Peter F. Strawson
Peter Strawson said he could make no sense of ideas like free will and determinism. In this regard he was one with those English-speaking philosophers who, following Ludwig Wittgenstein, thought such questions were pseudo-problems to be dissolved by careful attention to actual language use.
Strawson made a contribution to the free will versus determinism discussions by pointing out that whatever the deep metaphysical truth on these issues, people would not give up talking about and feeling moral responsibility, praise and blame, guilt and pride, crime and punishment, gratitude, resentment, and forgiveness.
These moral attitudes were for him more real than whether they could be explained by fruitless disputes about free will, compatibilism, and determinism. They were "facts" of our natural human commitment to ordinary inter-personal attitudes. He said it was "a pity that talk of the moral sentiments has fallen out of favour," since such talk was "the only possibility of reconciling these disputants to each other and the facts."
Strawson himself was optimistic that compatibilism could reconcile determinism with moral obligation and responsibility. He accepted the facts of determinism. He felt that determinism was true. But he was concerned to salvage the reality of our attitudes even for libertarians, whom he described as pessimists about determinism.
"What I have called the participant reactive attitudes are essentially natural human reactions to the good or ill will or indifference of others towards us, as displayed in their attitudes and actions. The question we have to ask is: What effect would, or should, the acceptance of the truth of a general thesis of determinism have upon these reactive attitudes? More specifically, would, or should, the acceptance of the truth of the thesis lead to the decay or the repudiation of all such attitudes? Would, or should, it mean the end of gratitude, resentment, and forgiveness; of all reciprocated adult loves; of all the essentially personal antagonisms?" But how can I answer, or even pose, this question without knowing exactly what the thesis of determinism is? Well, there is one thing we do know; that if there is a coherent thesis of determinism, then there must be a sense of ‘determined’ such that, if that thesis is true, then all behaviour whatever is determined in that sense. Remembering this, we can consider at least what possibilities lie formally open; and then perhaps we shall see that the question can be answered without knowing exactly what the thesis of determinism is."
Strawson felt that the truth of determinism would in no way repudiate such attitudes, even the feeling of resentment, unless what he called "participant" attitudes were universally replaced by "objective" attitudes in which causes are found to rationalize or excuse all actions as determined, denying ordinary human relationships. This was of course the basic argument of behaviorism, which involves, says Strawson, "that sense of ‘determined’ in which, if determinism is a possibly true thesis, all behaviour may be determined, and in which, if it is a true thesis, all behaviour is determined."
"Our question reduces to this: could, or should, the acceptance of the determinist thesis lead us always to look on everyone exclusively in this way? For this is the only condition worth considering under which the acceptance of determinism could lead to the decay or repudiation of participant reactive attitudes. The human commitment to participation in ordinary inter-personal relationships is, I think, too thoroughgoing and deeply rooted for us to take seriously the thought that a general theoretical conviction might so change our world that, in it, there were no longer any such things as inter-personal relationships as we normally understand them; and being involved in inter-personal relationships as we normally understand them precisely is being exposed to the range of reactive attitudes and feelings that is in question. A sustained objectivity of inter-personal attitude, and the human isolation which that would entail, does not seem to be something of which human beings would be capable, even if some general truth [i.e., determinism] were a theoretical ground for it. So my answer has two parts. The first is that we cannot, as we are, seriously envisage ourselves adopting a thoroughgoing objectivity of attitude to others as a result of theoretical conviction of the truth of determinism; and the second is that when we do in fact adopt such an attitude in a particular case, our doing so is not the consequence of a theoretical conviction which might be expressed as ‘Determinism in this case’, but is a consequence of our abandoning, for different reasons in different cases, the ordinary inter-personal attitudes."
Strawson's arguments are designed to preserve important moral concepts in the face of determinism, which he basically accepts, and free will, which he finds incoherent. But he sees there are problems with his defense, however heartfelt.
"It might be said that all this leaves the real question unanswered, and that we cannot hope to answer it without knowing exactly what the thesis of determinism is. For the real question is not a question about what we actually do, or why we do it. It is not even a question about what we would in fact do if a certain theoretical conviction gained general acceptance. It is a question about what it would be rational to do if determinism were true, a question about the rational justification of ordinary inter-personal attitudes in general. To this I shall reply, first, that...our natural human commitment to ordinary inter-personal attitudes...is part of the general framework of human life, not something that can come up for review as particular cases can come up for review within this general framework. And I shall reply, second, that if we could imagine what we cannot have, viz, a choice in this matter [note the determinist Strawson], then we could choose rationally only in the light of an assessment of the gains and losses to human life, its enrichment or impoverishment; and the truth or falsity of a general thesis of determinism would not bear on the rationality of this choice."
Strawson is disdainful and dismissive of the libertarian's "inane...general metaphysical proposition."
"This proposition [the libertarian] finds it as difficult to state coherently and with intelligible relevance as its determinist contradictory. Even when a formula has been found (‘contra-causal freedom’ or something of the kind) there still seems to remain a gap between its applicability in particular cases and its supposed moral consequences. Sometimes he plugs this gap with an intuition of fittingness — a pitiful intellectualist trinket for a philosopher to wear as a charm against the recognition of his own humanity."
In the end, Strawson defends the determinist as right, the libertarian as resorting to "panicky metaphysics." Strawson's position that attitudes are existent real facts is sometimes described as "attitudinism."
"If we sufficiently, that is radically, modify the view of the optimist [determinist], his view is the right one. It is far from wrong to emphasize the efficacy of all those practices which express or manifest our moral attitudes, in regulating behaviour in ways considered desirable; or to add that when certain of our beliefs about the efficacy of some of these practices turn out to be false, then we may have good reason for dropping or modifying those practices. What is wrong is to forget that these practices, and their reception, the reactions to them, really are expressions of our moral attitudes and not merely devices we calculatingly employ for regulative purposes. Our practices do not merely exploit our natures, they express them. Indeed the very understanding of the kind of efficacy these expressions of our attitudes have turns on our remembering this. When we do remember this, and modify the optimist’s position accordingly, we simultaneously correct its conceptual deficiencies and ward off the dangers it seems to entail, without recourse to the obscure and panicky metaphysics of [pessimistic] libertarianism."