…on strawson’s freedom & resentment


above: Contemplation, Perseverance, Imagination, and Free Will. From the morality play Hickscorner. Reproduced in H.W. Mabie, William Shakespeare (1900).

…link to P.F. Strawson’s Fredom & Resentment (PDF)

“When not prompted by vanity, we say little.” ―François de La Rochefoucauld

The British philosopher P.F. Strawson (1919-2006), in his famous 1963 essay “Freedom and Resentment”[1] offers an elaborate account of compatibilism vs. libertarianism. In his unique style of argumentation on compatibilism vs. libertarianism, he obliquely addresses the compatibility of determinism with free will. In order to grapple with these slippery metaphysical questions, Strawson makes use of unique terminology, e.g. reactive attitudes, optimists, and pessimists. The modest goal of this paper will be to investigate, and to critically evaluate Strawson’s “reactive attitudes” as they are related to his reconciliation between the opposed camps of optimists (compatibilists), on one side of the debate, and pessimists (libertarians) on the other.

The first order of business will be to examine Strawson’s differences and similarities between people he names as optimists and pessimists. This provides a ground from which to build his argument from what he calls “reactive attitudes” (76). Essentially, the two sides are similar, in that both are concerned with the daunting issue of determinism. Strawson explicitly and cleverly avoids defining this thorny word. With respect to this issue of determinism, an optimist believes, according to Strawson, that “[…] the facts as we know them […]” do not prove determinism to be false, and “[…] the facts as we know them […]” do not threaten determinism (73). But, just what are these facts as we know them? They are the “concepts” and “practices” Strawson speaks of in the opening lines of the essay (72). The concepts that the optimist speaks of are such things as moral responsibility and moral obligation. The practices have to do with “[…] punishing and blaming, of expressing moral condemnation and approval […]” (72). Opposing the optimist, the pessimist feels these concepts and practices put determinism into question. The pessimist has a problem with these, not because he denies their existence, but because he feels these concepts and practices point to a kind of freedom. Apparently, the pessimist feels that freedom undermines determinism, because if people are able to act freely, they are then able to act otherwise, and this, for the pessimist undermines the optimist’s determinism that is, more or less, compatible with free will. We’ll choose to read Strawson’s brand of freedom as generally synonymous with free will.

Strawson defines the optimist’s freedom as “[…] nothing but the absence of certain conditions the presence of which would make moral condemnations or punishment inappropriate” (75). A few sentences later he calls this a “[…] negative sense […]” of freedom. A negative sense of freedom can be thought of as an absence of restraints, whereas a positive sense of freedom basically suggests that one acts within restraints. Putting this in the context of Strawson’s argument, implies, that the optimist believes that we usually hold people responsible when they are acting without involuntary restraints such as insanity, etc. But, the actual manner in which we normally hold people responsible depends on Strawson’s reactive attitudes. This must be Strawson’s way of addressing what free will is. And, as with determinism, the underlying issue of free will is slyly implicated and worked into his detailed elaborations on reactive attitudes.

It should, by now, already be clear, for Strawson, and for us, that the pessimist is a libertarian, whereby a libertarian is someone who admits free will and denies determinism. For a libertarian, free will and determinism are incompatible. This simultaneously means that he’s an incompatibilist. On the obverse, the optimist is a compatibilist. This then means that, if we haven’t noticed it already, the optimist believes that free will and determinism work together compatibly. In a subtle gesture of non-detachment, Strawson admits that he doesn’t wish to center the argument “[…] between determinists and libertarians […]” (75). Instead, he wishes to speak of “[…] non detached attitudes and reactions […]” (75). This indicates that Strawson wants to talk about how people react to one another, inter-personally, in a normal everyday sense. With this move Strawson seems to be wresting academic philosophy from the possibilities of its aloof detachments. This refreshing gesture demarcates his particular brand of ordinary language philosophy. This appears to be an aside, but it’s central to his overall position. We’ll talk about this non detachment later.

Okay, now to bring us to a better understanding toward his reconciliation between the optimists and pessimists, Strawson gradually leads us to three species of reactive attitudes, which must be related to the ways our wills are ordinarily directed toward other people and ourselves (§ V, 84-85). Strawson’s reactive attitudes are: (1) the personal reactive attitudes: which have to do with the goodwill of others toward us. This can also include the expectation of such an attitude. (2) The generalized or vicarious analogues of the personal reactive attitudes: are, for Strawson, closely linked to (1) with the difference that it doesn’t only include other’s attitudes toward us, but toward all people in general and in similarly vicarious ways. (3) The self reactive attitudes: have to do with the demands we make on others, which includes such emotions as: guilt, remorse, responsibility, shame, etc. Strawson also makes the point that the reactive attitudes are “[…] humanly connected […]” (85). We’ll take this to mean that there are allowable overlaps between the three attitudes, they are not mutually exclusive. If there were instances where a person had just one of these attitudes, say, only the personal reactive attitude, Strawson indicates that we’d have a “[…] moral solipsist […]” (85). But, why are these important? These attitudes are important for Strawson to contemplate the broader issue of resentment, and how resentment can be connected to determinism, and to consider how we hold people, morally responsible for their actions. This includes the reverse, how others hold us morally responsible for our actions toward them. The attitudes are also important to show how the optimist finds a justification contra the pessimist. This indicates that the relative attitudes (a.k.a. our intra-personal moral attitudes) must in be place to regulate and deal with the admittedly problematic nature of determinism. Ostensibly, for the optimist, because someone accepts determinism, this doesn’t mean that it will lead to “[…] the total decay […] of these attitudes […]” (87).

It is worth noting that before he detailed the reactive attitudes, Strawson highlighted a distinction between the “personal” and “objective” attitudes (§ IV). The implicit reason Strawson brings in the emphasis on the personal vs. the objective, has to do with the manner in which we hold people responsible for their actions—good or bad. For example, this brand of objectivity might imply that we can’t fault people for their ignorance or immaturity, since it’s not their fault. This is a typical way we find ourselves avoiding the personal responsibility of dealing with people in direct and personal ways. Objectivity apportions people into neat predetermined categories. Objectivity has negative relevance, for Strawson and for us, because this kind of hard objectivity arrogantly fumbles its way into our inter-personal relationships. It could be the case that this objectivity tries to provide a matter of fact, un-nuanced view on determinism. Extending this, Strawson is keen to suggest that this kind of strict objectivity doesn’t necessarily prove that determinism is true, since, as mentioned before, he has no conclusive view on what determinism actually is (82).

None of this is cut-and-dry, since as Strawson suggests, the pessimist could point out that the optimist ends up having to acquire the dreaded objective stance that downplays the significance of the very reactive attitudes he holds as a defense against the pessimist’s iron-clad libertarianism. Social policy, such as punishment, objectifies people plain and simple. Again, this suggests that the optimist has to admit a kind of hard determinism he wanted to partially avoid with his inclusion of the reactive attitudes. This, for the pessimist, implies that the optimist has to let go of some of his humanity and goodwill, in order to advocate for objective punishment etc.

Now, somehow we’re back in the hot water from which we thought we were escaping. To this Strawson thankfully takes heed, “[o]ptimist and pessimist misconstrue the facts in very different styles. But […] there is something in common […]. Both seek […] to overintellectualize the facts” (91). This leaves room for the endless tweaking of both positions. And this simultaneously indicates that both sides might imagine that all we need to do is get all the facts, figures and modifications of our metaphysics straight, and then we’ll finally be able to solve the unwieldy and manifold problems that attend to determinism as it relates to free will. It is not clear that getting it absolutely straightened out will ever be possible.

But, a few things can be made evident, to which Strawson makes an effort toward clarification. First, we shouldn’t lose sight of the intrinsic value morality has for people. Indecently, this point airs on the side of the optimist, since the opitmist allows for determinism, whereas a libertarian, of the kind we’ve been talking about, has to depend on what?—chance? It would be foolish, even for the sake of argument, to obliterate morality in the name of some theory that overlooks the subtlety of our inter-personal humanity. Philosophy should never lose sight, nor misunderstand, the value of a humanitarian outlook. Strawson alludes to this with regard to morality “[i]t is a pity that talk of the moral sentiments has fallen out of favor” (92). This is another of Strawson’s salient points. We tend forget that we’re talking about actual human beings when we’re doing philosophy, analytic or otherwise.

“Finally, perhaps the most important factor of all is the prestige of these theoretical studies themselves” (93). The prestige of a good idea is worth nothing if applied without wisdom. We like it when people act with good will toward us, yet we resent their actions when we detect the glare of calculated malevolence. We openly offer prestige to ideas that help people live better lives. What is actually gained by presenting an idea incomprehensibly? In a tragic-comic way Strawson shows his affiliation when he refers to “[…] the obscure and panicky metaphysics of libertarianism” (93). The obscurity and panic is probably a reference to the strange term ‘contra-causal’. Contra-causality does its work in the libertarian’s position aside from normal causality. But what about Strawson’s early talk of reconciliation? If we topically judge this reconciliation by the last paragraph of his essay, it didn’t happen. However, if we dig deeper, we’ll notice that Strawson does bring both sides together—weighing each against the other. Compatibilists and libertarians are brought together to dialectically challenge one another. In other words, one might not have to argue one’s position so hard if the opposing side wasn’t so tough and thoroughgoing in his stubborn willingness to deny your lengthy arguments. If this is reconciliation, it is a reconciliation, whereby two sides are brought together by Strawson to simply challenge themselves. These arguments are respectable ways for them to prove their mettle. Yet, none of this should get in the way of learning how to respect each other and to act morally with one another. This idea resonates with the positive freedom of our ethical interactions, without ever explicitly saying it P.F. Strawson brought us to this curious point.

—Aurelio Madrid

[1] Peter Strawson, “Freedom and Resentment” in Free Will, ed. Gary Watson, 72-93. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

notes on hegel’s philosophy of right / §§129-141

hegel 7

Section 3 / The Good and the Conscience


For Hegel, if anything, the good is the ultimate end, as it can be entwined with a conceptual will and a personal will. These are aspects of the realization of the “Idea.” This means that the good is a conceptualization of freedom. The good is actualized freedom.


Conceptually speaking, welfare isn’t any good unless it has components of the good within it. When welfare achieves this, it is universal. And vise versa, right must also contain a conceptualization of welfare for it to have its universal reach. As Hegel puts it: “Fiat iustitia [let justice be done] should not have pereat mundus [even if the world shall perish]”, meaning that justice cannot be done at the expense of the world’s perishing.


Will, for me (a thinking subject) must have the good as its goal, only if I’m able to make this a project for the will. I have to will to be good. Good doesn’t just happen without an effort on my part.


Subjectively the will has a primary rational aspect that it must recognize. This is its formal aspect. It can be “true,” “opinionated,” or “false.” In a moral sense, a person recognizes these things, thus he is able to judge his actions good, bad, or annoying. This, of course, extends to the responsibility a person has over his actions with respect to the laws of the state. Later, it is odd to hear Hegel comparing an arsonist (lighting fire to one inch of wood) to an animal who should be hit on the head because it is prone to fits of rage, i.e. we need to realize the universal reach of our actions—instead of only our own selfish ends.


Here, Hegel is referring to Kant’s deontological conception of morality, whereby the subject acts out of a duty that is linked to obligation, universality, and the “essential character of a subject’s will” (see footnote: Kant).


But, what is this ‘duty’ anyway? Shouldn’t our real goal should be to promote the right and welfare.


An unconditioned “determination of duty” is not sufficient (in Hegel’s critique of Kant’s deontological morality) since it doesn’t necessarily point to what to do next. Where can one go with unconditioned duty alone?


Enter the conscience that is abstracted from the good, as it can also be made certain about the ends of the good. Not in particular, rather, in the most general sense of knowing about the good.


That my conscience disposition contains within it a sense of the good and a sense of duty is a mere formality, i.e. a rational formality.


The subjective is assumed under “right, duty and existence” to which we are somehow obliged to actualize.


Putting all other determinations aside, the will is capable of acting universally or arbitrarily with evil. Ruminate on the origin of evil in the willfulness of man. Just as we are capable of doing good, we are simultaneously capable of doing evil. Evil resides in the speculative comportment of freedom. When the will succumbs to the selfishness of its desires it loses recognition of its universal comportment, it is then said to be evil. The notion—dare we say concept—of evil contains within it a “necessity of evil” that is always working to sublate its own negation. Evil is still arbitrary, as much as it is caught up in “particularity” rather than the ‘bigger picture’ in the form of the universal (see addition: presentation of the conceptual relationship between good and evil as dialectical by implication, biblically etc.).


Self-consciousness knows how to position itself toward the good, for itself and for others. But, it is also capable of hypocrisy, i.e. self-consciousness can put on the veneer of right while doing otherwise. We are at a time when not only are we hypocritical, but we are also capable of being deluded into believing that evil is good.

(a) hypocrisy is:

α) cognition of the universal, right, duty etc.

β) the willing of the selfish ends.

γ) awareness of these two ‘moments’ as “bad conscience” (re: evil). Yet, there are problems with this, acting in awareness of our misdeeds, or acting in ignorance of our misdeeds, and questions as to where to place blame, etc.

(b) evil does not always present itself in a hypocritical mode. Evil also presents itself as being good. A man may also conflate any good he has done as a justification for his evil deeds.

(c) see footnote on “probalism” (re: Pascal). This “probalistic” view of morality suggests that if we can find a single good reason for our evil, then we are beguiled into thinking that the evil is somehow justified.

(d) Hegel seems to warn that we must be careful how we justify our intentions, as well as the motives behind those intentions, because good intentions may actually harbor evil intentions. Just because I aim to do good, doesn’t mean I’m justified in doing evil to bring about that good.

(e) simply because I “subjectively” deem my opinion to be justified, does not make it justified in any universal sense.

(f) irony sometimes posits itself as good while doing evil. If you decide to do evil ‘ironically’ while pretending that it’s in the name of the good, it doesn’t obviate the harm that’s done in the name of irony, bad jokes, mock evil, tragic-comic portrayals, and so on…, (see Hegel’s note () on Professor Solger’s account of irony as it relates to tragedy, Socrates etc. and also see addition, notes and footnotes, especially on Schlegel’s theory of irony, etc.).

Transition from Morality to Ethical Life


The good and the conscience know the good, in a subjective sense—yet it is only when these are cast toward the universal, can they aspire to an ethical life. Morality, in and of itself, is insufficient as an end, it must, if it is to recognize itself leading an ethical life. The addition to this section helpfully notes: “[t]he sphere of right and that of morality cannot exist independently; they must have the ethical as their support and foundation.”

Aurelio Madrid