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Freedom & Curiosity: Rethinking the Strawsonian Pragmatic Argument for Free Will

 A short paper responding the the Strawsonian argument that can be interpreted from Peter Strawson’s paper, “Freedom & Resentment”.

In Peter Strawson’s paper entitled “Freedom and Resentment”, the author provides evidence of a pragmatic argument to believe in free will, regardless of whether or not the thesis of determinism is true. Strawson builds a pragmatic argument for free will by explaining the connection between freedom, human psychology, and our humanity. Although I think Strawson provides a plausible pragmatic account of free will, I see a potential problem concerning the natural reactive attitudes he focuses on, especially resentment, which undermines his thesis. First, the natural reactive attitude of resentment that justifies participants’ place in a moral community actually undermines the relationships that Strawson suggests are essential for adult human life; Strawson uses interpersonal relationships as part of his justification for why we should accept the pragmatic argument for free will. Second, self-directed resentment is freedom denying; blaming oneself has psychological effects that undermine the freedom that Strawson wants to guarantee. I will briefly suggest an unlikely candidate for an interpersonal attitude that does what Strawson’s resentment fails to do: deepen interpersonal relationships and enhance at minimum the perception of free will (if not actual free will).

Strawson’s Motivation for a Pragmatic Account

Strawson begins his essay by motivating a pragmatic solution to the free will and determinism debate. Regardless of the truth or falsity of determinism, we need justification for moral practices of praise, punishment, and blame that are more substantial than acknowledging the effectiveness of those practices in altering behaviour. We require justification for our belief in freedom so that moral responsibility lies in an effective will and not merely the identification of the will with the act. Strawson points out how uncontentious it is that “the man who is the subject of justified punishment, blame, or moral condemnation must really deserve it… he is blamed for a positive act rather than an omission”(Strawson, 3). We must be able to consider ourselves as responsible for our actions, rather than as carriers of good or bad luck. This is what makes free will such an important belief for us.

Strawson builds a pragmatic argument for free will by explaining that we ought to choose what to believe 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”(11). Throughout his paper, Strawson motions to two things that we obtain from the freedom thesis. From freedom we get an account by which justify of our moral practices of praise and blame, an account that rests on more than mere implication of real guilt by the fact that those practices seem effective at “regulating behaviour in socially desirable ways”(2). The fact of their effectiveness alone “is not a sufficient basis, it is not even the right sort of basis, for these practices as we understand them”, as addressing real moral culpability(3). Strawson explains that, from freedom we also gain access to interpersonal relationships with emotions like “gratitude, resentment, and forgiveness; of all reciprocated adult loves,” and relationships without which we would find little value in life(8). Our humanity in a sense relies upon believing in freedom; therefore, we can rightly believe in freedom without resorting to “the obscure and panicky metaphysics of libertarianism”(20).

Indeed, Strawson provides the urgency and motivation for resorting to pragmatic arguments in the debate for belief in freedom. Next, it is important for my forthcoming critique to explain how Strawson argues from the natural reactive attitudes, specifically resentment, to freedom. After doing so, I will explain how using resentment as the focus reactive attitude is problematic.

Freedom, Resentment, and Our Humanity

Strawson defines natural reactive attitudes as the “natural human reactions to the good or ill will or indifference of others towards us, as displayed in their attitudes and actions”(8). The natural reactive attitudes, such as resentment, indignation, gratitude, and praise, are those attitudes that arise when we interpret an agent’s behaviour as an expression of their good or ill will towards another. Resentment is the most significant moral attitude in Strawson’s argument. If an agent harms me and his act also appears to be directed at me, I perceive the act as an undeserved expression of the agent’s poor attitude towards me, so I react with the moral attitude of resentment, and rightly withhold my goodwill from him in an attempt to punish him.

The role of resentment is that it lets us acknowledge other people as participants, i.e. competent members, of a moral community. Indeed, children are often (if not always) exempt from being the target of natural reactive attitudes because they are incomplete moral agents, as are mentally defective people until they are treated and become acceptable as people with whom other adults wish to engage deeply. These two groups who receive the objective attitude do not receive resentment, but are also exempt from participating in loving adult relationships and receiving praise, for Strawson points out that the natural reactive attitudes appear to be part of a package of attitudes that includes love, praise, and gratitude. They are not free moral agents, and are not appropriate targets for the attitude of resentment, nor participants in the moral community.

Obviously, each of us wants to view herself as a member of the moral community and be a participant in deep relationships, and therefore displays to others a willingness to accept resentment, guilt, and blame herself – even when she may not have been able to do otherwise. In cases where a person thinks that she could not have done otherwise, she could choose not to punish herself, but then she would exclude herself from meaningful interpersonal relationships and meaningful self-regard as a moral agent with effective free will. A plea for forgiveness is an “essential and integral element in the transactions which are the life of [adult loving] relationships,” and an acceptance of forgiveness is to “forswear the resentment”(6), and an event of both is said to deepen reciprocity in the relationship.

So, Strawson appeals to human morality as “natural, non rational (not irrational), in no way something we could choose to give up”(Footnote 7). In short, the pragmatic argument for free will is that, without a belief in free will we would have to hold an objective, clinical, distant attitude towards other people and ourselves. And the objective attitude would save us from blame and unjust punishment (if determinism is, indeed, true), but would prevent engagement with other human beings in a moral community, and it is these interpersonal relationships that give meaning to our lives, qua human beings. Therefrom, Strawson argues that there is no demand for the falsity of determinism.

Does Resentment Undermine Relationships and Freedom?

Strawson appears correct about this connection between belief in freedom and our need for interpersonal relationships. But now I would like to address the attitude of resentment and the associated action of blame, on which so much of Strawson’s argument rests. As Strawson portrays resentment, it is a natural moral attitude. At the very least this suggestion risks the naturalistic fallacy, which gives a positive valence to behaviours or trends as natural facts. Is there a reason to doubt that resentment is the best choice on which to ground a belief in free will? I think that although much of Strawson’s essay is devoted to resentment, he has missed considering some consequences of endorsing resentment.

Where does resentment go wrong in Strawson’s argument? Recall the importance that Strawson attributes to resentment in close interpersonal relationships as:

… too deeply rooted for us to take seriously [a commitment to the objective, reactive attitude-suspending, attitude] 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.

(Strawson, 9)

It appears that resentment is an essential part of these relationships. But what if resentment is not necessary (as I argue later) and actually undermines these relationships, so that it weakens the relationships that make our belief in free will justified? Instead of our belief in (our own and others’) free will benefitting us, it would be working against us; thereby, Strawson’s pragmatic argument would be flawed. I argue that this is the reality of resentment, and I will now argue that Strawson’s explanation of its psychological mechanism is incomplete.

Although resentment can be a part of interpersonal relationships, those relationships tend to be damaged by resentment, indignation, and blame. We colloquially say that a “strong” person asks for forgiveness and expresses remorse for his actions, but even dramatic apologies are doubted precisely because we know that we prioritize our own emotional security at expense of others, and being the target of resentment makes us feel insecure. Apologies seem to express remorse at being caught and suffering the consequences of being found out, rather than remorse for harming a loved one. A “sorry” that we feel good about accepting must be accompanied by an expression of understanding the moral error, what circumstances made the error possible, and an acknowledgement of an alternative response to future temptation. Essentially, a real apology is an explanation of a change in perspective and having an ability and willingness to avoid the same action in the future.

In many cases of apology there remains a surreptitious and unshakable feeling that we could not have done differently (i.e., we were determined by circumstance) and should not be held responsible. A person might desperately want to be a member in the moral community (and in a relationship), but still feel that he was also a victim of external forces. This results in internal conflict and emotional insecurity. In these cases, the resentment from the harmed party is damaging and, as moral as it is according to Strawson, creates ill will within the relationship from both parties. Strawson holds that resentment, remorse, and forgiveness are essential in relationships, but I reckon these do not correctly capture the morality that we actually desire in deep relationships. Moreover, being the subject of resentment and withdrawal of another’s goodwill causes emotional insecurity within ourselves, making us become protective, distrustful, and suspicious. In this emotional state we cannot accept deep relationships. Given Strawson’s position that deep interpersonal relationships are constitutive of our humanity, it does not seem that resentment is the correct attitude to ground our belief in free will.

Not only does resentment suffer this flaw in the pragmatic argument for free will, but resentment also contributes to a decrease in our subjective perception of free will. That is to say, psychological facts about how we react to being the target of resentment result in self-limiting beliefs as well as constraints on free action (as a decrease in perception of available options). This reaction applies to resentment and blame sourced from others and ourselves. The pragmatic argument for freedom that relies on resentment is actually relying on a freedom-denying attitude.

Recall the earlier mentioned need for emotional security and positive self-regard. When someone is the target of a loved one’s expressed resentment and blame, he faces the facts of his own moral inadequacy. Unfortunately, the possible resulting internal conflict and emotional instability can lead to emotional withdrawal, self-deception, doubling down and rationalizing, becoming angry as an emotional self-defence mechanism, and blaming the harmed party. The common thread through these reactions is a spontaneous unwillingness to re-evaluate one’s perspective, or to discover new perspectives, and incorporate new beliefs. A human being controlled by habit and unable to entertain new possible avenues of actions was not only lacking freedom in antecedent situations, but is guaranteed to be just as limited and externally-legislated as he was in the past. Strawson’s explanation of free will may be descriptively adequate, but the emphasis on resentment and acceptance of its role does nothing to enhance our perception of actually being free.

The reasons I laid out begin to efface Strawson’s project of using resentment in interpersonal relationships to justify belief in free will. If believing in our partner’s freedom undermines the relationships, and believing in our own freedom actually diminishes it, then it does not seem to be better for human beings than believing that we are determined.

Freedom and Curiosity

Has Strawson overlooked other possible interpersonal attitudes that might better serve a moral theory and enhance our subjective experience, that is, our perception of freedom? In this section I will briefly suggest an unlikely candidate for an interpersonal attitude that does what Strawson’s resentment fails to do; the candidate is curiosity.

Curiosity is just as basic as resentment; in fact, we are earlier the object of curiosity than we are of resentment. Young children are not the subject of resentment, but they are the participants in curiosity-based loving relationships: a father watches his sleeping toddler, wondering what this little person will be like, and he plays with her, engaging in her world in the pretend tea parties that she for some reason seems to enjoy so much. The toddler touches the father’s face with curiosity and joy, and asks “why?” constantly, wanting to know not just the answer (for truth is not the same to a child as it is to a philosopher) but what dad’s answer will be. Curiosity is basic to human interactions from the earliest age and is constitutive of meaningful engagement. In adult loving relationships, especially in the beginning of the relationship where we can forgive any harm incurred from the other party, the curiosity is strongest – good or bad, we strongly need to know everything about the other person and want them to be curious about us, too.

Curiosity is an interpersonal attitude towards people we love and want to treat morally, with kindness. The view of curiosity is also an objective view that the other person is a miracle to be reacted to with awe, just for who that person is. Again, this is evidenced by both parent-child relationships and adult loving relationships. Curiosity underlies a moral attitude that is about caring for the other person, just as the human being that she is. In contrast, resentment is about wanting other people to regard you in a way that makes you feel good.

Curiosity is a freedom-enhancing moral attitude when turned on ourselves. If a person sees that she has injured a loved one, she can be curious about her own attitudes and reasons for doing so, and she can also make amends by curiously attending to her partner’s hurt feelings precisely how he needs them cared for. This is likely to help repair the damaged relationship. Unlike self-blame, she is not emotionally blocked from introspection and seeking better understanding of the sources of her behaviour; resentment causes conflict between protecting a relationship and protecting her self.

In regards to ability to make free choices, resentment from loved ones does not promote new perspectives nor self-evaluation, and so it cannot enhance freedom (if we consider that to increase freedom means to increase access to viable alternative actions). Furthermore, blame and self-doubt cause a person to distrust her instincts and withdraw from choice-making at the threat of receiving further resentment and blame, even further reducing choice-making ability and making her subject to whichever norm will prevent her from receiving those painful reactive attitudes.


In this paper, I evaluated one aspect of Strawson’s pragmatic argument for free will. I suggested that although the natural reactive attitudes seem to justify his argument, resentment in particular is problematic since its effects undermine the justification for a pragmatic argument in the first place, and moreover, it undermines the experience of freedom itself. Since Strawson’s argument rests on resentment, is greatly weakened. After this critique, I proposed an alternative interpersonal attitude of curiosity that grounds belief in morality and aims to better human relationships and better our behaviours that are directed towards other persons. Finally, I explained how curiosity does not suffer from the same objections as resentment: in fact, it enhances our humanity in terms of the human relationships that are constitutive of it, and develops our subjective experience of freedom.

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