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Theoretical Ethics

Moral Sentiments and Determinism

Antonio Trajano Arruda
UNESP Paulista State University

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ABSTRACT: P. F. Strawson’s essay "Freedom and Resentment" was a landmark in the study of determinism, free-will, and morality. It contributed a much-needed correction to the problem of overintellectualization as found in twentieth-century compatibilist literature. Although most of the central claims in Strawson’s essay are important and true, it fails to fill the lacuna in the analysis, discussion and proposals of traditional compatibilism. The reasons may be summarized as follows. The web of moral demands, feelings and participant attitudes comprises a set of facts within human social life which must be investigated in order to understand the relation (or lack thereof) between determinism and morality. If the facts themselves fill the gap, then it must be some adequate and coherent understanding of them. According to Strawson, the incompatibilist has an understandable dissatisfaction with his opponent’s account because, among other things, the latter fails to deal with the condition of desert and of the justice of moral condemnation and punishment. However, the theory of "Freedom and Resentment" fails equally on this point. What is now needed is a combination of factual study with ethical inquiry. The former would draw on the results of social psychology, the psychology of moral development, the social sciences of morals, and (philosophical) moral psychology.

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In the light of a well-known distinction between participant moral attitudes and objective ones, the traditional issue of free will and morality is rephrased, in P.F.Strawson’s ‘Freedom and Resentment’ (henceforth FR), as follows: Could, or should, determinism lead us always to look on everyone exclusively in the objective way? The negative answer is defended and is supported by the following claims: (1) Man has a ‘thoroughgoing and deep-rooted commitment to the dimension of moral feelings and participant attitudes, which is an essential part of human social nature and cannot therefore be given up;(2) When we suspend non-detached attitudes in the particular cases in which we do, it is not because we think that determinism holds in those cases; (3)If we had a choice between abandoning or retaining the dimension of participation, the rational choice would be made in the light of the (practical) criterion of the gains and losses to human life. Consequently, (4) The question of whether it would be rational for us to give up participant attitudes is not a ‘real’ (p.l3 of Strawson l974) question; it is ‘useless’(p.l8) to raise it; the question becomes real only if we imagine we have a choice in this matter, but then the question would be a practical, and not a theoretical, one.

Another central view of FR is that previous compatibilist accounts, with their one-sided restriction to considerations of social policy, control, and treatment, leaves aside the area of moral feelings and participant attitudes which is, nevertheless, part of our practices of moral condemnation and of punishment. In particular, those considerations do not deal with the requirement of the justice of the punishment. That would be the lacuna in traditional compatibilism. Strawson intends to fill this gap by pointing to the compatibilist’s failure to take the above practices for what they are, i.e. expressions of participant moral attitudes that are not to be identified with, or reduced to, considerations of policy and control. Broadly considered, FR’s strategy consists in changing the general context of the debate; specifically, in moving away from the level of theoretical discourse — where questions of justification arise in connection with statements and concepts — to the level of moral feelings and reactions.


Strawson’s criticism of previous compatibilism is, of course, warranted, though not exactly in the way he puts it. The criticism correctly applies to most, or nearly all, of the contemporary compatibilist literature of the time, but it would be wrong to extend it to all of it. In particular, it appears not to be correct of precisely one of the compatibilist philosophers mentioned by Strawson, namely, Moritz Schlick. It may be worth remarking on this.

The following statement opens section 6, "The consciousness of responsibility", of the chapter on responsibility in Schlick’s Problems of Ethics: ‘...much more important than the question of when a man is said to be responsible is that of when he himself feels responsible. Our whole treatment would be untenable if it gave no explanation of this’(p. l54 of Schlick l939). The feelings of responsibility in question are understood, as the second paragraph of the section makes it clear, as ‘feelings of guilt and regret’. Consider also : ‘Because of [the feeling of responsibility] I willingly suffer blame for my behavior or reproach myself...’(p. l55); note that the sentence covers other people’s reactive attitudes of blame towards the agent as well as self-reactive attitudes of the agent. So, it is not the case that this particular compatibilist treatment leaves aside moral reactive attitudes and associated feelings.

Consider also the following sentence from the same section: "It is a fact of experience that, in general, the person blamed or condemned is conscious of the fact that he was ‘rightly’ taken to account’(p. l54). This statement, together with the one in my second quotation from Schlick, strongly ressemble the following thought expressed in a crucial paragraph of FR:’...the self-reactive attitudes are associated with a readiness on the part of the offender to acquiesce in [the infliction of suffering on him] without developing the reactions (e.g. resentment) which he would normally develop to the infliction of injury upon him; i.e. with a readiness, as we say, to accept punishment as ‘his due’ or ‘as just’(p.22). Coincidentally, Schlick’s inverted commas in ‘rightly’ parallel Strawson’s in ‘his due’ and ‘as just’.)

FR invites us to look into the web of feelings and participant attitudes. But this is precisely one of the things Schlick does when he makes the above assertions and, moreover, when he claims that feelings of responsibility and guilt are such that when we look into them we do not find any belief in a ‘contra-causal’ freedom.(See p. 155)

It is unfortunate that we had to wait twenty-three years — from l939, when the English translation of Fragen der Ethik was first published, to l962, the date of the appearance of FR — for the right sort of approach to be embraced again. Twenty-three long years mostly of rather unsatisfactory compatibilist literature.

FR’s criticism is, of course, true of mainstream compatibilism, characterized by a crude and ‘one-eyed utilitarianism’(p.23), with its exclusive appeal to the ideas of efficacy, policy, control. The compatibilist Strawson talks about — one ‘whose picture is painted in the way that is appropriate only to objectivity of attitude’ — offers a rather limited analysis of the issue. Strawson’s own version of compatibilism is described by himself as a radical modification of previous compatibilism (See p. 25). But, in view of the lessons from Schlick, we see that it is radical only with respect to the then dominant version of it.


Let us now turn to the question of whether FR has succeeded in ‘filling in the lacuna which the pessimist finds in the optmist’s account of the concept of moral responsibility, and of the basis of moral condemnation and punishment’’ (p.20).

There are a number of strong and important claims in FR which for most, or all, of us are true. Among them, the point about the centrality to human social life of the web of moral sentiments and participant attitudes, and our inescapable commitment to it. These are strong and illuminating points. Also, there are the pertinent considerations — the ‘particular’ arguments — concerning the reasons why we adopt objectivity of attitude in various situations, including the interesting points about the moral education of children and the treatment of neurotic patients. Another central claim, and one that is more illuminating than it may at first sight appear, asserts that the attitudes of expressing hostile moral feelings ‘are precisely the correlates of the moral demand in the case where the demand is felt to be disregarded. The making of the demand is the proneness to such attitudes’.(p.22)

One of the reasons of the fruitfulness of Strawson’s treatment lies in his sensitivity to the demands of incompatibism, or, perhaps more exactly, to the difficulties of the problem. Underestimating the weight of the latter — as had been done before FR and has been done even after its publication( e.g., in D.Davidson’s ‘Freedom to act’, last sentence in the first paragraph, in Honderich,l9 ) — only irritates the contrary opinion and encourages it towards hopeless solutions, thereby doing no service to the successful carrying out of the compatibilist program. FR has corrected an overintellectualized line of treatment that dominated 20th century debate on the issue in English-speaking countries and considerably impoverished it and the solutions put forward by compatibilists.

Those are the parts in Strawson’s account where the compabitilist position is given a support that is new and to some extent adequate and acceptable as far as it goes. But the question has been, of course, How far does it go?


Strawson does not discuss the general question — he himself says he is not going to — of why we react, and why should we go on reacting, in the distinctively participant way in which we do, of why we adopt the non-detached attitudes in the cases we do. And yet, even within the terms in which the traditional issue is re-phrased in FR, this is the important area in which, in a spirit of justification or of questioning justifications, both the incompatibilist, either as a determinism or as an indeterminist, and the compatibilist tend to place themselves in order to deal with the points at issue. The elucidation of all the relevant factual beliefs involved in such things as blame, reproach, gratitude, forgiveness and others is, and should be, the main task of the philosopher in this area.

Secondly, let us look at the way FR pictures the incompatibilist’s understandable dissatisfaction with his opponent’s account : one crucial point for the former would be that the requirement of desert, or of the justice, of the punishment or of the moral condemnation is not fulfilled by the compatibilist’s account (S.p.3 and 4). But despite his picturing the lacuna in the compatibilist’s account in terms of justice and desert, he does not try to show how his own account deals with these issues. The ‘pessimist’ will not be inclined to give up his complaint on these points merely on account of FR’s claims. The latter’s way of filling the gap leaves this important particular gap untouched.

A third point. There is an element in the determinism-based challenge to the meaningfulness of morality that is not properly dealt with in FR’s arguments. Even if the incompatibilist accepts that moral sentiments cannot be given up, he will probably continue to have the feeling that, if determinism is the case, then we should not after all have and manifest these sentiments, and he would then conclude that human beings carry within themselves a conflict, and a rather unconfortable one, between thought and practice, a conflict which would hence attest to a certain mesure of inescapable irrationality in man.

By claiming that moral sentiments are valuable and central to human nature, and that therefore will not be given up, Strawson directs his general effort towards dismissing the question at issue rather than solving it. Now, one need not be in principle against dismissals as a form of solution. But FR’s particular dismissal looks unsatisfactory: we cannot pretend to have substantiate the claim that ‘it is just the attitudes which fill the gap’ merely by pointing to the impossibility, and/or undesirability, of abandoning the moral attitudes supposed to be part of human nature; we have rather to show that each one of the relevant factual beliefs associated with these attitudes is not, or does not seem to be, in conflict with the truth of determinism.

The claim about the place of moral sentiments and attitudes in our human social life, when properly understood, is not, in itself, an argument for reconciliation. It is indeed a powerful certainty that all, or most, of us share, which is something that should give confidence in the success of a compatibilist program. But in the interests of such a program, it should not be presented as a reason, of whatever kind. In fact, its full acceptance does not entail the compatibilist solution to the issue of determinism and morality: I may fully agree with the thesis and go on maintaining that determinism, if true, would destroy (the) morality (we know).

To be sure, Strawson, taking up the subject later (See Strawson l985), says he is not advancing his views as an argument against the moral skeptic. His position is presented as a dismissal of the issue, as a way of trying to bring the opposing parties to a position where they will cease to try to do the misguided task of refuting one another’s arguments. For, he argues, there is no truth of the matter to be found: both the optismist’s and skeptic’ views are to be relativized to different standpoints, neither of which is the correct one, and both of which are susceptible of being legitimately adopted. I shall not include here a discussion of this elaboration of FR’ views.

The incompatibilist need not deny that the commitment is inescapable; that the attitudes are the correlates of the demands; that the demand is the proneness to experience moral feelings and to manifest the corresponding attitudes; that the whole web of demands, feelings and reactions is an essential part of the moral life as we know it; that the practices of punishment ‘express’ our natures rather than merely ‘exploiting’ them. But he may understandably contends that the truth of determimsm does seem to make the moral dimension of social life strange, hardly justifiable and compreehensible.

The ‘thoroughgoing and deep-rooted commitment to participation’ should make us inclined to believe that no truth will ever threaten it. Indeed, the commitment thesis is a powerful reason for being confident in the possibility of a rational compatibilist understanding and acceptance of the web of feelings and attitudes. But that is not, exactly, the use Strawson makes of the commitment: he seems to be content with our incapacity (or with our unwillingness, in case we had a choice in the matter) to forswear it. But as long as we take in interest in the issue, we will see the object of the whole inquiry as that of finding an articulate an acceptable justificatory or explanatory understanding of morality which is not undermined by determinism.

Another possible defect of FR’s theory: it gives no encouragement at all to pursuing the topic of determinism itself in the context of the debate on free will and morality. The specific content of the thesis of determinism is totally ignored in FR: all the arguments could be re-written with no mention of determinism, and mere mention of ‘some general theoretical truth about human beings’. This latter point is not, in itself, a criticism of FR, but it may be that knowledge of determinism, which if of course something that no one can claim to have so far, would help clarify the issue of its relation, or lack of relation, to morality.


"It is a pity that talk of moral sentiments has fallen out of fashion", wrote Strawson in his essay. The year was, as we all know, 1962. Since then things have fortunately changed for the better, and it is to be presumed that FR has greatly contributed to the change. It is a tribute to FR that such topics as fogiveness, gratitude, resentment and other topics within the now thriving area of (philosophical) moral psychology,which were unfashionable at the time FR was published, have since then been the object of so much attention by philosophers in the English-speaking countries.

FR has vividly and eloquently pointed to the area to which we should direct our attention in order to find the elements to fill the lacuna in the compabilism doctrine.It seems that its contribution is much greater indeed in the above way than in actually ‘filling the gap’, or in carrying out the compatibilist program based on the moral sentiments approach. Its great merit was that of pointing to a whole road that remains to be explored by way of constructing a (compatibilist) theory that proves strong enough to do away with the threat of determnism. The actual detailed exploration, however, remains to be made. The excitement caused by FR may well reside in just the promise and challenge of such an exploration.

Strawson maintains that the practices of punishment ‘express or manifest moral attitudes"(p.25), so that their expressive function is an essential part of them. Well, attitudes in turn are rightly looked on as expressing certain feelings of which we are capable and to the experiencing of which we are liable on various occasions. Therefore, one area that must be looked into with great care and curiosity is that of the moral feelings themselves. They comprise, in a way, the most important part of the whole story, since the overt attitudes are ‘merely’ the manifestation of them. The study seems to boil down, to a significant extent, to a study of the source, place, and nature of these feelings.

But the feelings themselves appear to depend on the institution of demands of consideration, respect, and good-will. We cannot therefore avoid the investigation into this aspect also. The correct general strategy is indeed the one that is adopted in FR, namely, that of filling the lacuna in question, and to try to fill it in ‘from the facts’. The implication, it is worth stressing, is that we start off with this end in view and not with some other. But, as indicated before, it cannot be the facts themselves that fill the gap; it has to be an articulated and comprehensible understanding of them, one that comprises the answers to various questions that have to be raised in connection with demands, feelings and attitudes,and with their relations to one another.

Strawson’s sensitivity to the incompatibilist’s dissatisfaction made him advance well beyond the point where previous compatibilism had left us. What is needed now, in order to make further progress, is to let ourselves be even more sensitive to the difficulties of the problem, and make a serious effort to carry out the program that may be seen as suggested and delineated in FR.

Assertions to the effect that people are responsible for the good and the bad they do, that they are capable of choosing, that it is sometimes just to punish or to reward them, that they deserve one thing or another; all that does indeed seem rather closely connected with the experiencing of moral feelings and the manifesting of them.The connection appears to so strong that it is plausible that assertions of the above kind, as well as the concepts that figure in them, can only be understood within the web of demands,feelings and attitudes. Even a possible ‘policy view’ of moral condemnation within the non-legal area of transactions between people at the level of interpersonal relationships, cannot dispense with feelings, since its expected efficacy would be dependent upon its being to a good extent a genuine emotional reaction. Emotion is part of the reality of blame at that level.

We would have to look for answers to such questions as these: (a) Why people are so prone to experiencing these feelings in the first place, and so inclined to express them in the corresponding attitudes? (b) What are the exact connections between, on the one hand, those feelings and attitudes, and the moral demands on the other? (c)Why the attitudes have in most cases the useful consequences they have, wherein does their efficacy lie and why their capacity to lead to useful results depends upon facts about constraints? Besides these factual questions,which may be grouped under the head of the socio-psychology of moral conduct, there are the questions falling under the ethics of moral (participant) attitudes: e.g. when and to what extent are we justified in manifesting one or other attitude with such and such emotional intensity. Broadly speaking, the factual study, together with the ethical inquiry, would amount to a comprehensive theory of moral conduct, to be developed with a certain end in view, which is that of examining the relation of morality to determinism; the selection of the questions itself should be oriented by the fact that we have that end in view.

The idea, then, would be that of an interdisciplinary approach, in which the philosophical issue would be tackled with the help of a social-psychological study of moral conduct that will be able to shed light on the web of demands, feelings and attitudes at the level of interpersonal relationships, and in addition a study of the way the results of that inquiry relate to institutionalized punishment. This means bringing in the ressources of social psychology, the psychology of the moral development of children, the theory of legal punishment, and the sociology and anthropology of morality. As far as the latter is concerned, that would amount to a sort of revival of the late l9th Century and early 20th Century studies in the social sciences of morals.

In an age of multidisciplinary studies such as ours, FR may retrospectively be looked on by present-day students of our philosophical problem as containing an ‘ahead-of-its-time’ invitation, and an especially attractive one, for the philosopher to embark on such a multidisciplinary enterprise.

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Honderich, T. (Ed.), Essays on Freedom of Action, Routledge and Kegan Paul, l973.

Schlick, M., Problems of Ethics , Dover Publications, N.York, l939.

Strawson, P.F., ‘Freedom and Resentment’ in Freedom and Resentment and other Essays, Methuen, l974

——— Skepticism and Naturalism: some varieties, Columbia University Press, l985.

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