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

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Philosophy: The nature of persons

3.5 New light on compatibilist versus incompatibilist debate

Strawson has attempted to throw new light on the compatibilist versus incompatibilist debate by showing that there are certain ‘reactive attitudes’ that are a necessary part of the framework of anything that is recognizably the life of a person. His argument has centred on the claim that is it ‘useless’ to question these attitudes. He argues this by showing the role they have in our lives, and arguing that they are part of the ‘framework’ of life. We could put the point as follows. A hypothetical world in which we became convinced of the truth of determinism and, in consequence, developed an ‘objective attitude’ to each other would be a very different world to the one in which we live. In particular, Strawson suggests, it would not be one in which we related to each other as (in his terms) ‘human beings’. It is obvious that Strawson does not mean the biological classification (that would continue regardless); rather, he means that it would not be a world in which we related to each other as persons. It would be a world in which all the network of attitudes Strawson describes so carefully would be absent. In its place, we would relate to each other, and to ourselves, as mechanical systems. Our current concept of a person would not survive.

What does this tell us of Strawson's answer to the question ‘What is it to be a person?’ There are certain properties we have (being a patriot, being socially responsible) that emerge out of social interactions. They are not properties possessed by hypothetical individuals who have always lived outside any society (for the sake of simplicity I am ignoring the fact that an isolated individual is always in a society with their past and future self). Other properties (being human, having two legs) do not emerge out of social interactions; they are properties we would have had anyway. Strawson says that life takes place within a context provided by a framework. Within one framework (that which mandates reactive attitudes) we relate to each other as persons. Within another framework (that which mandates the ‘objective attitude’ as the general way we react to each other) we would not relate to each other as persons. Within the first scenario, the concept ‘person’ has a place, within the second it does not. Hence, for Strawson, being a person is some kind of emergent social property; we are persons because we have, and are the subject of, certain reactive attitudes. We could have all the non-emergent properties we do have (the same brain structures and so on) and, within a different framework, not have been persons.

Where has Strawson's paper left us? My view is that there is more to be said about the nature of personhood. In particular, why are some entities (human beings, in particular) the object of our reactive attitudes and other entities not? For Strawson this is a consequence of our having the framework that we have. Hence, the question of whether we have general reason to treat (most) human beings as persons is not one that can sensibly be raised within the framework, as it is a question about the framework. Let us persist, however. If we can formulate exactly the question we want to ask, we can then check whether there is any argument in Strawson's paper that rules out our asking it.

Could there be some property, possessed by all and only those entities that are the subject of reactive attitudes, that justifies their being the subject of reactive attitudes? From the discussion at the start of the course, we can hesitantly assume that it is appropriate to adopt such attitudes to autonomous beings: beings with the capacity for free choice. The question of what it is for an entity to have the capacity for free choice threatens to take us back to the debate between compatibilism and incompatibilism that Strawson hoped to get beyond. That itself is no reason not to proceed. Strawson's starting point was simply that the debate had reached an impasse, rather than that it was logically flawed. Hence, it might merit another look.

You might find Peter Strawson’s article, ‘Freedom and Resentment’, a little difficult. The argument is quite elusive. If so, I hope this short note will be of some use. It is not meant to replace the course material or a thorough reading of the text. What it does, I hope, is to give you an overview of what is at issue. The course material introduces you to the problem of free will and determinism. In brief, if everything is caused (including the states of our brain, and so – given some plausible assumptions – our mental states), then the notion that we make choices seems to drop out of the picture. We simply do what we are caused to do. One way of thinking about what Strawson is trying to do is to take him to be asking what difference the truth of determinism should make to us. Strawson contrasts the approach taken by the optimists (that everything would carry on regardless) with that taken by the pessimists. The pessimists’ view is that the optimists can only maintain the claim that everything can carry on regardless by working with attenuated and inadequate notions of responsibility, blame and so on and so forth.

Instead, Strawson advocates a different approach. He says that, in particular circumstances, it is appropriate to regard a person in a way similar to that in which we might regard a machine (that is, take an ‘objective attitude’ to them). An example might be the way we regard someone who is very mentally defective. This contrasts with the way we usually regard our fellows: within a complicated network of attitudes such as praise, blame and so on. Strawson calls these reactive attitudes. What should happen if we become convinced of the truth of determinism? One option, you might think, would be for us to start taking the objective attitude to everyone. After all, if determinism is true, then, in one sense, we are determined in the same way as a machine is determined. Strawson’s claim is that this is ‘practically inconceivable’, that we have a ‘natural human commitment’ to reactive attitudes. In short, what he is saying is that if we consider what life would be like if we dropped all our reactive attitudes and took the objective attitude to everyone, we could see it would be no kind of life at all. Hence, even if we become convinced by the truth of determinism, that should not make a difference to how we treat each other.

It is not quite clear what the moral of all this is. However, something like this seems to follow. Some of the properties we have follow from certain non-relational facts about what we are. It is a fact about me that I possess one X and one Y chromosome, which makes it the case that I am male. Strawson is saying that it is not facts of this sort that make it the case that I am a person. Rather, being a person is a bit like being a respected person in the community. Respected people in the community do not have a different biology from us; they pretty much share the relevant non-relational facts. Being a respected person in the community is a form of social role. If one wants to say what being a respected person in the community is, one has to consider such matters as how that person is seen through the eyes of others.

So take the question: What is it to be a person? One way to go about answering this would be to find certain non-relational properties and claim that any entity that had those properties is a person . The other way – Strawson’s way – is to say that what it is to be a person is to have a certain role in human interaction. What it is to be a person is to fit into the rich tapestry human beings weave in interacting with each other.


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