As many here know, I’m a huge fan of Strawson’s “Freedom and Resentment,” but I’ve never really been convinced by the argument. Why should my proneness to experiencing an attitude connected to moral responsibility make me think that the belief in moral responsibility is immune from rational criticism? Just a few weeks ago, however, as I was watching Toy Story 2 with my daughter Eliza, I felt the force of Strawson’s argument for maybe the first time. For those who don’t know the movie, a toy store owner (henceforth “the Chicken Man”) steals Woody, the toy cowboy voiced by Tom Hanks, from a yard sale just as Woody is saving broken penguin squeaky toy from the 25 cents box. The Chicken Man intends to sell Woody to a Japanese toy museum for a large amount of money. He's about to put Woody on an airplane and make his fortune when Buzz Lightyear, Mr. Potatohead, a slinky dog, and a dinosaur voiced by the playwright Wallace Shawn rescue Woody at the last minute.
Now (bear with me) the Chicken Man’s running TV gimmick throughout the movie is to dress up like a chicken and say ‘come to Al’s Toy Barn—everything for a buck buck buck.” At the end of the movie, we see him on TV and he’s doing his schtick but now he’s crying because his diabolical plan was ruined: “Everything for a [sob] buck [sob] buck [sob] buck.
Like most toddlers, my daughter is very attuned to the emotional states of others. When we watch movies, she’ll say to me repeatedly “Nemo’s Daddy sad.” “Cindarella sad.” “Gromit’s sad.” And it really bothers her. She’ll look at me, tilt her head, and ask ‘soon happy?’ Usually I can say “yes, soon happy” because we haven’t started to watch 70s film with dark endings yet. (I’m waiting until she turns six before we watch Chinatown.)
This time, when we see the commercial and the chicken man is sobbing, my daughter says (as usual):
But then, after a two second pause, she adds:
“I’m glad he’s sad.”
The first thing that struck me was that retributive emotions run pretty deep. Eliza, not even three, already thinks: ‘it’s good when bad people are sad.’ And I can almost guarantee she wasn’t performing a utilitarian calculation when she expressed that sentiment.
More troubling for me, I thought she was right! Yet I’m committed to the view that no one deserves blame because everything is swallowed up by moral luck. So then I tried to think: OK, this chicken man had bad constitutive luck, circumstantial luck, wasn’t ultimately responsible for... but then I realized: I don’t care! I’m glad he’s sad too. I don’t care what kind of bad moral luck he’s had. I don’t care that the chicken man wasn’t causa sui, or had bad constitutive luck, or that his act may have been determined, or that he was not ultimately responsible for any of the factors leading to his character or action. Eliza's right! The Chicken Man deserves to be sad, period. All the theories in the world haven’t made an impression like she did that evening.
I’m not exactly sure what to make of this story. I can’t say it marks the end of my skepticism about moral responsibility. But I feel like it’s philosophically important somehow. (Or maybe not.)