Monday, June 25, 2012

Strawson's argument in 'Freedom and Resentment'

To: Simon Y.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Strawson's argument in 'Freedom and Resentment'
Date: 6 November 2007 13:21

Dear Simon,

Thank you for your email of 26 October, with your University of London Introduction to Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'Strawson speaks of ‘optimists’ and ‘pessimists’ in the debate about freedom and determination. Explain the view of the optimists and pessimists. How does Strawson’s own view contrast with the view of his optimists.'

Although you seem to have followed most of the argument, I did miss (perhaps you said it too quickly) what is central to Strawson's view: that our capacity to extend our reactive attitudes 'vicariously', putting ourselves in the shoes of another person who has been treated badly is what defines an attitude to a 'person' as contrasted with a 'thing'.

In Strawson's view, what first appears as merely irrational, our instinctive reactions, in fact provides a naturalistic foundation for interpersonal discourse, based on reason giving and argumentation, and ultimately for a sense of moral respect. Thus moral reasoning gains a kind of 'objectivity', by virtue of being tested inter-personally.

The main point that Strawson makes against the pessimists lies in his contrast between the way we deal with persons and with things. We 'give reasons' to persons -- for example, explaining why what A did to B was 'morally wrong' -- whereas objects are simply there to be manipulated. Words of praise or criticism, punishment and reward are just levers which we manipulate to change an agent's behaviour.

From the point of view of the pessimist, reasoning is ultimately pointless -- a sham -- and all that we can be doing is manipulating. In order to resist pessimism, therefore, some account needs to be given of the point of such reasoning, which is what Strawson sets out to do.

However, the question also asks in what way Strawson's view contrasts with the optimists. Optimists fall back on the explanation that the distinction between actions which are 'free', and actions which are 'unfree' -- as the result of external (being pushed or forced at gun point) or internal interference (psychological compulsions) -- has a point simply because it makes possible the institution of reward and punishment. There's no benefit to punishing someone for an action that they could not help doing.

Strawson's statement at the beginning of the extract, 'Some hold even that the justification for these concepts and practices requires the truth of the thesis [of determinism]' is powerfully illustrated by an example given by F.H. Bradley (in his book 'Ethical Studies'). I tell you that I found a twenty pound note in the street and straight away handed it in to the Police station. You reply, 'I'm surprised you did that.' I retort angrily, 'You should have known me better!' We demand that the actions that we do, which flow from a good moral character, be predictable. The fact that someone could have known what we would do in no way detracts from our 'freedom' in carrying out the action.

Strawson finds the optimists' account too easy. It leaves out what we think is most important, which is that the guilty person *deserves* the punishment that they get. It is that feeling -- that moral conviction -- which needs to be explained, and which the optimist theory is too thin to give a useful account of. (Although I've given an example from Bradley, I don't think that he ultimately belongs in the optimist camp, as Strawson defines this. Bradley's view is more complex.)

You seem to have gained the impression that reactive attitudes are 'merely subjective'. However, Strawson is at pains to contrast the egocentric perspective, which is truly subjective, with the moral perspective where we imaginatively put ourselves in the place of others. It is that capacity for seeing things from another person's point of view which gives rise to, makes possible, the institution of morality.

However, there is at the same time an acknowledgement that there are limits to the interpersonal view. We are able to view others (and ourselves) as 'persons' precisely because we don't, in fact, occupy a vantage point from which the causal antecedents of every action can be traced to their source.

As you note, even without this godlike knowledge, it is possible to take a radically different view -- as exhibited in certain Eastern religions -- whereby all such attitudes are merely illusions. Nothing is 'good' or 'bad' in itself, or 'desirable' or 'undesirable'. It is only (as Buddhists claim) our 'attachment' to the here and now which blinds us to the ultimate truth that we are all part of a single reality, where the very borderlines between different 'selves' are merely inventions.

I would contrast this with the full-blooded pessimistic view, however. What characterizes Strawson's pessimist is continued belief in the existence of selves as self-contained entities, which interact with one another according to the laws of causality. Whereas the Buddhist ultimately has a motivation for acting 'morally' in the rejection of the pursuit of self-interest, the pessimist is led to consider all action as equally pointless, and therefore has no more reason to be 'moral' than 'immoral'.

All the best,

Geoffrey