While at its core a metaphysical question, the impact of the thesis of free will weighs quite heavily in discussions regarding moral attitudes. Assignments of praise or blame to agents seem to require a level of responsibility from said agents. Even though this question runs alongside morality, answering it does not require that we assign actions as worthy of praise or blame; it only demands that we assess whether agents ever deserve praise and blame. Perhaps, however, seeking this answer amounts to missing the mark. More than one well-intentioned friend believes that digging into this topic will be fruitless. Nevertheless, I persist because I contend that a clear answer to this question ought to inform the manner with which we treat those believed to be deserving of praise or blame. If the thesis of determinism is true, no one deserves praise or blame for any action for the reasons typically conceived. Instead, praise and blame, or perhaps more precisely, their practical offshoots: reward and punishment, might need to be doled out only insofar as they consequentially maximize human morality if morality is defined as such. Taking this position categorizes me as an “optimist” as identified by P.F. Strawson in his essay “Freedom and Resentment.” Strawson, however, thinks that as an optimist, I have missed the mark by discounting human emotionality, specifically regarding feelings like resentment even though at the end of his essay, he concedes that if one “radically…modif[ies] the view of the optimist, his opinion is the right one.”[i] Following his essay, however, I remain unconvinced that such a radical modification is necessary. I’ll try to present the strongest presentation of his position, and then attempt to clarify the position of the optimist that he slightly mischaracterizes.
Strawson begins by discussing how we calibrate our emotional responses derived from the actions of others based upon the mental state/capacity of others. He desires to emphasize individuals’ important attachment “to the attitudes and intentions towards…other human beings, and the great extent to which…personal feelings and reactions depend upon, or involve, …beliefs about those attitudes and intentions.”[ii] He fleshes out the import of this by explaining that we react to some instances of affront differently if the human committing the infraction is, in some way, mentally incapacitated, inept, or underdeveloped. Correctly, he contends that our emotional responses modulate based upon the amount of volition we perceive someone to possess related to specific moral infractions or benefits. Appropriately, individuals do not deserve feelings of resentment if they committed infractions involuntary, if they were mentally deficient or underdeveloped, or if they did so only by accident. He finds no fault in this general human exculpation.[iii] However, his concern lies with the extent to which the optimist desires to extend this same exculpation. He asks, “could or should, the acceptance of the determinist thesis lead us always to look on everyone exclusively in this way?” He responds to this in two ways. First, he says that humans lack the capacity fundamentally to view the world in such a way and that viewing it in that way would likely cause seriously harm interpersonal relationships[iv], and secondly, he says that it is not often the determinism thesis that we consider when we exculpate the individuals mentioned above[v]. I will attempt to respond to each of these objections in turn.
The answer to his first question is largely empirical, but there may be a few non-empirical points to make regarding it. As he describes resentment, he argues that it is deeply rooted in our interpersonal relationships and that it is “too thoroughgoing and deeply rooted for us to take seriously the thought that a general theoretical conviction might so change our world”[vi]. He further notes that “it is useless to ask whether it would not be rational for us to do what is not in our nature to (be able to) do.[vii]” Regarding what many consider to be serious moral infractions (e.g. murder, rape, pedophilia, etc.), people readily admit that our emotions should not direct responses to those moral violations and that responses to them should be regulated to unharmed, objective individuals. The possibility remains in light of any serious moral violation to discover exculpatory reasons like those mentioned above for the individual that could lead to a variety of responses. If, however, we fail to find any of the reasons noted above, courts often consider this person “free” and liable for the infraction in a way those with mental deficiencies or underdeveloped psyches are not. Consider the case of the Texas teenager who, afflicted with affluenza, killed several people while driving drunk. While some correctly argue that our court system contains biases and often favor the white and wealthy, that problem with our judicial system would not negate the possible merits of an affluenza argument. Consider the possibility that a judge could give an impoverished gang member convicted of killing another gang member a reduced sentenced based similar types of environmental factors. In truth, people often arbitrarily define the separation between morally liable actions and morally absolvable actions. A better practice might be to discover factors leading to the moral infraction and try and find measured, appropriate approaches to dealing with the issues individually.
But serious moral infractions are perhaps easier to deal with than minor personal infractions. Would viewing such violations negatively impact meaningful interpersonal relationships? While experimental empirical data would be difficult to measure, it seems as if it at least does not necessarily logically follow. Consider a strained relationship between a parent and child caused by the child feeling as if the parent fails to communicate in a meaningful way to the child. As the child ages, she realizes that the reason for this failure of communication is the strained relationship her parent had with his parent. While the child may want to hold onto resentment due to the parent’s perceived communication deficiencies, it may actually improve the relationship if the child begins to view the matter objectively and modulates her behavior accordingly. It does not seem like, in that case, objectively considering the issue would necessarily destroy the interpersonal connection, but instead, it might reinvigorate it. Recognizing that our fellow humans are not “free” in the way we once conceived of them does not necessarily lead to a destruction of interpersonal connections. Instead, it may serve to bridge gaps of which people could not prevent.
His second point may be easier to deal with than his first. In short, I think Strawson is just wrong when he asserts that the general thesis of determinism is not what is used to exculpate individuals in the cases he mentions. In fact, if one accepts the definition of freedom as defined by incompatibilists (libertarians and determinists alike), then it only requires the ability to have done otherwise. We exculpate individuals with mental deficiencies, with underdeveloped mental capacities, and those who commit infractions by accident because we think that they could not have done otherwise. The optimist that Strawson identifies merely believes that no one could have done otherwise; therefore, the optimist asserts that we ought to apply the same understanding of determinism to all people.
Most people, when they talk about freedom, talk about in the way that the libertarians and determinists speak about it. I’ll respond to compatibilist senses to free will in the second month of this study, but for now, I’ll just assert that a compatibilist would likely not agree with me with what I consider to be freedom. As far as this definition goes, it doesn’t seem like optimists need to “radically modify” their position. Being driven to consider matters of moral infraction objectively does not necessarily lead to a collapse in human relationships, and in fact, it likely opens us up to a furthering of understanding of the people with whom we share this planet.
Strawson, P. F. “Freedom and Resentment.” In Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays, 1-28. New York, NY: Routledge, 2008.
[i] (Strawson 2008, 27)
[ii] (Strawson 2008, 5)
[iii] (Strawson 2008, 7-11)
[iv] (Strawson 2008, 12)
[v] (Strawson 2008, 13-14)
[vi] (Strawson 2008, 12)
[vii] (Strawson 2008, 20)