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Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, philosophy and health care

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Responsibility and Consciousness

Matt King and Peter Carruthers

1. Introduction

Intuitively, consciousness matters for responsibility. A lack of awareness generally provides the
basis for an excuse, or at least for blameworthiness to be mitigated. If you are aware that what
you are doing will unjustifiably harm someone, it seems you are more blameworthy for doing so
than if you harm them without awareness. There is thus a strong presumption that consciousness
is important for responsibility. The position we stake out below, however, is that consciousness,
while relevant to moral responsibility, isn’t necessary.

The background for our discussion is an emerging consensus in the cognitive sciences
that a significant portion, perhaps even a substantial majority, of our mental lives takes place
unconsciously. For example, routine and habitual actions are generally guided by the so-called
“dorsal stream” of the visual system, whose outputs are inaccessible to consciousness (Milner &
Goodale 1995; Goodale 2014). And there has been extensive investigation of the processes that
accompany conscious as opposed to unconscious forms of experience (Dehaene 2014). While
there is room for disagreement at the margins, there is little doubt that our actions are much more
influenced by unconscious factors than might intuitively seem to be the case. At a minimum,
therefore, theories of responsibility that ignore the role of unconscious factors supported by the
empirical data proceed at their own peril (King & Carruthers 2012). The crucial area of inquiry
for those interested in the relationship between consciousness and responsibility concerns the
relative strength of that relationship and the extent to which it should be impacted by findings in
the empirical sciences.

The paper is here.
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