Are you responsible for your unconscious self?

Unconscious self

Our choices and actions are often influenced by factors we aren’t conscious of. That has lead some philosophers to claim that we can’t possibly be held morally accountable for those actions since we didn’t freely and consciously choose them. But that would mean that people acting on damaging unconscious biases, like a doctor prescribing less medicine to black patients than to white patients, can’t be held responsible for malpractice. Instead of letting people off the hook, we should hold people responsible and train them to recognize the ways in which unconscious influences can affect their decisions, argue Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Uri Maoz, and Liad Mudrik.


If a driver backs a car over a kitten, is the driver morally responsible for the kitten’s death? Not if the driver was not aware of the kitten and took reasonable precautions to check behind the car—at least according to most people. Because the driver is not morally responsible, we should not be angry at them, despite our sadness about the kitten. If we did criticize the driver, then they could legitimately respond, “I didn’t know, so don’t blame me.” Cases like this suggest that consciousness of morally relevant facts might be necessary for moral responsibility, except perhaps when the agent is careless or negligent and should be aware of the relevant facts, for example because lots of cats are hanging around.

On the other hand, many psychological experiments suggest that our actions are often influenced in ways that we are not conscious of (Mudrik et al. submitted). Citizens vote for physically attractive political candidates more often than they vote for unattractive candidates, even if they believe that their vote was based not at all on physical appearance but only on grounds of policy, experience, and party. Customers are willing to pay more for a product after seeing expensive alternatives than after seeing cheap alternatives, even if they believe that the other alternatives and their order of presentation makes no difference to their spending. People choose to donate organs more often when the default option is to donate and they have to opt out than when the default is not to donate and they have to opt in, even if they believe that the default did not guide their choice. More dramatically, judges give longer sentences to black criminals with white victims than to otherwise similar white criminals with black victims, even if they believe that race did not affect the sentence. Doctors also give less pain medication to black patients than to white patients with similar needs, even if they believe that their prescription was based solely on medical factors. And employers and teachers ascribe more ability and success to men than to women, even if they believe that gender did not alter their assessments. Many of these experiments have been criticized or not replicated, but together they at least raise a pressing question: do such unconscious and undesired influences on action preclude moral responsibility?

People choose to donate organs more often when the default option is to donate, even if they believe that the default did not guide their choice.

Some philosophers say so. Caruso draws the extreme conclusion that we are never responsible for any action, because no action is totally immune from unconscious influences that affect the probability, timing, frequency, and manner of our actions. Nahmias is more moderate: “research is suggesting … that we have less free will [and hence less responsibility] than we tend to think we have.” Either way, psychology is supposed to conflict with common sense.

To be clear, the subjects were aware that they were making a decision, and they knew what they were choosing. What they were not aware of was that the various extraneous factors had an effect on their decisions. However, that lack of consciousness doesn’t seem enough to preclude moral responsibility.

The customer is responsible for purchasing a product and must pay the agreed price, even if preceding expensive items led them to agree to that higher price. The organ donor deserves credit for donating, even if nudged by a default. And the judge deserves blame for giving too much punishment to a black defendant, even if they are not aware that they were influenced by skin color. After all, no barrier (such as force, compulsion, or coercion) prevented them from doing the right thing. In such cases, ignorance of unconscious influences on their actions does not remove agents’ moral responsibility for those actions.

Still, it might seem to reduce their degree of moral responsibility. Perhaps they deserve some blame or credit but not as much as they would deserve if they were aware of the influences on their choices. But even this moderate claim is dubious. If the default is to donate organs, and someone understands that they could easily opt out but chooses to donate, then why should they receive any less credit than another organ donor who chooses to donate when the default was not to donate? Similarly, a citizen who votes for an obviously disastrous candidate without being aware that the candidate’s attractive physical appearance influences their vote does not deserve any less blame than another citizen who votes for the same disastrous candidate while aware that the candidate’s appearance influences their vote. So, ignorance of unconscious influences by itself does not even reduce moral responsibility.

The organ donor deserves credit for donating, even if nudged by a default.

Nonetheless, a different kind of ignorance might seem to remove or reduce moral responsibility. Some unconsciously influenced agents also lack awareness of another morally relevant fact: the large-scale pattern displayed by their decisions across cases and over time. For example, a doctor knows how much medication they prescribe to each individual patient, but they still might not be aware of trends in their prescriptions across different patients. They might be surprised to learn that they give less pain medication to blacks than to whites. Does this lack of awareness of such large-scale patterns remove or reduce the doctor’s moral responsibility for a particular decision?

Not if the doctor does not give enough pain medication to a black patient, so that patient suffers needlessly. This particular prescription then violates medical norms and would remain inadequate even if the doctor also gave the same inadequate amount of pain medication to white patients. How much the black patient suffers does not depend on how much pain medication the white patients get. Thus, inequality across cases is not necessary for this particular prescription to be morally wrong. As a result, ignorance of that inequality cannot remove or even reduce the doctor’s moral responsibility for the needless suffering. This doctor is fully responsible because they were able to—and knew all that they needed to know in order to—relieve the suffering of the black patient.

Ignorance of unconscious influences on their actions does not remove agents’ moral responsibility for those actions.

Although some doctors might not have easy access to information about the disparity between their prescriptions to blacks and whites, they should try to find out whether they are treating their patients equally. If they look into it, then they will find evidence that other doctors display such disparities. As they will usually have no good reason to believe that they are special in any way that makes them exempt from this problem, they should infer that they probably display the same patterns as others. Besides, the inequality in treatment suggests that the doctor is biased at some level, even if unconsciously. The doctor’s bias is part of them or their personality, regardless of whether they are aware of it, whether they like it, and whether they try to get rid of it.

It is not enough for an agent simply to argue,

“I didn’t know, so don’t blame me.”

The same goes for the other cases of judges, teachers, employers, and voters. Other possibilities remain, of course, so there always might be some very exceptional cases in which lack of consciousness about influences on actions removes or reduces moral responsibility. However, added details in those special cases are needed to show that the agent is not morally responsible for their action and its consequences. It is not enough for an agent simply to argue, “I didn’t know, so don’t blame me.”

Admitting our moral responsibility should motivate us to limit such unconscious undesired influences on our actions. We need to design our institutions and policies so as to reduce the harms caused by these influences. We also need to teach people about unconscious influences on actions. Learning about unconscious influences prevents us from trying to plead ignorance. It can also enable us to resist or correct for unconscious biases in appropriate ways in appropriate cases. Admittedly, correction is difficult. Even when people become aware of undesirable unconscious influences, they often under-correct or over-correct, so they do not end up doing what they should do or would have done without those influences. Moreover, agents who learn about some unconscious influences on their actions can still be affected by others. Indeed, there will be unconscious influences on which unconscious influences they learn about and try to correct. But even if it is no panacea, increasing our awareness of unconscious influences on our actions is crucial for any attempt to handle the problems created by those unconscious influences.



This publication was made possible in part through the support of a joint grant from the John Templeton Foundation and the Fetzer Institute. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation or the Fetzer Institute.


Caruso, Gregg. 2012. Free Will and Consciousness. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books.

Mudrik, L, Arie, I.G., Amir, Y., Shir, Y., Hieronymi, P., Maoz, U., O'Connor, T., Schurger, A., Vargas, M., Vierkant, T., Sinnott-Armstrong, W., and Roskies, A. Submitted. Free Will Without Consciousness?

Nahmias, Eddy. 2014. Is Free Will an Illusion? Confronting Challenges from the Modern Mind Sciences. In Moral Psychology, Volume 4: Free Will & Moral Responsibility, ed. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. Cambridge: MIT Press.

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