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What Is a Reactive Attitude? Essay

A theory that has attacked the validity of discussions on freedom in modern philosophy is determinism. In these discussions, questions have arisen as to how the truth or falsity of this theory should affect our lives. In this essay I will discuss the formal implications, illustrated by Peter Strawson, that come about from this. This will mean discussion of our reactive attitudes on: our moral considerations and on our inter-personal relationships with others in general. With this in mind, I will argue in favour of the idea that the truth or falsity of determinism is not of legitimate concern to those seeking a rational justification of our moral practices and inter-personal relationships. Furthermore, I will give further details about how we actually do justify our reactive attitudes on these two ideas in order to better illustrate what we can consider as alternative features affecting our moral considerations and inter-personal relationships.

To begin with, Strawson reviews two main positions on which to size up the threat of determinism on the notion of freedom. Firstly, the optimists, who believe that the truth of determinism is compatible with our moral practices as well as our inter-personal relationships, secondly, the pessimists who believe that the truth of determinism runs contrary to these two practices. To explain why the theory of determinism should be considered to have such an influential impact, Strawson writes that the pessimists argue: “Just punishment and moral condemnation imply moral guilt and guilt implies moral responsibility and moral responsibility implies freedom and freedom implies the falsity of determinism.”

If this is the case, that determinism is found to be true, and our behaviour is causally governed, then our justifications for moral practices are unfounded. Despite this, what also needs to be considered is whether or not the truth of determinism is the only factor for which we assess the justification of moral practices and our inter-personal relationships. With this in mind, I will discuss our attitudes to particular relationships, such as the circumstances of them and those involved, to shed light on how we might otherwise justify these practices.

Before the position of the pessimists is considered more fully, we must elucidate on the other conditions that reckon in our justification of our reactive attitudes. In order to begin this discussion, we need to know exactly what is meant by our reactive attitudes. Strawson characterises them as, “essentially reactions to the quality of other’s wills towards us, as manifested in their behaviour.” To explain further: If someone treads on my hand accidentally, while trying to help me, the pain may be no less acute than if he treads on it in contemptuous disregard of existence…but I shall generally feel in the second case a kind of resentment that I shall not feel in the first.” Now that the idea of reactive attitudes has been outlined we can ask the question of what should alter, suspend or justify the reactive attitudes that we have.

Concerning the example, just mentioned, our reactions are somewhat dependent on the type of intentions exhibited by the other agent involved in the situation. Whether or not these intentions are causally determined or not, can be argued to bear no relevance to our own reactive attitudes at least, simply because they are the same intentions projected on us. So, whether or not the person who stood on my foot was caused to do so by accident in an attempt to help me, or in an attempt to injure is not what we base our reaction to others behaviour.

This example is useful in illustrating two factors in how we justify and base our reactive judgements, one, the other agent involved in the situation (or perhaps in the relationship we have with him) and two, environmental factors. Now in the case of the former, I refer to extraneous variables other than my interaction with the agent. For example, the person who stepped on my hand may have done so because he slipped on the pavement. Before we say more of what I term environmental factors in the latter, there is much more that can be followed on from the former, concerning the agent.

When we consider what could alter our reactive judgements on behalf of the agent we happen to be interacting with, examples are needed to emphasize when this is the case. So, for the moment we will consider how the judgements we make in our reactive attitudes are suspended in order to retain a more objective outlook on that person. Strawson presents some examples for how this might be the case, “He’s only a child… He’s a hopeless
schizophrenic” Strawson argues that from these examples, “They invite us to view the agent himself in a different light from the light in which we would normally view one who has acted as he has acted.” This is one way in which we can justify, or rather base, our reactive attitudes on that we can consider as alternative factors on our moral considerations and inter-personal relationships.

What we can see from these examples, as mentioned before, is that it does not concern our reactive attitudes how the person we are dealing with came to be as he is. Rather, our concern is with how he is, when we form our attitudes and judgements. However, perhaps it is possible to argue that if determinism is proved false, and that the agent concerned is a schizophrenic partly down to some bad choices that he was free to make, then, our attitudes may reflect this. But would they then become justified attitudes because of the falsity of determinism? Because, it is still true that other factors effect the agent, causally determined or not, such as the way the schizophrenic has developed as a person etc. So it seems that there is a still case, in the face of the falsity of determinism, for arguing why there are other factors on which our moral considerations and relationships lie.

Although at this point we can argue there is infinitely more to be said on what alters, suspends and generally changes our moral considerations and relationships of a person with regards to why he is exempt from ‘normal’ circumstances. However, in order to present a case for how determinism is not a legitimate concern for our moral practices, I need only outline this idea to show how there are other, more important factors, which pertain to our moral considerations. In which case to begin my next assertion, concerning our altered reactive attitudes, Strawson writes: “Our adoption of the objective attitude is a consequence of our viewing that agent as incapacitated in some respects from ordinary inter-personal relationships.” So, at this point, a proposition can be put forward concerning our reactive judgements on people with a ‘normal’ constitution. This is; is it possible, or rather appropriate, to suspend or alter, our reactive attitudes on people who do not have what we judge as extenuating circumstances pertaining to who they are as a person? To explain further, we can now indulge in an explanation of environmental factors (or external stimuli) on the agent mentioned earlier.

No great detail for this is strictly necessary, as the aim of expounding this class of factors effecting our moral practices and relationships is simply to give details for the same reason as the former class of factors. This is namely, to give account on what actually is the basis of our reactive judgements. Examples in this case then could be things like ‘it is raining’, ‘the car would not work’ or ‘I was coerced into that action’. These examples can be classed as factors that effect an agent decisions and his inter-personal relationships but do not ascribe to the constitution of the agent. There is a reason that this is important in showing how determinism is not a legitimate concern of moral practices and relationships and what actually is a legitimate concern.

This is because it allows us to question our reactive attitudes of agents not incapacitated in who they are. To refer to the previous example of the man who accidentally trod on my hand, who may have do so because he slid on the ground. This can be classed as external stimuli affecting our inter-personal relationships. Because of this, factor out of the control of the offending agent, we can argue that a more objective attitude is needed. This is the same objective attitude that is adopted in the former class of factors that are internal to the agent (e.g. Schizophrenia). What this suggests, is that our ordinary reactive attitudes, within our inter-personal relationships and our moral practices, are completely unjustified.

However, Strawson argues that this falls short of what it truly means to have these reactive judgements, writing: “Being involved in inter-personal relationships as we normally understand them precisely is being exposed to the range of reactive attitudes and feelings that are in question.” To explain this point further he also writes, “A sustained objectivity of inter-personal attitude … does not seem to be something of which human beings would be capable.” However, this is not to say that it is impossible allow ourselves a certain amount of flexibility of our reactive attitudes. This pertains to both classes of factors that have been identified, whether it is altering our behaviour of the man who accidentally stepped on my hand because he slipped, to show some understanding to things happening outside his conscious actions.

And also of the other class of factors, someone, for example, who suffers a mental illness of some sort. In any case, this shows that truth or falsity of determinism is not a legitimate concern for why should suspend or alter our reactive attitudes. Along this thesis Strawson also remarks: “The question, then of the connection between rationality and the adoption of the objective attitude to others is misposed when it is made to seem dependent on the issue of determinism.” “In fact no such sense of ‘determined’ as would be required for a general thesis of determinism is ever relevant to our actual suspensions of moral reactive attitudes.”

Hence, what has been established is that our moral considerations and inter-personal relationships that manifest themselves in our reactive attitudes are not altered or suspended because of the validity of determinism. Furthermore, it has been shown that our concern to justify our attitudes not only arises in the first place from other factors, either relevant to an agent in his constitution, of other external stimuli. But also is altered, i.e. made more objective, by other considerations other than ones related to whether or not our actions are caused by the theory of determinism.

Strawson comments of the rational justification of our attitudes stating: “Questions of justification are internal to the structure… The existence of the general framework of attitudes itself is something we are given with the fact of human society. As a whole, it neither calls for, nor permits, an external ‘rational’ justification.” The theory of determinism has brought with it much discussion on the consequences to our everyday lives. However, the validity, or invalidity of this theory should not be made to be an overriding cause of rational justification of our reactive attitudes.

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