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

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Philosophy: The nature of persons

3.3 Strawson: Section V

Activity 3

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 section V:1–4 and answer the following questions:

  1. What are the three kinds of reactive attitudes Strawson has described by the end of V:4?

  2. What does he claim is the relation between them?

  3. Why has Strawson developed his argument in this direction?


  1. (i) Personal reactive attitudes. These are the ones discussed in the previous section: attitudes (such as resentment) that we take up as a result of actions of other people. (ii) ‘sympathetic or vicarious or impersonal or disinterested or generalized analogues’ of the personal reactive attitudes. These are attitudes we take up as a result of actions of other people towards not only ourselves, but ‘all those on whose behalf moral indignation may be felt.’ (iii) Personal reactive attitudes that cover one's own actions towards others (such as ‘feeling bound or obliged… compunction… guilty or remorseful’).

  2. These are connected ‘not merely logically’, but ‘humanly’. Strawson considers the ‘moral solipsist’, someone who had only (i) above, but not (ii) or (iii). Solipsism is the belief that only oneself and one's experiences exist. Strawson's analogy is of someone who only takes up attitudes in situations in which they are directly involved. They would feel resentment if they were unfairly slighted, but would have no feelings of indignation on behalf of others who found themselves in exactly the same position, nor would they feel bound not to slight others. Such a case, Strawson says, may not even be a ‘conceptual possibility’. As people share a ‘human nature’, and inhabit ‘human communities’, all three attitudes come together.

  3. This is always a good question to ask of developments in an argument. Consider, for a moment, Strawson's overall strategy. He wanted to take us away from the usual ground of argument between compatibilist and incompatibilist towards considering reactive attitudes. He started by talking about those reactive attitudes that it would easiest for the reader to grasp (that is, (i) above). However, those form only a small part of the reactive attitudes we have, and he wants to consider the possible effect of belief in the truth of determinism in a whole human life. Hence, having told us what they are (by considering (i)), he is broadening his scope and considering their generalized versions.

Activity 4

Click to open Peter Strawson's article 'Freedom and Resentment'.

Now read the rest of V and answer the following questions:

  1. What parallel is Strawson drawing between the personal reactive attitudes and their impersonal (generalized) versions in V:5–6? What is the difference?

  2. What kind of case do you think Strawson has in mind in the closing sentences of V:7?

  3. What is the parallel between the personal reactive attitudes and their impersonal versions in V:8?

  4. In V:8 and in V:9, Strawson says a certain question would be ‘useless’ and talks of a concept's ‘irrelevance’. On both occasions the word is italicized. Why do you think Strawson uses these terms, instead of such terms as ‘wrong’ and ‘incoherent’?


  1. Strawson is considering the special considerations that mitigate the impersonal reactive attitudes, which he considered with respect to the personal reactive attitudes in IV:2–3. He thinks the cases are parallel. In the first group, we excuse the action but not the agent. In the second group, we temporarily excuse the agent in the first subgroup, and take up ‘the objective attitude’ in the case of the second sub-group. The difference is that the conclusion is no longer directly personal. Someone to whom it is appropriate is ‘not… seen as a morally responsible agent’.

  2. Strawson has given reasons why taking up the objective attitude, without the usual reasons, is easier in the generalized case than it is in the personal case. He mentions ‘speculative or political gains’. Perhaps he has in mind cases such as a politician who needs to ration scarce resources. They might decide, for example, to target medical treatment on certain age groups, and simply ignore the needs of others. This may be the best decision to make in the circumstances, but it does require the suspension of ‘ordinary interpersonal attitudes’ towards some people.

  3. There are three parts to this. First, is it is never determinism that leads to the suspension of the impersonal reactive attitudes. Second, the theoretical conviction of the truth of determinism would never lead to the decay of these attitudes. Third, Strawson rejects the claim that his considerations are irrelevant because they only concern what we would do, not what it would be rational to do.

  4. The terms ‘useless’ and ‘irrelevant’ signal that Strawson thinks that the question of the truth of determinism just does not arise when we are considering whether or not to suspend our ordinary reactive attitudes. Whether or not to suspend these is a question that arises within the context of a lived life. The lived life requires a framework, and the question of the appropriateness of the reactive attitudes arises about, or outside that framework. As we have seen, Strawson thinks that the question of the nature of the framework is principally a question of the kinds of life we want to lead. So, within the framework, the question of the appropriateness of the reactive attitudes is not a matter of right or wrong, coherence or incoherence. It is simply beside the point.


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