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Dommelen, W.R. van

Department of Ethics, Social and Political Philosophy

The Gradual Consciousness Thesis

Refining Levy’s Consciousness Thesis

It is not unusual to think that in order to be responsible for an action an agent needs to be conscious or aware of acting. Consider Jones, who meets up with Hank after a long, sunny holiday. As is their custom, they pat each other on the back, but quite unexpectedly – for Hank at least – Jones yelps out in pain. Jones forgot to warn Hank about his severe sunburn on the back. Even though Hank had hurt Jones, Jones has no reason to be mad at Hank or to hold Hank morally responsible. The absence of moral responsibility could be explained by Hank’s unawareness of the morally relevant fact – that Jones had sunburn. Indeed, some philosophers like Neil Levy (2014) believe that consciousness of the moral significance of some action is a necessary condition for moral responsibility.

Yet, this position is subject to a number of counterexamples. Most notably we sometimes seem to be responsible for forgetting things – like when we forget a dear friend’s birthday. The literature from cognitive psychology also suggests that we often lack consciousness of what we are doing. I take this literature and the counterexamples to imply that Levy’s view is indefensible. On the other hand, to deny that consciousness is important to moral responsibility contradicts commonsense intuitions. Therefore, I propose to recognize the relationship between responsibility and consciousness as a gradual matter, which – I argue – solves the objections to Levy’s view.

Last modified:29 August 2016 6.20 p.m.