and Alternate Possibilities." June 6, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/david-widerkers-article-on-responsibility-review/.


IvyPanda. (2022) 'Frankfurt on "Ought" Implies "Can" and Alternate Possibilities'. 6 June.

Powered by CiteTotal, citation generator
More related papers