VIDI Project

Conscious Control, Deliberative Awareness, and Moral Agency

Period: 2009 – 2013, financed by the Dutch Organisation of Scientific Research (NWO)

People: prof. dr. Maureen Sie, dr. Arno Wouters and Nicole van Voorst Vader-Bours

We tend to think of ourselves as moral agents, i.e., agents who regularly act for moral reasons. Some contemporary scientists and philosophers practicing in or familiar with the behavioral, cognitive, and neurosciences argue that recent developments in those sciences show that assumption to be problematic: Although we constantly provide moral reasons for our actions and judgments these reasons do not (necessarily) track the causes of our bodily movements, rather they primarily seem to be post-hoc confabulations and rationalizations. According to these scientists and philosophers our common sense idea about ourselves as beings with a free will who are morally responsible for their bodily movements, behavior, and actions is misguided.

This project identifies the paradigm of the so-called adaptive unconscious as the cause of feelings of unease and uncertainty about our status as moral agents. It relates this paradigm to contemporary discussions about moral agency in the ‘philosophy of mind and action’ and ‘metaethics’ and discusses its implications. It argues that rather than undermining our moral practices, the paradigm of the adaptive unconscious enables us to better explain and understand them. On closer scrutiny the idea that we are moral agents is compatible with the fact that, more often than we are perhaps aware, confabulate and rationalize our actions. We often act in an unaware and automatic fashion, hence, providing reasons for our behavior is bound to be a post-hoc affair. As a consequence there is ample room for mistakes (confabulation and rationalization). The mere possibility of mistakes does not undermine our moral practices as such, however, it does challenge us to take a closer look at our reason-giving practices, at the exact role of ‘conscious control’ and ‘deliberative awareness’ for moral agency.


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