Implicit attitudes and the ability argument

Wesley Buckwalter

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According to one picture of the mind, decisions and actions are largely the result of automatic cognitive processing beyond our ability to control. This picture is in tension with a foundational principle in ethics that moral responsibility for behavior requires the ability to control it. The discovery of implicit attitudes contributes to this tension. According to the ability argument against moral responsibility, if we cannot control implicit attitudes, and implicit attitudes cause behavior, then we cannot be morally responsible for that behavior. The purpose of this paper is to refute the ability argument. Drawing on both scientific evidence in cognitive science and philosophical arguments in ethics and action theory, I argue that it is invalid and unsound because current evidence is insufficient to establish the premises that (1) implicit attitudes are uncontrollable, (2) that they significantly cause behavior, (3) that responsibility always requires ability, and (4) that even if uncontrollable attitudes did fully cause behavior, this entails that the behavior they cause is uncontrollable. The rejection of the ability argument questions the priority of the unconscious over the conscious mind in cognitive science, deprioritizes ability in theories of moral responsibility in ethics, and provides a strong reason to uphold moral responsibility for implicitly biased behavior.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPhilosophical Studies
Early online date15 Sept 2018
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 15 Sept 2018


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