Minimal Optimism: Reading P. F. Strawson on Responsibility

Project: Dissertation

Project Details

Description

Peter Strawson’s ‘Freedom and Resentment’ (1962) has reoriented the way moral philosophers
think about responsibility. There is a general sense that Strawson’s approach holds the promise
that we may move beyond the traditional discussion of free will in recognition of the fact that
whether determinism is true is irrelevant for whether we are responsible beings. This is Strawson’s
Promise. This thesis sets itself to investigate how we may make good on this promise.

In the first part of this thesis, three existent ways of making good on Strawson’s Promise are
considered: Justin Coates’s transcendental argument against responsibility scepticism, Pamela
Hieronymi’s Statistical Reading of “the central argument”, and the Reversal Move, on two different
articulations. For different reasons, neither is found adequate for the task.

In the second part of this thesis, the case is made that we may make good on Strawson’s Promise
if we replace the Standard Reading of Strawson’s Inescapability Claim—that we are naturally and
inescapably committed to the concept of responsibility—with the Minimal Optimist Reading.
Distinguishing between the concept of responsibility in its non-historical form and any particular
conception of responsibility, Minimal Optimism is the view that we are inescapably committed to
the concept of responsibility, but not so to any particular conception of responsibility. The concept
of responsibility is both conceptually necessary and practically necessary. Unlike other framework
commitments, however, the concept of responsibility is not essential to any experience which we
can make truly intelligible to ourselves as such. In the case of responsibility, the practical necessity
of the concept of responsibility is therefore in a sense more basic. A kind of naturalistic
explanation—a pragmatic genealogy—is presented as supplementing Strawson’s approach. This
supports the Inescapability Claim by showing that for beings like us, already on the assumption
only of maximally generic needs and situations, it is practically necessary that we have some
conception of responsibility. Seeing that the concept of responsibility is inescapable in the sense
that it is indispensable, we are vindicated in living by the concept. The truth of determinism is
relevant neither for whether we have a practical need for the concept of responsibility nor for the
concept of responsibility that follows simply from the relevant needs and situations.

The question whether we are responsible is not a question for the Minimal Optimist. In this sense,
we may move beyond the traditional discussion regarding free will. Strawson’s relaxed attitude to
responsibility is grounded in a recognition of the fact that the concept of responsibility is
indispensable for beings like us. This, however, does not straightforwardly imply any optimism
about our particular conception of responsibility. Towards the end, we consider some issues
regarding what Minimal Optimism implies about our particular conception of responsibility.
Short titleMinimal Optimism
StatusFinished
Effective start/end date2019/09/012024/04/06

UKÄ subject classification

  • Philosophy
  • Ethics

Free keywords

  • Moral Responsibility
  • Free Will
  • P. F. Strawson
  • Philosophical methodology
  • Scepticism
  • Naturalism