We are pleased to present the latest installment of Ethics at PEA Soup, in which we host a discussion of one article from each issue of Ethics. The article selected from Volume 122, issue 4, is Sarah Buss's "Autonomous Action: Self-Determination in the Passive Mode." Ethics has kindly provided free access to the article here. We are also extremely grateful to Hilary Bok, who has agreed to provide the critical précis, which begins below the fold.
Sarah Buss’ ‘Autonomous Action: Self-Determination in the Passive Mode’ is a wonderful paper: rich, subtle, and thought-provoking. Buss’ goal is to elucidate the type of autonomy needed for moral responsibility. This sort of autonomy requires more than mere voluntary or intentional action: we can act intentionally even if we are in the grip of an apparently irresistible compulsion. But it is much less demanding than perfect or ideal autonomy.
Buss first argues that we should not conceive of this sort of autonomy as involving a sort of super-agency, in which the agent does something special that secures her autonomy, like deliberating, choosing, or endorsing her action. This seems right: on the one hand, as Buss notes, we are responsible for our thoughtless actions as well as for those that we have chosen; on the other, our choices themselves might not be autonomous.
The key to this sort of autonomy, Buss argues, lies in our passive contributions to our choices. Buss notes that our mental, emotional, and physical states can affect our actions in two ways: first, as things we think about when deciding what to do, and second, as things that color what facts we notice, what we make of them, and which we take to be reasons for action. With respect to influences of the second type, Buss writes, “agents are necessarily passive.” (658) And our autonomy depends on our relation to them: “whether someone acts autonomously depends on whether she can be identified with the direct, purely causal, nonrational influences on the formation of her intentions.” (658)
We are humans, members of a species. Buss argues that for this reason, any condition that is incompatible with minimal human flourishing, like a serious illness or disability, is “external to a human agent’s identity.” When our actions are caused by such a condition, they are caused by something that is, in an important sense, not an expression of us. “Sickness is a hostile takeover. It is an attack on a person by something external to the human being she truly is.” (668)
We are not, in this sense, less autonomous when the fact that we have a broken leg leads us to decide not to go running. In this case, our broken leg figures among our reasons for acting, and we decide what to make of it. But some illnesses do not simply present us with difficulties to be adjusted to; they affect which facts we notice, and what we take to constitute reasons for action. For instance, anorexia does not keep its victims from eating by making it difficult for them to swallow; it makes them think that they should starve themselves. When some illness affects us in this way, the actions that result are in an important sense not fully our own.
I am generally in sympathy with Buss’ arguments against the idea that the kind of autonomy she’s talking about requires some special exercise of agency. Most of the time, we act without deliberating or making conscious choices. This is as it should be: the fact that I do not have to deliberate about whether or not to show up for class every day, still less about every turn I make when driving to work, is a blessing, and one that allows me to think about more interesting things. Sometimes my thoughtless actions reflect previous choices, but often they do not: when someone strikes up a conversation with me, for instance, my response does reflect my character, and I am responsible for it, but normally it does not (as far as I can tell) reflect deliberation, past or present.
I think that Buss overstates our passivity with respect to what we notice, and which facts we see as reasons for action. We are passive with respect to these things at the moment of choice: as with all traits of character, by the time we arrive at a moment of decision, the time to work on them is past. But we can certainly affect them beforehand. We can train ourselves to notice the effects of our actions on others or to be indifferent to them; to notice where all the interesting people are hanging out at a party, or to look and see whether there is someone who no one seems interested in talking to; to appreciate problems with which we are not personally familiar or to ignore them. If we have not done so, on many accounts we can be held responsible for that fact.
Nonetheless, I think Buss is right to argue that the sources of autonomy are not some special exercise of agency, but some more general state that allows us to assume, absent evidence to the contrary, that someone who is in that state acts autonomously. That said, I have several questions about Buss’ position.
First, a central point in Buss’ argument is that because we are human, any trait that is inconsistent with minimal human flourishing is external to us. I am not sure why our humanity implies that we should identify with traits that are required for minimal human flourishing, as opposed to (for instance) traits that are broadly characteristic of human beings. I find Buss’ view more attractive than this one, but I am not sure how Buss would support it. In particular, the idea that as humans we must value traits that promote human flourishing seems to be vulnerable to some of the arguments Buss directs against the claim that as rational agents we must want to do what we really have reason to do. (666-667)
Second, the claim that we must regard traits that are incompatible with minimal human flourishing as in some sense external to us seems to me false. I assume that any account of autonomy must allow for some way in which I can decide for myself what is central to my identity. Suppose that I decide in this way that my flourishing is not central to me. Perhaps I care more about the flourishing of others, and believe that whenever I could promote their flourishing by sacrificing my own, I should. Suppose further that in the world as I find it, opportunities to promote others’ flourishing by sacrificing my own are frequent, and that the sacrifices I might be called upon to make are significant enough that were I to make them, I would not be capable even of minimal flourishing. I might, for instance, have to sacrifice my life for the sake of others.
In this case, my disposition to sacrifice my own interests might well be incompatible with minimal human flourishing. If, despite this fact, I choose to cultivate this disposition, would the actions that followed from it necessarily be alien? If so, why? In some cases, there might be an answer: I might, for instance, be so deeply depressed that I cannot imagine how I could possibly value my life. But surely it is possible that I might not value my own flourishing as more than a means to some other goal without some story like this being true of me. In such a case, why should I accept as a criterion of alien-ness something that I have decided not to value?
Third, the traits and dispositions that are inconsistent with some minimal degree of human flourishing are not all illnesses. Being unlikable, for instance, prevents you from forming close relationships. Having a terrible temper can get you into all kinds of trouble. Depending on one’s circumstances, being a person of principle who refuses to countenance genuine injustice can be incompatible with life. While each of these traits might result from a mental illness of some sort, each of them could also be traits that an agent is genuinely responsible for. I am not sure how Buss would distinguish them from illnesses; if she does not, her view would have very counterintuitive consequences.
Fourth, illnesses are not always unchosen. This is obvious in the case of addiction, though it is not always clear that people who are beginning to use addictive drugs fully appreciate how bad addiction is, and how likely they are to become addicts. But sometimes, surely, they might understand the dangers they run quite clearly. Besides, there are other cases. Consider a person with a serious mental illness who had worked her way through to some sort of fragile equilibrium, and who, presented with something that seemed likely to cure her illness, or at least to greatly alleviate it, chose not to. One can easily imagine the details of this in such a way that the decision looks like a product of the disease, but I think one can also imagine it not being one. She might think that a hard-won equilibrium should not be tampered with lightly, or she might have come to identify herself as the person who fought her way through to that equilibrium, and not want to change. In that case, it is still a disease, and thus on Buss’ account things one does as a result of it are things one is not responsible for. It is not clear to me that this is right.
Most of my questions center around the tangled relationship between mental illness and choice. I am not satisfied with my own understanding of these issues, and I thank Sarah not only for a really illuminating paper, but for providing the occasion for this discussion of them.