Reflection and Responsibility

Philosophy and Public Affairs 42 (1):3-41 (2014)
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A common line of thought claims that we are responsible for ourselves and our actions, while less sophisticated creatures are not, because we are, and they are not, self-aware. Our self-awareness is thought to provide us with a kind of control over ourselves that they lack: we can reflect upon ourselves, upon our thoughts and actions, and so ensure that they are as we would have them to be. Thus, our capacity for reflection provides us with the control over ourselves that grounds our responsibility. I argue that this thought is subtly, but badly, confused. It uses, as its model for the control that grounds our responsibility, the kind of control we exercise over ordinary objects and over our own voluntary actions: we represent to ourselves what to do or how to change things, and then we bring about that which we represent. But we cannot use this model to explain our responsibility for ourselves and our actions: if there is a question about why or how we are responsible for ourselves and our actions, it cannot be answered by appeal to a sophisticated, self-directed action. There must be some more fundamental account of how or why we are responsible. I replace the usual account with a novel but natural view: responsible mental activity can be modeled, not as an ordinary action, but as the settling of a question. This shift will require abandoning the tempting but troublesome thought that responsible activity involves discretion and awareness—which, I argue, we must abandon in any case.
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