The Strawsonian Theory of Moral Responsibility

This post will discuss Strawson’s theory of moral responsibility. It will highlight how the theory has been challenged and then argue how the Strawsonian theory is underdeveloped and not as coherent as it initially seems.


Strawson’s theory on moral responsibility outlined in “Freedom and Resentment”, focuses on the fact that he associated moral responsibility with the deployment of “reactive attitudes” and also that he articulated a specific approach in which determinism and moral responsibility could be compatible.

Strawson sets out to reconcile the on-going dispute between incompatibilists, referred to as “pessimists”, who hold a merit-based view of responsibility and compatibilists, referred to as “optimists”, who hold a consequential view of responsibility. According to Strawson both of these views are misguided and in order to find out what is missing from both accounts we need to radically change our philosophical approach. This is what Strawson refers to as the “naturalistic turn”. Strawson takes a more in depth look into what actually happens when we hold a person morally responsible and turns away from theoretical concerns about the analysis of “responsibility” and “freedom”. His methodology depends more on a descriptive account of human moral psychology and less on theoretical analysis (Strawson, 1962).

Strawson attempts to shed new light on the debate by suggesting that there are certain “reactive attitudes” that are an essential part of the “framework” of life. He argues that responsibility should in fact be understood in terms of these reactive attitudes and their associated practises rather than assuming that holding a person responsible for his or her actions rests upon a theoretical judgement of their being responsible. Reactive attitudes, Strawson states, are not susceptible to reason or rational judgement but rather are based on observation and the subsequent feelings or attitudes which follow that observation. He maintains that the reactive attitudes are merely a natural part of life and hold a vital role in the interpersonal nature of our way of life (Strawson, 1962).

The attitudes expressed in holding persons morally responsible, according to Strawson, are of a wide variety and derive from our participation in personal relationships. Some examples of these attitudes include resentment, anger, disgust, gratitude, happiness and guilt. Strawson’s compatibilism is merit-based compatibilism in which reactive attitudes are based on the perception of a person’s good will. The purpose of these attitudes, Strawson argues, is to highlight how much we care, or how much it matters to us whether the actions of others reflect, on the one hand, attitudes of good will or affection towards us or, on the other hand, malevolence or contempt (Strawson, 1962).

Thus, these attitudes can be described as participant reactive attitudes as they are considered the natural reactions of persons to the perception of another person’s will; be it good will, ill-will or indifference. Also because they are conveyed from the position of a person who engages in interpersonal relationships and who regards those to be held responsible as a participant in such relationships also. The reactive attitudes that each person has are constitutive to it even being a personal relationship (Strawson, 1962).

Although Strawson emphasises the importance of the reactive attitudes in the application of moral responsibility, he states that there are some instances where the reactive attitudes can be modified or suspended.

Firstly, one may conclude, that perhaps the offender did not, in fact, violate the demand for a reasonable degree of good will contrary to the initial perception of the action or event which took place. In this case there is no change in our attitudes towards the person but rather towards what they did, our reaction becomes action-directed. A person’s actions may be excused if something was deemed to be accidental or the so-called offender’s behaviour could be viewed as justified if that person was pursuing a greater good, for example in the case of an emergency. Thus, Strawson would say that we cannot hold these persons morally responsible due to the fact that they have not reflected a poor “quality of will” (Strawson, 1962).

Secondly, in certain circumstances one may abandon the participant perspective in relation to the person in question and instead adopt an objective viewpoint. In such cases as these the individual is regarded as incapable of participating in interpersonal relationships whether for a short period of time or permanently.  For one to possess the ability to be regarded as morally responsible, Strawson’s theory suggests, one must have the capacity to fit into the social practises, in this case the interpersonal relationships, which govern the deployment of the reactive attitudes, and if one is incapable of doing so then one cannot be regarded as morally responsible. The individual, thus, is regarded as morally or psychologically abnormal or underdeveloped. The application of an objective perspective is associated with very young children and also those who are suffering from a severe mental illness (Strawson, 1962).

Strawson, throughout “Freedom and Resentment”, also questions what kind of influence the truth of the thesis of determinism would have on our personal “reactive attitudes”, if any at all. Although he does not define exactly what he means by the thesis of determinism, it is apparent that determinism is part of a thoroughly objective account of the world and therefore requires one to adopt an entirely objective attitude to all events or actions that take place. Strawson questions whether an acceptance of the thesis of determinism could lead to the repudiation of our reactive attitudes (Strawson, 1962)

Strawson suggests, as stated previously, that reactive attitudes are central to our interpersonal relationships and are the basis for holding persons morally responsible. He argues that the truth of determinism would not affect our reactive attitudes as it is almost impossible for us to believe that a general theoretical conviction would change our world so entirely that such things as interpersonal relationships and reactive attitudes, as we know them, would no longer exist. He states that this is due to the fact that our commitment to these ordinary interpersonal relationships is too strong. He states that it is practically inconceivable that we take an objective attitude towards everyone as we have a “natural commitment” to our reactive attitudes. We would not be human if we suspended these emotions as they are what make us human. Even if you rationally believe that everyone is determined to do what they do you cannot suspend your feelings as they are an inherent part of human nature. In this instance, according to Strawson, it is possible for moral responsibility and determinism to be compatible (Strawson, 1962).

Strawson’s theory of moral responsibility however has been subject to certain challenges. Watson argues, for example, in “Responsibility and the Limits of Evil”, that Strawson’s theory of moral responsibility seems to lead to a paradox. Strawon’s theory, according to Watson, suggests that great evil should count as its own excuse. If this is the case then the person who carried out the evil act could not be held morally responsible for their actions (Watson, 2004).

Watson argues that, according to Strawsonian theory of moral responsibility, in order to be perceived as a member of the interpersonal moral community one must have the ability to be seen as a prospective interlocutor in our interpersonal exchanges. He explains that we only have the ability to address persons inside the moral community if they understand both our demands and reactions. This understanding, Watson argues, appears to require a common moral framework of values for our interactions (Watson, 2004).

Watson uses the 1982 case of Robert Harris who brutally murdered two teenagers in order to use their car for a bank robbery as an example to back up his point. Watson states that by way of his behaviour Harris should be a clear contender for blame. However, if a condition of moral agency is participation within the moral community then evil individuals whose behaviour disregards the values of moral community altogether should fail to be considered moral agents and because of this lie outside the scope of our ascriptions to responsibility (Watson, 2004).

By their own evil manner, Watson argues, they do not share the moral framework of values, and therefore cannot be seen as prospective interlocutors within the moral community. If Strawson’s theory suggests that moral responsibility is constituted by the relations within the framework of the moral community then it seems, Watson argues, that extreme evil should, in fact, be its own excusing condition, in the sense that the person is incapable of taking part in ordinary interpersonal relationships (Watson, 2004).

However, if the perpetrators of extreme evil acts are to be deemed morally responsible then it seems as though responsibility does not require one to be a member of the moral community. Watson’s argument seems to undermine Strawon’s theory slightly as Strawson believes that attitudes and feelings are only significant within the moral community, however, if individuals who commit extreme evil are both non-members of the moral community but also responsible then it seems that moral responsibility is  not solely constituted by the moral community (Watson, 2004).

The Strawsonian theory of moral responsibility cannot easily defend itself against the challenge posed by Watson and that is why McKenna, in response to this challenge, has proposed a slight modification to the theory. McKenna states that by explaining responsible moral agency in terms of capacity for membership of the moral community, rather than just actual membership, then Strawson’s naturalist insight can be preserved. In other words, one has the ability to be held morally responsible for one’s actions even if one is not a member of the moral community so long as one has the capacity to be a member. McKenna maintains that Strawson’s intention was to capture the entire range of concepts pertaining to moral responsibility from within the “web” of feelings and attitudes in the interpersonal community; however, his alteration now allows some non-members to become morally responsible agents. That status is now, however, dependent on one’s ability to take part in the moral community if one is not already a member (McKenna, 1998).

McKenna’s alteration to the Strawsonian theory of moral responsibility now allows Strawson’s theory to respond to the challenge posed by Watson. It may be argued that Harris, although not a member of the moral community according to Watson, has or had the ability to become a member of the moral community but chose not to become one. It could be said that Harris knew what he was doing, knew it was morally wrong and knew that it did not meet with the demands for good will or regard reflected in the ordinary reactive attitudes which are an essential part of the moral community, therefore consciously rejecting membership of the moral community. Hence, even though Harris or another person who commits an extreme evil action may reject membership of the moral community the sheer fact that they had the ability to be members, McKenna would argue, allows us to still hold them morally responsible for their actions (McKenna, 1998).

Strawson’s theory on the surface appears to be an entirely coherent account of moral responsibility; however, when presented with challenges such as Watson’s we see that in fact the theory is underdeveloped. Strawson’s theory, I believe, builds a solid foundation for an alternative approach to understanding moral responsibility. However, it is clear that in order to make it a stronger and more coherent theory it needs to be slightly modified. McKenna’s minor alteration to the theory was essential to combating the problem of the paradox which arose when discussing extreme evil cases. Strawson’s theory fell short in being able to explain how person’s in these cases could be deemed morally responsible when they existed outside the lines of the moral community. With McKenna’s slight modification to Strawson’s theory, allowing those who have the capacity to be members of the moral community to be deemed morally responsible and not just those within the moral community, persons who commit acts of extreme evil are no longer exempt from being deemed morally responsible.

I also believe that morality is a culturally conditioned response and that our reactive attitudes are not unavoidable and permanent features of human nature as Strawson would suggest, but rather involve a set of expectations and dispositions which are socially acquired. However, Strawson’s theory does not seem to allow for this kind of assumption. Strawson appears to assume that all of us have the same moral framework i.e. the same notions of what is right and what is wrong and his theory does not seem allow for cultural variations. Strawson believes that most of us are part of a moral community within which we engage in interpersonal relationships and have similar reactive attitudes. He states that in order to belong to the moral community we each have to understand the basic demands for good will and the reactions which follow certain actions. However, I argue that if our beliefs of what is morally right and wrong vary significantly from culture to culture then how can Strawson argue that we are part of a moral community at all?

Strawson’s argument relating to the “appropriateness of emotional response” falls short in being able to defend his theory in relation to the fact that morality is, I believe, a culturally conditioned response. Strawson argues that our reactive attitudes should be in concert with each other and that emotions should be consistent between people. He states that in order to avoid idiosyncrasies we have the ability to communicate. He believes that if our emotional responses or feelings are deemed completely absurd after we communicate with other people then it is possible to evaluate these reactions upon reflection. He then states that we have the ability to alter or modify them so that our emotional responses, i.e. our reactive attitudes, are in concert with everyone else’s. This, however, appears to me to be a near impossible task as it makes the assumption that each one of us is part of the same moral community, with the same moral notions.

There are many different perceptions in the world of what is morally right and what is morally wrong. If something in another culture is deemed morally acceptable however is viewed as morally unacceptable behaviour in another culture then how are both cultures meant to communicate and modify their reactions accordingly?

For example in Singapore it is deemed morally acceptable for a figure of authority to cane a male student, however in Ireland it is viewed as morally unacceptable. Therefore, the reactive attitudes would vary significantly between an Irish person and a Singaporean person to the caning of a male student because of their culture. It is near impossible for both cultures to communicate and modify their responses to be in concert with eachother. How does one culture explain to another that their actions and beliefs are morally unacceptable when they are and always have been of the belief that what they are doing is morally right?

The inability of Strawson’s theory to respond to both Watson’s argument and my own argument further suggests that while Strawson’s theory lays the groundwork for a new approach to understanding moral responsibility it is not entirely coherent. His theory, as it stands, appears overly simplistic and does not make clear who belongs to the moral community and who is exempt. It is clear that McKenna’s modification was necessary in order for Strawson’s theory to even begin to be able to tackle the challenge posed by Watson. In conclusion Strawson’s theory on moral responsibility is underdeveloped and while it remains a solid foundation for an alternative philosophical approach to addressing moral responsibility it cannot defend itself against certain challenges and I believe that modification and alteration of the theory are necessary in order for it to become fully coherent.


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