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Strawson on freedom and resentment


To: Anthony L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Strawson on freedom and resentment
Date: 22 December 2006 13:04

Dear Tony,

Thank you for your email of 19 December, with your University of London essay in response to the question, 'According to Strawson, what can make it inappropriate to feel resentment towards someone? Is he right to think that belief in determinism would not make it inappropriate?

This is my last response letter before the holidays, and frankly my immediate reaction was, 'my brain hurts'. I don't know if Strawson's theory covers that. Not that I'm in any way resentful and being presented with such a challenging essay. But the point is that the aim of this email is to engage with your argument. How is engaging with someone's argument different from reacting in a determinist way? I hope you can see the relevance here.

In other words, an analogous argument to the one Strawson puts forward can be developed in relation to philosophical discourse. I can engage with your argument. Or I can assume that you are not thinking rationally or are merely exhibiting the symptoms of some kind of brainwashing, and find the best way to 'deal' with you. Interestingly, I don't recall any philosopher arguing that determinism shows that philosophical criticism is not rationally justified! (Richard Dawkins comes close with his theory of memes, but then he's not a 'philosopher'. Then of course there's Marx...)

Regarding your question about preparation, my advice would be to dive into the journals and online discussions or any books that come your way and enjoy the extra time for reading and thinking. Maybe start a philosophical notebook. Don't allow yourself to get stale. Don't let concern over performance in the exam tempt you into overly narrowing your focus. You have a good chance of getting an excellent mark, but on the day there's always an element of luck.

If you're someone who gets nervous in exams then by all means do some practice essays. I never did.


Regarding the wording of the question, I wonder whether you shouldn't have given more space to developing the cases where resentment is inappropriate (section 2). Is it really so easy to distinguish the two broad classes of case, the one's were resentment just 'is' appropriate and the ones where it just 'isn't'? How does this work? Take the example of someone who is under 'massive emotional strain'. Isn't that precisely where we have to make an extra effort to 'meet' them on a personal level rather than merely 'dealing' with them?

Someone bumps into me by accident in the pub and spills beer on my new shirt. I will make it known in no uncertain terms that the offending individual owes me an apology even if he or she is completely innocent of carelessness (say, they were pushed by someone else). So, here too, the distinction doesn't quite seem to work.

Strawson's account is powerful and subtle. But I would also argue that something vital is missing from Strawson's theory. This is the need to explain the rationality of 'arguing' against something that someone has already done. How can it make sense to say, 'You shouldn't have done that', and go on to explain why, given that we accept that at no point does determinism allow any real possibility the considerations that we put forward might have been taken into account? In other words, we don't just 'feel' something, a sense of resentment or offence, we put a case. What exactly are we doing?

I do think that you are overly hard on Strawson. For example, you accuse him of 'mixing up' factual judgements and value judgements, in talking of cases where resentment doesn't 'fit' (I'm trying to find a neutral term). There's no mystery about how you can derive value statements about reactive attitudes from factual statements about reactive attitudes, if we assume as Strawson does that things are as they ought to be. We do (in fact) deal with one another on an interpersonal level, although there is always the permanent possibility of choosing not to do so. Strawson believes that something is lost (value) whenever we give up interpersonal discourse and make do with 'dealing' with someone.

However, there is room for raising the question whether we should be less resentful than we are, as some philosophers (notably Spinoza) have advocated. Perhaps you wanted to say this, that in assuming that things are as they should, Strawson has neglected the possibility of something better, rather than worse, than 'interpersonal discourse' as he describes it.

I don't think Strawson is confused in his claim that people to whom we take the objective attitude are 'abnormal'. There is no inconsistency in asserting that the majority of cases are 'abnormal' (supposing that CJD becomes rampant) in the same way that had the secret Nazi counterfeiting plan worked, the majority of British bank notes would have been forgeries. It could even happen that as a result of the epidemic you are the only 'normal' person left in the world: a nice subject for a science fiction story.

All the best to you and yours for 2007!