By Inside_my_head.jpg: Andrew Mason from London, UK derivative work: -- Jtneill - Talk (Inside_my_head.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Reading Time: 3 minutes By Inside_my_head.jpg: Andrew Mason from London, UK derivative work: -- Jtneill - Talk (Inside_my_head.jpg) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Reading Time: 3 minutes

On the thread to the post on whether or not moral responsibility exists in light of the falsity of libertarian free will, the idea of the ingrained psychology of free will came up. I thought I would expand on some ideas.

Philosopher PF Strawson, father of philosopher Galen Strawson, was no fan of libertarian free will. That said, he was a compatbililst, meaning that he felt free will and determinism were compatible with each other. The reasons for such were interesting. Here is a quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

In “Freedom and Resentment” (1962), P.F. Strawson broke ranks with the classical compatibilists. Strawson developed three distinct arguments for compatibilism, arguments quite different from those the classical compatibilists endorsed. But more valuable than his arguments was his general theory of what moral responsibility is, and hence, what is at stake in arguing about it. Strawson held that both the incompatibilists and the compatibilists had misconstrued the nature of moral responsibility. Each disputant, Strawson suggested, advanced arguments in support of or against a distorted simulacrum of the real deal.

As mentioned the other day, I am dubious of the existence of moral responsibility (MR) as often understood. Morality exists, causal responsibility exists, but together… I think people really conflate MR with causal responsibility. We can also use praise and blame, even if humans aren’t technically “worthy” of it, to a pragmatic end in terms of social cohesion.

To understand moral responsibility properly, Strawson invited his reader to consider the reactive attitudes one has towards another when she recognizes in another’s conduct an attitude of ill will. The reactions that flow naturally from witnessing ill will are themselves attitudes that are directed at the perpetrator’s intentions or attitudes. When a perpetrator wrongs a person, she, the wronged party, typically has a personal reactive attitude of resentment. When the perpetrator wrongs another, some third party, the natural reactive attitude is moral indignation, or disapprobation, which amounts to a “vicarious analogue” of resentment felt on behalf of the wronged party. When one is oneself the wronging party, reflecting upon or coming to realize the wrong done to another, the natural reactive attitude is guilt.

Even though we might understand reality in terms of causal determinism, such as I do, we still cannot help reacting to people in terms of praise and blame: it is “natural”.

Strawson wanted contestants to the free will debate to see more clearly than they had that excusing a person — electing not to hold her morally responsible — involves more than some objective judgment that she did not do such and such, or did not intend so and so, and therefore does not merit some treatment or other. It involves a suspension or withdrawal of certain morally reactive attitudes, attitudes involving emotional responses. On Strawson’s view, what it is to hold a person morally responsible for wrong conduct is nothing more than the propensity towards, or the sustaining of, a morally reactive attitude of disapprobation. Crucially, the disapprobation is in response to the perceived attitude of ill will or culpable motive in the conduct of the person being held responsible. Hence, Strawson explains, posing the question of whether the entire framework of moral responsibility should be given up as irrational (if it were discovered that determinism is true) is tantamount to posing the question of whether persons in the interpersonal community — that is, in real life — should forswear having reactive attitudes towards persons who wrong others, and who sometimes do so intentionally. Strawson invites us to see that the morally reactive attitudes that are the constitutive basis of our moral responsibility practices, as well as the interpersonal relations and expectations that give structure to these attitudes, are deeply interwoven into human life. These attitudes, relations and expectations are so much an expression of natural, basic features of our social lives — of their emotional textures — that it is practically inconceivable to imagine how they could be given up.

As I understand it, Strawson’s idea of moral responsibility works in terms of a sort of pragmatic illusionism. We may know that we cannot technically praise or blame someone, that they are a product of the historical and present universe, but we cannot help having those psychological reactions to their (determined) intended actions. These reactions are what constitute moral responsibility and they, it seems, are not worth giving up (or we are simply unable to do so). It’s what makes us human, perhaps.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...