Unconscious Motives and Actions – Agency, Freedom and Responsibility

Frontiers in Psychology 9:428144 (2019)
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According to many criteria, agency, intentionality, responsibility and freedom of decision, require conscious decisions. Freud already assumed that many of our decisions are influenced by dynamically unconscious motives or that we even perform unconscious actions based on completely unconscious considerations. Such actions might not be intentional, and perhaps not even actions in the narrow sense, we would not be responsible for them and freedom of decision would be missing. Recent psychological and neurophysiological research has added to this a number of phenomena (the "new unconscious") in which behavior is completely unconscious or in which the decision or its execution is influenced by unconscious factors: priming, automatic behavior, habitualized behavior, actions based on plain unconscious deliberations, intrusion of information from the dorsal pathway, etc. However, since this makes up the largest part of the behavior which is generally regarded as action, intentionality, yet agency, responsibility and even compatibilist freedom of decision for the largest part of our behavior may be threatened. Such considerations have led to a lively debate, which, however, suffers from generalizations that lump all these unconscious phenomena together. In contrast, the aim of this article is to discuss individual unconscious influences on our behavior separately with respect to what extent they require changes in traditional conceptualizations. The first part (2-4) of the article outlines the "traditions" and their elaborations: the intentional causalist concept of action, an associated empirical theory of action and standard concepts of responsibility and compatibilist freedom of decision, as well as the challenges for them. In the second part (5-9), the aforementioned unconscious influences on our actions (except for automated and habitualized actions, which I discuss elsewhere) are examined: 1. unconscious priming, 2. dynamically unconscious motives, 3. dorsal pathway information influencing conscious decisions, 4. unconsciously altered execution of conscious intentions, 5. unconscious deliberations and decisions. To what extent do these phenomena C1. require a change in the concept of action, C2. curtail intentionality or agency, C3. responsibility and C4. freedom? The result is: The curtailments prove to be far less dramatic than they initially appear; they require more watchfulness but no conceptual change.

Author's Profile

Christoph Lumer
University Of Siena


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