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Joshua Knobe
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Suppose you are sitting at your desk, reflecting on a moral question. Now suppose that as you are reflecting on this question, you happen to be looking around at a somewhat disgusting scene. Perhaps there is a half-eaten apple on... Continue reading
Posted Aug 21, 2016 at PEA Soup
Suppose you are sitting at your desk, reflecting on a moral question. Now suppose that as you are reflecting on this question, you happen to be looking around at a somewhat disgusting scene. Perhaps there is a half-eaten apple on the desk, or a bad smell in the room, or... Continue reading
Posted Aug 21, 2016 at Experimental Philosophy
Around a year ago, I wrote about a really beautiful study by Machery and colleagues on cross-cultural similarities in epistemic intuitions. The study looked at intuitions about Gettier cases in four different cultures and found that the Gettier intuition was remarkably robust across demographic differences. But of course, I could... Continue reading
Posted Jul 29, 2016 at Experimental Philosophy
It's been really wonderful serving as featured author these past few weeks, and I wanted to conclude just by thanking all of the people who made this possible. First, a huge thank you to Thomas Nadelhoffer for creating this whole amazing series. Then, many thanks to all the people who... Continue reading
Posted Jul 22, 2016 at Flickers of Freedom
One of the most salient and noteworthy facts about the question of free will is that people find it confusing. Just try teaching a course on the topic, and you will immediately notice that there is something drawing students toward incompatibilism but that there is also something drawing them toward... Continue reading
Posted Jul 20, 2016 at Flickers of Freedom
I have been suggesting that people don't think that mental states can just straightforwardly cause human action, but surely people do recognize that mental states play some role in our actions. So how exactly do people understand the relationship between our beliefs, desires, emotions, etc. and the actions we choose... Continue reading
Posted Jul 17, 2016 at Flickers of Freedom
Let's turn now to a topic that is near and dear to many readers around here. We have been discussing some findings from recent research on the way people ordinarily conceptualize the self. So then, what can this research teach us about the relationship between ordinary conception of self and... Continue reading
Posted Jul 14, 2016 at Flickers of Freedom
Alas, my reign as official featured author came to an end on Sunday, but I thought I'd put up a couple of further posts just to round out the discussion of these issues. (Other people should definitely feel free to put up their own posts as well.) This one is... Continue reading
Posted Jul 12, 2016 at Flickers of Freedom
Hi Eddy, Yes! This is exactly the right way to test the hypothesis, and it's precisely what we did. In Experiment 5 of the paper linked above, we randomly assigned participants to be told either that the agent's true self was morally good or morally bad, and in both cases, we asked about moral responsibility for the morally bad act that was driven by uncontrollable anger. Just as you suggest, participants thought the agent was more morally responsible when her true self was described as being morally bad than when her true self was described as being morally good. Note that this is exactly the opposite of the prediction that comes out of the obvious alternatives to the true self theory. In the case where the agent's true self is morally bad, she is, if anything, less reasons responsive and less capable of doing the right thing for the right reasons. Yet people actually regard her as *more* morally responsible.
Hi Dan, Thanks, this is super helpful and really does a lot to get to the heart of the issue. To explore this question further, maybe it will be helpful to draw a distinction between two claims. First, there is the weak claim that the the notion of a true self plays an important role in moral responsibility judgment. Second, there is the strong claim that there is a specific sense of responsibility (responsibility as attributability) that is completely based on the true self and not at all on other parts of the self. My sense is that existing studies suggest that people's ordinary practice conforms to this first claim but not to the second. For example, in my most recent post, I discuss a case in which people seem to think that the agent's anger is not part of his true self. In this case, studies show that people assign less responsibility and blame (first claim), but I don't think that there would be a certain sense of responsibility in which they would not regard the agent as responsible at all (second claim). In light of this, I am thinking that maybe we have reason to adopt a slightly different understanding of the notion of a true self. This notion does indeed play a role in responsibility judgments, but perhaps it would be a mistake just to *define* it in terms of its role in such judgments. Instead, I am thinking that the normativity we find in the notion of a true self is much closer to the normativity we find in concepts like that of the essence of the United States. What do you think?
Toggle Commented Jul 11, 2016 on True Self and Essentialism at Flickers of Freedom
Ok everyone, third substantive post, coming right at ya! This one is about moral responsibility. Consider two cases: (1) Fred says something mean to Jane. He was feeling so upset that he couldn't have done otherwise. (2) Fred says something nice to Jane. He was feeling so overcome by compassion... Continue reading
Posted Jul 10, 2016 at Flickers of Freedom
I had been planning to put up another post today, continuing this more theoretical exploration of the role of the true self in moral responsibility judgments, but in light of everything that's been happening these days, I decided to put that off until tomorrow. Instead, it might be a good... Continue reading
Posted Jul 9, 2016 at Flickers of Freedom
Hi Ben, This idea sounds intriguing, and I would love to hear more about it. Putting your point into the framework I have been proposing here, I wonder if we might describe it as follows: People can attribute essences to entities of many different types (human beings, scientific papers, bands, etc.). However, not all of these entities have true selves. The essence of an entity only counts as a true self when that entity has a self. So when we are trying to determine whether something belongs to an entity's true self, we need to determine not only (a) whether that thing belongs to the entity's essence but also (b) whether the entity even has a self at all. It is with regard to this second question that second-order states play a role. Does all of that sound right to you?
Toggle Commented Jul 8, 2016 on True Self and Essentialism at Flickers of Freedom
Hi Angra, Thanks for these further thoughts. In one of our experiments, the experimental participants themselves are actually asked a question using the word 'essence,' so we do have good evidence for the claim that people are thinking about these things as essences. Still, a question remains about how people understand these essences from an ontological perspective. I don't know the answer to that question, but my guess is that ordinary folks just have no views at all on it. (This hypothesis draws on and approach that Eddy, writing in another context, refers to as 'theory lite.') In other words, my guess is that people have beliefs about the essences of various specific papers, nations, etc. but that people don't have any beliefs at all about the ontological status of the essences they are attributing.
Toggle Commented Jul 8, 2016 on True Self and Essentialism at Flickers of Freedom
Kip, Just wanted to say that I appreciate these thoughts about constitutive luck and and I'm looking forward to thinking more about them. As I said earlier, it seems clear that people find the problem of free will to be confusing. Clearly, we need some way to explain that confusion, and this sounds like a very plausible candidate.
Toggle Commented Jul 8, 2016 on True Self and Essentialism at Flickers of Freedom
Hi Ben, Thanks so much for your continued engagement. I'm thinking that maybe the best way to get to the bottom of this would be for me to try to state a little bit more clearly the position I was trying to develop and then for you to save a little bit about where you think it is going wrong. Okay, here goes... First, consider a band. We can think of the band as a collection of members (a guitarist, a drummer, etc.), but we might also think that there is something like an *essence* of the band. That is, we might think that some of the band's albums are genuine expressions of what the band is really all about and that others are best understood as betraying that essence. A key point here is that the essence of a band is not something like a privileged subset of the members of the band. Rather, when you are thinking in this essentialist way about the band, you are not just thinking of it as a collection of members. You are using a very different kind of a conceptual framework. Now consider the way we think about the self. We can think of the self as a collection of mental states (beliefs, desires, etc.), but we can also that there is something like a *true self*. That is, we can think some of your actions our genuine expressions of who you really are and others are best understood as betraying the person you really are. What I was trying to suggest is that these notions cannot be spelled out in terms of the framework philosophers have developed for thinking about collections of mental states. The true self is something like a privileged subset of the agent's mental states. Rather, it is best understood in a completely different way. Instead of thinking about collections of mental states and the properties they have, we might start by just trying to understand what people mean when they attribute essence to these other entities. The true self could that be understood against the backdrop of that very different sort of conceptual framework.
Toggle Commented Jul 8, 2016 on True Self and Essentialism at Flickers of Freedom
Hi Alan, Good questions. I don't know if you will find this answer helpful, but the idea is basically that we can answer questions about the true self in just the same way we answer other questions about essence. For example, suppose that Democrats and Republicans have a disagreement about the essence of the United States. Democrats say that Donald Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric goes against the essence of what our nation is all about; Republicans disagree. It might be hard to know precisely how to adjudicate such a disagreement, but my thought is that whatever we would do in adjudicating a disagreement like that, precisely the same approach would make sense for disagreements about the true self.
Toggle Commented Jul 7, 2016 on True Self and Essentialism at Flickers of Freedom
Hi David, This is really a great point. What I meant originally is that we won't be able to make progress on understanding the notion of a true self by drawing distinctions between different types of mental states (e.g., by distinguishing between desires, beliefs, cares, and judgments). Still, one may say that, at the very least, the only things that get to be part of the true self are the agent's mental states. I am not sure. Suppose that a child grows up exposed only to vapid pop music. She enjoys listening to this stuff and has never considered any other option. Then, one day, she encounters a punk rock for the first time. She immediately feels that this music really speaks to her. So she stops listening to that pop and becomes a punk rock fan. Now consider the time before she was exposed to punk rock. At that time, she did have a mental state of liking pop but did not have a mental state of liking punk. Still, I would say that listening to punk would have been a more genuine expression of the true self she had even at that time. In other words, my intuition is that the true self she had at that time was not exhausted by the mental states she had at that time. Does that sound right to you?
Toggle Commented Jul 7, 2016 on True Self and Essentialism at Flickers of Freedom
Ok, here comes my second substantive post. In the last one, I suggested that philosophers have often tried to understand the notion of a true self using a framework derived from philosophy of mind. This framework says that people have various mental states and that these states can be characterized... Continue reading
Posted Jul 7, 2016 at Flickers of Freedom
Hi Ben, Wonderful to see you here. Very much looking forward to hearing more about your thoughts on this! Just as you suggest, if it turns out that people have the intuition that wantons do not have true selves, that fact would provide strong evidence against my view. So all I can say is that I do not think people would have this intuition. Let us imagine a person who has no second order desires of any kind. She has first order desires and first order moral beliefs, but she has no attitudes at all about her own mental states. Suppose that this person grows up in a racist society. She is taught to treat people of other races as inferior and sincerely believes this to be the right thing to do. Then, one day, she experiences a surge of compassion and radically changes her desires and beliefs. She now works for racial justice, believes that her past actions were morally wrong, and feels guilty for the things she has done. However, because she has no second order states, she has no attitude at all about either her previous mental states or her present ones. So she believes that her past actions were morally wrong and that her present actions are morally better, but she has no attitudes about the mental status that generated those actions - only about the actions themselves. Although it is clearly an empirical question, my guess is that people would say in such a case that her desire for racial justice is part of her true self. Then, more generally, my sense is that second order states play very little role at all in people's ordinary understanding of agency. In all of the famous philosophical examples that involves such states, my guess is that people's intuitions are actually driven by some other factor entirely.
Hi Angra, Paul and Tamler, Just a quick note to say that this approach sounds really promising. Of course, the notion of flourishing is in some ways quite different from the notion of being morally good, but on the scale of things, one might regard the difference between them as something of a family squabble. Both of these hypotheses involve a kind of normative evaluation, and the two are therefore much more similar to each other than either is to the hypotheses that emphasize different types of mental states.
Angra, These are both excellent points. Just to clarify, were you thinking that your second point could be explained by the first? Is it that we have different intuitions about the extraterrestrials because we think they would arrive at different conclusions after rationally ideal reflection?
Jeremy and Kip, This is really a fantastic example, and I very much hope that it leads to the development of a whole new literature at the intersection of agency theory and film studies. ; -) I appreciate Kip's suggestion that one might see the act of killing in this case as not truly being morally bad, but let me pursue just a little bit farther the idea that other factors are playing a role. To give an example of what I have in mind, consider the role of SKILL. It strikes me as important that the Clint Eastwood character is portrayed as being very, very good at killing people. What if it had gone the opposite way? Suppose that he had been a completely incompetent assassin and that he then switched over to taking a job as a farmer, which he did extraordinarily well. Other than that, let's suppose that everything stays the same. Would we say in this case that, even though he is an amazing farmer, his true self is calling him to go back to being a bumbling assassin? I have not run the study, but my own intuition is that this version makes things very different. More generally, it seems that people's intuitions about an agent's true self are often affected by judgments about what this agent is good at. Okay, that particular hypothesis might turn out to be wrong, but perhaps it helps to illustrate a larger point. These intuitions are affected by a wide variety of factors, and many of them go far beyond anything about the agent's specific mental states.
Thanks Kip! I really appreciate the kind words, and I look forward to hearing more about your thoughts on these issues. Regarding the question about whether compatibilism is intuitive, it seems like the first thing to notice about that question is that it is deeply *confusing*. A theory of people's ordinary understanding of agency should help us to make sense of this confusion. If a theory just says that people's ordinary understanding is straightforwardly compatibilist or that it is straightforwardly incompatibilist, it seems that this theory is dodging the key phenomenon we need to explain. I think that an account of people's conception of the self has the potential to illuminate these issues, helping us to see why people often feel pulled in conflicting directions. Maybe I am wrong about that and we ought to be looking for an explanation somewhere else. Still, regardless of whether my explanation is right or wrong, it seems that the phenomenon we need to explain is people's tendency to find these issues puzzling and to be pulled in conflicting directions. More on the other issues soon...
Hi Jeremy, Great to have you as part of this conversation. This is a really good point, and I definitely agree that any adequate theory in this domain will have to accommodate it. Just to clarify, our study found that people with different values have different intuitions about the true self in these cases. Specifically, liberal participants tend to say that the agent's belief that gay sex is morally wrong is *not* part of the true self, whereas conservative participants tend to say that this belief *is* part of the true self. This result provides support for the claim that value judgments are playing a role in people's true self intuitions. That said, I completely agree that there our cases in which people have the intuition that an agent's most wicked desires actually are part of his or her true self. Your example from Unforgiven Is a great case. Perhaps you would disagree, but my guess is that value judgments play a role in people's true self intuitions but that other factors also play a role. Then, in your example, my guess would be that one of these other factors is leading us to see the agent's desires as part of the true self. But of course, that is just a vague hint at a strategy for addressing your question, and I would definitely be open to other suggestions.