Home > Ethics and Morality, Philosophy > Paul Russell – “Strawson’s Way of Naturalizing Responsibility”

Paul Russell – “Strawson’s Way of Naturalizing Responsibility”

I thought I would try and break my rather extended absence from posting by offering up a few posts that are shorter than normal. This might get me to post my thoughts more often! As always, what I post is continually up for revision and I look forward to getting some input from readers.

Attempting to undermine Strawson’s naturalist turn, Paul Russell saddles him with the “naturalist dilemma” – that if Strawson adopts type-naturalism he has failed to adequately address pessimist concerns, but if he employs token-naturalism he endorses an unreasonable form of naturalism (Russell, 151).  I aim to show that Russell is not very charitable in his reading of possible responses on Strawson’s part, given that the token-naturalism Russell allows does little to conform to the shift in the language of excuse and exemption Strawson makes. First I’ll recapitulate the distinction Russell makes between type- and token- versions of both pessimism and naturalism (as far as it goes), with a brief discussion of why he sees this as a dilemma for Strawson’s position. From there I will outline why I think Russell fails to understand how Strawson’s notions of excusing and exemption allow him to provide a more robust response than the one Russell relegates him to. This is because the bifurcation of Strawson’s response to Pessimists into “rationalistic” and “naturalistic” components that are at odds with one another is simply a misunderstanding of Strawson’s project.

Russell divides the pessimist worry and the naturalist response based on scope, with each having a type- and token- expression. The type-pessimist argues that, as a class/type of attitude, our reactive attitudes must have some rational justification if they are to be appropriate. If we lack such a justification, we should cease the practice of reactive attitudes. To this, the type-naturalist will respond that reactive attitudes qua type are an ineliminable aspect of the human condition, and as such we cannot cease this type of behavior. In turn, a token-pessimist will argue that, even though we are naturally disposed toward a given reactive attitude, “we are nevertheless capable of altogether ceasing to feel or experience [the token attitude] if and when we judge that, given our circumstances, this emotion is never justified,” (Russell, 149). It is here that Russell claims the rationale of the type- and token- naturalist will be roughly the same: “Nature, according to the token-naturalist, insulates us from the skeptical arguments of the token-pessimist no less than it insulates us from the skeptical arguments of the type-pessimist,” (Russell, 150). On these grounds, then, a strong iteration of Strawsonian naturalism will argue that no rational considerations or theories can lead us to eliminate tokens of a given reactive attitude any more than they can types, due simply to the natural qualities of reactive attitudes. Russell believes that the correct characterization of the pessimist Strawson has in mind is that of a token-pessimist, viz. one who believes “if the thesis of determinism is true […] our circumstances are such that we are never justified in entertaining or feeling (tokens of our) reactive attitudes,” (Russell, 151).  Problems arise, Russell argues, when we see that token-naturalism is implausible – surely we are capable of amending or ceasing tokens of our reactive attitudes when we see that they are rationally unjustifiable.

A plausible response to Russell focuses upon neutering the rationalizability of moral responsibility. First, the implausible strength of token-naturalism Russell notes holds only when we use ‘token-’ to identify a sub-type of reactive attitudes rather than an instance of a sub-type of reactive attitudes. That is, anger as a class of reactive attitude is not a token in the same way a specific instance of being angry is a token. For Russell, a token-pessimist holds that eliminating an unjustifiable reactive attitude (i.e. one class, such as anger, praise, etc.) is fully compatible with type-naturalism’s tenet that our propensity for reactive attitudes makes them (as a type) ineliminable. It is all well and good that we have a propensity for anger, the token-pessimist may say, but should we discover there is never a situation in which anger is rationally justified then we can, and must, cease the practice of anger. Utilizing my distinction, certain instances of anger qua tokens may lack justification based on the circumstance, and these could certainly be eliminated. But this does not at all indict the entire class of reactive attitude, i.e. all tokens qua instances of anger. This distinction allows for reasonable elimination of unjustified tokens while still refusing to accommodate widespread elimination of reactive attitudes at the type level.

Russell would likely argue that such an allowance is just one of many possible examples of the incommensurability or confusion between Strawson’s “rationalistic” and “naturalistic” strategies. Instead, the confusion is Russell’s curious classification of exemption/exclusion criteria as the “rationalistic” aspect of Strawson’s theory. For, when I survey §IV of “Freedom and Resentment” it seems immediately clear to me that Strawson (1) describes how we do excuse/exempt instead of giving a rationalization for how we ought to, and (2) offers clear criteria for when we abandon reactive attitude tokens qua instances by adopting the objective attitude. Jon Bennett characterizes this distinction well: “Rather than moral accountability’s being logically inconsistent with each answer to the question [of whether one is responsible], reactive feelings are psychologically immiscible with the frame of mind in which the question is asked,” (Bennet, 57; emph. original). Exemption and exclusion are not reasoned actions – they are the natural result of the way in which we view one another with regard to participation in the moral community. To be sure, these criteria are not the justifications a pessimist is seeking – but this is precisely one of the points Strawson stresses! The pessimist and the optimist over-intellectualize moral responsibility, and the pessimist in particular seeks metaphysical requirements and explanations Strawson claims are unwarranted. By offering the more minimalist notion of token-naturalism outlined above, and being more charitable with regard to Strawson’s argumentation, some of Russell’s concerns may be obviated.


Bennet, John. “Accountability (II)” in Free Will and Reactive Attitudes: Perspectives on P.F. Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008): 47-68.

Russell, Paul. “Strawson’s Way of Naturalizing Responsibility” in Free Will and Reactive Attitudes: Perspectives on P.F. Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment. (Burlington, VT:  Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008): 143-156.

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