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Archive for August, 2010

Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment” was responsible for a significant shift in the debate about free will. The prevailing wisdom prior to its publication was that the truth or otherwise of determinism was a critical issue for morality. For an agent to be morally responsible for an action it was generally held that it had to have been possible for that agent to have done otherwise. There were two main lines of attack to justify the idea of moral responsibility in a deterministic setting. Firstly, the weaponry of analytical philosophy could be deployed to investigate the meaning of the phrase ‘could have done otherwise’ in such a way as to dissolve the apparent contradiction. Secondly, our moral practices of praise and blame could be justified operationally as a mechanism to improve the behaviour of deterministic, learning agents. The first of these may yet be required to resolve issues within our moral framework, of which more later. The second is successful enough on its own terms, but is generally held to fail to explain how we are morally justified in punishing people that break our moral codes. By contrast, Strawson claims that the question whether determinism is true is irrelevant to our practice of moral praise and blame. I review his reasons and consider some challenges to them.

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