Washington, N., and Kelly, D. (2014). ‘Should an Individual
Composed of Selfish Goals be Held Responsible for Her Actions?’
commentary on Julie Y. Huang and John A. Bargh “The Selfish Goal:
Autonomously Operating Motivational Structures as the Proximate Cause
of Human Judgment and Behavior,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37(2):
See full article with commentary and author response here
By Natalia Washington and Daniel Kelly
Abstract: 58 words
Main Text: 965 words
References: 294 words
Total Text: 1337 words
Should an Individual Composed of Selfish Goals be Held
Responsible for her Actions?
Abstract: We discuss the implications of
the Selfish Goal model for moral responsibility, arguing it suggests a
form of skepticism we call the locus problem. In denying that
individuals contain any genuine psychological core of information
processing, the model denies the kind of locus of control intuitively
presupposed by ascriptions of responsibility. We briefly consider ways
the problem might be overcome.
Recent work has sparked various forms of the worry that the facts of
human cognitive makeup lead to skepticism about free will, moral
responsibility, and whether reflective deliberation and conscious
decisions actually influence behavior. (Nahmias (2010), Roskies (2006),
Doris (forthcoming), Levy (2012), Saul (forthcoming)). Rather than
contest the substance or details of the target article, we assume for
discussion that it is on the right track, and draw out one implication
for common practices of holding our selves and each other responsible
for our behaviors. We argue that the picture of an individual person as
fragmented into a cluster of autonomously operating selfish goals
competing for psychological resources suggests an interesting kind of
problem for responsibility ascriptions.
Huang and Bargh marshal an impressive amount of empirical evidence in
support of their Selfish Goal model, which they articulate in terms of
four principles (autonomy, reconfiguration, similarity, and
inconsistency). For our purposes, two features are most important, and
both focus on control and behavior. First, while the model depicts an
individual person as psychologically fragmented (rather than integrated
or unified), it does not suggest that the individual’s actions will be
utterly random or under no control whatsoever. Nor does it suggest that
those actions will be completely detached from internal psychological
processes. Rather, a specific episode of behavior will ultimately be
under the control of a specific goal, namely whatever goal has become
active and won the competition for access to the lower level machinery
closer to the behavioral periphery. Importantly, goals, on Huang and
Bargh’s view, are where the buck stops; they are the highest level,
most sophisticated psychological states that enter into the production
of overt behavior. There is no higher court to appeal to, no further,
more global mental entity that selects among the goals, unifies the
individual psychologically, or serves as a more constant source of
control over different goal-driven episodes of behavior (hence the
propensity for inconsistency that they stress). Second, while they do
not deny the existence of a self, they allow it only a severely limited
function, relegating it to the politician or public relations role of
constructing rationalizations for actions that the self has no hand in
selecting, producing, or controlling. With the exception of linguistic
behavior, the self is behaviorally epiphenomenal. (target article 8,
This picture appears to be at odds with much everyday thought,
including thinking about moral responsibility. According to common
practices, an individual is responsible only for those behaviors over
which she has proper control (as opposed to behaviors that are coerced,
accidental, or brutely reflex-like). When she successfully wields such
control, the resulting behavior is an appropriate target for
responsibility ascriptions. While there is not yet any clear consensus
on the exact form of control required, a recognizable theme is that
individuals contain a stable, continuous psychological core that is the
source of this control when it is properly exercised. That is, control
is a two-part relation, with one relata being the behavior, and the
other we will call the psychological locus. With the term “locus” we
are trying to remain neutral on whether one thinks of this
psychological feature in terms of an individual’s self, character,
identity, Cartesian mental substance, immortal soul, or whatever.
However it is cashed out, typical responsibility ascriptions presuppose
that individuals have this kind of central psychological feature. In
other words, in ascribing responsibility for an action, there is
something we are ascribing responsibility to—some central element of
the individual that is the ultimate source of the behavior, and to
which responsibility attaches.
This then is the worry: the Selfish Goal picture suggests that
individuals contain no such psychological locus, because our behaviors
are ultimately determined by a loose collection of autonomously
operating goals, each with its own agenda. From the perspective of
moral responsibility, neither praise nor blame for behavior will be
justified because psychologically there’s no ‘there’ there.
We do not think the locus problem is insurmountable. Even if the
Selfish Goal model is correct in denying the existence of a traditional
psychological locus, there are reasons to think individuals do have the
tools to act as responsible agents. An increasingly prominent movement
in philosophy of mind emphasizes the embodied, distributed, social, and
externalized character of much cognition. Thinkers like Dennett (2003)
and Clark (2008) stress that even sophisticated human behaviors can be
guided by decentralized control systems that lack a stable or
continuous core (see also Shapiro 2007). Two recent elaborations on
these themes deal more directly with moral responsibility and agency.
Doris’ (forthcoming) dialogic conception of agency recasts the post hoc
and socially mediated rationalizations that are the domain of Huang and
Bargh’s ‘conscious self’ as in part constitutive of human agency. For
an individual to participate in this kind of moral reasoning allows
that individual’s behaviors to become self-directed, or guided by those
goals relevant to her most important values. Thus an individual can
justifiably be held responsible for a behavior even if that behavior is
not under the control of, say, her internal locus of reflective
Ismael (2007, 2010) argues that selves should be thought of in terms of
self-governing systems. For her, the conscious self is not merely
epiphenomenal, but part of a feedback loop that evolved to help
organize and guide sophisticated behaviors. Here, the self is not a
centralized controller, but a distributed but higher level subsystem of
the mind “perfectly compatible with a fully decentralized understanding
of lower-level processing”
Both projects point to conceptions of agency and behavior control that
do not rely on the existence of a traditional, stable, centralized
psychological core. If there is such thing as a ‘real self’ on these
views, it is a dynamic, distributed sort of thing. While it doesn’t
guarantee complete consistency in our behavior, but it may get us what
responsibility ascriptions seem to require. By our lights, both look
well suited to accommodate both our every day practices of holding
individuals responsible, and the Selfish Goal’s denial of a
Clark, A. (2008). “Soft Selves and Ecological Control,” in D. Spurrett,
D. Ross, H. Kincaid and L. Stephens (eds) Distributed Cognition and the
Will. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Dennett, D. (2003). Freedom Evolves. New York: Penguin Books.
Doris, J. (Forthcoming). Talking To Ourselves. New York: Oxford
Ismael, J. (2007). The Situated Self. New York: Oxford University Press.
Ismael, J. (2011). “Self-Organization and Self-Governance,” Philosophy
of the Social Sciences, 41(3): 327-351.
Levy, N. (2012). “Consciousness, Implicit Attitudes, and Moral
Responsibility,” Noûs, doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0068.2011.00853.x.
Nahmias, E. (2010). “Scientific Challenges to Free Will,” in T.
O’Connor and C. Sandis (eds) A Companion to the Philosophy of Action.
New York: Wiley-Blackwell.
Roskies, A. (2006). “Neuroscientific Challenges to Free Will and
Responsibility,” Trends in Cognitive Science, 10(9): 419-423.
Saul, J. (Forthcoming.) “Implicit Bias, Stereotype Threat and Women in
Philosophy.” Women in Philosophy: What Needs to Change?, Edited by
Fiona Jenkins and Katrina Hutchison, New York: Oxford University Press.
Shapiro, L. (2007). “The Embodied Cognition Research Programme,”
Philosophy Compass 2(2): 338-346.
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