It's too long to quote as well as I'd like, but the section on moral responsibility in the SEP article on empirical moral psychology includes as an example:

... Nahmias, Morris, Nadelhoffer and Turner (2009) [...] described agents preforming immoral behaviors in a “deterministic world” of the sort often described in philosophy classrooms. One variation read as follows:

Imagine that in the next century we discover all the laws of nature, and we build a supercomputer which can deduce from these laws of nature and from the current state of everything in the world exactly what will be happening in the world at any future time. It can look at everything about the way the world is and predict everything about how it will be with 100% accuracy. Suppose that such a supercomputer existed, and it looks at the state of the universe at a certain time on March 25th, 2150 C.E., twenty years before Jeremy Hall is born. The computer then deduces from this information and the laws of nature that Jeremy will definitely rob Fidelity Bank at 6:00 PM on January 26th, 2195. As always, the supercomputer’s prediction is correct; Jeremy robs Fidelity Bank at 6:00 PM on January 26th, 2195.

Subjects were then asked whether Jeremy was morally blameworthy. Most said yes, indicating that they thought an agent could be morally blameworthy even if his behaviors were entirely determined by natural laws. Consistent with the Woolfolk et al. results, it appears that the subjects’ judgments, at least those having to do with moral blameworthiness, were not governed by a commitment to incompatibilism.

It seems as if people might be counterpossibly reasoning in such a case, like so:

  1. If moral responsibility exists in some world but incompatibilist free will doesn't, then in such a world, people would still be morally responsible for their actions even without incompatibilist free will.

Suppose the antecedent proposition is a counterpossible premise. Take this to mean that moral responsibility does analytically/logically/what-have-you require incompatibilist free will, so that the antecedent, as a premise, refers to a scenario such that A is not A (or some other inconsistency/incoherence). But if "folk analysts" can reason in this way, then when they accept a hypothetical involving an apparent counterexample to a definition, is their acceptance based less on a sense of appropriate definitions and more on a willingness to think through counterpossible premises?

If we can reason from counterpossible definitions of concepts, how does this affect the methodology of conceptual analysis?

  • 1
    What is pointless is trying to match all possible uses that people might make of a term. On the other hand, finding coherent concepts that cover large fragments of such use, and seeing how much of folk talk can be cleaned up into something sensible, is feasible and often helpful. "Counterpossible" does not mean much beyond marking boundaries of a concept, and it may be more cogent to split the use of a folk term into a couple of concepts instead of a single one, say 'true' vs 'lax' moral responsibility. And that realization is itself of value in resolving confusions and equivocations.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 4:44
  • @Conifold I went overboard with "relatively pointless" vs. what I said in the title of my question. I'll edit the post to try to make the last line more reasonable. Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 5:19

1 Answer 1


I don't think it is helpful to consider your sentence 1 as a counterpossible conditional. Counterpossibles are conditionals where it is understood that the antecedent is impossible, but the consequent does not follow trivially. Usually this involves constraining the inferences that can be drawn from the antecedent, e.g. by restricting the logical rules that apply, or by limiting the scope of the space of possibilities that are relevant to its truth conditions.

Defenders of compatibilism do not accept that it is impossible for an agent to be free and also subject to deterministic causal laws and boundary conditions. Therefore, for them, there is no need to restrict the logic in any way. Compatibilism is concerned rather with explaining under what conditions an agent can and cannot be said to be acting freely. There is value in having a 'correct' conceptual analysis of freedom of action since it might perhaps have consequences for ethics and law.

  • Do people use counterpossible reasoning subconsciously/implicitly at times? Maybe I should reframe my question as more about folk intuitions and less about conceptual analysis; I would be saying something like, "When folk intuitions about a concept are in conflict with some definition of that concept, it might be that the intuitions don't represent counterexamples to the definition itself but simply a willingness to follow through with that concept's application even when a substituted definition is analytically false." Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 12:50
  • Since I was confused about my own question thus far, though, since this answer addresses the question as initially posted, I think it should be accepted. I don't want to keep editing my question in a way that indirectly turns it into an open-ended discussion (although I will leave it up in its currently revised form). Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 13:51
  • I think it is feasible to reason per impossibile without triviality. Recall F. Scott Fitzgerald's quote: The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
    – Bumble
    Commented Jun 2, 2023 at 3:23

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