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.

Video: Blame and Causa Sui

In this segment, I ponder the interplay between blame and Causa Sui. I’ll discuss the implications for moral responsibility as well as legal responsibility, which are not as in sync as one might imagine they might be.

Video: Blame & Causa Sui

To the uninitiated, Western legal systems have no pretensions about being about morality or justice. Legal systems are designed to maintain power structures and the status quo. They are deontological machines, making them prime targets for automation by the machine learning associated with artificial intelligence. This would also diminish the power of rhetoric over facts to some extent. But, I am no legal scholar, and all of this will have to wait for another segment.

I recently shared a video on causa sui and the basics of blame and blameworthiness, so I want to intersect those topics here.

Peter Strawson suggested that for humans, blame is a reactive response. It’s reflexive like having your knee jerk when tapped. Essentially, his position is that if blame didn’t naturally exist, we’d have to invent it, mirroring Voltaire’s quip, ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him’. Of course, this is because they serve the same power control purpose.

If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him


To be fair, blame is closer to real than God, but the point remains. Strawson’s point is also that humans are saddled with blame and it’s not going anywhere no matter how nebulous it becomes in execution. It’s natural.

To me, this starts to sound suspiciously like a naturalistic fallacy. Humans seem to selectively cherry-pick which so-called natural tendencies they choose to defend. One might use nature to argue that female sexual availability begins at menstruation, and yet we have decided to ignore this and defer this on the grounds of civility. It’s obvious that we could consider blame to be an animal instinct we want to domesticate away, but because it serves other purposes, per Strawson’s perspective, it’s a useful tool.
But what’s the causa sui challenge. Let’s quickly recapitulate.

Causa sui argues that one cannot be the cause of oneself, ex nihilo. Being full products of nature and nurture to adopt the lay parlance, any blameworthiness lies with the sources or creators. Since we are concerned with moral responsibility, we can eliminate nature forthrightly. Nature may be responsible—by many estimations approximately 40 per cent responsible—, it possesses no moral agency. And if the individual is not responsible, then we are left with the environment and society, including the social environment. Of course, the environment gets off the hook in the same manner as the genetic and hereditary factors of nature.

Before we consider society, let’s regard the individual.

Albeit the brain-as-computer is a bit facile, it’s still good enough for illustrative purposes. When you are born, your cognitive hardware is installed, as are your edge peripherals and update protocols. Any of these can become damaged through some degenerative processes, or external environmental factors, but since my interest is in optimistic rather than pessimistic scenarios, I’ll ignore these instances. Given that blameworthiness is directly related to presumed cognitive processing, factors that diminish these faculties, mitigate blameworthiness and factors than increase it, ameliorate it.

As a—quote—’normal’ child becomes an adolescent and then an adult, the probability it will become blameworthy, increases with age, ceteris paribus. A person with cognitive deficits or conditions such as aphasia or dementia decreases the probability of blame assignment. Even temporary impairment mitigates judgment—oh, she was drunk.

So, following the brain-as-computer analogy, your brain is a CPU with a self-updating cognitive operating system and instruction set. Essentially, there is also short and long-term memory.
In the case of cognitive deficits, one of these components might be effectively broken. The CPU might process too slowly; it might misinterpret what it receives; there may be issues with the sense organs or the nerves that transport signals.

I’ve got a mate who, due to medical malpractice at birth, experienced nerve damage. Although his eyes and brain are normal, his optic nerve cannot carry signals very well, effectively leaving him blind. Neither can he taste nor smell. So there’s that.

But assuming that this processing and storage hardware are intact, the causa sui constraint still applies, but let’s spend some time evaluating societal interactions.

All inputs come from society—cultures and subcultures. Apart from misinterpreted processing scenarios, if a person doesn’t receive a particular moral instruction set, that person should surely be considered to be exempt from moral blame. It may be difficult to assess whether an instruction has been input. This is a reason why children are categorically exempted: they may not have received all of the expected moral codes, they may not have been stored or effectively indexed, and their processing hardware is still in development—alpha code if you will. Brain plasticity is another attribute I won’t spend much time on, but the current state of science says that the brain is still not fully developed even by age 30, so this is certainly a mitigating factor, even if we allow leeway for the causa sui argument.

I mention subculture explicitly because the predominant culture is not the only signal source. A child raised by, I don’t know, say pirates, would have an amended moral code. I am sure we can all think of different subcultures that might undermine or come at cross odds with the dominant culture, whether hippies, religious cultists, militia groups, racial purist groups, and so on.

So, a commonly held moral in the subdominant group may counter that of the prevailing one. An example that comes to mind is some religious organisations that do not agree with human medical intervention. There have been cases where parents have allowed a child to die from an otherwise curable condition. Although in the United States, there is a claim of freedom of religion—a claim that is spotty at best—, parents or guardians in situations like these have been convicted and sentenced for following their own moral codes. But as with all people, these people are as susceptible to the limitations of causa sui as the rest of us. They are not responsible for creating themselves, but moral responsibility was asserted based on the beliefs of the prevailing culture. Even besides the legal context, persons in the larger society would likely blame the parents for their neglect—though they may be praised for being resolute in their righteousness by their in-group. This just underscores that morality is a collection of socially constructed conventions rather than something more objective.

Returning to causa sui, let’s say a person commits an act that society would typically assign blame. Rather than exercise some act of retributive justice—a concept with no foundation in a causa sui universe—the course of action was remediation. In this case, the desired moral instruction would be delivered thereby seemingly making the moral offender blameworthy. But would they be?

Presumably, (for what it’s worth) psychologists would evaluate the subject for competency in maintaining the programming. In the case of the aforementioned religious parents, they may be threatened with retribution for not abiding by the superseding rules of the prevailing power structure.

Although I might personally allow some leeway even with the causa sui in full force and effect, but I can’t say that I have much faith in the ability of humans to make a correct assessment. My impression is that any assessment would be one of convenience than something sounder.

Perhaps I’ll produce a more robust segment on retributive justice, but my feeling is that retributive justice is an area that legal systems should avoid altogether. If necessary, focus on restorative justice, rehabilitation (or ‘habilitation’ as the case might be) and quarantine models to ensure any bad actors are contained away from society. Again, this puts individuals at the mercy of cultures they find themselves a part of. I am not going to delve into this any further save to remind the listener of gang initiation schemes where a person needs to kill a member of a rival gang to become a trusted member. This is their moral code—quite at odds with the mainstream.

So there you have it. Owing to causa sui constraints, a person cannot be ultimately responsible for their actions. My primary thesis is—apart from metaphorical equipment failures—that any moral responsibility falls wholly on the society or culture. Full stop. And this isn’t as foreign as one might first feel. Although for most people blame is natural, in an individualistic society, people are interested in finding the culprit. In collectivist cultures, any culprit might do. Perhaps I’ll share some stories in a future segment.
Meantime, what are your thoughts on moral responsibility? Can someone be ultimately responsible? Some have said the ‘ultimate responsibility’ is a philosophical red herring and that we can still hold someone responsible, even if not in the ultimate sense, which causa sui disallows. Are you more in this camp? Is this enough to mete out so-called retributive justice? For me, retributive justice is a euphemism for vengeance, and justice is a weasel word. But that’s just me, and perhaps a topic for another segment.

Are there any topics you’d like me to cover? Leave a comment below.

Illusionism and the Illusion of Determinism

One reason I prefer to look at agency is to avoid the claims and counterclaims of proponents of free will and of determinism, each having factions causing the other side of clinging to an illusion. As I’ve noted previously, at present I am a self-described soft-determinist insomuch as I declare myself to be agnostic.

My hypothesis is that humans have little or negligible agency. Under hard determinism, this would collapse from nil to zero. In either case, it is criminal to presume to be able to assign moral responsibility to any person.


Determinists charge free will advocates of being fooled.

Illusionism is the position that free will does not exist and is merely an illusion.

Many ancient and modern thinkers have made this claim. They have usually been strong determinists, from Hobbes to Einstein.

Classical compatibilists, from Hobbes and Hume on, have held that free will exists but that it is compatible with determinism (actually many determinisms).

Since the discovery of irreducible quantum mechanical indeterminism, most scientists and some philosophers have come to understand that determinism is a dogmatic belief unsustainable from the evidence.

It is determinism that is the illusion.

Nevertheless, most philosophers remain compatibilists, even as the evidence of indeterminism has caused them to declare themselves agnostic on the truth of determinism or indeterminism.

Illusionism <>

The Illusion of Determinism

Adequate determinism is an emergent property in a universe that was initially chaotic and which remains chaotic at atomic and molecular levels. Consequently all physical processes are statistical and all knowledge is only probabilistic. Strict determinism is an illusion, a consequence of idealization.

Statistical knowledge always contains errors that are normally distributed according to a universal law that ultimately derives from the discrete quantum nature of matter.

The existence of this universal distribution law of errors convinced many scientists and philosophers that the randomness of errors was not real, that strict deterministic laws would be found to explain all phenomena, including human beings.

To the extent that randomness is needed to break the causal chain of strict physical determinism, many philosophers continue to think that free will is the illusion.

The Illusion of Determinism <>

Peter F Strawson

Peter Strawson said he could make no sense of ideas like free will and determinism. In this regard he was one with those English-speaking philosophers who, following Ludwig Wittgenstein, thought such questions were pseudo-problems to be dissolved by careful attention to actual language use.

Strawson made a contribution to the free will versus determinism discussions by pointing out that whatever the deep metaphysical truth on these issues, people would not give up talking about and feeling moral responsibility, praise and blame, guilt and pride, crime and punishment, gratitude, resentment, and forgiveness.

Peter F Strawson

To be fair, I feel that Peter Strawson and I agree on the insufficiency of language to settle the matter of whether the universe offers free will or is deterministic, that questions such as this are pseudo-problems.