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Undermining Determinism

Two readings of Strawson’s attempt to salvage the moral life

by David Foss

In Peter Strawson’s paper “Freedom and Resentment”[1], a response to the threat posed by determinism against notions of freedom and responsibility is articulated which sheds considerable light upon the nature of normative discourse, and the relationship between such discourse and the language of objectivity. Strawson develops a series of distinctions between the various attitudes, demands, and discursive practices which constitute the conceptual landscape within which the possibility of ‘objectivity’ exists. Determinism, as a the most pernicious form of moral skepticism, appears to threaten the viability of moral evaluation by calling into doubt the prima facia attribution of free choice implied by claims of moral accountability. By looking closely at the causal framework in which we ‘objectively’ function, we no longer seem appropriately entitled to see ourselves as uncaused, or free, choosers of action. Two sorts of common responses to the possibility of determinism are identified by Strawson. The Pessimist believes that the thesis, in itself, directly challenges any notion of responsibility, and forces us to either accept its validity, and thereby surrender any relevant notion of moral evaluation, or to reject the objectivist view point altogether. The Optimist considers the deterministic thesis as compatible with normative discourse: the sense in which we speak of responsibility has no stake in claims that we are in no sense objectively caused to act the way we do. The following represents an attempt to distinguish at least two ways Strawson’s attempt to reconcile the concerns of the Pessimist with those of the Optimist, and even more directly his substantive response to the viability of such a malignant determinism, can be read.


Strawson’s response to the determinist is in one sense a displacement of the issue. On the surface, he is most directly concerned with showing that the conditions under which we normally suspend our normal participatory attitudes, and thereby release an agent from the demands of agency (as well as the attribution of responsibility and freedom), cannot be consistently extended to include all interpersonal activity. Such a move would ultimately involve a disintegration of the activity as inter-personal. But it seems a stronger claim is being made, albeit subtly, against a more destructive form of determinism, which asserts that any talk of freedom or responsibility, any application of our normal participatory attitudes, is absurd in the light of the objective causal order. There is simply no sense in which we are independent loci of causes. Talk at the causal level, and talk at the normative level are ultimately contradictory and incompatible. Since talk of causes reflects the world as it is, it seems evaluative talk must surrender to the status of illusion, or even unintelligibility.

The mistake, according to the stronger Strawsonian claim, is to consider the talk of causes, and the objective attitude of which it is a part, as something which is itself objectively independent of the normal participatory attitude. By recasting of the objective attitude as itself a form of the participatory attitude, rather than viewing our participatory attitudes as part of an objective causal order, the determinist is denied his/her basis of objection. If the causal order is incompatible, it is due to a tension within the attitudes of objectivity as a form of participation.

It should be admitted that this stronger claim, and even the identification of two levels of determinism with which any sufficient moral psychology must contend, and to which the weaker and stronger claims are respectively targeted, is never explicitly developed by Strawson. Indeed, there appears to be two rather distinct ways to read his response to the determinist’s programme:

  1. Objective as radically distinct from the Normative

    On this reading, “suspension” is viewed as a radical departure from the normative mode of being. The two forms of attitude represent two objectively distinct modes of being in the world, where Objectivity involves a total suspension of Normativity. To take the objective attitude is to leave the Normal Participatory Attitude by the satisfaction of a set of criterion. This reading is primarily concerned with responding to the weaker form of determinism, where the point of concentration appears to be the rules of suspension.

  2. Objective as a part of the Normative

    On this reading, “suspension” is viewed as a normative act, where the person/self is not lost in the acquisition of objectivity. Concentration is directed to the act of suspension itself — not merely the rules by which it is engaged.

It should become clear, however, that only the second reading adequately responds to the problem of determinism in the way in which Strawson believes he has. In the end, it will matter little whether this is the reorientation he actually had in mind. What is more important is whether it does the work necessary to salvage the moral life from absurdity.


At various points, Strawson seems to be saying each of these. The argument against the determinist, from the 1st reading, is that somehow a permanent suspension of the Normal Participatory Attitude would involve the abandonment of who we take ourselves to be. Although the abandonment would be intelligibly feasible, we wouldn’t be ourselves anymore. But a problem exists by such a reading:

We do actually take the objective attitude under certain conditions.

If the Normal Participatory Attitude is something essential to who we are, and the Objective Attitude involves (essentially) an abandonment of the Normal Participatory Attitude, and thereby an abandonment of who we are, then we routinely abandon who we are, and under very normal circumstances.

From this, it seems, not only can we abandon who we are (and often do abandon who we are), it seems there is no prima-facia reason to believe this kind of abandonment is a bad thing. In fact, Strawson agrees that there are times when such an ‘abandonment’ is quite reasonably appropriate, and may even be demanded of us by the obligations of participation in a moral community.

But who is it who abandons the Normal Participatory Attitude, if by taking the Objective Attitude we abandon our selves?

There must be some notion of self within the Objective Attitude.

By viewing the objective attitude as an abandonment, in itself, the notion of abandonment is normalized. We are simply deciding between two worlds of being, deciding which kind of being we view as more attractive or real. We are abandoning one kind of being for another; each just as real to us.

The picture of radical disjunction between Normativity and Objectivity, although providing no ultimate justification for preferring to remain moral beings, succumbs to a more serious problem. If we think that by taking the Objective Attitude we achieve a destruction of the Normal Participatory Attitude, then we are not only destroying the notion of person which we identify ourselves to be, we are destroying the conceptual framework within which notions function, and ultimately destroying the move to the Objective Attitude as a conceptual shift. This form of the Objective Attitude is not an attitude at all: but an abandonment of attitude. This mode of existing is not simply an alternative to the Normal Participatory Attitude, it is the abandonment of existence as a concept. If this Objective Attitude began as a conceptual move, it has ended as a destruction of ‘concept’, and an abandonment of intelligibility.

This is not what taking the Objective Attitude involves in every day life. Taking the Objective Attitude is a discursive enterprise. It is a conceptual shift. Any picture of the Objective Attitude that does not recognize this, has permitted the ideal of objectivity to escape the domain of rationality.


The alternative is to read Strawson as suggesting that the Objective Attitude is not in a position to reject the Normal Participatory Attitude without rejecting itself. The ‘suspension’ of the Normal Participatory Attitude, by which we take the Objective Attitude, is a form of being the Normal Participatory Attitude. It is a way in which we live a participatory life: the Objective Attitude is a mode of being in the Normal Participatory Attitude.

“Inside the general structure or web of human attitudes and feelings of which I have been speaking, there is endless room for modification, redirection, criticism, and justification. But questions of Justification are internal to the structure or relate to modifications internal to it. 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.”[2]

Taking the Objective Attitude is not a suspension of the self. And as such, cannot be a suspension of personhood. To exist the mode of the Objective Attitude is a participatory existence.

“What is wrong is to forget that these practices, and their reception, the reactions to them, really are expressions of our moral attitudes and not merely devices we calculatingly employ for regulative purposes. Our practices do not merely exploit our natures, they express them.”[3]

Of course, by reading the Objective Attitude as a mode of the Normal Participatory Attitude, we should be careful not to let it obscure the discursive possibilities it allows. The two attitudes are importantly different. Specifically, the Objective Attitude conceals its nature as a Normal Participatory Attitude and protects us from the demands which it normally entails. In a sense it clears the moral register of all normative entanglements. It may achieve this by a postponement of justification, or even a complete evasion of justificatory obligation. Generally, taking the Objective Attitude is a way to disconnect the agent from the substance of the discourse. It often involves a simple reversal of burden to establish such justificatory obligations (whereas under the Normal Participatory Attitude an act of homicide requires that the agent most immediately proximate to the act is required to establish sufficient reason(s) for the suspension of responsibility, under the Objective Attitude the observer is required to establish sufficient reason(s) to apply responsibility to the proximate agent). In any of these cases however, the agent who invokes the Objective Attitude does not surrender her own agency (i.e., her own status as an entity appropriately entitled to Normal Participatory Attitudes). Even in the highly paradoxical case of taking the Objective Attitude with respect to oneself, the move is made as one which has participatory impact, and involves that agent essentially in a discursive project. As any discursive engagement (whether strictly linguistic, or more broadly symbolic) is ultimately one which essentially involves the agent in a community of agents, it necessarily rests on normative assessments, claims, and obligations. When we treat such an engagement as an appeal to objectivity, it is to assert that these aspects of it are beyond reproach, or should have no bearing on the substantive claim. It is then the burden of the community to establish that attention ought to be paid to the implicit normative constituents, or to accept them by silence.

While it is often appropriate to appeal to the Objective Attitude (indeed, it is often considered obligatory), it should now be clear that the tension[4] it involves is not simply that existing between it and the Normal Participatory Attitude as distinct alternatives. Rather, the tension of the Objective Attitude is fundamentally internal to it. The Objective Attitude, as an attitude of participation, simultaneously affirms that participation by its invocation, and formally rejects the relevancy of participatory relations. As an interpersonal discursive activity, it actively conceals its normative essence, and insists upon a superseding context beyond the justificatory demands of open participation.

Recognizing the significant distinctions between the Normal Participatory Attitudes, as Strawson identifies them, and the Objective Attitude should not blind us from the reality of the context within which they exist. Speaking to the real differences in the fabric of participatory attitudes due to temporal, cultural, and philosophical contexts, he cautions us not to conclude that such a fabric is incidental to human living:

“... an awareness of variety of forms should not prevent us from acknowledging also that in the absence of any forms of these attitudes it is doubtful whether we should have anything the we could find intelligible as a system of human relationships, as human society.”[5]


As a mode of existing the Normal Participatory Attitude, the Objective Attitude is distinguished from the Normal Participatory Attitude by a series of normative moves. The error of the first reading, is to view the Objective Attitude as objectively distinct from the Normal Participatory Attitude (even if this distinction is viewed as not being radical). As a mode of existing the Normal Participatory Attitude, the Objective Attitude is not objectively identifiable. As the context of objective evaluation, it is important that the Objective Attitude not sneak beneath (or prior to) the Normal Participatory Attitude by claiming to be an objectively distinct mode. Such a reorientation would once again place the Objective Attitude prior to the Normal Participatory Attitude, and would treat the Normal Participatory Attitude as a mode of the Objective Attitude.

Only when we envision the Objective Attitude as a distinctive form of the Normal Participatory Attitudes are the concerns of the Pessimist, as well as those of the Optimist, adequately accounted for. The effort by the Optimist to show that a deterministic thesis has no bearing on the rationality of moral attitudes is availed (if only nominally) by giving appropriate attention to aspects of normative existence which the Pessimist feels most threatened by exhaustive causal models of human behavior.[6]

Moral Psychology
PHIL-720-01, Georgetown University
Spring 1992
(© David Foss, March 29, 1992)

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Last modified September 27, 1998

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