Grounding Strawson’s social claim in folk-psychology

Louis Ramirez

According to most contemporary philosophers, being morally responsible amounts to being an appropriate subject of the Strawsonian reactive attitudes.[1] Strawson (1993) makes two claims about them: they signal a human disposition to react to others’ quality of will and, because of this, they are crucial to human society. In this paper, I develop his view (1), propose an empirically based relativism charge (2), and proceed to counter it (3). Reactive attitudes, I argue, fulfill a species-wide need to be intelligible to one another by scaffolding social-cognitive competence. Because of this, I continue, they are indeed necessary for human society. With Strawson, I conclude that, while the form that these attitudes will take may vary among cultures, their existence will not.


  • Reactive Attitudes and Human Society


Strawson’s landmark essay, ‘Freedom and Resentment’ (1993), begins by inviting the reader to remember that actions such as blaming and praising involve emotions. Blame involves resentment. Likewise, praise involves admiration or gratitude. Strawson argues that all variations on the act ‘holding accountable’ involve a class of sentiments called the reactive attitudes. Following him, most contemporary philosophers agree that accountability ascriptions depend on these emotions.[2]


Given that reactive attitudes ground accountability ascriptions, they are conceptually tied to moral responsibility. Most philosophers agree that ‘moral responsibility’ is the property of agents that makes holding them accountable for their actions appropriate (see e.g. Wallace 1994). Thus, for those who claim that holding accountable hinges on reactive attitudes, the property of being morally responsible is the property of being an appropriate recipient of these.[3]


Strawson claims that the reactive attitudes express our attachment to others’ quality of will. In calling attention to them, he wants to stress ‘the very great importance that we attach to the attitudes and intentions towards us of other human beings, and the great extent to which our personal feelings and reactions depend upon, or involve, our beliefs about these attitudes and intentions’ (1993, 48). He contends that understanding moral responsibility requires us to recall ‘how much we actually mind, how much it matters to us, whether the actions of other people … reflect attitudes towards us of goodwill’ (49). Reactive attitudes, in his view, express the general human fact that ‘we demand some degree of goodwill or regard on the part of those who stand in … relationships to us’ (Ibid.). In sum, they are ‘essentially natural human reactions to the good or ill will or indifference of others towards us, as displayed in their attitudes and actions’ (53). In what follows, I call this this claim the ‘quality of will’ thesis. Reactive attitudes, as Strawson sees them, express our human disposition to react to others’ attitudes.


Strawson’s second claim is that reactive attitudes are crucial to intelligible human interactions. ‘The existence of the general framework of attitudes itself,’ he writes, ‘is something we are given with the fact of human society’ (1993, 64). According to him, without a framework of attitudes for expressing our demand for goodwill, such societies would be impossible. In such a case, he continues, ‘it is doubtful whether we should have anything that we could find intelligible as a system of human relationships, as human society’ (Strawson, 65). Expressing our demands for goodwill, argues Strawson, is the hallmark of what we understand by human society. This is Strawson’s ‘social’ claim.


It is true, Strawson concedes, that the specific form of reactive attitudes will vary among cultures (1993, 64). It may be that what counts as goodwill varies. It may also be that the attitudes that express our demand will vary too. What will not vary, however, is the existence of a framework of reactive attitudes qua vehicles for expressing our demand for goodwill. Without such a framework, Strawson argues, there would be nothing intelligible as a system of human relationships.


  • Empirically based relativism charge

Strawson underestimates the extent of the psychological differences between different populations. In this section, I discuss evidence suggesting that reactive attitudes will vary in problematic ways that he does not anticipate. More specifically, the existence of their framework may be limited to some cultures. Thus, I argue that tying responsibility to reactive attitudes risks making it culturally local and entailing that only members of some cultures are persons.


Evidence from psychology


Emotions are often thought of as natural kinds (c.f. Ekman 1992). Yet, despite the fact that people feel and identify discrete emotions, a century of research has failed to validate this experience. There is, to date, no ‘objective’ way of determining whether or not someone is in a given emotional state (Barrett 2006; 2015). As Lisa Barrett sees it, this problem delivers the goal of accounting for ‘experiences of anger, sadness, fear … without assuming that their phenomenological character derives from stereotyped, specific patterns of somatovisual activity’ (2006, 30). Her solution is to view emotions as ‘conceptual acts’.


The idea behind the conceptual act theory is that data from perception and somatic states count as emotions when they are conceptualized as such in a given situation. As Barrett puts it, ‘a momentary array of sensations from the world … combined with sensations from the body (X) counts as experience of emotion or a perception of emotion (Y) when categorized as such during a situated conceptualization (C)’ (2015, 420).[4] Via this process, she continues, ‘sensations acquire functions that are not intrinsic to them … As a result, new functions are not based solely on the physical properties of sensations alone’ (Ibid.). Instead, the new functions stem from what these physical properties come to represent, namely a given emotion. So, for example, feeling a ball in your throat might serve the function of coordinating with others in the activity of grieving, when conceptualized as grief in the context of a wake.[5]


The conceptual act theory claims emotions are part of social reality: they are ontologically dependent on the collective intentionality of a given society. Counter-intuitively, one way of making sense of this claim is to compare emotions to weeds. Grant that a plant (X) counts as a weed (Y) when it has not been planted yet is in a flower patch (C). For this to be the case, ‘there must be a group of people who agree that certain instances [of plants] … serve particular functions [those of weeds]’ (Barrett 2015, 420). Likewise, for it to be the case that somatic states and sensations can come to represent an emotion, there needs to be some sort of collective agreement about what sensations count as which emotion in what situation. And, as a result, the novel functions of somatic states that make them emotions are dependent on the interests and values of a given culture. In other words, emotions are ontologically dependent on their cultural context.


There is some debate in cognitive psychology and anthropology about whether or not emotions are universal (c.f. Lutz & White 1986; Oatley 1992). Some cognitive psychologists claim that affect (arousal, pleasure) is universal, and that emotions are usually not (Barrett 2006). Other psychologists propose that there are basic emotions such as anger and sadness. Keith Oatley thinks there are five (1992). Yet none of the reactive attitudes feature in any such list. Given that emotions depend on the interests of a given culture, Strawson’s social claim can only be defended if they can be tied to interests that transcend cultural differences. Of course, he claims that they reflect a human interest in goodwill (this is his quality of will thesis). I take issue with this response in the next subsection.


Evidence from anthropology

Strawson’s quality of will thesis is consonant with the ‘moral intent hypothesis’. As the anthropologist, Clark Barrett, and his colleagues formulate it, the hypothesis states that ‘it is a species-typical property of humans to take an agent’s reasons for action into account in making most types of moral judgments’ (2016, 1). Strawson’s thesis, recall, is that humans naturally care about others’ attitudes, as expressed in action, and that this is what grounds a disposition to respond reactively. Both share the assumption that agents’ attitudes naturally fit into our reactive evaluations of their actions.

Evidential support for the moral intent hypothesis stems almost exclusively from Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) societies (Barrett et al. 2016). Yet, as the cognitive scientist Joe Henrich and his colleagues note, individuals with such backgrounds are ‘some of the most psychologically unusual people on Earth’ (2010, 29). And indeed, this is reflected in Barrett’s results: he and his team investigated the variations in moral judgment across ten societies in six continents, asking participants to morally evaluate norm-breaking actions in light of information about intentions and circumstances. Rather than being a species-general trait, the degree to which ‘an individual’s intentions influence moral judgments,’ they write, show ‘substantial variation … with intentions in some cases playing no role at all’ (2016, 1).[6]

There are human societies, which are intelligible as societies, where individuals attach little to no importance to others’ attitudes. Thus, it is not true that all humans demand ‘goodwill’ from one another. If reactive attitudes are to define intelligible human community, they must reflect another interest. If they do indeed depend on a demand for goodwill, they will vary in ways that Strawson does not anticipate: both their form and the existence of their framework will vary.

Relativism challenge:

Reactive attitudes are key for holding people accountable. If they were exclusive to some cultures, this would mean that only members of these cultures are capable of holding others accountable. The problem with this is that the capacity to hold accountable is thought by some to be a precondition for being responsible (see e.g. Darwall 2006; McKenna 2011). In turn, being responsible is standardly thought of as a defining mark of persons (Frankfurt 1971; F&R 1998). Thus, cultural specificity for responsibility entails cultural specificity for personhood. This is my relativism challenge.


  • Solution: grounding responsibility-practices in folk-psychology


To avoid relativism for responsibility, I propose to ground the ‘social’ claim in folk-psychology: reactive attitudes are a necessary scaffold for social-cognitive skills. Thus, given the importance of social cognition for human community, it is indeed doubtful we would find anything intelligible as a human society in the absence of reactive attitudes (Strawson 1993).


Social cognitive skills ground a human capacity to see other creatures (particularly other humans) as ‘minded’. Doing so enables us to coordinate, predict, and understand behavior – all crucial for living in society. On the standard view, such skills are a matter of discovering facts about each others’ mental states. The regulative view, with which I interest myself at present, challenges this paradigm. It views folk-psychology as principally a matter of forming and regulating our own mental states in accordance with an array of socially shared and maintained sense-making norms (McGeer 2015).


Rather than being an individual project, the regulative view posits that folk-psychology is a communal, norm-governed enterprise. One implication of this is that being a competent folk-psychological agent is a matter of acquiring a certain degree of know-how as well as know-that: one must grasp the rules of folk-psychology. But one must also learn to follow them. As one learns to apply the rules of shaping one’s mind intelligibly, one becomes more intelligible to others. Yet, since those others apply these same rules, mastering them also enables one to understand other people who partake in the practice. McGeer labels this emergent mutual understanding a ‘practice-dependent epistemic gain’ (2015).

‘Practice-dependent epistemic gains’, writes McGeer, ‘are also vulnerable to non-conforming thought and action.’ As she explains, ‘you will have difficulty understanding what your opponent is up to – and vice versa – if either one of you fails to conform to the rules and strategies [of the practice]’ (2015, 262). The result of this, according to her, is that norm-governed practices are often supported by a disposition for corrigibility. Communicative mechanisms remedy the potential for norm-deviating behavior by adjusting each others’ behaviors. When someone deviates and intelligibility breaks down, they are called out. This is the ‘scaffolded’ nature of regulative folk-psychology: even as one’s capacity to operate increases, it continues to depend on the regulative interventions of others (McGeer 2015, 262).

The scaffolded nature of folk-psychology suggests that we have a rich enforcement mechanism for sense-making norms. ‘And indeed we do,’ writes McGeer, ‘It is just the practice that P.F. Strawson celebrates in … “On Freedom and Resentment.”’ (2015, 272). Reactive attitudes suggest that we are reactively sensible to something. Yet it need not be others’ quality of will. According to the regulative picture, we are sensible to deviations from public sense-making norms. When interlocutors’ deeds do not fit together intelligibly, when they profess to have mental states that are incommensurate with their acts, or indeed when they deviate from moral norms, we react. This is not grounded in an assessment of their quality of will. It is grounded in an effort to interact intelligibly.

Reactive attitudes are, in effect, the backbone of social interactions. This is Strawson’s ‘social’ claim. Yet they do not fulfill this function in the way Strawson thought. Rather than giving voice to our attachment to quality of wills, I suggest they operate as the enforcement mechanism for communal intelligibility norms. In other words, the Strawsonian reactive attitudes scaffold our capacity to shape our minds in a way that makes us intelligible to others. Without this capacity, I submit, it would be hard to see anything intelligible as human society.



In conclusion, the quality of will thesis is implausible. Yet Strawson’s picture of ‘bounded’ cultural variations is correct. Different societies will have different sense-making norms. They may even have different specific reactive attitudes that enforce them. But they will nevertheless have a framework of reactive attitudes. This is his social claim. Because moral responsibility practices hinge on this framework, rather than the specific form its attitudes take, the relativism problem is avoided.


[1] Prominent examples include Strawson (1993), Wallace (1994), Fischer & Ravizza (1998), McKenna (2011). Moreover, Todd (2016) argues that this view is available to libertarians too. For one notable example see Zimmerman (1988) and other ‘ledger theorists’.

[2] Although, they disagree about what defines them and what else holding accountable involves. See in this connection Wallace (1994), who influentially claims it implies a belief that they are appropriate. See Bennett (1980) and McKenna (2011) for different viewpoints as to the nature of these emotions qua mental states. See McGeer (2014), Watson (2004), and Wallace (1994) for different views as to what defines reactive attitudes as a class. And see Todd (2016) for critical discussions.

[3] This view is a standard ‘point of agreement’ for different theories of responsibility. See Neil Levy (2005) in this connection.

[4] Accurately describing the phenomenon of situated conceptualization is not necessary for my purposes here. Nor is it within the scope of the paper. See Wilson-Mendenhall et al. (2011) for a detailed discussion.

[5] Barrett (2006) discusses the evidence that this process can explain discrete emotional experiences.

[6] For the full experimental detail, see Barrett et al. ‘Small-scale societies exhibit fundamental variation in the role of intentions in moral judgment’ (2016). The experiment tested for variations of moral judgment relative to six variables: intentional vs. accidental behavior, motivated vs. non-motivated behavior, justified vs. unjustified, and subject to mitigating factors or not.

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McKenna, Michael. Conversation & Responsibility. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

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Wallace, R. Jay. Responsibility and the Moral Sentiments. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1994. Print.

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  1. Barsalou. “Grounding Emotion in Situated Conceptualization.” Neuropsychologia 49.5 (2011): 1105-127. Web.

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