Monday, June 20, 2011

The feeling of willing

In his interesting The Illusion of the Conscious Will Daniel M. Wegner defends the thesis that the conscious will is a kind of emotion, namely the emotion that we are the owner of our actions. “Conscious will is the somatic marker of personal authorship, an emotion that authenticates the action’s owner as the self” (p. 327). In short, the conscious will is an authenticy emotion. According to Wegner this makes it the basis of our idea of responsibility. “Moral judgements are based not just on what people do but on what they consciously will” (p. 335). And we feel being responsible for what we consciously do, even though in fact it may be so that the feeling may have nothing to do with the reasons and causes why we actually act, namely that there is a robot in us, as Wegner calls it, or a zombie, as I have called it in other blogs, that takes the decisions and that determines what the right actions are in the circumstances given. Then the feeling of authorship that the conscious will is has nothing to do with the steering of our actions, although the will thinks that it controls them. However, “illusionary or not, conscious will is the person’s guide to his or her own responsibility for action. If you think you willed an act, your ownership of the act is established in your mind. ... We come to think that we are good or bad on the basis of our authorship emotion” (p. 341).
Although Wegner's theory sounds plausible, I want to make two critical remarks. The first one is that Wegner’s theory of the conscious will (but many other theories of the will as well) treats the will as a short term phenomenon: the will to do an act now. However, the conscious will is more than that. It involves also planning: willing something later, in the future. I want to have good places for an opera next February and therefore I have to buy my tickets next week when the advance sale starts. This is another kind of conscious will than the feeling that it is me who wanted to write a note for it in my diary just a few seconds ago.
The other remark is this. According to Wegner, moral judgements are based on what we consciously do (see above). As Wegner had said just before: “a person is morally responsible only for actions that are consciously willed” (p. 334, italics mine). This is the foundation of Wegner’s theory of morality and responsibility. Happily for Wegner it does not have consequences for his theory that the conscious will is an authencity emotion, for what he says here is simply not true. If we were responsible only for our conscious actions, many trials and lawsuits could be skipped. However, we are often also responsible for what we did not consciously do and did not want to happen. Negligence, undesired consequences of our actions, not doing what we supposed to do ... All these things are often considered as happenings that we are held responsible for (and that we are responsible for) but that we did not consciously do. I have talked about it already before. One instance: You cause an accident with your car because you failed to give way to a car coming from the right. Did you consciously drive on without wanting to give way to the right? Of course not. Are you responsible for the accident? Of course you are. And I guess that you feel so, too.
The upshot is that the feeling of authorship of what I do is not limited to what I consciously do. This makes that I can be responsible for I what I did not consciously wanted to do. But the feeling of authorship is also not limited to what I do now or what I did just a moment before. It ranges also over what I did after deliberate planning and preparation. We simply need a wider perspective on what consciously willing is, certainly if we want to relate it to responsibility.


Timo Laine said...

I understand your point about responsibility for undesired consequences, but I do not think it is necessarily that clear-cut. Note that you refer to trials and lawsuits, and they are not always directly related to moral responsibility, only legal responsibility. In traffic, we have all kinds of rules that are strictly enforced for practical reasons. This in itself does not mean anyone is strictly morally responsible (although obviously that possibility is not excluded either).

Of course I do not mean to argue that a person driving a car has the right to lose himself in his thoughts while ignoring what happens around him. But the more a person loses himself in this way, the easier it becomes to argue either that there is some conscious choice behind it (he acknowledges the risks but chooses to ignore them) or that he is in some particular mental state that reduces his responsibility.

HbdW said...

Hello Timo,
Thank you for your reaction. I think much can be said about the moral responsibility for the undesired and unexpected consequences of actions (and I have written about it before in my blogs). But limiting myself to the traffic example, you are right, traffic rules are merely practical. But once you take your car or bike, you have a moral obligation to follow the traffic rules, in view of the expectations of the other car drivers, cyclists and so on, and in view of the possible serious consequences in case you do not. And from this your responsibility follows, as I see it, also for the undesired and unexpected consequences of your actions. But traffic is one example, there are many more. Actions related to your job, to what you do as a father or mother, in war, and so on, I think that it will not be difficult to find good examples that show that Wegner’s view is too simple. Anyway, thank you for your reaction and for reading my blogs.