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Mind and Moral Psychology Lecture: "Is Consciousness Necessary For Criminal Responsibility?"

Monday, March 9, 2015
4:00 AM
Tanner Library (1171 Angell Hall)

Abstract: Neil Levy has recently offered neuroscientific support for the commonly accepted notion that an agent must be conscious of (some of) the aspects of a morally bad action to be blameworthy for the action (Levy 2014, 2013). Levy argues that moral agency is produced only via explicit mental attitudes, attitudes that are conscious -- occurently “online,” guiding behavior or mental processes. Consciousness, according to Levy, signals a connection between the prefrontal regions, which house functions such as attention and planning, and the posterior regions, which primarily house representational content. Levy claims that such widespread access allows for complex planning and integration of intentions, and thus the resulting action reflects moral agency. By contrast, unconscious cognitive processes work associatively, and thus do not reflect agency or produce culpable action.

Non-volitional accounts of responsibility, on the other hand, often do not require consciousness. As a result, such theories can hold agents responsible for a wider range of acts/omissions than volitional accounts. I will argue that non-volitional accounts (e.g. Smith 2005, 2007) are supported by responsibility assessments in the criminal law. The law rests upon a broader sense of self-control and rational agency than provided by volitional accounts, and thus applies responsibility more broadly than theories that make consciousness necessary.