Podcast:Attention, Action, and Responsibility

On Friday 14 June, Carolyn Dicey Jennings – who is about to take up a post as Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of California, Merced — offered a fascinating Uehiro seminar (mp3) paper on whether action or responsibility require attention. Carolyn begins her talk with the example of a person with ‘Super ADHD’, who has no control over her attention and, it might appear, is therefore morally unaccountable for her actions. Such cases raise serious questions about real-life cases in which criminals have diminished attention and might claim this as a mitigating factor.

Having briefly defined action and attention, Carolyn presents Wayne Wu’s dichotomy, according to which human bodily behaviour is either attentive action or reflexive behaviour. Wu bases his dichotomy on what he calls the Many-Many Problem, the problem of reducing a multiplicity of targets and responses to a single target-response mapping.

Against Wu, Carolyn argues that are forms of non-reflexive action which don’t require attention, such as action through skilled behaviour (driving a car is an obvious example). Many-many selection can take place without the involvement of attention. Carolyn’s example here is eating ice-cream while sleepwalking. In effect, skilled behaviour, through practice, becomes automatic and so there is less need for cognitive control or awareness. These behaviours pretty clearly aren’t reflexive, and their being intentional is sufficient justification for seeing them as actions. Nor should we believe that they must involve attention. Subjects can perform other tasks (such as holding a conversation) and the relevant parts of the prefrontal cortices show reduced activation, and as we become more and more expert attention may be said to drop off entirely (leading to no behavioural interference and an entirely different neural substrate).

Carolyn then focuses on moral responsibility, arguing for an analogy with ‘Frankfurt cases’ concerning free will. One can be held morally responsible when there is no selection of a target-response pairing from multiple target-response pairings (when driving in auto-pilot, for instance), and the very fact that one is being held responsible is evidence that one is performing an action and Wu’s supposition that the Many-Many Problem is required for action is mistaken. The role of attention is to optimize action, when required.

What are the implications for moral responsibility? One might think that diminished attention implies diminished responsibility; but Carolyn asks us to compare a skilled, and hence less attentive, boxer with an unskilled one. The skilled boxer, having more bodily control over their punch, might be more responsible than the unskilled boxer, who has more cognitive control over their punch. She then returns to the case of the Super ADHD person, suggesting that any attribution of responsibility is indeed out of place, whereas in an ordinary ADHD person this is not so (we might blame an ordinary such person for driving a car in the first place). Perhaps a necessary condition for responsibility is attention as a characteristic of a person, but not of the particular act for which one is being held responsible.

A lively question period followed. The issues covered included how much work intention does in explaining responsibility, whether Wu’s dichotomy might be restated in terms of an agent’s beliefs about her options rather than the actual availability of options, whether intention requires attention, and whether the Super ADHD ‘person’ is indeed a person.

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