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A Role for Consciousness After All

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In a recent paper in this journal, Matt King and Peter Carruthers argue that the common assumption that agents are only (or especially) morally responsible for actions caused by attitudes of which they are conscious needs to be rethought. They claim that there is persuasive evidence that we are never conscious of our propositional attitudes; we ought therefore to design our theories of moral responsibility to accommodate this fact. In this reply, I argue that the evidence they adduce need not worry philosophers. There is an ongoing debate over the role that consciousness of our attitudes plays in morally responsible behaviour, but the evidence they produce does not favour either side. Even if we are not conscious of our propositional attitudes as such – even if we lack introspective access to their content – we nevertheless reliably come to know their content. There are systematic differences between those attitudes of whose content we come to be aware and those we do not, and these differences are directly relevant to our moral responsibility. Moreover, coming to be aware of the content of our attitudes has effects on our behaviour, and these effects are directly relevant to our moral responsibility. The causal route whereby we come to be conscious of the content of our attitudes is irrelevant to whether they play the right kinds of roles to distinguish between actions for which we are responsible and actions for which we ought to be excused.


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