Whims and Real Selves

In a recent article, Kasper Lippert-Rasmussen presents an argument against “real self” views of autonomy and responsibility that, on its face, seems fairly troublesome ("Identification and Responsibility," in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 6 (2003): 349-376).  Real self views are those that maintain that one is responsible for action A just in case A flowed ultimately from one’s real self, and this is taken to mean actions depending on psychic elements with which one identifies.  L-R then advances the “Whim Argument” against this view.  Consider actions done on a whim.  These are actions depending on motives with which one neither identifies nor disidentifies (what Frankfurt would call “wanton” actions, it seems – although see below).  The possibility of such actions yields a dilemma for the real self theorist: either responsibility requires identification or it simply requires the absence of disidentification.  If the former, then whim actions are ones for which the agent is never responsible, which seems quite implausible.  If the latter, then I can be responsible for an action not flowing from my real self.  So on this more plausible horn it is not a necessary condition for responsibility that an action flow from my real self.  How might a real self theorist reply?

     One way is to bite the bullet and say that whimsical actions are those for which I am not responsible.  After all, wantons were originally introduced by Frankfurt as a set of agents distinct from persons in virtue of, for one, not being appropriately held responsible for their actions.  But while this is certainly true of thoroughgoing wantons, it has always been difficult to fit into the account persons who only occasionally act as wantons.  Indeed, Frankfurt later seems to eliminate that middle category as a conceptual possibility when he claims that, insofar as deliberation requires a decision about what to think, and making up one’s mind in this way is a crucial mark of personhood, deliberation is incompatible with wantonness (see his “Identification and Wholeheartedness,” the final two paragraphs; although he says there that deliberation is incompatible with “thoroughgoing” wantonness, it seems difficult to see how occasional wantonness could non-arbitrarily escape this charge as well).

            But even if we want to reserve the term “wantons” for non-deliberating creatures, it seems that persons clearly can and do occasionally act in a “wanton” fashion, and L-R’s whim case is surely one such instance.  Furthermore, it also seems right that I am justifiably held morally responsible for some whim actions in morally charged scenarios. So it looks like we are indeed forced to the second horn of the dilemma, according to which I can be responsible for actions where I have not disidentified with the motivationally efficacious psychic element, i.e., where the motivating element does not flow from my real self.

            This is, of course, distinct from cases in which I disidentify with that motivating element, when my real self endorses an alternative will that, for some reason, cannot be made effective in action (e.g., unwilling addiction, compulsions, phobias, etc.).  So the question is whether or not mere lack of disidentification means that one’s will in whim cases does not flow from one’s real self.  I want to argue that this is not necessarily the case.

            One way for the real self theorist to avoid this worry is to abandon the active “endorsement” model of identification in favor of a “consent” model of identification.  Consent provides the authority necessary for self-determination in the contexts with which it’s ordinarily associated (e.g., medical decision making), so there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t as well in the context of a real self’s authorization of its actions.  In addition, consent comes in a variety of forms, including explicit, tacit, and, what’s important for our purposes, counterfactual (or hypothetical).  Whim cases are those in which there’s an absence of active identification, but on the consent model this would not be the only form of identification that might occur.  So just as we might say of someone who’s unconscious but needs an operation to save his life that he would have wanted it this way – that he would have consented had that been possible – and count that as authorization for surgery, so too might we say of someone who acts on a whim that he would have consented to the action in question had he reflectively deliberated.  These, then, would be whim cases in which the agent would be responsible, even in the absence of active identification, where we can still say that the action in question flows from a motive with which the agent is identified in virtue of the fact that he would have consented to its moving him, where this hypothetical consent provides the necessary authority for self-determination.  This move would thus enable the real self theorist to preserve the view that it is only when actions have a crucial relation with the real self that they are ones appropriately subject to appraisals of moral responsibility.

            This is only the barest sketch of a theory, but I’m curious what people think of its viability.

(Two points just prior to press: first, this view is different from Frankfurt’s final "satisfaction" conception of identification in "The Faintest Passion."  On that view, I am identified with a motivationally efficacious desire just in case there’s an endorsing second-order volition with which I’m satisfied, i.e., there’s no conflicting volition within my psychic system.  So because the volition must be in place for me to be identified with the will in question, this view cannot yet account for whim cases.  Second, I suppose it’s possible for an "endorsement" theorist simply to adopt the language of counterfactual endorsement to make the points I make here, but it seems more consistent with ordinary language to think of what’s occurring along the lines of consent. One rarely hears of counterfactual endorsements ["JFK would have endorsed me for president," out of John Kerry’s mouth, would likely have been laughable, as it was when it more or less came out of Dan Quayle’s mouth in 1988], whereas counterfactual consent seems fairly everyday and uncontroversial.  One might think here of how spouses regularly speak for one another: "No, he wouldn’t mind….")

10 Replies to “Whims and Real Selves

  1. David,
    It seems to me that, on your consent model of identification, the conditions for moral responsibility are too weak. Surely, if I, on a whim, steal a book from a bookstore, I am morally responsible for the act even if I would not have consented had I deliberated. I am inclined to say, though, that such an act would not be autonomous or self-determined.
    I think the problem is that we have to distinguish autonomy from moral responsibility. Autonomy refers to the actual control I exert over my action. Our judgments of moral responsibility are guided by intuitions about what kinds of moral practices we need to sustain social life. I am morally responsible for the whimsical theft because it is the sort of action we expect people to think about before performing. Whether the action issues from a “real self” is not relevant to the attribution of moral responsibility.

  2. Dwight: I’m very leery of divorcing responsibility from autonomy. I think there’s a deep conceptual link between the two. If I’m to be held responsible for *my* actions, the action must, it seems, be attributable to *me*. This isn’t to say, though, that there aren’t “two faces of responsibility,” in Watson’s phrase. There’s certainly the “accountability” face, which refers to the kind of social expectations you cite. But there is also the “self-disclosure” face, which involves genuine attributability in the sense I’ve been discussing. Now this distinction might actually yield a sort of ambivalence in the case you mention (and in whim cases generally): in terms of the social aspect, the accountability aspect of responsibility, the whim-stealer is responsible, i.e., he’s appropriately subject to the reactive attitudes (given, I suppose, that none of the Strawsonian excusing or exempting conditions are in place). But in terms of the self-disclosure aspect, he’s not responsible, insofar as the action wasn’t (by stipulation) dependent in an important way on his real self. This is probably what I ought to have pointed to in my original post: whim cases actually bring out the tension between these two faces of responsibility (in a different way than the cases Watson discusses, in which a horrifying killer with a horrifying childhood is responsible in the self-disclosure sense, but not in the accountability sense).

  3. Dave,
    What would you say about someone who does an immoral act on a whim, would not have consented to this particular immoral act had he reflectively deliberated, but would consent, more generally, to acting on a whim even where doing so runs the risk of doing something immoral? So this person’s real self doesn’t identify with the immoral act in question but does identify with a kind of free-spiritedness that involves occasionally acting on a whim even where this runs the risk of acting immorally. It seems to me that agents can be responsible for having done something immoral even if they wouldn’t have consented to the acts question had they reflectively deliberated. In particular, they are responsible where they identify with a certain fee-spiritedness (or what I would call “recklessness”) that involves acting on a whim even where this runs the risk of acting immorally.

  4. This seems right to me, Doug, and it reveals once more my general uncomfortableness with moral responsibility being thought of as targeting *actions*, rather than character. I was trying to see if a real self theorist could defend the idea of responsibility for *actions* in the whim case, but I think it’s probably better handled along the lines of the theory I *really* want to defend, which is a character-based responsibility theory. So it would be, in this case, that I’m the type of person who risks immoral actions by allowing myself to act on whims, and that’s what’s the target of our assessment is in this case. “You should have thought about what you were doing more,” we’d say (as Dwight said above), and the connection to the real self is in our blaming the agent for being the type of person who risks getting into such situations on occasion. So while the agent might not have consented to such a particular action, the action reveals something larger about his character (which *is* attributable to his real self), which is the main target of our responsibility assessment.

  5. Dave,
    First, your consent-based approach is, as you note, common enough in accounts of medical decision-making. The clearest example of this are so-called ‘Odysseus contracts’, made by the diagnosed mentally ill, in which they establish the courses of treatment they wish to be subject to when they enter a mentally ill phase (as in schizophrenia or manic depression). The underlying rationle for respecting Odysseus contracts is often framed just as you express it: That the ‘real self’ (i.e., the self not in the illness phase) opted for a particular course of treatment and so the directives issued by the person during the illness phase are seen as whims. So I think this literature might reflect your position.
    That being said, I agree that the counterfactual ‘would consent’ may be too weak. How about something stronger like:
    a) S is responsible for A if, had S deliberated concerning A, S would not have rejected A-ing
    (I gather there is a non-excluded middle here, wuch that non-rejection is something more than not consenting.)
    OR
    b) S is responsible for A if, had S deliberated concerning A, S could (given S’s values, attitudes, desires, etc.) endorse A.
    (This is obviously pretty vague, but it seems that S’s values, etc., would at least logically or practically foreclose some course actions as endorseable by her real self.)

  6. David: I agree that autonomy and moral responsibility are conceptually related. Roughly, the relation is that I am morally responsible for what I ought to do, and if ought implies can, I am responsible only for actions over which I have control. But that doesn’t mean that MR and autonomy are coextensive.
    I think the tension between MR and autonomy is not only because, as Watson claims, there is an “accountability face” and a “self-disclosure” face. Consider just the self-disclosure aspect. Suppose I agree to help a disabled friend move into a new apartment this weekend. But on a whim I decide to run off to Las Vegas leaving my friend to fend for himself. Suppose, by stipulation, that I am always reliable with regard to promises and very much aware that this reliability is part of my character. Thus, the action is one to which I would not have consented. It seems to me that I am morally blameworthy for the action not merely with regard to my friend (the accountability aspect) but in relation to my own moral standards which I have violated. (The self-disclosive aspect) This suggests that I should feel some guilt or remorse not only for my ill treatment of my friend but for violating my own moral standards as well.
    If I understand your view, since I would not have consented to the whimsical vacation had I deliberated, I am not morally responsible (in the “genuine attribubility” sense)since it did not express my “real self”. My intuitions are that I am responsible in both senses.
    To my mind, this suggests that coherence models of the self, such as Frankfurt’s, are too narrow in scope. The self is more than those volitions with which I identify. Our concept of the self has to be capacious enough to capture the sense that my whimsical vacation was mine despite the fact it violated my second order volitions.
    Autonomy and MR share a variety of conditions, especially those related to reasons-responsiveness, but I have never understood why identification or consent though important for autonomy are necessary for moral responsibility as well.

  7. First, Michael, I think your amendment would be helpful if the thought is that “consent” involves only something active, such as endorsement. But I had in mind something that would include passive identification, and this would include your amendment if “consent” is simply taken as something akin to “not minding,” or “wouldn’t reject.” One thus wouldn’t necessarily need a particular active positive attitude toward the motivating psychic element in question (which avoids the regress worries normally attached to hierarchical accounts).
    As for Dwight’s comment, I’m slightly confused by a few of your remarks. First, you agree that there’s a conceptual connection between autonomy and responsibility, but your gloss on that claim is to say that you’re morally responsible for what you ought to do, and if ought implies can, you’re only MR for what’s in your control. Two questions: (a) why think (as your claim implies) that autonomy consists in control, rather than self-determination? (b) why think ought implies can? While this may take us too far afield, it seems to me there are loads of “impossible oughts,” things we ought to do but can’t, such as regularly occur in cases of moral conflict and dilemmas. Now I may agree with the first claim, that I’m only MR for those things I ought to do, but that doesn’t mean I’m only MR for those things that are within my control. While the *law* certainly focuses on acts over which you have control (in holding you legally responsible), I don’t think that’s the way things necessarily work with respect to *moral* responsibility.
    Second,with your example of the promise-breaking vacationer, I’m starting to lose sight of what it means to act on a whim. Sucn an act was to be, by stipulation, something I do dependent on a will with which I’ve neither identified nor disidentified. But surely such an elaborate act like running off to Vegas is one we would say I’ve embraced as my own: I fling myself into it wholeheartedly. But then we can make sense of the responsibility involved in terms of identification. On the other hand, to genuinely have someone whose will overtakes him in this way, for such an extended period of time, such that there’s no higher order deliberation *whatsoever* about the act he’s undertaking (it’s a long “act”), strikes me as someone who’s gone temporarily insane. Indeed, this is a way in which Michael’s remarks about the mentally ill are particularly appropriate.
    It seems to me that a whim, in order to count as something I neither identify nor disidentify with, would have to be a fairly quick, unthinking act. The more time that passes between an intention and the completion of an act, the more opportunity there is for the real self to interrupt the party. And a real self that doesn’t is one, per Doug’s suggestion above, we hold responsible for its negligence.
    So I guess for purposes of the “consent” model I proposed, I was thinking of whims as temporary “takeovers” of the will by some impulse or desire, one fairly brief from intention to execution. They are, in this sense, bouts of temporary lapses in real-self vigilance. The expected utterance after such an act will be, “I don’t know what came over me.” The question, then, is whether or not one can ever be responsible for such actions. It seems that one can, if one would’ve consented to the activity upon deliberation (“I don’t know what came over me, but I guess I don’t mind that it did.”). But there should also be instances, it seems, when one should *not* be held responsible, when what overcame one really was alien (a mad impulse, or the unwitting kleptomaniac’s first theft), where one hasn’t reflected about the motivating desire in question, and the consent model can account for this, whereas I don’t think a “control” model can.

  8. David: You are right about my “whimsical vacation” example. It is psychologically implausible. (I chose it on a whim, but I am still responsible for it.) So consider a case more genuinely whimsical (a temporary takeover of the will) such as a whimsical theft of a book from a book store. Considered from the self-disclosive aspect of moral responsibility only (setting aside worries about social expectations),to my mind I should feel some degree of guilt or remorse for stealing the book because it violates my own standards of conduct. The best explanation for those reactive attitudes is that I am morally responsible for an action that I disavow, that is not a product of my “real self”. Given that I have a second-order volition to be vigilant about such matters, I could have resisted the impulse to steal (it was something over which I had control) but did not.
    It seems to me that the kinds of whims we are not responsible for, and might serve as examples for you, are those that issue from fugitive motives that an agent has never encountered and for which she is unlikely to have regulating second order volitions.
    On another matter, though I’m not sure it is germane to this thread, I don’t think moral dilemmas are necessarily “impossible oughts”. If I ought to do A and ought to do B and cannot do both, it is nevertheless the case that I am able to do A or B. Thus, in choosing B I am responsible for not choosing A since I could have chosen A. The moral responsibility rests on my not choosing A, not on my inability to choose both, unless of course I am in some way responsible for the situation that gives rise to the dilemma.

  9. Dwight: You write:
    “Given that I have a second-order volition to be vigilant about such matters, I could have resisted the impulse to steal (it was something over which I had control) but did not.”
    First, who/what is the “I” here that has control over the action in question? If it’s the real self, then there’s a governance over the first-order desires in question that removes this from the realm of whim actions. If it’s not the real self, then what is it? If it’s merely a superficial self (a will, in other words), then there’s no thing external to that self that has control over the action in question. This is one of the main reasons I’m dubious about “control” accounts of responsibility: if the controlling self is somehow distinct from the “real self,” I quickly lose sight of what it is or how it governs or why it’s actions are authoritative.
    Second, the vigilance you mention is difficult to parse in terms of second-order volitions. Higher-order volitions are called into play to resolve conflicts on the lower orders (on a Frankfurtian account, anyway), whereas there’s no such conflict to be resolved in terms of the desire for vigilance. In addition, what would that be a volition *for*, precisely? It wouldn’t be a desire that some first-order desire constitute my will. Instead, what I think you have in mind is that I have a general *care* about not performing whim actions, a care that would have been betrayed in this case. Caring typically produces dependent desires, so if I care about being vigilant, I’ll want to be attentive and such. Insofar as you do hold me responsible for the whim-stealing, then, it would be for my negligence, I think, and not for the action itself (if I truly wouldn’t have consented at the time of action). This would then put the blame squarely on the real self, either for not caring at all about vigilance, or for not caring enough in the circumstances.
    Hmmm, I hope that came out clearly.
    As for impossible oughts, you’re right, they should probably be left for another time.

  10. David,
    You write “what I think you have in mind is that I have a general *care* about not performing whim actions, a care that would have been betrayed in this case. Caring typically produces dependent desires, so if I care about being vigilant, I’ll want to be attentive and such.”
    Yes. This is what I had in mind with the proviso that what I care about is not performing whimsical actions of a certain type–immoral actions such as theft. I’m assuming that this sort of care can be cashed out in Frankfurtian terms but I may be mistaken about that. (It has been some time since I read his work closely)
    At any rate, you go on to claim that, in the whimsical theft case, the thief would not be responsible for the theft, but would be responsible for a lack of vigilance, and this would place moral responsibility on the real self.
    Perhaps I’m not quite understanding what the real self is but, as I understand it, it involves beliefs, desires, and commitments that the agent endorses, identifies with (or would consent to as you want to say). But, by stipulation, if the agent would not consent to the lack of vigilance, then in what sense is that lack of vigilance a component of the real self? Yet, it still seems to be a source of moral responsibility.
    That of course brings us to the questions you pose regarding who this “I” is that has control and authority if it is not the real self. I am not coming from any fully realized theory of the self here. But it seems to me that the self involves a variety of cognitive control mechanisms that are only more or less effective. They function well sometimes and at other times they do not, but they are not unconscious processes or cases of thoroughgoing wantonness. My concern to not engage in whimsically immoral actions is one of those. When it fails to function well, and thus fails to control an action, the incapacity (and the action that flows from it)is still “mine”, because I have the reasonable expectation that this capacity ought to be within my control. Thus, I am responsible because moral responsibility is a normative concept. It has to do with my expectations about control, just as, from the social accountability aspect, moral responsibility has to do with society’s expectations about control.

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