Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Freedom and Resentment (Strawson)

I don't read much in action theory, but had a hunch that it was time to take a look at Strawson's "Freedom and Resentment." (File this under "classics that perhaps I should have already read"?)

There's much to appreciate in the paper. One the one hand, I find myself thinking, "Ok, so maybe I can live with compatibilism." But then Strawson offers some good criticisms of some types of compatiblist thinking. And then I find myself thinking, "Ah, maybe the point is not to settle on a camp, but just to see that I can walk away from the 'free will problem' without guilt." And although it's a nice line of writing, I find myself unsure what to think about Strawson's remark about "the obscure and panicky metaphysics of libertarianism."

However, I came to Strawson's paper for a particular purpose, in the midst of trying to think about the relationship between patience, tolerance, and forgiveness, and revisiting some ideas from Buddhist sources I've discussed earlier in the manuscript on patience as tolerance. This relates to the problem of determinism insofar as Shantideva's argument for cultivating tolerance depends upon what looks like a commitment to what we (Westerners, I suppose) would call determinism: every action is caused, and coming to understand the causes of a person's harmful deeds or words toward me can help (he suggests) foster a more tolerant, or patient, attitude toward this person.

This looks like a matter of adopting the "objective attitude" toward the person, in Strawson's terms. And one thing that Strawson is good on is the idea that taking the objective attitude is not a way of relating to another, if I can put it this way, as a person. So it might seem that there's something somehow inhumane (insulting, etc.) about the perspective Shantideva recommends.

Strawson also characterizes forgiveness as a reactive attitude that operates from within a personal perspective. I take his implicit point to be that it makes little sense to forgive someone from the position of the "objective attitude" in which we simply view the other as an object of social policy, etc. Although tolerance and forgiveness are different, I'm inclined to think that there's a connection in our typical thinking about character--that a tolerant person tends to be, for that, a forgiving person. But in the case of Shantideva, if tolerance (patience) is fostered by adopting a more objective attitude, then there seems to be a conflict--at least, I'd need to return to a more personal attitude toward the person in order to forgive the person. Perhaps, as Strawson seems to suggest (and this is an idea Thomas Nagel develops in some of his pieces in Mortal Questions), we can't think of either perspective as the "correct" one? So we can remember that--if something like determinism is true--there's a whole slew of causes acting on a person, but we also have to remember that we can't avoid relating to people, in general, as persons, and not merely animate objects.

This might suggest that the problem with the quip, "To understand all is to forgive all," rests on the mistake of conflating two available perspectives: understanding of the sort that comes from the objective perspective can't justify forgiveness; whether forgiveness is right depends upon considerations from within the personal perspective. (Hence discussions about whether forgiveness is required when a sincere apology is made, and whether forgiveness without apology is either reasonable or even required in some cases, etc.)

What I'm trying to get a handle on is how far a recognition of the value and virtue of patience can take us in sorting out questions about when or how much to tolerate, and what the task of cultivating patience might tell us about when and what to forgive. Stay tuned.


  1. So we can remember that--if something like determinism is true--there's a whole slew of causes acting on a person, but we also have to remember that we can't avoid relating to people, in general, as persons, and not merely animate objects.

    But we can also remember that if determinism really is true, it also governs our moral reactions to its own truth, just as it covers all other human action. If determinism is true and we take Strawson's "objective attitude" toward someone, this is then something we do deterministically and not of our own accord. And if and when we take Strawson's "reactive attitude" toward someone, this is again something we do deterministically. That we take the objective attitude in those (and only those) cases where we do take it, is itself an outcome that follows deterministically, inhumane and insulting as it may feel.

    Thus, if "to understand all is to forgive all," to understand all is also to forgive those who haughtily and judgementally dismiss the idea that to understand all is to forgive all. After all, they dismiss it deterministically! Strawson ignores this consideration, but so does just about everyone else who has ever written anything on determinism.

    More than twelve years ago, I wrote a short paper – unpublished, and probably unpublishable – on these Strawsonian themes, with the disparate likes of Buddhism and Rai Gaita thrown in at points. I dusted it off just now, and because I thought you just conceivably might be interested in it, I spent an enjoyable day and a half revising it. Here it is. (In one sense among others, it is an autobiographical account of how I have personally been able to "walk away from the 'free will problem' without guilt," as you put it.)

  2. Thanks, Tommi, and sorry for the delay in responding. I wanted to look at your essay first. I agree with your discussion about the self-referential (or is it self-defeating?) issue you discuss, and it is something I have thought about myself (but without reaching any particular conclusion).

    One comment about Strawson: I read him as not trying to offer a general justification for our reactive attitudes (or for the practice, etc.), as Hume does not try to justify our belief in causation when he describes it as a matter of custom (habit). So I'm not sure about the part of your paper where you criticize Strawson for offering a "psychological justification."

  3. You're absolutely right. I'll have to work on the exact wording of the explicitly Strawson-related part when I do some further revising, which I am now going to do. Funny thing, those determinist(?) causal chains – they have suddenly caused me to be more interested in this subject than I've been for years...

    What Strawson does say is that a justification is not needed, because of these-and-these contingent facts of social psychology (Humean custom and habit). But he also goes on to say that if a justification were called for, it would go something like this-and-this. He has a thought experiment in which we can choose to repudiate our reactive attitudes, and a normative argument in favour of not repudiating them even in such a hypothetical case. But the whole point is that if the hypothetical case were to transpire and we could thus choose to repudiate the reactive attitudes, then determinism itself wouldn't be true any longer, because if it were true then we couldn't choose.