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Moral Responsibility and Consciousness

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Our goal in this paper is to raise a general question about the relationship between theories of responsibility, on the one hand, and a commitment to conscious attitudes, on the other. The evidence from cognitive science suggests that there are no conscious mental states playing the right causal roles to count as decisions, judgments, or evaluations. We propose that all theorists should determine whether their theories (or the examples that motivate them) could survive the discovery that there are no conscious states of these kinds. Since we take it that theories of moral responsibility should, in general, operate with the weakest possible empirical assumptions about the natural world, such theories should be framed in such a way as to be free of any commitment to the existence of conscious attitudes, given the very real possibility that there might turn out not to be any.

1. fn51* The ordering of names was determined by a coin toss.
2. fn11 One of the only examples known to us is Neil Levy, ‘Are zombies responsible? The Role of Consciousness in Moral Responsibility’, (forthcoming). He argues that agents are only fully responsible for their actions when those actions are a product of conscious reasoning and/or decision making. In a somewhat different spirit, philosophers like Mele and Nahmias have begun to critique the work of cognitive scientists such as Libet and Wegner, who challenge the existence of conscious will. See A. Mele, ‘Decision, Intentions, Urges, and Free Will: Why Libet Has Not Shown What He Says He Has’, in J. Campbell, M. O’Rourke, and D. Shier (eds.), Explanation and Causation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005); E. Nahmias, ‘When Consciousness Matters: A Critical Review of Daniel Wegner’s The Illusion of Conscious Will’, Philosophical Psychology 15 (2002), pp. 527-41; B. Libet, ‘Unconscious Cerrebral Initiative and the Role of Conscious Will in Voluntary Action’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 8 (1985), pp. 529-66, and B. Libet, ‘Consciousness, Free Action and the Brain’, Journal of Consciousness Studies 8 (2001), pp. 59-65; D. Wegner, The Illusion of Conscious Will (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002). But for the most part philosophers have failed to take up the question of what, if anything, would follow for theories of responsibility if such claims made by cognitive scientists were correct. This is our question.
3. fn22 We note, however, that if it should turn out that some or all libertarians are committed to the existence of conscious attitudes, then the possibility of a novel skeptical position would open up. This would be one that rejects determinism and/or endorses agent causation, but still denies that humans are responsible on the grounds that there aren’t any conscious attitudes of the sort required.
4. fn33 See S. Wolf, Freedom within Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).
5. fn44 See R. Broughton, R. Billings, et al., ‘Homicidal Somnambulism: A Case Report’, Sleep 17 (1994), pp. 253-64.
6. fn55 See I. Biran and A. Chatterjee, ‘Alien Hand Syndrome’, Archives of Neurology 61 (2004), pp. 292-4.
7. fn66 See C. Marks, Commissurotomy, Consciousness, and Unity of Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990); M. Tye, Consciousness and Persons (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003).
8. fn77 R. Pucetti, ‘The Case for Mental Duality: Evidence from Split-Brain Data and Other Considerations’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 4 (1981), pp. 93-123.
9. fn88 See D. Geschwind, M. Iacoboni, et al., ‘Alien Hand Syndrome: Interhemispheric Motor Disconnection Due to a Lesion in the Midbody of the Corpus Callosum’, Neurology 45 (1995), pp. 802-8.
10. fn99 See P. Carruthers, ‘How We Know Our Own Minds: The Relationship Between Mind-Reading and Metacognition’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32 (2009), pp. 121-182.
11. fn1010 And in any case, of course, conditional questions in philosophy can often have an interest that is independent of the plausibility of their antecedents.
12. fn1111 See F. Dretske, Naturalizing the Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995); M. Tye, Ten Problems of Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995).
13. fn1212 W. Lycan, Consciousness and Experience (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).
14. fn1313 P. Carruthers, Phenomenal Consciousness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
15. fn1414 D. Rosenthal, Consciousness and Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
16. fn1515 D. Chalmers, ‘Availability: The Cognitive Basis of Experience’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 20 (1997), pp. 148-9.
17. fn1616 See G. Evans, The Varieties of Reference (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982); B. Brewer, Perception and Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
18. fn1717 D. Rosenthal, Consciousness and Mind.
19. fn1818 This is a variant of the so-called “rock objection” to higher-order theories: if awareness of a mental state renders it conscious, then how is it that awareness of a rock doesn’t render it conscious? See A. Goldman, ‘Consciousness, Folk-Psychology, and Cognitive Science’, Consciousness and Cognition 2 (1993), pp. 364-82; L. Stubenberg, Consciousness and Qualia (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1998). But the present argument isn’t vulnerable to the obvious rejoinder, which is that only mental states are the right kinds of thing to be conscious. See W. Lycan, Consciousness and Experience.
20. fn1919 N. Block, ‘A Confusion about the Function of Consciousness’, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 18 (1995), pp. 227-47; N. Block, ‘The Harder Problem of Consciousness’, The Journal of Philosophy 99 (2002), pp. 1-35.
21. fn2020 See, e.g., S. Dehaene and L. Naccache, ‘Towards a Cognitive Neuroscience of Consciousness: Basic Evidence and a Workspace Framework’, Cognition 79 (2001), pp. 1-37; B. Baars, ‘The Conscious Access Hypothesis: Origins and Recent Evidence’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 6 (2002), pp. 47-52; B. Baars, T. Ramsoy, et al., ‘Brain, Consciousness, and the Observing Self’, Trends in Neurosciences 26 (2003), pp. 671-5; S. Dehaene, J-P. Changeux, et al., ‘Conscious, Preconscious, and Subliminal Processing: A Testable Taxonomy’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 10 (2006), pp. 204-11.
22. fn2121 See, e.g., A. Baddeley and G. Hitch, ‘Working Memory’, in G. Bower (ed.), Recent Advances in Learning and Motivation, vol. 8 (New York: Academic Press, 1974); A. Baddeley and R. Logie, ‘Working Memory: The Multiple-Component Model’ in A. Miyake and P. Shah (eds.), Models of Working Memory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); A. Baddeley, Working Memory, Thought, and Action (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
23. fn2222 The phonological loop activates and maintains linguistic representations, or so-called “inner speech”. The visuo-spatial sketchpad is responsible for broadcasting visual images. In light of the recent discovery of the important role played by motor imagery in conscious learning and reasoning (see M. Jeannerod, Motor Cognition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)), a third slave system should probably be added. (Indeed, see P. Barnard, ‘Interacting Cognitive Subsystems’ in A. Miyake and P. Shah (eds.), Models of Working Memory, for just such a proposal.)
24. fn2323 J. Fodor, The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000).
25. fn2424 For further details, see Carruthers, ‘How We Know Our Own Minds,’ and P. Carruthers, The Opacity of Mind: An Integrative Theory of Self-Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
26. fn2525 One approach stresses manipulation. This is the so-called “Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis.” See R. Byrne and A. Whiten (eds.), Machiavellian Intelligence: Social Expertise and the Evolution of Intellect in Monkeys, Apes, and Humans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988) and R. Byrne and A. Whiten (eds.), Machiavellian Intelligence II: Extensions and Evaluations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). Another stresses cooperation. See M. Tomasello, Origins of Human Communication (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008) and S. Hrdy, Mothers and Others (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).Consistent with such claims, there is now significant evidence of primitive mindreading abilities in other highly social creatures, especially monkeys and apes. See B. Hare, J. Call, et al., ‘Do Chimpanzees Know What Conspecifics Know?’ Animal Behavior 61 (2001), pp. 139-51; B. Hare, E. Addessi, et al., ‘Do Capuchin Monkeys, Cebus paella, Know What Conspecifics Do and Do Not See?’ Animals Behavior 65(2003), pp. 131-42; B. Hare, J. Call, et al., ‘Chimpanzees Deceive a Human Competitor by Hiding’, Cognition 101 (2006), pp. 495-514; M. Tomasello, J. Call, et al., ‘Chimpanzees Understand Psychological States – the Question is Which Ones and to What Extent’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7 (2003), pp. 153-6; J. Flombaum and L. Santos, ‘Rhesus Monkeys Attribute Perceptions to Others,’ Current Biology 15 (2005), pp. 447-52; L. Santos, A. Nissen, et al., ‘Rhesus Monkeys (Macaca mulatta) Know What Others Can and Cannot Hear’, Animal Behavior 71 (2006), pp. 1175-81.Likewise there is increasing evidence that mindreading capacities are innately channeled in human infants, emerging early and reliably in the first year or two of life. See G. Csibra, S. Bíró, et al., ‘One-Year-Old Infants Use Teleological Representations of Actions Productively’, Cognitive Science 27 (2003), pp. 111-33; K. Onishi and R. Baillargeon, ‘Do 15-month-Olds Understand False Beliefs?’ Science 5719 (2005), pp. 255-8; V. Southgate, A. Senju, et al., ‘Action Anticipation Through Attribution of False Belief by 2-Year-Olds’, Psychological Science 18 (2007), pp. 587-92; H. Song and R. Baillargeon, ‘Infants’ Reasoning About Others’ False Perceptions’, Developmental Psychology 44 (2008), pp. 1789-95; D. Buttelmann, M. Carpenter, et al., ‘Eighteen-Month-Old Infants Show False Belief Understanding in an Active Helping Paradigm’, Cognition 112 (2009), pp. 337-42.
27. fn2626 See A. Baars, A Cognitive Theory of Consciousness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988); M. Shanahan and A. Baars, ‘Applying Global Workspace Theory to the Frame Problem’, Cognition 98 (2005), pp. 157-76; P. Carruthers, The Architecture of the Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
28. fn2727 For extensive review and discussion, see P. Carruthers, ‘Introspection: Divided and Partly Eliminated’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 80 (2010), pp. 76-111.
29. fn2828 G. Wells and R. Petty, ‘The Effects of Overt Head Movements on Persuasion’, Basic and Applied Social Psychology 1 (1980), pp. 219-30.
30. fn2929 P. Briñol and R. Petty, ‘Overt Head Movementls and Persuasion: A Self-Validation Analysis’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84 (2003), pp. 1123-39.
31. fn3030 Carruthers, ‘Introspection: Divided and Partly Eliminated’.
32. fn3131 Carruthers, ‘How We Know Our Own Minds’, and Carruthers, The Opacity of Mind.
33. fn3232 For canonical versions, see H. Frankfurt, ‘Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person’, Journal of Philosophy 68 (1971), pp. 5-20 and G. Watson, ‘Free Agency’, Journal of Philosophy 72 (1975), pp. 205-20. For further developments, see H. Frankfurt, The Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) and G. Watson, Agency and Answerability (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
34. fn3333 J. Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (many editions, 1690).
35. fn3434 In what follows we use “endorse” as a semi-technical term, intended to be neutral between the Real Self accounts of Frankfurt and Watson. Roughly, one can endorse a desire either by having a desire that the desire in question should motivate one’s actions or by judging that the desire in question is consistent with one’s values.
36. fn3535 See J. Hornsby, Simple Mindedness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997); J. Bermúdez, ‘Personal and Subpersonal’, Philosophical Explorations 2 (2000), pp. 63-82.
37. fn3636 P. Carruthers, ‘Cartesian Epistemology: Is the Theory of the Self-Transparent Mind Innate?’ Journal of Consciousness Studies 15:4 (2008), pp. 28-53; Carruthers, The Opacity of Mind.
38. fn3737 Frankfurt, ‘Free Will and the Concept of a Person’; Watson, ‘Free Agency’.
39. fn3838 Frankfurt, ‘Free Will and the Concept of a Person’.
40. fn3939 Compare Nahmias, who stresses that to the degree that we are influenced by unconscious factors (of which we are not aware) we are less responsible for what we do as a result. His argument, too, suggests that conscious attitudes are important to responsibility. See E. Nahmias, ‘Autonomous Agency and Social Psychology’, in M. Marraffa, M. Caro, and F. Ferretti (eds.), Cartographies of the Mind: Philosophy and Psychology in Intersection (Dordrecht: Springer, 2007).
41. fn4040 Carruthers, ‘How We Know Our Own Minds’; Carruthers, The Opacity of Mind.
42. fn4141 See, e.g., D. Dennett, Consciousness Explained (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1991); K. Frankish, Mind and Supermind, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
43. fn4242 Frankish, Mind and Supermind.
44. fn4343 In other cases, of course, the real decision may be taken up-stream, rather than down-stream, of an event of conscious inner verbalization. But the latter will only give us interpretative access to the former, and hence the decision itself won’t be a conscious one.
45. fn4444 E. Machery, R. Mallon, et al., ‘Semantics Cross-Cultural Style’, Cognition 92 (2004), pp. 1-12.
46. fn4545 E.g., M. Hauser, Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong (New York: Ecco, 2006).
47. fn4646 B. Scholl, ‘Object Persistence in Philosophy and Psychology’, Mind and Language 22 (2007), pp. 563-91.
48. fn4747 Carruthers, ‘Cartesian Epistemology: Is the Theory of the Self-Transparent Mind Innate?’; Carruthers, The Opacity of Mind.
49. fn4848 One might argue, for example, that neither Klepto nor Harry “could have done otherwise”, and it is for this reason that neither is responsible. However, such a claim is not only controversial, but full of difficulties of its own. Indeed, part of the appeal of Real Self theories lay in their ability to capture Klepto’s and Harry’s non-responsibility without appeal to any controversial condition. And we again stress that our aim has not been to show that Klepto and Harry must necessarily be responsible for what they do, but rather to motivate critically assessing assumptions about consciousness to thinking about responsibility.
50. fn4949 For discussion of the possibility of living without responsibility, see S. Smilansky, Free Will and Illusion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) and D. Pereboom, Living Without Free Will (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
51. fn5050 We are grateful to an anonymous referee for this journal for insightful comments on an earlier draft.

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Affiliations: 1: St. Bonaventure University ; 2: University of Maryland


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