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….")