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Essay on Strawson's Freedom and Resentment

Essay on Strawson's Freedom and Resentment

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Published by Will Harrison
An assessed essay on Strawson's essay 'Freedom and Resentment'. This was submitted for a module on Doing Philosophy in the second term of my Philosophy course at Warwick University.

Marked: 81/100 (1st)
An assessed essay on Strawson's essay 'Freedom and Resentment'. This was submitted for a module on Doing Philosophy in the second term of my Philosophy course at Warwick University.

Marked: 81/100 (1st)

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Published by: Will Harrison on Mar 16, 2010
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03/31/2013

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Essay on Strawsons
Freedom and Resentment 
Strawson claims that even were determinism known to be true, it wouldnot affect our moral psychology. Why does he think that objecting that thisdoes not rationally justify our moral practices misses the point, and is heright?
In P.F. Strawsons essay
Freedom and Resentment 
,
he argues that the truth or falsity of thedeterminist thesis would have no effect on our moral psychology and therefore the common worrythat 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
,
hesays 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 addresskey issues about his moral psychology which could strengthen the stance of the objector
,
and thathis dismissal of the objection is therefore not fully qualified. The structure of the essay will be asfollows: the first section will explain the pessimist worry over the determinist thesis
,
as framed byStrawson
,
and his attempt to reconcile it to the optimist view; the second will explain the objectionto Strawsons argument and his reply; and the third section will criticise Strawsons approach to theproblem.In the opening paragraph of his essay
,
Strawson characterises a few possible perspectives on thequestion of determinism and morality. He assigns the label pessimist to a person who believes thatdeterminism threatens ordinary moral concepts and practices
,
and the label optimist to a personwho does not. The pessimists claim is that the determinist thesis implies that humans lack freedomand therefore those moral concepts and practices which are assumed to be justified by humanfreedom are rendered unjust by the truth of determinism  for example
,
it is normally assumed thatit is only just to punish a person for a moral transgression if they were not forced to transgress byprevious events
,
so determinism
,
which assumes that all human actions are determined by priorevents
,
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 reactiveattitudes and their vicarious analogues. Reactive attitudes
,
such as resentment or gratitude
,
are ourcommonplace 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 wontresent them if this attitude is not perceived
,
such as when an injury is caused by accident. In eithercase
,
the agent is held responsible for the injury
,
but whether or not we will feel a negative attitudetowards them depends on their own exhibition of such an attitude: we will only resent them if wefeel they injured us out of spite or indifference and not by accident. The vicarious analogues of thesereactive attitudes are such feelings as indignance
,
which are felt on behalf of another in light of theperception 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 uninvolvedthemselves.Strawson argues that our ordinary moral practices of praise and condemnation
,
reward andpunishment 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 happenwhen the responsibility or freedom of the agent is compromised
,
but when they do not exhibit theappropriate attitudes or when normal personal interaction with them is impossible. Hencedeterminism
,
since it would not compromise our reactive attitudes
,
does not compromise ordinarymoral practices.An objection to this argument is that
,
although our moral practices may be an unavoidable part of our nature
,
they are still not rationally justified. Strawsons reply is that anyone who raises thisobjection has wholly failed to grasp the import of the preceding answer (Strawson
,
2003). It is nouse to ask if we
should 
continue our moral practices and concepts when we are incapable of doingotherwise. Even if we
were
able to abandon them
,
he argues
,
whether we would do so or not wouldnot depend on the truth or falsity of determinism
,
but on the presence or absence of reactiveattitudes in humans  since their presence is indisputable
,
we would not abandon our moralconcepts and practices.A possible criticism of Strawsons reconciliatory approach is that he makes too simplistic a linkbetween our natural reactive attitudes and our ordinary moral practices. He draws a line beneaththe personal interactions of agents and reduces all questions of objective moral standards(such ashow we ought to treat moral transgressors) to questions of individual attitudes. At the beginning of section 3 in his essay
,
he expresses that he is not much concerned with the general causes of these reactive attitudes I have alluded to (Strawson
,
2003). In dismissing questions about thecauses of our moral psychology
,
he avoids entering into a dispute of what might be called moralsociology
,
in which it could well be argued that our personal subjective attitudes are caused or atleast modified by our objective moral standards and practices. In this kind of moral structuralistmodel
,
the way we react to agents at an interpersonal or vicarious level would depend partly orwholly on objective standards  such as the assumption that an agent who is not free ought not tobe resented for injuries they cause.If it could be shown that the relation between reactive attitudes and objective moral standards isnot as one-sided as Strawson portrays
,
then determinism could indeed have a bearing on the waywe react to moral agents and hence could affect the way we conduct our moral practices. Liberty of indifference  the ability to act in more than one way in a particular situation  is an importantcriterion for deciding whether or not to reward or punish an agent in the normal moral setting. If itwere known that determinism was true
,
and an agent is determined to act in a particular way in anygiven circumstance
,
this might cause us to regard all agents in a different light
,
and in fact make usreact differently to their moral actions.In support of a structuralist account of morality
,
the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg argued thatthat majority of adults develop into a conventional level of moral reasoning that is almostexclusively defined by the conventions of their society. In this conventional stage of moraldevelopment
,
there is much conformity to what is majority or natural behaviour (Kohlberg
,
 1973). From this point of view an individual does not gauge their responses to other moral agents

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