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Apr 13, 2022

Pamela Hieronymi (UCLA)

Freedom, resentment and the metaphysics of morals 

An innovative reassessment of philosopher P. F. Strawson’s influential “Freedom and Resentment.”

P. F. Strawson was one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century, and his 1962 paper “Freedom and Resentment” is one of the most influential in modern moral philosophy, prompting responses across multiple disciplines, from psychology to sociology. In Freedom, Resentment, and the Metaphysics of Morals, Pamela Hieronymi closely reexamines Strawson’s paper and concludes that his argument has been underestimated and misunderstood.

Line by line, Hieronymi carefully untangles the complex strands of Strawson’s ideas. After elucidating his conception of moral responsibility and his division between “reactive” and “objective” responses to the actions and attitudes of others, Hieronymi turns to his central argument. Strawson argues that, because determinism is an entirely general thesis, true of everyone at all times, its truth does not undermine moral responsibility. Hieronymi finds the two common interpretations of this argument, “the simple Humean interpretation” and “the broadly Wittgensteinian interpretation,” both deficient. Drawing on Strawson’s wider work in logic, philosophy of language, and metaphysics, Hieronymi concludes that his argument rests on an implicit, and previously overlooked, metaphysics of morals, one grounded in Strawson’s “social naturalism.” In the final chapter, she defends this naturalistic picture against objections.

Rigorous, concise, and insightful, Freedom, Resentment, and the Metaphysics of Morals sheds new light on Strawson’s thinking and has profound implications for future work on free will, moral responsibility, and metaethics.

The book also features the complete text of Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment.”


August Baker: Welcome to the New Books Network. This is August Baker. Today I'm speaking with the American philosopher Pamela Hieronymi, who's professor of philosophy at UCLA, and we're talking about her Princeton University Press 2020 book, Freedom, Resentment, and the Metaphysics of Morals. It's part of a series that Princeton University Press has called Monographs in Philosophy, edited by Harry G Frankfurt. The description is short argument-driven books by leading philosophers. This book is short, 130 pages, 100 roughly from Professor Hieronymi and 30 of it is a reprint of Classic Article by someone named PF Strawson, his article Freedom and Resentment from 1962. You can see the title of her book is Freedom, Resentment, and the Metaphysics of Morals. The Freedom Resentment refers to this Strawson article. Professor Hieronymi has done a very close read of the crucial few pages in that article, line by line, paragraph by paragraph. One of the things that was said about this book is that it will from now on be essential as a reference for reading Strawson's paper. It would be difficult to think you could or would want to read Strawson's paper without looking through what she's done here.

Secondly, the other title of the other part of the title is and the Metaphysics of Morals. By that, I think what is meant is metaphysics of morals would be the underlying picture of morals. So that in the course of looking at Strawson's paper, she's looking at the underlying nature of what we're really doing when we hold each other morally responsible. For example, one Angela M. Smith said this book, this is an exciting and groundbreaking book that has the potential to reshape our understanding of the nature of morality and our practices of holding one another responsible. I'm very pleased to speak with Professor Hieronymi about her book. Welcome to New Books Network.

Pamela Hieronymi: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me here.

August: I have to say, set time every day or in the days that I had, I set aside time to read this book. I always really look forward to it. It has a sort of to take a classic philosophical article and go through it step by step. It's like being reading Plato or Aristotle, but without it being dated today. I really enjoyed it. Anyway, the basic question here that correct me if I'm wrong, professor, is basically on the one hand we hold people morally responsible. But on the other hand, when we learn that someone has a illness, say Charleston's example is schizophrenia, or they have a brain tumor that affected them, we naturally feel differently about them. It affects us the way we feel about whatever we thought they did that was morally illicit. On the other hand, we also all agree that we are, put on quote, determined, that is we take our genes and our environment and you get our behavior. So the question becomes why are we holding anyone responsible? Is that fair to say is the basic questions that's being addressed here?

Pamela: Yes. He's addressing the question of free will and moral responsibility as it appears in its contemporary garb, which is, as you say, a question about determinism and the possibility of freedom, or what he's in fact addressing is determinism and the possibility of moral responsibility. It's interesting that you say that most everyone agrees because in the philosophical community, there are a bunch of people who I think would not agree that we are space divides between those who are compatibles, who think that the truth of determinism is compatible with us being responsible and those who are incompatible who think that the truth of determinism is not compatible with us being responsible. Of the two, the incompatible position is the very natural one. When in my undergraduate class I put forward determinism as the claim that the movements of each macro physical object are determined by what has come before and which is in turn determined by what has come before so that given the complete description of the physical universe at one point in time, together with the laws of nature, you could, with enough computing power, deduce the complete description of the physical universe at any other point in time.

That picture seems to students very threatening to our freedom. It now seems to them that we are not free and it seems to them that it's no more sensible to hold any of us responsible than it would be sensible to hold the responsible person whose behavior we learned was determined by a tumor or by some other physical set of forces. That's the natural position to arrive at the first pass intuitive position is that if determinism is true, we couldn't be responsible. Peter Strawson really thinks that's a nonstarter given his background picture of the nature of moral responsibility, which as you said is what I'm using the word metaphysics to pick out the nature of a thing. That's a very surprising position that Strawson occupies to think that this very intuitive position is kind of a non-starter unearthing that underlying picture of the nature of what it is to be responsible that allows him to just dismiss this very natural challenge is the task of the book.

August: Before we get to Strawson's position, why is that? I mean, I could see it could be threatening in a way because it's so different than the way we think, but it also seems liberating in the sense that you might call radical acceptance is something you hear these days, radically accepting everyone that some people wouldn't find that threatening, they would find that re relieving.

Pamela: Maybe the way in which people find it threatening is that it seems to them that if the in future is already entirely fixed, given that the past is what it is, what happens people feel is no longer really up to them where they don't really make a difference. They start to feel.

August: I understand.

Pamela: this is what you're getting at, and I think it's correct, it's also the case that at least some of our moral intuitions seem to be predicated on the idea that we are free in a stronger sense and that if we aren't free in that stronger sense, then we don't deserve certain forms of punishment or harsh treatment. It's that realization that that sort of retributivists punishment may not be in place. But that I think from my point of view would be the kernel of truth and the relieved feeling you were suggesting. That there's something, I wouldn't characterize it as radical acceptance, given that I think a great deal of our moral practices remain in place, but I would characterize it giving much greater scope than we'd currently do to something I'd like to characterize as grace.

August: That sounds good. Now, I would like to just, if possible Strawson uses schizophrenia as an example, I was thinking another example that we could use think of it is what's called now borderline personality disorder, which would be someone who has a very volatile mood, very prone to anger, very prone to instability in relationships, going from idealization to complete devaluation. When you're dealing with such a person, once you realize that they have this diagnosis, you're going back and forth between getting irritated and then also thinking that the person, oh, wait a second, this is something the way they are determined. Do you think that's relevant to this discussion?

Pamela: Absolutely, yeah. It's going to be a case that I think sits right at the border in between cases that are clearly exculpatory and cases that we might think are cases of determined viciousness. One of the things that I didn't first find this attractive, but I've come to find attractive about the view is that Strawson's view I think makes that borderline difficult. I think maybe it is difficult and so I think it maybe it's the strength of the view that it reflects that difficulty.

August: Exactly, yes. Strawson starts off saying, let's move from punishment and moral condemnation to such things as gratitude, resentment, forgiveness, love, and hurt feelings. Let's keep before our minds what it's actually like to be involved in ordinary interpersonal relationships. It goes on to these distinctions if you could elaborate on reactive participant attitudes to objective attitudes and the so-called resource that we have.

Pamela: Yes. The way he makes his argument that the truth of determinism is irrelevant to the question of whether we would or should go on holding one another responsibility is to try to bring into focus as he puts it, what it's like to be involved in ordinary interpersonal relationships, which is to say he wants to identify what it is to be responsible, what it is to be a morally responsible person, or some as foster sometimes put it a morally responsible agent. He wants to identify that as being a term in certain sorts of interpersonal relationships being a part of certain sorts of relationships. He thinks that the fact that we're part of relationships in which we matter to one another in this distinctive way in which we're subject to these reactive attitudes, which I'll explain in a second, he thinks that's just a natural feature of humanity and not one that needs to be justified or not. So not one that stands unjustified if determinism is true.

But backing up, what does he mean by mattering to one another? What are these attitudes has been the main legacy of this paper, which has had a tremendous legacy, but it's made impact has been to bring into philosophical discussion this distinction between reactive attitudes and a more objective attitude. The reactive attitudes are responses we have to our perception of the quality of somebody's will towards us or other people. So roughly reactions we have in response to whether or not we or others have been respected or disregarded. These are things like resentment and indignation and distrust on the negative side or admiration and trust and gratitude on the positive side. They contrast with more objective attitudes.

For example, if I find that my car has a flat tire. I go try to drive to work and I find that my car has a flat tire because some nail I ran over a nail, I'll be frustrated, I might be somewhat angry, but if I find that somebody has slashed my tire, I will feel quite differently about it. If a board bears my weight when I need to cross some crevice, I might be relieved that the board held me up. If somebody supports me, I will be grateful. He points out this fact about us, which is extremely interesting, which is that we have a set of attitudes or a quasi-emotional responses that seem custom-made for our form of sociability and for our form of relating to other people as part of our society. They are attitudes that will in fact function to constitute a set of expectations that we hold one another to. He in fact identifies social expectations of respecting one another with our proneness to respond in these positive and negative ways when those expectations are violated or superseded. It's not that we all sit down and drop a set of moral laws and publish them. Instead, it's that we are in a system in which people react to us in this way, and being reacted to in these different ways is what holds those expectations in place.

August: So the emotions which we feel are natural, which come naturally to us, are reflecting or are the demands we're making on.

Pamela: It's the flip side of those demands. Yeah. So it's like they're two sides of one coin. So one side is we think, you know, you shouldn't lie, you shouldn't cheat, you shouldn't steal and the other side is we respond with indignation or resentment if you do those things. He's thinking that there is this moral and interpersonal framework of expectations and demands that is essential to our being social creatures who live in a society. Now, it's very important that what's natural is just that we have some or another system of these demands. The specific ones that are in existence in any particular culture that's not, not what he's interested in. He's not interested in the content. He's just interested in the general form that human sociability is such that we care about how we figure into other people's worlds. We have expectations and demands that other people will give us an hour due regard, and the manifestation of that is in this form of reactive attitudes that we have, that's the underlying metaphysic of morals in brief.

August: You say here it is not generally been noticed that Strawson is sketching in metaphysics of morals. One he paints by observing our actual practices in his style of descriptive metaphysics, which is an interesting term. Can you say a little bit more about that?

Pamela: I can say a little bit, yeah. In earlier, I think a couple of individuals...

August: Sixty-one, I think, yeah.

Pamela: Which is one of his very well-known books, individuals. He in the preface of that I think sketches what a distinction between what he calls revisionary and descriptive metaphysics. Then he starts categorizing philosophers as whether they're revisionary meta-physicians or whether they're descriptive metaphysics, where the meta-physician is again somebody who's trying to discern the nature of things that you would not discern just by doing experiments, and the visionary meta-physician is the one who pays less attention to how our actual thought and language and concepts and practices and just tries to make sensible framework, a sensible picture for us to inhabit.

August: Interesting.

Pamela: Whereas the descriptive one is the one who comes and my picture of this is like almost as an archeologist with his soft-bristled brush and tries to sweep away debris of conceptual clutter and dust that might have accumulated on our concepts and our ideas and unearth the actual form of our thought about something. Strawson sees himself as working in that second way.

August: So here I'm going to ask you a question, which it went over my head, and it may be impossible to answer in a podcast, but one of the things you said was Strawson here claims that a minimal morality is a condition on the existence of any social organization. Moreover, he thinks that the demands of such a system will be pretty regularly fulfilled. Then you say, we have here the ingredients for a transcendental argument moving from the existence of society to the satisfaction of the conditions required for it, the typical observance of a minimal set of rules. Then if you're really brave, there's a footnote, we can compare this to Donald Davidson and WVO Quine. I think I'm asking you too much, but is it possible to sketch an answer to that?

Pamela: No. I mean that's really the heart of the form of argument that he's after. A transcendental argument there, all that means in that sentence is it's an argument from the existence of something to the actuality of the conditions for its possibility. If something is actual, then whatever was required to make it for it to be possible must also be actual. Here he's saying there's certain minimal standards that have to be met for there to be a society. What are those? You can't have widespread deception, you can't have widespread killing, you can't have widespread theft. At a certain point, if there's too much of that, people will fend for themselves and not come together in the cooperative way required for there to be a society. That's pretty minimal. Right?

August: Right.

Pamela: But if you have a society at all, the thought is there's some minimal set of expectations that will be met and so you can make this transcendental argument from the fact that we do have a society to the fact that we do have some minimal set of expectations and they're generally satisfied and the comparison to Quine and Davidson, so Quine wanted us to think about the possibility of radical interpretation. The thought is you're parachuted down into a culture that you don't speak the language. How are you going to start to translate that language? The thought is, in order to do that, you have to assume that most of what's said is true.

August: I understand.

Pamela: If you didn't make that assumption, you wouldn't be able to translate. But from there you can get to the conclusion that speakers couldn't always be wrong.

August: Good.

Pamela: That's the argument that's being made. Strawson now thinking about the possibility of us being responsible, he's thinking of the threat of determinism as the threat of saying that instead of responding to one another with these participant reactive attitudes of resentment and indignation, that in light of the truth of determinism, we should instead opt for more objective attitudes of just frustration and disappointment, say the way we would react to a natural disaster. Though we do sometimes react to people like the schizophrenic as though they're in this more objective way, he thinks that we do that only, this is my argument and it's controversial, but I argue that the way to understand him is that he's saying that we do that only in the outlier cases, in those cases in which it's no longer possible to really interact with somebody in the usual way.

The range of humanity is wide, in the case of small children, in the case of advanced dementia, in the case of certain outlier cases, trying to interact with somebody in the usual, having the usual expectations, and demands and the usual responses to that becomes unworkable. In those cases, he thinks we move to the more objective attitude, but he's thinking that couldn't be the case all the time. It couldn't be the case that everyone's an outlier. It couldn't be the case that everyone's exceptional in the same way that it couldn't be the case that everything anybody says is false. So we already know, he thinks that for most of us, most of the time, this form of life is workable and all it needs to be is workable. There's no question of its legitimacy. As long as you're asking about the form itself, there might be questions of legitimacy about the particular demands we make of people, the particular ways we hold them responsible might be unreasonable. But engaging in some system like this, he thinks as long as it's workable, there's no problem with it and it's obviously workable, so there's no problem with it.

August: That's very clear and helpful. Let's back up a little bit because I think one of the interesting things about this article, and you say you remember reading it for the first time, he's rhetoric, which is he makes his central argument, which it sounds like it can't be true when he first makes it. As you say, it depends on outliers and who would think that a philosopher would be talking about outliers? There's a bit of the rhetoric of he surprises the reader because he knows the reader is thinking that he's missing something and then he says, you may think this, but if you're thinking this, you have no idea what he says. Could you take us through that, the central seemingly vaile argument and is rhetoric along that?

Pamela: Yes.

August: I was going to say, he says the participant attitude and personal reactive attitudes tend to give place and it is judged by the civilized should give place to objective attitudes insofar as the agent is seen as excluded from ordinary human relationships by abnormality. But it cannot be a consequence of any thesis which is not self-contradictory. That abnormality is the universal condition. That's so surprising.

Pamela: It's super surprising. He says this may seem altogether too facile and so in a sense, it is. Then he says, but whatever is overlooked and this dismissal is allowed for, and the only possibility that remains. Then he goes on. That was the paragraph that led me to think, I do not understand his argument here and I need to sit down and spend what ended up being a few years with it trying to unearth what would've led someone to write those sentences in that order. What were the assumptions in his head that allowed those sentences in that order to seem like the right thing to say? So the idea that it cannot be a consequence of any thesis that is not self-contradictory, that universality is that abnormality is the universal condition. That's just a fancy mid-century English way of saying it can't be the case that everyone's abnormal.

Then he earlier said that the only reason we exempt people is that they're abnormal. If it can't be the case that everyone's abnormal, then it can't be the case that we have reason to exempt everyone. That argument goes very quickly and it's overlooked by everybody because as you say, it relies on this idea that we exempt the abnormal and no ethicist is even going to see that claim that the basis for exemption is abnormality. That's just a nonstarter from the point of view of an ethicist because it opens up an objectionable form of relativism, which I try to deal with in the last chapter of the book. The challenge of the book, in a way, is to try to make sense of why Strawson thinks he can make this argument that quickly. I think once you see the underlying picture with which he's working according to which it's just part of our natural sociability that we just a fact about us, like the fact that we breathe air and live on land that we engage with one another in this way. Once you see that and accept his starting point, then I think the argument does come very quickly.

August: You point out that it depends on our capacities, right? If we had different capacities, we'd have different reactive emotions.

Pamela: Yes. This is one of the things that I think is one of the more interesting upshots of having spent so much time trying to work out what might be on this man's mind, is that the argument, the underlying picture has the feature, its the feature that allows them to avoid the bad consequence about determinism, that our expectations and demands are custom fit, so to speak, to whatever capacities we happen to have. So the way I illustrate this in the book is with a thought experiment. I start with the idea that as we are now, drunkenness often is grounds for either exemption or using the resource, we didn't talk about that, but that's a kind of version of exemption.

If you're out with your friends and for an occasional night on the town and somebody gets really drunk and says something mean, a lot of times we just say, they were drunk, whatever and we blow it off. If occasional use becomes regular abuse, we might then have to start to use our resource to work at keeping ourselves from reacting to that person in quite the same way. If we think of them as an alcoholic and as suffering from a disease, then we think of them as exempted in certain ways. We suspend our usual expectations for somebody who is drunk, just the ways I think that Strawson's framework would predict. But then I say the thought experiment is this, suppose that we all came naturally equipped with only that degree of attention, impulse control, and memory that we now have when we're pretty inebriated. In that circumstance, things might seem very similar to an outward observer because people would not respond to certain outbursts as though they were with resentment or indignation or what have you.

But in that circumstance, it wouldn't be because we were all always suspending our reactive attitudes. It would instead be that the expectations and demands had adjusted to fit our ordinary capacities. The picture that emerges, and this is one that I like a lot, I think is true, is that morality, moral expectations and demands are more like a hymn than they are like an opera. An opera you could write for your star performer, whereas a hym needs to be written for the B-minus congregant. The morality is one size fits all, and it's written in a way that captures most of us. It doesn't capture all of us, right? I'm a terrible singer and so I'm not going to be able to keep up with even the B minus hymns. But the hymns don't adjust to find me and my husband's a terrific singer, and the hymns don't adjust to show off his capacities, they're just made for most of us.

The thought here is that our ordinary interpersonal expectations and demands are similarly made for most of us and they can and will adjust to the capacities on the ground. There's ways in which that's very attractive because you can have subcultures and sub-societies in which say, in home for the memory impaired, you're going to have a different set of standards. Maybe in a juvenile detention center, you're going to have a different set of expectations.

August: In a nursing home.

Pamela: The expectations could also rise if as a culture we become more sensitive or more generous or what have you. It has a downside, and this is the relativism I meant to speak to earlier, which is that it doesn't seem that there is, in anything I've said so far, anything to stop those expectations and demands from finding the lowest common denominator. So in a situation in which people are, certain classes of people are very, it's just ordinary to treat them badly, it seems as though this picture, this metaphysics of morals is going to end up saying that that's okay. That's not a form of disrespect. The reason why this interpretation didn't occur to the ethics reading the paper is that, is that it's so obvious that this interpretation has an apparently devastating problem. Like I said, I try to give Strawson some resources to cope with it in the end.

August: In the last chapter, when you bring in ideas. I would love to talk about the last chapter, but since we're time-constrained, I was very interested in that. I think what you do, is you seem to defend Strawson, but then you also are playing chess against yourself. You're also thinking of the best possible argument against him and presenting one after the other, which is interesting. The resource, if I'm thinking about dealing with someone who has a borderline personality disorder, to me the resource is to find more specifically, but I shouldn't use the example of borderline personality disorder, but it's that moment where you think someone is normal, but you feel like you have some will where you can not go down that reactive path.

Pamela: You step away as Strawson puts it, sometimes to avoid the strains of involvement, or sometimes for curiosity, or sometimes because you're engaged in social policy making and you just have to accept as a fact that people are going to be crappy sometimes and think about how to handle that. The resource happens when you start treating a person as an issue, as we say. Like, oh him. Yeah, he's an issue.

August: Strawson has this central seemingly fast argument, and then we talk about our natural reaction is why statistics matter. He's concerned about whether the resource might be generalized. Is that...

Pamela: That's my interpretation, yeah.

August: Then goes into this social naturalism. I guess this might be the last question, but I thought it would be interesting for the listeners to hear about, I guess at the beginning you, you had a kind of human interpretation of Strawson's argument or Wittgenstein and you end up with this social naturalism, which is neither. Could you go through those?

Pamela: Yeah. In a way, we've already covered the ground for it. The article has been interpreted up till now, largely in one of two different ways. One is a broadly human way according to which Strawson's just saying that given the facts of our psychology, it's not possible for us to react to people any differently and so because it's not possible, we shouldn't worry about it. That's a very dissatisfying philosophically position. But he does say things in the paper that seem to say that the Wittgensteinian response is the one when we were talking about Quine and it's the idea that you can't criticize a practice as a whole using terms that rely for their meaning on the existence of that practice. Now that's a controversial claim, but the idea is rough, it makes no sense to claim that the game of baseball is foul in the sense that's constituted by the rules of baseball. Foul in that sense is something that makes sense within the game. You can't get outside of the game and apply it. The Wittgensteinian argument is saying that Strawson's accusing his opponent of making that sophisticated conceptual error.

August: That would be the question of whether it would be moral to suspend our reactive attitudes.

Pamela: It would be the question of whether it would be just for us to continue in morality. The thought would be questions of justice or questions within morality, just like questions of being foul or within baseball.

August: Got you.

Pamela: In the same way it makes no sense to ask whether the game itself is fair or foul, so it makes no sense to ask whether morality itself is just or unjust. That's closer to the interpretation that I think I end up with. But in a much later set of lectures, lectures given, I think in the 80s, Strawson himself goes through Fume and Wittgenstein and puts forward his view which he calls social naturalism, which he contrasts with both human Wittgenstein, but then tries to set out his own picture, which is roughly that there are certain aspects of our existence that are not up for questions of justification. They're natural facts of our existence. They set the terms for the questions of justification that we can ask within them.

One of the examples he likes to use is the case of induction, the case of believing that the future will be like the past. Hume famously pointed out that we can't justify the principle, and believe that the future will be like the past because it seems as though the only reason to do that is because the future has been like the past. Things have been the way they have gone before, but that's question. Strawson's thinking that there are certain facts about us that we need to accept as setting the terms or the framework within which we can then ask questions of justification. But Wittgenstein, thinks that those could change. It's not the case that Hume thought they were just a few things and they were given to us. Wittgenstein thought no, they're socially given and they can evolve historically, but that doesn't mean that we can, so to speak, leap outside of them and question them. That's a rough overview. This is the topic that I feel like I have the least firm grip on and it's what I'm now really most interested in.

August: Oh, interesting.

Pamela: But that's the rough idea.

August: Well, I said those are my last two. I have so many more questions, but it's a very great read. It's like going back in time and thinking about these basic principles. Congratulations on this great book and I really appreciate you talking with us today.

Pamela: Thank you so much. I'm so pleased that you enjoyed it. It's a very close read, so I'm glad that it worked out for you.

August: Thanks.