Let me begin by thanking John Schwenkler for the invitation to blog here at Brains. I’m not really a specialist in philosophy of mind (or in, well, anything) but a lot of my recent work is concerned with mind-y (and brain-y) issues. I find it hard to get excited about a topic unless it is has some sort of payoff for thinking about how we ought to live, so a lot of my work is at the intersection of normative issues in ethics and philosophy of mind. In that vein, and because John mentioned some recent work of mine on implicit attitudes, I will devote this post and the next to the question whether agents are (directly) morally responsible for actions caused by their implicit attitudes.*
Appeals to intuitions play a big role in debates over moral responsibility – think of the enormous literature on Frankfurt-style cases (to which I’ve contributed, in a small way). While I think this methodology has its – limited – uses, I am sceptical it should be used at all when it comes to assessing the responsibility of agents whose actions are partially caused by their implicit attitudes (the set of cases I’m concerned with here are those cases in which the action/ omission would have had a different moral character were it not for the agent’s implicit attitudes). This methodology is common- I think it’s fair to see this recent post by Eric Schwitzgebel as an example. Here’s why I doubt its value.
If our intuitions are designed to track states and processes that are different from the states and processes that caused the action, then we ought to expect our intuitions to be off target in these cases. Now, our intuitions are designed to track those processes that make a systematic and predictable difference to behavior. Folk psychology is right to this extent: it’s beliefs and desires that make that kind of difference. But implicit attitudes are representational states that are not beliefs (and which don’t make a systematic and predictable difference – predictable by folk psychological lights – to behavior).
I have argued that implicit attitudes are not beliefs, by working through some of the data. As Eric Mandelbaum has argued, some of the data can’t be explained by the (common) view that implicit attitudes are mere associations. Rather, they underwrite inference-like informational transitions and transformations. Consider the phenomenon of celebrity contagion. People are willing to pay more for an item of clothing if it has been worn by a celebrity to whom they have positive attitudes. But if the item has been laundered after the celebrity wore it, the value is reduced. ‘Celebrity’ can be washed off. It is hard to explain this result associatively. People have positive associations with laundry, not negative. To explain the result, we have to suppose that the attitudes involved have been transformed in a way that looks like some kind of nonconscious inference. Mandelbaum has a number of further examples where, again, the results seem hard to explain associatively and instead seem to cry out for an inferential explanation.
Mandelbaum’s case that implicit attitudes are not mere associations is convincing. But to qualify as beliefs, they need to exhibit inferential promiscuity (as Stich puts it). They must underwrite inference of the systematic and general way we associate with beliefs. Of course, we shouldn’t idealise the beliefs of ordinary people: some departure from genuine inferential promiscuity is no doubt the normal state of affairs. But too great a departure from inferential promiscuity (or, in Schwitzgebel’s own terms, too great a departure from the dispositional stereotype ) and it’ll be clear that we are dealing with some other kind of beast.
That’s just what we see, I think. Just as Mandelbaum maintains, implicit attitudes are not mere associations, because they are pervasively involved in content-driven transitions. But too many of these transitions fall far too short of inferential promiscuity for it to be plausible that implicit attitudes are beliefs. For instance, processes that feature implicit attitudes are pervasively blind to negation. One of Mandelbaum’s own central examples illustrates this: in Rozin’s ‘poison’ experiments, participants were bothered by the label ‘not poison’ precisely because the relevant processes fail to process the ‘not’. That’s a lot of the dispositional stereotype to go missing all at once. And there’s more: evidence of content-driven transitions that cause representational update in ways that are inferential but perverse, failures of update, and updates that don’t look inferential at all but merely associative.
All of this evidence, I think, is good reason to conclude that implicit attitudes are not beliefs. Nor are they any other state that figures in our folk psychology. Rather they are what I call (following a suggestion of Susanna Siegel’s) patchy endorsements: representational states, but with a patchy structure, insofar as they feature in only some kinds of inferences (a subset of those in which beliefs feature plus a set all of their own) and update only in the light of certain kinds of evidence (some of which should not drive update at all).
If implicit attitudes are patchy endorsements, and patchy endorsements neither figure in folk psychology nor are the kinds of states to which the mechanisms that generate intuitions are designed to respond, then we ought to expect our intuitions to be off track when we consider cases in which agents perform morally significant actions which owe their moral character to their implicit attitudes. I suspect that we tend to substitute bona fide – though nonconscious – beliefs for implicit attitudes when we consider such cases. So our intuitions will be systematically unreliable. That, in turn, entails that we had better approach the question of the moral responsibility of such agents in some other way, avoiding, to the extent possible, either consulting our intuitions or having our theories ‘contaminated’ by them. In the next post, I will turn to how I think we might best proceed.
* I apologize for the inevitable typos and thinkos in this post. I have just flown from the UK to Australia. Jetlag and lack of sleep are not highly conducive to philosophy. But I didn’t want to delay this first post any longer.