Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Strawson on free will and interpersonal relationships

In his classic paper “Freedom and Resentment,” P. F. Strawson addresses the question of what difference the widespread acceptance of determinism would make to our everyday ways of dealing with each other.  He judges that our commonsense conception of human behavior is too deeply rooted in our nature to be dislodged even in such a scenario.  As in Strawson’s other work, he urges attention to details of ordinary experience that are ineliminable but often overlooked by revisionist systems of metaphysics.

Strawson distinguishes between what he calls the participant reactive attitudes that are the norm in interpersonal relationships, and the objective attitude that can in exceptional cases supplant it.  Let’s begin with the first set of attitudes, which can be understood by reference to the different ways we can harm or benefit each other, and the different ways we react to these different harms and benefits.

Consider two occasions, one in which someone deliberately pushes you, and the other in which someone pushes into you by accident (as a result of tripping, say).  The physical harm caused to you might be the same in either case.  But the first person’s action will generate in you a feeling of resentment that the latter person’s will not.  Or consider a case where you are stranded and a stranger gives you money for cab fare, and also a case where you are stranded and find some money that someone has lost and with which you can pay for a cab.  The benefit to you will be the same in either case, but the first will produce in you a feeling of gratitude that the second will not.

Actions that produce in you a feeling like resentment do so because you take it that what moves the other person to perform them are factors like malevolence, rudeness, indifference, contempt, or an intention to insult.  Actions that produce in you a feeling like gratitude do so because you take it that what moves the other person to perform them are factors like kindness, goodwill, affection, and esteem. 

Consider also forgiveness.  Strawson notes that this presupposes that the action being forgiven was indeed appropriately met with resentment, but that the guilty party acknowledges this and repudiates the action.  The forgiving person accepts this repudiation on the part of the offender and, in turn, cancels the resentment.

Resentment, gratitude, and forgiveness are “participant reactive attitudes” insofar as they involve reacting to other human beings as fellow participants in a common interpersonal form of life.  We see each other, not as impersonal forces, but as rational agents having various beliefs, desires, and other propositional attitudes (as philosophers call them), as acting on the basis of these and thus subject to moral and rational appraisal, and as, accordingly, to be held responsible for the things we choose to do on their basis.

Within this general framework, various specific kinds of relationships exist – between family members, friends, lovers, colleagues, those who have some interest in common (such as a political cause or hobby), those we deal with temporarily in chance encounters (such as a grocery store employee or a clerk at the post office), and so on.  The nature of these relationships determines the specific expectations we have of people, the ways they might offend or please us, etc.  But they are all variations on the same basic theme of regarding others as fellow persons or rational agents, to whom it is appropriate to take the various participant reactive attitudes.

Now, focusing on resentment in particular, Strawson says that there are, within this commonsense framework for dealing with others, two sorts of cases where resentment at another person’s action can be removed or at least mitigated.  First, there are the cases where, after more carefully considering the matter, we make judgments of the kind expressed in sentences like “He didn’t mean to,” “He didn’t know,” “He couldn’t help it,” “He had no alternative,” and so on.  We thereby absolve the person of responsibility.  However, Strawson emphasizes, this is not because we judge that the participant reactive attitudes (resentment, gratitude, forgiveness, etc.) are not after all applicable to the person.  On the contrary, we believe that they are in general applicable to him, that he is a fellow member of the community of rational agents.  Rather, we simply judge that in the particular case at hand, the attitude of resentment is not after all appropriate.  For though we initially supposed that the person’s action was the result of ill will, we later come to judge that it was not.

Second, though, there are cases where we drop the attitude of resentment because we judge that the other person is deranged, or acting under compulsion, or that “He wasn’t himself,” or that he is just a small child.  In other words, we attribute the person’s behavior to psychological abnormality or immaturity, and for that reason judge that he does not bear the sort of responsibility required in order for an attitude of resentment to be reasonable. 

Now in this sort of case, Strawson says, we do not treat the person in question as a normal fellow member of the community of rational agents, to whom it is appropriate to take the participant reactive attitudes.  Here is where the “objective attitude” comes in.  It involves not dealing with another in the ordinary interpersonal way, but instead as something to be managed, treated, cured, handled, trained, controlled, or the like.

Think of the way we regard wind or rain that damages the house, or a stray neighborhood cat that leaves its droppings on the lawn.  We might get angry at these things, but we don’t literally resent them, because we don’t conceive of them in the personal terms that alone could make such an attitude intelligible.  Nor, for the same reason, do we literally feel gratitude toward wind and rain that pass without leaving damage behind, or a cat that does its business somewhere other than the lawn.  We manage or control a situation involving wind, rain, or a cat, rather than dealing with them the way we would a fellow member of the community of rational agents.

When we take what Strawson calls the “objective attitude” to another human being, we do something similar.  We judge that the person has fallen from normal interpersonal capacity (in the case of severe psychological abnormality) or that he hasn’t yet risen to it (in the case of immaturity).  And thus we see his behavior as something to manage or control rather than to feel resentment, gratitude, forgiveness, etc. toward.

Now, suppose belief in determinism became widespread in society, rather than something that only intellectuals thought much about.  It might seem that the result would be the disappearance of the participant reactive attitudes.  For those attitudes presuppose responsibility, and determinism might seem to undermine the view that people are responsible.  But Strawson thinks that while it may be possible in theory to abandon the participant reactive attitudes, in practice it could never happen. 

For one thing, he notes, accepting determinism would not entail abandoning attitudes like resentment for the usual reasons we cancel our resentment against another person.  Again, there are two such reasons.  First, we might judge that the person was after all acting out of goodwill rather than ill will.  But accepting determinism would hardly lead us to conclude that all people are really after all always acting out of goodwill!  It would not entail that anytime anyone does anything, it’s because he didn’t know any better, didn’t mean it, etc.  Second, we might judge that a person was either psychologically abnormal or immature and thus not responsible.  But accepting determinism would hardly lead us to conclude that all people are after all psychologically abnormal or immature!  So, again, determinism would not entail that we should extend our usual reasons for denying that someone is responsible for an action to all people and all actions. 

Strawson’s point here seems to be that it is the context of our ordinary participant reactive attitudes that gives sense or intelligibility to our decision not to hold someone responsible.  And that context makes the denial of responsibility the exception rather than the rule.  What we cannot plausibly do is extend this denial of responsibility so that it becomes the rule rather than the exception.

Strawson also suggests that to abandon the participant reactive attitudes would entail a level of “human isolation” that we are simply incapable of bearing.  Imagine trying consistently to adopt the objective attitude across the board to all human beings and all their actions – seriously regarding them as if they were like the wind, rain, or neighborhood cat, something to be managed or controlled rather than sincerely reasoned with, grateful or resentful toward, etc.  It would be like trying to think of them on the model of an AI device (Alexa or Siri) or an ATM machine rather than a real human being.  Moreover, to be consistent you’d need to take this attitude toward yourself as well.  This is psychologically impossible and would lead to a mental breakdown if seriously attempted.  The participant reactive attitude simply goes too deep in human nature, no less than eating, sleeping, perceiving, and walking do.  It is, Strawson says, not something we can simply choose either to accept or reject.

To expand on Strawson’s point, we might note that the participant reactive attitude goes so deep that it is evident even in the behavior of those who deny the reality of free will, and indeed even in the very act of defending this denial and drawing implications from it.  For example, those who claim (quite mistakenly) that neuroscience or some other scientific finding shows free will to be illusory try to convince people who disagree, sometimes accuse them of intellectual dishonesty if they resist, may express contempt for them and their purported ignorance, etc.  None of this is consistent with the denial of free will.  If people don’t have free will, then while you may speak to them as if you are reasoning with them (as you might with a dog or an AI like Alexa), you cannot really do so.  Nor can you blame them for remaining unconvinced by your arguments if they are simply unfree in everything they think and do, including in their persistence in believing that they are free.

Those who claim that free will is illusory also often take this to entail that we should abandon the notion of responsibility and, consequently, the institution of punishment.  But as Strawson’s analysis implies, to give up the participant reactive attitudes would entail abandoning far more than just that.  We would also have to give up attitudes like resentment, gratitude, and forgiveness, along with praise and blame of any kind, any attempt to reason with others, and so on.  Again, to be consistent we would have to adopt the “objective attitude” wholesale, treating others and ourselves as things to be managed or controlled, just as we would the wind and rain, a dog, an ATM machine, or the like.  There is nothing special about punishment, specifically, that makes it intelligible why we would give that up but keep most of the other aspects of the participant reactive attitude.  It all goes, or none of it does.  And as Strawson says, it simply isn’t possible for it all to go.

Exactly what are the metaphysical implications of Strawson’s analysis?  It could be taken in different directions.  For example, one could (though I certainly would not) interpret it in a compatibilist way, holding that we are free as long as we do what we want to do without external compulsion of the ordinary kinds, but where this does not rule out our wants being themselves determined.  One could take it in a Kantian direction, holding that it shows that we must of necessity think of ourselves as if we are free, but where this falls short of a metaphysical demonstration that we really are free.  Or one could take it to provide the ingredients for such a demonstration, an argument to the effect that denying free will is ultimately incoherent. 

I am partial to the latter approach, though demonstrating the reality of free will is a topic for another time.  (In fact it is one of the many topics addressed in the book on the soul that I am working on and hope at last to finish by the end of the summer.)


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  2. I will be interested to check out your book on the soul then, Dr. Feser, because determinism/free will has always been an issue I struggled to understand intellectually.

    I accept the church's teach that God respects human free will, but find it very difficult to square with him omnipotence, especially as it concerns classical theism (which I do accept intellectually). I also think that the notion of causes makes free will difficult to understand.

    Because if causes are natural connections between things such that the actual existence of one thing brings for the actual existence of what previously was only potential, and if these causes are more or less regular, then it seems that, at the very least, an absolutist view of free will along the lines of

    "Free will means that some agent A could potentially, in some situation or moment in time X, choose to do any of a wide variety of actions, and the choice between which of these actions is due to something totally internal to A, so that the external circumstance X does not constrain A's choice in possible actions at all"

    cannot be correct because it seems to causally isolate a willful self from the rest of the universe. This version of free will seems even less credible when we accept the existence of God for whom "the very hairs of [one's] head are all numbered".

    My inclination is to say that calling something a "free" action, chosen by my "free will" is merely to say that it proceeds from the operation of my rationality in some way, as opposed to something "vegetative" and automatic like breathing or falling asleep. But how such a thing could be called "free" if I don't actually have the ability to do otherwise, even if it is consonant with my intellect and I experience it as intelligible is beyond me.
    But personally, I've never seen an issue with the kind of evaluative judgements people make in a world where everything is determined. The beauty of a flower is proper to its nature, so if someone performs a virtuous act because their intellect has become habituated to that virtue (and more remotely because God has caused a universe such that such a person could exist) then even if the causal structure of the universe is such that our virtuous person could not have done otherwise, because that act proceeds from their nature and isn't incidental to it, it is still laudable or deplorable.

    1. I don't think that arguing in favour of free will implies that one's actions are completely determined by his own will without any interference from external circumstances.
      Let's say I ask you to kill some one. You refuse.
      I ask again but i offer 10000 dollar. You refesue.
      I ask again and I offer 1 million dollar. You accept.
      Of course the fact that I offered you 1 million dollar had an impact on your choice. But it was still your choice. Having free will does not mean that your actions come out of the blue. Of course taking one or another choice is influenced by external factors, that make a particular choice easier or more difficult to take. But ultimately, the choice is still yours. You always have the last word (assuming you are not affected by some condition that makes it impossibile to exercise free will, like some serious neurological condition, for example).

    2. Free will would be a sort of self-motion in that case. In which case, the universe doesn't contain beings that ONLY are moved by other beings, or beings that just passively make a potential in something else actual.

      There's nothing in theology, or even classical metaphysics, that requires a view of causality where ALL causes and ALL possible types of beings that could exist, are merely natural connections between things such that the actual existence of one thing brings for the actual existence of what previously was only potential, and that this is more or less regular.

    3. Can someone have more them one free will act ?
      The past is determinism.
      Only beings that have one act can be free, beings without past.

    4. PseudopascalApril 5, 2023 at 8:32 PM
      I will be interested to check out your book on the soul then, Dr. Feser, because determinism/free will has always been an issue I struggled to understand intellectually.

      untill then, you could read the book ''the human person'' of steven j jensen. They are introductory and touch these issues that you are interested in.

  3. "I can't be guilty, your honor: the Universe made me do it!"

    I do appreciate Strawson's concept of the moral community and how damaged people can fall outside it. For me at least, it captures how I feel when contemplating history's true psychopaths.

  4. "Those who claim that free will is illusory also often take this to entail that we should abandon the notion of responsibility and, consequently, the institution of punishment."
    If free will is illusory, we would have been doing this all along. We could never have decided to act as if determinism is true; we would have been acting that way all along.

  5. Dr. Feser,

    Do you think Strawson fails to make an important distinction between interpersonal relationships and abstract social planning?

    Because of the emotions involved in interpersonal relationships, I agree it would be nearly impossible to treat an enemy or a loved one as a machine. However, it would be easy to treat “criminals” or “the poor” (in the abstract) as autonomous machines that ought to be dealt with as efficiently as possible. That may be a partial explanation for the French Revolution’s disdain for Noblesse Oblige and push for government implemented egalitarianism.

    1. True there. Once you goes more abstract them it is way harder to treat people as people. Would the average corrupt politician personally steal money from one family or would the average politician that commands a country during a war personally kill a enemy soldier? Probably not.

      Once you deal with people that are numerous and far from you them it is hard to remember that you are dealing with peopld. One can even see the average young person online discussing anything: there is mostly no empathy, only causes and groups.

      It is quite a danger of anything that deals with a lot of distant people, being it in politics or anything else.

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  7. That was a very good text. If it by itself it makes a argument against determinism i dont know, interesting take, but if i may help the determinist a bit i would notice that the determinist can still argue with people if he wants. Not because he can convince they of anything, but because this could be a way of changing the person behavior, so, arguing would be a way to control others behavior.

    Of course, this does not explain how to mantain all the rest of our mind that determinism breaks, like ressentment or gratitude, neither the fact that the determinist has to regard his oen conclusions as caused by non-rational methods while he has direct acess to his reasoning and so on.

  8. Is Strawson's point just psychological? How would the determinist justify continuing to take the participant reactive attitude?

  9. "But Strawson thinks that while it may be possible in theory to abandon the participant reactive attitudes, in practice it could never happen."

    ...that is, apart from some serious ascetical discipline? Objective attitude: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." (And Father, forgive me, for I know not whether they know what they do, or whether they're all fundamentally deranged, depraved lunatics -- and practically speaking I do indeed find that mine is a difficult position to be in, 'managing' all the people with whom it is not possible to reason on any subject beyond the confines of perhaps affirming their always-already-settled yet ever-changing Orwellian opinions.)

  10. Don't Buddhists achieve this very removal of resentment through a similar process? By understanding their own minds as taking part in dependent origination, they being to perceive themselves very similarly to the wind and the rain.

    Even if the view is ultimately false, it seems that it does have exactly the effect on them that that Strawson says it won't.