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Naturalism, Genealogy and Responsibility Scepticism

Tuesday, September 26, 2017, 3:30 pm – 5:10 pm

ABSTRACT: This paper is concerned with a central strand of P.F. Strawson's effort to show that scepticism about moral responsibility is impossible. Strawson's argument is complex but one crucial aspect is the claim that, given our human nature, we are naturally and inescapably committed to reactive attitudes. I argue that although there are significant features of this argument that are seriously flawed, Strawson presents an interesting challenge to the sceptic - one that demands more careful consideration. This challenge takes the form of the question why human beings are liable or prone to reactive attitudes if tokens of them are always inappropriate or unjustified (and never were or could be justified)? I consider some possible hypotheses that the sceptic might offer in reply to this challenge and pay particular attention to a genealogical account that suggests that our liability to emotions of this kind is a product of a particular (modern, Western) cultural history, and not something that is basic or universal to human nature. I go on to argue that although this "subversive" genealogical account is illuminating and convincing as far as it goes, it is, nevertheless, incomplete in important respects. A more complete or fully adequate genealogical story, I maintain, would serve to vindicate Strawson's core claim about our natural commitment to the reactive attitudes.