Essay on Strawson’s Freedom and Resentment
Strawson claims that even were determinism known to be true, it would not affect our moral psychology. Why does he think that objecting that this does not rationally justify our moral practices misses the point, and is he right?
In P.F. Strawsons essay Freedom and Resentment, he argues that the truth or falsity of the determinist thesis would have no effect on our moral psychology and therefore the common worry that determinism undermines ordinary moral concepts and practices is unwarranted (Strawson, 2003). In addressing the objection that this still does not justify our moral concepts and practices, he says that this misses the point since our moral concepts and practices are intrinsic to our psychology, which is unaffected by determinism. This essay will attempt to argue that Strawson fails to address key issues about his moral psychology which could strengthen the stance of the objector, and that his dismissal of the objection is therefore not fully qualified. The structure of the essay will be as follows: the first section will explain the pessimist worry over the determinist thesis, as framed by Strawson, and his attempt to reconcile it to the optimist view; the second will explain the objection to Strawsons argument and his reply; and the third section will criticise Strawsons approach to the problem.
In the opening paragraph of his essay, Strawson characterises a few possible perspectives on the question of determinism and morality. He assigns the label pessimist to a person who believes that determinism threatens ordinary moral concepts and practices, and the label optimist to a person who does not. The pessimists claim is that the determinist thesis implies that humans lack freedom and therefore those moral concepts and practices which are assumed to be justified by human freedom are rendered unjust by the truth of determinism for example, it is normally assumed that it is only just to punish a person for a moral transgression if they were not forced to transgress by previous events, so determinism, which assumes that all human actions are determined by prior events, would make all punishment unjust on this assumption. An optimist argues that determinism does not undermine punishment or any other moral practices,and Strawson attempts to reconcile pessimists to this view by arguing that our moral concepts andpractices are not dependent on the truth or falsity of determinism, but on what he calls reactive attitudes and their vicarious analogues. Reactive attitudes, such as resentment or gratitude, are our commonplace subjective responses to the way people act on us. For example, if someone injures us, we will resent them if we feel they did so because of a malevolent attitude towards us, but we wont resent them if this attitude is not perceived, such as when an injury is caused by accident. In either case, the agent is held responsible for the injury, but whether or not we will feel a negative attitude towards them depends on their own exhibition of such an attitude: we will only resent them if we feel they injured us out of spite or indifference and not by accident. The vicarious analogues of these reactive attitudes are such feelings as indignance, which are felt on behalf of another in light of the perception of malevolent or benevolent attitudes in people who act on them.
It is normal for someone to feel indignance on behalf of victims of a crime, for example, even if they are uninvolved themselves. Strawson argues that our ordinary moral practices of praise and condemnation, reward and punishment are dependent on the reactive attitudes that agents exhibit. Likewise, the suspension of ordinary practices not resenting an agent for an injury they cause, for example does not happen when the responsibility or freedom of the agent is compromised, but when they do not exhibit the appropriate attitudes or when normal personal interaction with them is...
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