Metacognition of Concepts

The moral significance of the personal/sub-personal distinction

The moral significance of the personal/sub-personal distinction

How we characterise the personal/sub-personal distinction has implications for how we understand the moral significance of cognition and its role in action guidance. Our moral and legal practices are committed to the idea that people are sometimes personally responsible for their actions, being then the authors of those actions. Plausibly, a necessary condition for identifying a person as the author of an action is that the action in question is guided by personal-level cognition. If so, then getting a conceptual handle on the notion of personal-level cognition is critical to debates regarding agency and personal responsibility.

One might think that personal-level cognitions are necessarily conscious, and consequently, that when behavior is guided by non-conscious mechanisms, cognition is not personal level, and individuals cannot be responsible for what they do. We find examples of this position in the legal responsibility literature. Consider the case of Ken Parks from Ontario, Canada (see Broughton et al, 1994). One night in May 1987, Parks rose from his bed and climbed into his car, and driving several blocks to the home of his parents-in-law, he retrieved a knife from the house and proceeded to attack both in-laws, killing one of them. According to the investigation that followed, there was enough evidence to suggest that Parks carried out these actions during a state of somnambulistic automatism – or sleep walking. A look through the Supreme Court report on the case reveals numerous references to the notion that the lack of consciousness that characterises somnambulistic automatism rules out features that are necessary to establish legally responsible action (in particular, voluntariness, control, and the ability to refrain).

One might think that cases of somnambulistic automatism are the easy cases: of course an individual is not implicated as a person in behaviours which occur when sleep walking – such examples may then be good candidates for behaviour guided by sub-personal mechanisms.

However, even if this is the right result morally speaking, it’s not immediately clear that we’ve got to it in the right way, by pointing to the somnabulist’s lack of consciousness. This is because plenty of behaviours which we do attribute to persons appear to be similarly guided by unconscious processes.

Consider, for instance, skilled athleticism or musicianship. Research shows that unconscious processes govern the fast-motor reactions employed by skilled athletes (Kibele, 2006), whilst directing awareness towards one’s sporting performance can actually disrupt that performance for high-skill athletes (Flegal and Anderson, 2008). Functional MRI reveals that when professional jazz pianists improvise, they do so in the absence of central processes implicated in the conscious control of ongoing behavior (Limb and Braun, 2008). We (rightly, I think) consider skilled athletes and musicians as the authors of their skillful actions, praising them for their performances. That such performances turn out to be guided by unconscious processes would seem to be irrelevant to our praise of the performers in question.

Those who, in light of this, still insist that consciousness does characterise the personal/sub-personal distinction might maintain that our intuitions are wrong in one of the above cases: either we ought to think that somnambulists are properly identified as the authors of their actions, or we ought to think that the skilled performers are not.

Alternatively, one might think that reference to consciousness alone is not the right way to characterise the personal/sub-personal distinction as it matters to our moral practices and attributions of personal responsibility. Or, perhaps we need a more nuanced definition of the kind of consciousness that is necessary for personal-level cognition that does the required theoretical work as well as capturing all of our intuitions about the above cases.