Freedom, Resentment, and the Metaphysics of Morals
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Freedom, Resentment, and the Metaphysics of Morals

Pamela Hieronymi

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eBook - ePub

Freedom, Resentment, and the Metaphysics of Morals

Pamela Hieronymi

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An innovative reassessment of philosopher P. F. Strawson's influential "Freedom and Resentment" P. F. Strawson was one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century, and his 1962 paper "Freedom and Resentment" is one of the most influential in modern moral philosophy, prompting responses across multiple disciplines, from psychology to sociology. In Freedom, Resentment, and the Metaphysics of Morals, Pamela Hieronymi closely reexamines Strawson's paper and concludes that his argument has been underestimated and misunderstood.Line by line, Hieronymi carefully untangles the complex strands of Strawson's ideas. After elucidating his conception of moral responsibility and his division between "reactive" and "objective" responses to the actions and attitudes of others, Hieronymi turns to his central argument. Strawson argues that, because determinism is an entirely general thesis, true of everyone at all times, its truth does not undermine moral responsibility. Hieronymi finds the two common interpretations of this argument, "the simple Humean interpretation" and "the broadly Wittgensteinian interpretation, " both deficient. Drawing on Strawson's wider work in logic, philosophy of language, and metaphysics, Hieronymi concludes that his argument rests on an implicit, and previously overlooked, metaphysics of morals, one grounded in Strawson's "social naturalism." In the final chapter, she defends this naturalistic picture against objections.Rigorous, concise, and insightful, Freedom, Resentment, and the Metaphysics of Morals sheds new light on Strawson's thinking and has profound implications for future work on free will, moral responsibility, and metaethics.The book also features the complete text of Strawson's "Freedom and Resentment."

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Strawson’s Strategy

LET US BEGIN at the article’s beginning. Strawson’s stated aim is to adjudicate and reconcile the debate between a gloomy incompatibilist about moral responsibility and determinism, whom he calls “the pessimist,” and a consequentialist compatibilist, whom he calls “the optimist.”
The optimist argues that our practices of holding one another responsible are justified by their good consequences, whether or not determinism is true. By engaging in these practices, we secure important social goods (we reinforce prosocial behavior, disincentivize antisocial behavior, and so build a well-functioning society).1
The pessimist finds this attempted justification appalling. If we justify our practices of blaming and punishing by appeal to their good consequences, the question of whether someone deserves blame or punishment becomes the question of whether blaming and punishing in such circumstances (generally) leads to good outcomes. But this, the pessimist thinks, is just to ignore the question of whether anyone really deserves blame or punishment—whether anyone is in fact responsible for his or her behavior. And the pessimist is pessimistic because he thinks not only that, if determinism is true, then no one is responsible, but also that determinism is very likely true.2
Strawson means to adjudicate the dispute. He sees merit in each position. He agrees with the pessimist that the optimist’s position distorts our notions of moral blame and guilt beyond recognition. But, with the optimist, Strawson does not think that preserving these notions requires the falsity of determinism.
In fact, Strawson thinks that, by appealing to determinism, the pessimist is making something like the same error the optimist makes by appealing to consequences: they each assume that our practices of holding one another responsible require a justification that those practices do not require. As Strawson puts it, the framework constituted by our practices “neither calls for, nor permits, an external ‘rational’ justification” (131).
We can already see that, broadly speaking, Strawson would like to adjudicate the dispute by convincing each side to stop talking one step earlier, so to speak: he would like the optimist to stop talking about consequences and he would like the pessimist to stop talking about determinism. He would like them both to stop talking—to stop attempting to justify our practices of holding one another responsible—and instead rest content with what he calls “the facts as we know them” (108). But it is difficult to see how or why one can legitimately rest content right there. It is hard to see why further justification is not required.
By understanding the central argument of the text, we will eventually come to see why Strawson thinks we can stop talking. Again, the central argument reaches the conclusion that, because determinism is a general thesis—true of everything—it will not show our practices of holding others responsible unjustified.

Strawson’s Picture of Responsibility

Strawson’s central argument depends on a particular picture of what it is to be responsible.
To paint his picture, Strawson first draws our attention to how very much we care about how other people think of us, or, as he puts it,
the very great importance that we attach to the attitudes and intentions towards us of other human beings, and the great extent to which our personal feelings and reactions depend upon, or involve, our beliefs about those attitudes and intentions. (111)
To illustrate, he points out,
If someone treads on my hand accidentally, while trying to help me, the pain may be no less acute than if he treads on it in contemptuous disregard for my existence, or with a malevolent wish to injure me. But I shall generally feel in the second case a kind and degree of resentment I shall not feel in the first. (112)
Even if the physical pain is the same in both cases, we care about the motive, or the quality of will, that led to that pain. Justice Holmes makes a similar point when he notes, “Even a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked.”3 Perhaps (though only perhaps) the dog simply registers whether a fight-or-flight response is needed. In contrast, we care about how we stand in the other’s world.
Strawson next identifies a class of attitudes, which he calls the “reactive” attitudes, such as resentment or gratitude, which we adopt in response to “the quality of others’ wills towards us, as manifested in their behavior” (121). These stand in contrast with “objective” attitudes: responses such as frustration or relief, which we might have to events and states of affairs we believe were not willed by anyone. So, while we might be frustrated when our plans are thwarted by a downed tree, we do not resent the tree for lying there (or, if we do, we recognize this as a mistake). If an unsteady board bears your weight in a time of need, you feel relieved, not grateful. Though you may be disappointed when the strap on your old, reliable bag breaks, you do not feel betrayed. If, on the other hand, you believe that the tree was downed, the board supported, or the strap broken by someone, on purpose, with you in mind, then you might resent, feel grateful, or feel betrayed. Resentment, gratitude, and feelings of betrayal are reactive attitudes. When contrasted with these, frustration, relief, and disappointment are objective attitudes.4
In addition to these “personal” reactive attitudes, Strawson notes their “impersonal” or “vicarious” analogues. The impersonal reactive attitudes are those we adopt in response to our perception of the quality of another person’s will toward others. They include indignation (an analogue of resentment) and moral admiration (an analogue of gratitude). Attitudes such as guilt and remorse Strawson identifies as self-directed reactive attitudes—those we have in response to our perception of the quality of our own will toward others.
In general, then, a reactive attitude is x’s reaction to x’s perception of or beliefs about the quality of y’s will toward z. In the impersonal reactive attitudes, x, y, and z are different persons. In the case of the personal reactive attitudes, the same person stands in for x and z. In the case of self-directed reactive attitudes, the same person stands in for x and y.
It is crucial for Strawson’s argument that the reactive attitudes are modified or suspended in cases of two distinct kinds. There has been much ink spilled interpreting this distinction. Here is how I believe it should be understood:
In the first kind of case, we learn we were mistaken about the quality of the will in question, and therefore our reactive attitude—our reaction to our perception of or our beliefs about the quality of that will—must change. We learn, for example, that the actor was innocently ignorant, or that it was an accident, and so we see that they really meant no harm. They only appeared to. Or, now that we know the person was threatened with their life, we can see that their choice showed no disrespect. Or, now that we know that the person was in fact pushed, or that this particular bit of behavior was just a reflexive movement, we can see that the movement displayed no will at all. As an imperfect slogan, we could say these are cases in which we learn that “the will was not ill.”5
Importantly, the information we receive in this first kind of case, while prompting us to revise our reactive attitudes, does nothing to suggest that the person in question is not an apt target of such attitudes. The quality of that person’s will continues to matter to us in the usual way; we were simply mistaken about which quality (if any) was manifest, in the case at hand.
Not so, for the second sort of case. In these cases, rather than come to see that we were mistaken about the quality of this will, we come to see that it would be a mistake to react to this will, in these circumstances, in the usual way, regardless of its quality. This will, in these circumstances, does not call for the usual sort of reactions. It may be that the person really did mean harm, or know what he was doing. It was not an accident. We were in fact shown disregard or malice. Nonetheless, when we come to learn, for example, that the person in question was under extreme strain, or is mentally ill, or is a very young child, we do not react as we otherwise would. As an imperfect slogan, we could say these are cases in which “the ill will does not matter in the usual way.” Rather than react with the corresponding reactive attitude, we shift to more objective attitudes—we adopt what Strawson calls “the objective attitude.”
Strawson notes that this second type of case comes in two sub-varieties. Sometimes we discount the importance of someone’s will temporarily, due to extreme or unusual circumstances, saying, for example, “he wasn’t himself.” At other times, the discounting is due to some more enduring condition that renders the person incapacitated for tolerably ordinary adult interpersonal relationship, such as disease or immaturity.
Having sketched these two sub-varieties of the second sort of case, Strawson says, “But there is something curious to add to this.” He then makes what will be a very important observation: we sometimes shift from the reactive to the more objective attitude even in cases in which the will in question is neither immature, diseased, nor in extreme or unusual circumstances. He says,
The objective attitude is not only something we naturally tend to fall into in cases [of] abnormalities or immaturity. It is also something which is available as a resource in other cases, too … we can sometimes look with something like the same [objective] eye on the behavior of the normal and mature. We have this resource and can sometimes use it—as a refuge, say, from the strains of involvement; or as an aid to policy; or simply out of intellectual curiosity. (116)
This “use” of this “resource” should, I think, be familiar. Sometimes the “strains of involvement”—the emotional effort and expense of engaging with, say, a particular coworker or family member—seems too much. We want to disengage. Sometimes we can—sometimes we can relate to a person simply as an “issue,” a “problem” to deal with (as in, “Oh, him—he’s another issue altogether”). Alternatively, we might similarly disengage, not because the person is too much, but rather because we, ourselves, are exhausted or under great strain. Similarly, when we are thinking through what policies to adopt, or playing the role of therapist, we can step away from what would otherwise be our natural reaction to outrageous or offensive behavior and instead adopt a more objective attitude.
I argue, below, that this available “resource” plays a central role in Strawson’s central argument. It provides a third sub-variety of case in which ill will does not matter to us in the usual way—a third sub-variety of case in which we suspend the reactive attitudes and shift to a more objective mode.
Strawson seems reluctant, though, simply to class this third sub-variety with the other two; he instead sets it apart as something “curious.” It seems he is thinking that, while we “naturally tend to fall into” the objective attitude in the first two sub-varieties of cases, our natural tendency to do this in those cases becomes, for us, a capacity we can make use of—a “resource” we can employ—in other cases, for a variety of reasons, more or less at will.
Having thus surveyed the ways in which the reactive attitudes are modified or suspended, Strawson notes a connection between reactive attitudes, on the one hand, and an expectation of and demand for goodwill or regard, on the other. He says,
The personal reactive attitudes rest on, and reflect, an expectat...