Philosophy: The nature of persons
Philosophy: The nature of persons

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Philosophy: The nature of persons

3.1 Strawson: Sections I and II

Activity 1

Click to open Peter Strawson's article 'Freedom and Resentment [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] '.

Read I and II and answer the following questions.

  1. How do Strawson's labels of ‘optimist’ and ‘pessimist’ correspond to the labels introduced in the final two paragraphs of the last section?

  2. What is the impasse into which, Strawson implies, the optimist and pessimist have argued themselves?

  3. What can you deduce about where Strawson's sympathies lie?


  1. From the definitions in I:1, it is clear that the pessimists hold that the truth of determinism would make a range of concepts that rest on responsibility (moral obligation, punishing and blaming among them) unjustified. Hence, they are incompatibilists. In his initial definition at least, Strawson only attributes the conditional to pessimists: ‘If the thesis is true…’ Hence, we cannot identify the pessimists with either incompatibilist determinists or libertarians at this stage. Optimists ‘hold that these concepts and practices in no way lose their raison d'etre if the thesis of determinism is true’. Hence, they are compatibilists.

  2. In summary, in I, and in greater detail in II, Strawson sketches the debate between the optimist and the pessimist. The optimist argues that ‘the facts as we know them’ supply an adequate basis for concepts and practices such as blame and punishment. The relevant fact is that there is a sense of ‘freedom’, compatible with determinism, that justifies these concepts and practices – a sense that Strawson gives in II:1. The pessimist argues that the only reason the optimist has given for using such a thin notion of freedom to justify blame, etc. is that it allows us to continue in practices that ‘regulate behaviour in socially desirable ways’. However – and this is the decisive point that Strawson gives to the pessimist – ‘this is not a sufficient basis, it is not even the right sort of basis, for these practices as we understand them’ (II:3). The optimist, faced with this point, has nothing left to say. The pessimist, to get the basis for blame, etc. that they want, must demand the falsity of determinism. Neither position seems satisfactory.

  3. Strawson takes up the position of the agnostic; he is not even sure whether he knows what determinism is (I:1). However, he is clear that what he wants to do is to provide a way out of the impasse by giving the optimist something more to say that will include a concession to the pessimist (II:4 and I:2). This tells us what to expect from the rest of the paper: a new approach that will in some way reconcile the two traditional opposing schools in the debate

In III he begins this, by telling us he is going to put aside the usual concepts and practices that are discussed (‘punishing and moral condemnation and approval’ (III:1)) and talk instead about ‘reactive attitudes’ (III:5). The examples he gives are ‘gratitude, resentment, forgiveness, love and hurt feelings’ (III:1). This is, to those who are used to the usual compatibilist versus incompatibilist debate, surprising, for these attitudes do not seem to be clearly connected to the matter that is usually in dispute: namely, the connection between determinism and responsibility.


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