…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.

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