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In P.F. Strawson͛s essay à  



Ì he argues that the truth or falsity of the
determinist thesis would have no effect on our moral psychology and therefore the common worry
that determinism undermines ordinary moral concepts and practices is unwarranted (StrawsonÌ
2003). In addressing the objection that this still does not justify our moral concepts and practicesÌ he
says that this misses the point since our moral concepts and practices are intrinsic to our psychologyÌ
which is unaffected by determinism. This essay will attempt to argue that Strawson fails to address
key issues about his moral psychology which could strengthen the stance of the objectorÌ and that
his dismissal of the objection is therefore not fully qualified. The structure of the essay will be as
follows: the first section will explain the ͚pessimist͛ worry over the determinist thesisÌ as framed by
StrawsonÌ and his attempt to reconcile it to the ͚optimist͛ view; the second will explain the objection
to Strawson͛s argument and his reply; and the third section will criticise Strawson͛s approach to the
problem.

In the opening paragraph of his essayÌ Strawson characterises a few possible perspectives on the
question of determinism and morality. He assigns the label ͚pessimist͛ to a person who believes that
determinism threatens ordinary moral concepts and practicesÌ and the label ͚optimist͛ to a person
who does not. The pessimist͛s claim is that the determinist thesis implies that humans lack freedom
and therefore those moral concepts and practices which are assumed to be justified by human
freedom are rendered unjust by the truth of determinism ʹ for exampleÌ it is normally assumed that
it is only just to punish a person for a moral transgression if they were not forced to transgress by
previous eventsÌ so determinismÌ which assumes that all human actions are determined by prior
eventsÌ would make all punishment unjust on this assumption.

An optimist argues that determinism does not undermine punishment or any other moral practicesÌ
and Strawson attempts to reconcile pessimists to this view by arguing that our moral concepts and
practices are not dependent on the truth or falsity of determinismÌ but on what he calls reactive
attitudes and their vicarious analogues. Reactive attitudesÌ such as resentment or gratitudeÌ are our
commonplace subjective responses to the way people act on us. For exampleÌ if someone injures usÌ
we will resent them if we feel they did so because of a malevolent attitude towards usÌ but we won͛t
resent them if this attitude is not perceivedÌ such as when an injury is caused by accident. In either
caseÌ the agent is held responsible for the injuryÌ but whether or not we will feel a negative attitude
towards them depends on their own exhibition of such an attitude: we will only resent them if we
feel they injured us out of spite or indifference and not by accident. The vicarious analogues of these
reactive attitudes are such feelings as indignanceÌ which are felt on behalf of another in light of the
perception of malevolent or benevolent attitudes in people who act on them. It is normal for
someone to feel indignance on behalf of victims of a crimeÌ for exampleÌ even if they are uninvolved
themselves.

Strawson argues that our ordinary moral practices of praise and condemnationÌ reward and
punishment are dependent on the reactive attitudes that agents exhibit. LikewiseÌ the suspension of
ordinary practices ʹ not resenting an agent for an injury they causeÌ for example ʹ does not happen
when the responsibility or freedom of the agent is compromisedÌ but when they do not exhibit the
appropriate attitudes or when normal personal interaction with them is impossible. Hence
determinismÌ since it would not compromise our reactive attitudesÌ does not compromise ordinary
moral practices.

An objection to this argument is thatÌ although our moral practices may be an unavoidable part of
our natureÌ they are still not rationally justified. Strawson͛s reply is that anyone who raises this
objection has ͞wholly failed to grasp the import of the preceding answer͟ (StrawsonÌ 2003). It is no
use to ask if we   continue our moral practices and concepts when we are incapable of doing
otherwise. Even if we   able to abandon themÌ he arguesÌ whether we would do so or not would
not depend on the truth or falsity of determinismÌ but on the presence or absence of reactive
attitudes in humans ʹ since their presence is indisputableÌ we would not abandon our moral
concepts and practices.

A possible criticism of Strawson͛s reconciliatory approach is that he makes too simplistic a link
between our natural reactive attitudes and our ordinary moral practices. He draws a line beneath
the personal interactions of agents and reduces all questions of objective moral standards (such as
how we ought to treat moral transgressors) to questions of individual attitudes. At the beginning of
section 3 in his essayÌ he expresses that he is ͞not much concerned͟ with ͞the general causes of
these reactive attitudes I have alluded to͟ (StrawsonÌ 2003). In dismissing questions about the
causes of our moral psychologyÌ he avoids entering into a dispute of what might be called moral
sociologyÌ in which it could well be argued that our personal subjective attitudes are caused or at
least modified by our objective moral standards and practices. In this kind of moral ͚structuralist͛
modelÌ the way we react to agents at an interpersonal or vicarious level would depend partly or
wholly on objective standards ʹ such as the assumption that an agent who is not free ought not to
be resented for injuries they cause.

If it could be shown that the relation between reactive attitudes and objective moral standards is
not as one-sided as Strawson portraysÌ then determinism could indeed have a bearing on the way
we react to moral agents and hence could affect the way we conduct our moral practices. Liberty of
indifference ʹ the ability to act in more than one way in a particular situation ʹ is an important
criterion for deciding whether or not to reward or punish an agent in the normal moral setting. If it
were known that determinism was trueÌ and an agent is determined to act in a particular way in any
given circumstanceÌ this might cause us to regard all agents in a different lightÌ and in fact make us
react differently to their moral actions.

In support of a structuralist account of moralityÌ the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg argued that
that majority of adults develop into a ͚conventional͛ level of moral reasoning that is almost
exclusively defined by the conventions of their society. In this conventional stage of moral
developmentÌ ͞there is much conformity to what is majority or ͚natural͛ behaviour͟ (KohlbergÌ
1973). From this point of view an individual does not gauge their responses to other moral agents
purely by their perception of malevolent or benevolent attitudes in themÌ but with recourse to the
prevailing moral structures that have been established by society as a whole. Since reactions to
particular kinds of transgressions vary between culturesÌ this seems at least plausible; if our
reactions were entirely naturalÌ one might expect them to be the same with all people.

Does the objectionÌ thenÌ miss the point? If our moral concepts and practices are alterableÌ and are
specifically jeopardised by the determinist thesisÌ then they still require rational justification. It is
pointed out several times in Strawson͛s essay that the efficacy of our practices in standardising and
regulating behaviour is not enough in itself to justify them. The important question is whether or not
our circumstantial methods of regulating behaviour are effective at producing a kind of behaviour
which is rationally justified as being ethical; to answer this question involves a different kind of
discussion altogether. Strawson͛s essay simply engages in a rather more academic dispute over
whether or not the determinist thesis affects our ability to normalise behaviour with objective
standards (which is possibly why this field ͞is less crowded with disputants͟1)Ì and his answer is that
it does not. One might even argue that determinism must be true in order to make the regulation of
behaviour a more realistic endeavour: free agents are decidedly less predictable and controllable
than determined ones. In any caseÌ whether or not our moral concepts and practices are rationally
justified will only be resolved by a deeper ethical discussion.

In conclusionÌ Strawson is wrong to dismiss the objection that our moral concepts and practices still
need to be rationally justified. It is not immediately clear that the interplay between reactive
attitudes and objective moral standards is as simple as he impliesÌ and the determinist thesis may in
fact threaten those standards and attitudes. By insisting that our reactive attitudes towards moral
agents are intrinsic to our natureÌ Strawson evades more difficult questionsÌ and claims that our
moral concepts and practices are in some sense immutable and therefore in no need of rational
justification. In truthÌ his attempt at reconciliation fails to address the real issue of how the
determinist thesis affects the outcome more fundamental disputes in normative ethics.



KohlbergÌ L. (1973). The Claim to Moral Adequacy of a Highest Stage of Moral Judgment. j   
      (18)Ì 630-646.

StrawsonÌ P. F. (2003). Freedom and Resentment. In S. GuttenplanÌ J. HornsbyÌ & C. JanawayÌ


     
j


  (pp. 193-209). Oxford: Blackwell.

1
See opening paragraph of Section IIIÌ à  

(StrawsonÌ 2003)