Notes on Peter Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment”

Here is a copy of the article, however, the page numbers I reference below do not match this article.


Strawson claims to not know the full thesis of Determinism. To those who do, he refers to them in two categories: the pessimists and the optimists. The pessimists believe that if determinism is true, then moral practices like punishment and blame are not justified (72). On the other hand, the optimists believe that moral practices are justified because they regulate behavior in socially desirable ways (72-73).

In class, Professor Jullie Tannenbaum structured the argument between the pessimists and optimists like this:

  1. The pessimist objects to the optimist:
    1. Merely regulating behavior is not the right kind of basis for these moral practices (74)
    2. Justified moral condemnation implies moral responsibility which implies freedom and thus the falsity of determinism.
  2. The optimist responds:
    1. They concede up to the point of freedom (73)
      1. Negative freedom is all that is needed for moral practices. This is the freedom from interference or limitations which is necessary for moral responsibility and blame.
        1. Limitations: compulsion, innate incapacity, insanity or lesser disorders, all other choices are morally impermissible, other choices are too much to expect of any person.
        2. Some forms of ignorance, mistakes, accidents.
  3. Pessimists respond:
    1. More is needed for the notion of freedom:
      1. Positive Freedom = “free identification of the will with the act.”
  4. Optimist agrees with the pessimists if this means the person decides to do it means the person acted on reasons (the agent’s reasons). (74)
    1. Difference between acting on a reason and developing a rationalization– a reason is why the action was done, a rationalization is an explanation of the action without regards to the original intention.
    2. What does it take to act on a reason?
      1. The agent has an end, which requires you to believe that the end is possible. (this is debatable: end as an aim that can be reached or end as a standard that we only move closer to)
      2. The agent has to believe the action is a means.
      3. The agent thinks of his/her end as good.
  5. Strawson agrees with the optimists that the justification of our moral practices depends on positive and negative freedoms.
  6. Strawson also agrees with the pessimists that the social efficiency of regulating behavior is not the right kind of reason for the basis of moral practices.
    1. Emotions are governed by the right kind of reason, but just because it is useful or good for you to have a belief, does not make for a right belief.

Professor Tannebaum then continued to outline Strawson’s article:

  1. Strawson believes that actions reflect, display, embody the reasons, attitudes, values, or principles upon which the person acted.
  2. Reactive attitudes are emotional reactions to the good will, ill will, or indifference of others toward us as displayed in their attitudes and actions (80), in light of our demands for good will. (76)
    1. What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for showing:
      1. Good will?
        1. Take into account everyone’s rights and interests, giving those the proper weight.
        2. They draw the conclusion they should
        3. They act on their conclusion
      2. Ill will?
        1. Act out of hatred, revenge, causing harm for its own sake.
      3. Indifference?
        1. Awareness of how the action would/could negatively affect others, and that this is a reason against the action but they don’t give that reason its proper weight.
          1. How would we classify recklessness? (I argued in class that the previous definition should be considered recklessness, while indifference does not need awareness of the action.
          2. Jesus gave an example of ignoring homeless people, is that indifference, recklessness, or negligence?
          3. John asked if inaction was the same as actively doing something.
          4. Tannenbaum defined negligence as “someone not knowing something they should know and they are to blame for the not knowing.”
            1. Two sources for the “should know”:
              1. Epistemic- could the person even know about it in the first place. Is it possible for the knowledge to be had?
              2. Ethical- the person has a moral obligation to know about something.
    2. Which Considerations, according to Strawson, mollify or remove resentment? (77)
      1. Group 1
        1. “He didn’t mean to”, “he didn’t realize”, “he didn’t know”.
          1. Tannenbaum summarized this section as “blameless not knowings” that are not intentional or negligent. These are some cases of not knowing, not all cases of ignorance.
        2. He was forced to do it, it was against his will. “He was pushed”
          1. Here, the person did not do the action, he was made to do it, like being pushed into someone else. There is no agency here.
        3. “He couldn’t help it”, “It was the only way”
          1. This would be an example of the trolley problem for Strawson, or the example Tannenbaum used in class was a nurse who had enough of an antidote for 5 people or could use it all on one person who would require 5 person’s worth of the antidote. If she gives it to all of the people, then the action is justified.
          2. These are cases when the alternative actions cause more harm than good. There is agency, it is intentional, but the action is justified.
        4. This group of people are agents of whom we can demand good will from, and they do not fail to act on good will. (77, 78, 80, 85) They are responsible agents that are not blameworthy or responsible for the action.
      2. Group 2
        1. “He wasn’t himself” “He was under great stress”
          1. These are agents who are temporarily not full agents.
            1. Drunk, stress, grief are possible examples (this is a very disputed group)
        2. Longer duration, or permanent loss of agency.
          1. Children, psychopaths??, schizophrenics, Personality disorders.
        3. The individuals in this group are not people we can demand good will of.
    3. Strawson argues that the “objective attitude” should be given to group 2.
      1. attitudes toward someone from whom we cannot demand good will. Someone who we can/should control or manipulate.
      2. “To adopt the objective attitude to another human being is to see him, perhaps, as an object of social policy; as a subject for what, in a wide range of sense, might be called treatment; as something certainly to be taken account, perhaps precautionary account of; to be managed or handled or cured or trained; perhaps simply to be avoided, though this gerundive is not peculiar to cases of objectivity of attitude… it may include repulsion or fear, it may include pity or even love, though not all kinds of love. But it cannot include the range of reactive feelings and attitudes which belong to involvement or participation with others in interpersonal human relationships: it cannot include resentment, gratitude, forgiveness, anger… If your attitude towards someone is wholly objective, then though you may fight him, you cannot quarrel with him, and though you may talk to him, even negotiate with him, you cannot reason with him. You can at most pretend to quarrel/reason with him.” (79)
    4. Strawson argues that the reactive attitudes are the “injured person’s attitude towards the wrongdoer, where the wrongdoer is one we demand good will from and are justified in doing so.”


Picture Credit and link to a podcast about this topic here.


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