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

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Philosophy: The nature of persons

3.4 Strawson: Section VI

There is only one more section left in the paper. Here, as we would expect, Strawson returns to the way in which he set out the problem (in II:4) and makes good his promise to ‘[give] the optimist something more to say’.

Activity 5

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 VI and answer the following questions.

  1. How, according to Strawson, should the optimist alter their view?

  2. How, according to Strawson, should the pessimist alter their view?

  3. What factors does Strawson think inhibit the acknowledgement of the ‘network of human attitudes’ in ending the compatibilist versus incompatibilist debate?


  1. What alarms the pessimist is that the optimist's belief in the truth of determinism drives him or her to take an objective view of humanity; to see people as subjects of ‘policy, treatment, control’ (VI:3) and to justify, for example, the criminal justice system in terms of ‘the efficacy of these practices in regulating behaviour in socially desirable ways’ (VI:2). This is not wrong (the consequences of our system of punishment do matter), but it is inadequate. The optimist should realize that determinism should not lead us to take the objective attitude, and that our treatment, for example, of offenders expresses our moral attitudes and thus is justified by the impersonal reactive attitudes we have been considering.

  2. The pessimist should realize that he or she does not need to resort to panicky metaphysics, such as postulating contra-causal freedom. (Strawson alludes to the argument we met earlier in this course: that it is not even clear that responsibility can be assigned, in particular cases, for actions that were not caused.) They do not need anything of such doubtful pedigree, but rather need to remember that the kind of justification they seek for punishment is given by the network of reactive attitudes that the optimist has no reason to discard.

  3. The general factor is that ‘human attitudes… have to an increasing extent become objects of study in the social and psychological sciences’. He gives three specific instances of this. First, ‘increased historical and anthropological awareness of the great variety of forms these human attitudes may take at different times and in different cultures’. If some cultures can do without blame and resentment, it would make us wonder whether such reactive attitudes are as essential as Strawson claims. Second, psychology has shown that reactive attitudes are often not to be trusted: ‘they are a prime realm of self-deception, of the ambiguous and the shady, of guilt-transference, unconscious sadism and the rest’. Third, subjects such as science (that have great prestige) take a detached view of these attitudes, while for Strawson they are important because of the non-detached role they play in human life (III:1). Strawson rejects all three as reasons not to acknowledge the importance of reactive attitudes.

You have now read through the whole essay. Before moving on, there are four further issues I would like to look at. First, – as pointed out above – Strawson divides his paper into numbered sections. He built his argument up using fairly clear blocks hence it does make sense to number these: there is a section for each major advance of his argument. Notice also the way he uses paragraphs; there is a lot to be said for the old advice to begin a new paragraph with each new point. This results, in Strawson's case, in paragraphs that greatly differ in length – his sections differ in length for the same reason. Second, notice the way Strawson uses footnotes. Of the nine there are, three are to make reference to others’ work. The small number of references is because Strawson is an established philosopher contributing original work to a debate. At graduate level (and beyond) one would expect significantly more references, particularly in any section devoted to reviewing existing work on a problem. The remaining footnotes are asides that Strawson has not incorporated into the text.

The other two issues are about the content rather than the structure, and stem from remarks Strawson makes in the final section. First, there are his views on punishment (in VI:4–5). Recall, this is in the context of the pessimist's criticism of the optimist's objective attitude towards offenders; an attitude that, because it is devoid of reactive attitudes, treats the offender as someone outside the moral community. Strawson argues that we do not treat offenders that way. Rather, we withdraw our goodwill to the offender, in proportion to the degree of their offence. As Strawson goes on to say, our attitudes are expressed in our practices – by which I take it he means that this withdrawal of good will would be manifested in our practice of inflicting punishment. Withdrawal of goodwill is not the same as the objective attitude, however, it is rather a mitigation of the usual reactive attitudes. As Strawson says, we do not want the offender to suffer unnecessarily. The offender, caught up in the same web of reactive attitudes, should not resent their punishment (as would be appropriate if they were punished for no reason at all). Resentment is not appropriate here; indeed, we might hope, although Strawson does not say so here, that the offender viewed their punishment as in some way an expression of their remorse or their shame.

Finally, there are his views on the decline of reactive attitudes in the face of scientific investigation. Science takes a detached attitude to the world. It attempts to consider phenomena independently of any distinctively human perspective. Consider, for example, what human beings refer to as ‘marble’. A scientist would tell us that there is no single thing that is marble, that the classification is partly a matter of our ignorance and partly a matter of convenience. In fact, marble covers a number of unrelated compounds including limestone, alabaster, serpentine and granite. Scientists might even argue that because these different compounds have different properties (some, for example, are softer than others) we would be better off in the long run if we dropped the classification and used the more accurate scientific divisions. Strawson raises the possibility that something similar may be true for our reactive attitudes. On scientific investigation it might transpire that, like marble, these do not describe anything scientifically respectable, and, like marble, the advice might be that we drop them.


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