Consciousness and Moral Responsibility
Oxford University Press, $117 hb, 176 pp, 978019870638
Consider the following dilemma. If it is possible to identify the cause of a person's action and beliefs – causes that are outside the agent's own conscious reasoning – in what sense can we say that the person chooses what she does or she thinks? If the person did not consciously choose, then it is reasonable to ask whether she should be held morally responsible for any of the subsequent consequences of her actions. This is the general territory of the puzzle that Neil Levy's thoughtful and elegantly written new book addresses. He explores what scientific advances in the study of consciousness might tell us about our capacity for choice and, hence, our responsibility for those choices.
In recent times, cognitive scientists have in fact shown ways in which a great deal of our decision-making is driven by factors of which we are unaware. For instance, our judgements of the 'social proximity' of others will differ depending on whether we have a cold or hot drink in our hands: the warmer cup makes for more positive assessments of our relationship with other people. Perhaps of greater concern are Implicit Association Tests that show that even those with explicit non-discriminatory ideals will often more quickly associate a woman with a family than with a career or a black face with criminality. Here, the underlying attitudes are often diametrically opposed to the sincerely held explicit beliefs and attitudes of experimental subjects. There is a large amount of such experimental evidence, all of which undermines the thought that our morally significant choices are always consciously determined.