Freedom and Resentment

I finally decided to read Peter Strawson’s essay, Freedom and Resentment, as it seems to be a somewhat seminal work. As the essay is part of a larger collection, Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays, I also read Strawson’s autobiography, which is interesting. I especially enjoyed the part where he had published a piece only to discover that it dovetailed with some of Frege’s work and was cast as the Frege-Strawson view despite him never having read Frege.

Although on a lesser scale, I feel this captures some of my circumstances where I feel I have some original thought only to discover that someone’s already been there, in some cases before I was even born—or before my grandparents for that matter. There is just so much to read and time is a limited resource. In any case. Moving on.

He begins with these two sentences:

Some philosophers say they do not know what the thesis of determinism is.
Others say, or imply, that they do know what it is.

Strawson employs the terminology of optimism and pessimism. These are in consideration of the notion of free will. Each claims that as far as we know, determinism cannot be shown to be false. But optimists believe that we can assume we have an adequate basis for moral practices whilst pessimists believe that we cannot make this assumption, so we must find some other basis; this means that the pessimists are forced to concede that although determinism cannot be proven to be false, it must nonetheless be false.

Some pessimists “hold that if the thesis [of determinism] is true, then the concepts of moral obligation and responsibility really have no application, and the practices of punishing and blaming, of expressing moral condemnation and approval, are really unjustified.”

Some optimists “hold that these concepts and practices in no way lose their raison d’être if the thesis of determinism is true.”

as far as we know, determinism cannot be shown to be false

A genuine moral sceptic may hold that “the notions of moral guilt, of blame, of moral responsibility are inherently confused and that we can see this to be so if we consider the consequences either of the truth of determinism or of its falsity.”

Like Frege to Strawson, I now find myself adopting his line of argumentation—that people presume people to be competent agents by default unless exempted as non compos mentis and such. If one or more of these mitigating factors is not present, then one may be considered to be a morally responsible agent. (In my mind, this creates many false positives in the resultant sample, but let’s continue.)

Then he establishes the groundwork for moral obligation and responsibility to arrive here:

Strawson contrasts optimistic with pessimistic with a smattering of sceptics.

If I am asked which of these parties I belong to, I must say it is the first of all, the party of those who do not know what the thesis of determinism is.

But this does not stop me…

Desert is his next topic. What does the threshold of the agent to have to deserve “blame or moral condemnation”?

Effectively, Strawson separates determinists and libertarians (philosophical, not the capital-L political flavour).

He distinguishes reasons from rationalisation, with the former having more weight and the second being akin to excuses. Here, he tries to tease out notions of positive and negative freedoms on a concept defined negatively, i.e., the absence of some deficiency. He also calls out supporters for not only having an insufficient basis but “not even the right sort of basis”.

Strawson makes a point to delineate desert as following from a positive act rather than some omission, allowing for ignorance to serve as an escape clause. Being an older publication, he points out the by-now obvious contradiction between freedom and determinism, but he continues to clarify the waffling between various definitions of freedom, hiding behind the ambiguous meaning, whether intentioned or not.

Soon enough, he notes a challenge. Humans have a cognitive bias wherein they have a difficult time maintaining an objective attitude toward people who we interact with. Instead, we engage in participant reactive attitudes. This is to say that we make judgments we would not make on a non-reactive object. If we bump into a chair (object), we don’t activate the same mental protocols as if we bump into a person (participant reactive). In the latter case, our blame-resentment mechanism is activated. This may result in feelings of ‘resentment, gratitude, forgiveness, anger‘ or some sort of reciprocated love in another instance. In the end, he supposed that we blame people because we have reactive attitudes toward them.

Ultimately, irrespective of whether determinism is true or not, we cannot seem to control our personal reactive urges, so we need to deal with it.

To be honest, I don’t feel I got a lot out of this essay. Perhaps it just didn’t age well or others have already incorporated this into their work, so the logic may be sound, but it doesn’t feel particularly profound. I can tick off the ‘read this’ box and move on.

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