What Is a Reactive Attitude? What Bearing Does It Have on the Problem of Free Will?

Topics: P. F. Strawson, Free will, Ted Honderich Pages: 5 (1904 words) Published: January 7, 2009
What is a reactive attitude? What bearing does it have on the problem of free will?

A theory that has attacked the validity of discussions on freedom in modern philosophy is determinism. In these discussions, questions have arisen as to how the truth or falsity of this theory should affect our lives. In this essay I will discuss the formal implications, illustrated by Peter Strawson, that come about from this. This will mean discussion of our reactive attitudes on: our moral considerations and on our inter-personal relationships with others in general. With this in mind, I will argue in favour of the idea that the truth or falsity of determinism is not of legitimate concern to those seeking a rational justification of our moral practices and inter-personal relationships. Furthermore, I will give further details about how we actually do justify our reactive attitudes on these two ideas in order to better illustrate what we can consider as alternative features affecting our moral considerations and inter-personal relationships.

To begin with, Strawson reviews two main positions on which to size up the threat of determinism on the notion of freedom. Firstly, the optimists, who believe that the truth of determinism is compatible with our moral practices as well as our inter-personal relationships, secondly, the pessimists who believe that the truth of determinism runs contrary to these two practices. To explain why the theory of determinism should be considered to have such an influential impact, Strawson writes that the pessimists argue: “Just punishment and moral condemnation imply moral guilt and guilt implies moral responsibility and moral responsibility implies freedom and freedom implies the falsity of determinism.” If this is the case, that determinism is found to be true, and our behaviour is causally governed, then our justifications for moral practices are unfounded. Despite this, what also needs to be considered is whether or not the truth of determinism is the only factor for which we assess the justification of moral practices and our inter-personal relationships. With this in mind, I will discuss our attitudes to particular relationships, such as the circumstances of them and those involved, to shed light on how we might otherwise justify these practices.

Before the position of the pessimists is considered more fully, we must elucidate on the other conditions that reckon in our justification of our reactive attitudes. In order to begin this discussion, we need to know exactly what is meant by our reactive attitudes. Strawson characterises them as, “essentially reactions to the quality of other’s wills towards us, as manifested in their behaviour.” To explain further: If someone treads on my hand accidentally, while trying to help me, the pain may be no less acute than if he treads on it in contemptuous disregard of existence…but I shall generally feel in the second case a kind of resentment that I shall not feel in the first.” Now that the idea of reactive attitudes has been outlined we can ask the question of what should alter, suspend or justify the reactive attitudes that we have. Concerning the example, just mentioned, our reactions are somewhat dependent on the type of intentions exhibited by the other agent involved in the situation. Whether or not these intentions are causally determined or not, can be argued to bear no relevance to our own reactive attitudes at least, simply because they are the same intentions projected on us. So, whether or not the person who stood on my foot was caused to do so by accident in an attempt to help me, or in an attempt to injure is not what we base our reaction to others behaviour. This example is useful in illustrating two factors in how we justify and base our reactive judgements, one, the other agent involved in the situation (or perhaps in the relationship we have with him) and two, environmental factors. Now in the case of the former, I refer to...
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