1. P.F. Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment” (1960)
2. Galen Strawson’s “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility” (1994)
3. Gary Watson’s “Responsibility and the Limits of Evil: Variations on a Strawsonian Theme” (1987)
We also brought a bit of insight in from a great article by Thomas Nagel: “Moral Luck” (1979)
We’ve touched on the issue of free will in a number of previous episodes. Probably our first foray into this issue was with Kant, where we talked about how he thought free will was implied by the notions of moral responsibility we find we have if we really think about it. Kant thought that this had metaphysical implications: even though in the world of our experience and science, we find that causality universally applies (so even your own actions have a cause external to yourself), our fundamentally moral nature means that in the realm of things-in-themselves, which theoretical reason can give us no knowledge of we have to assume (i.e. practical reason entails) that there is some metaphysical situation that actually allows us to be free.
That’s a kind of compatibilism, which affirms that determinism is true (or at least might well be true), yet we have freedom anyway, and that’s the general view (not Kant’s variation, which is idiosyncratic to his system) that dominates today. Most philosophers and scientists, unlike Descartes (as discussed a little in our philosophy of mind episode), do not currently believe in a separate metaphysical category where mind and soul and agency live, connected in some problematic way to the physical world so that my will can cause my body to move around. Of course, there are phenomenological conceptions of metaphysics like Bergson’s or Merleau-Ponty’s which more or less define the metaphysically fundamental to be our lived experience (which would make our freedom fundamental; see also Sartre).
If you think of metaphysics in the more ordinary sense, though, of something behind physics, what physics is ultimately aiming at even if facts about our epistemology make it problematic that we’ll ever have well-grounded opinions about it, then the problem of determinism is fairly intractable: our brains are made of atoms, and atoms exist in a closed causal system that doesn’t admit of something (whether God or spirits) intervening causally. We discussed Laplace’s demon briefly with David Chalmers; it’s just a vivid image to describe a metaphysics in which causality holds universally, so if you knew the position and momentum of every atom in the universe, you’d be able to compute for some future time where everything would be then. This seems to leave no room for free choice, for saying when you’ve done something that you could have chosen to do otherwise, so philosophers since William James at least have often said that the metaphysical situation simply has no bearing on how we treat each other, whether we think of ourselves are free and treat others as if they are free, and thus responsible for their actions.
This is the landscape in which the Strawsons make their theories. In a move comparable perhaps to Wittgenstein’s, P.F. Strawson looks at attitudes like resentment and gratitude as forms of life, as a part of our social practices (maybe biological? he’s not so concerned about the origin of the practice). The situation is much like how David Hume and Adam Smith established the pattern of modern, secular ethics by looking to what moral sentiments we actually have and seeing how we do in fact build a system out of that, so that reason is involved, and some accusations of moral impropriety can be deemed incorrect after reflection; it’s a matter of what people actually feel and desire, but not merely an emotional matter a la Stevenson… it’s still a system, and can still be called ethics.
P.F. Strawson says that we unavoidably have attitudes of resentment and gratitude, and that these are not just feelings, but come with criteria for saying whether such an attitude in any particular case is justified. If someone steps on your foot, you might get angry, but then if you realize that he was pushed into you, then you stop being angry at him (maybe you shift your anger to the person that pushed him). We have criteria for saying when someone’s action wasn’t intentional and uncompelled: there was a gun to his head, or he had a real, medically established addiction, or or he didn’t know any better. In some of these cases, as when you’re dealing with a small child or someone under hypnosis or something like that, we adopt what P.F. Strawson calls “the objective attitude” (for more info, read this article by our guest Tamler Sommers about this) towards the person. Here, you’re saying that the person you’re judging is an object to be manipulated, to be prodded with stimuli to get a desired response, and not a true member of the moral community whose reason and sympathy you can appeal to to correct their bad behavior. P.F. Strawson says that suggesting that the truth of determinism undermines moral responsibility is comparable to saying that we should take the objective attitude with each other all the time, and not just in these fringe cases. Such a shift would probably be psychologically impossible, and in any case monstrous, and very much against our current moral sentiments.
Tamler thinks that P.F. Strawson’s argument is a “game-changer.” It charges that past determinists and compatibilists alike were over-intellectualizing the issue, that that our ordinary notions of praise and blame aren’t philosophically pretentious enough to have any relation to metaphysics. It’s just a social practice, but one that we’re inextricably inside of, so the system itself really isn’t open to criticism. You can say that we should be less (or more) harsh in blaming people in many particular instances, you can argue for changes in the way that social institutions make use of this system of sentiments, but none of us is in the appropriate position to seriously criticize the system itself. P.F. Strawson compares this situation with our relation to causality (induction); even if someone like Hume comes along to say that it isn’t justified, this is just a philosopher’s game: we can’t live as if we don’t believe that causality is real, i.e. that induction is justified.
Galen Strawson’s response is to affirm what he calls the Basic Argument, which is to say that “it makes no difference whether determinism is true or false; we cannot be truly or ultimately morally responsible for our actions in either case.” So even just looking at the phenomenology: yes, we feel we have free choices, but clearly the choice we do make in a given circumstances is a result of our character and judgment, of the way we are, which was the result of something. If you say that it was the result of heredity and environment, then you’re saying that we aren’t ultimately responsible for what we are. If you say that it was the result of past choices (as Aristotle does), then the question just gets pushed back one step: these past choices were themselves a result of something about our character at the time, which was either the result of heredity/environment or was the result of choices prior to that, etc. We can’t have an infinite regress, so there must be a stopping point: we are not ultimately responsible for our actions.
In Gary Watson’s article, we get some more detail about how these two positions interact. He gives the example of a particular murderer. We examine his crime and feel resentful. We learn about is terrible upbringing, and we say “damn! no wonder he turned out like that!” We shift back and forth between the reactive and the objective attitudes. Watson thinks that we ultimately still do (per P.F. Strawson) treat him like a member of the moral community, and think that even though he had a terrible childhood, and been left with terrible feelings of rage, that wasn’t enough to force his horrible actions; many people with similar childhoods don’t end up doing such things. But Watson also outlines the alternative in rejecting this reactive “form of life” to permanently adopting the objective attitude compassion and forgiveness. Figures like Ghandi and Martin Luther King have pushed us to temper our feelings of vindictiveness with sympathy, and accepting Galen Strawon’s Basic Argument may mean that even though we may feel that we need to retain punishment for utilitarian reasons (to keep bad people off the streets and deter others, i.e. in doing these we’re adopting the objective attitude and trying to manipulate people into staying out of trouble), we might ultimately want to take a “there but for the grace of God go I” attitude towards wrong-doers and stop being all self-righteous and pissy.