Mental Disorders Involve Limits on Control, not Extreme Preferences

In Matt King & Joshua May (eds.), Agency in Mental Disorder: Philosophical Dimensions. Oxford University Press (2022)
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According to a standard picture of agency, a person’s actions always reflect what they most desire, and many theorists extend this model to mental illness. In this chapter, I pin down exactly where this “volitional” view goes wrong. The key is to recognize that human motivational architecture involves a regulatory control structure: we have both spontaneous states (e.g., automatically-elicited thoughts and action tendencies, etc.) as well as regulatory mechanisms that allow us to suppress or modulate these spontaneous states. Our regulatory abilities, however, are bounded. Mental illnesses, I argue, arise precisely where these bounds are reached, thus allowing inappropriate spontaneous states to regularly manifest in thought and action. I conclude that the volitional view of mental illness is wrong: when a person with mental illness reaches the limits of control, what they do often does not reflect what they most prefer.

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Chandra Sripada
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor


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