Are We Running Our Own Show?

On Thursday, Oct. 24 Professor John M. Doris delivered a Philosophy lecture arguing against the notion that humans are free agents when it comes to moral decision making. Doris hails from Cornell University, where he works as a professor at both the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and the Sage School of Philosophy.

Doris started the talk by addressing the commonly held belief that we as humans are in charge of our own lives. To underscore this notion that most people hold, he pointed out a few types of people who are not perceived to be in control of their lives, such as addicts and depressed people, among others. In all these cases, these people are not necessarily in control of their behaviors, and so we usually do not direct blame to them.

According to Doris, “The exercise of morally responsible agency—which is fancy talk for directing our own lives— consists in judgement and behavior ordered by self-conscious reflection about what to think and do. What do I really want for dinner? What do I really want out of a college? What do I need in a car?…And the thought is that this reflection has to be accurate.”

We see morally responsible agency when things are going well for us. When we see that a friend is making poor decisions with romantic or vocational choices, a typical response would be “He doesn’t know himself very well.” For Doris, this indicates that “When things are going well, and we’re kind of running our own show, we kind of know what’s going on for ourselves. We have a kind of self knowledge or self awareness.” Doris calls this notion reflectivism, or the idea that accurate self-awareness is required for moral agency.

The problem with this, Doris argues, is that humans are frequently ignorant of the causes of their behaviors in what Doris calls “practically relevant respects.” In Doris’s view, humans do not need to know the exact neurons firing when making decisions in order to be considered “self-aware,” rather, he clarified that causes of ignorance are more like, “[T]hings that you’re ignorant of that if you knew about the ignorance, or if ignorance was corrected you’d do it different. So something like ‘Well geez, if I knew I was just dating that person because they looked like my uncle Fred I wouldn’t do it.’” Doris characterizes these types of instances as practically relevant ignorance: instances of incorrect self knowledge, that when corrected, alter behavior. After explaining this, Doris added, “And that suggests when you’re acting in ignorance, like about your Uncle Fred, you’re not running your own show in the way we intuitively think you ought to be.”

Doris went on to cite his main argument for the lecture: that if we assume reflectivism to be true, “It’s not often warranted to attribute human beings the exercise of agency. But it is warranted to attribute human beings the exercise of agency—that is, we do often run our own show. So, reflectivism is not true.” In order to support his argument, Doris discussed several Psychology studies on unconscious processing that suggest humans are not entirely as in charge of our own behaviors as we often think we are.

Doris then used the example of the Müller-Lyer Illusion to illustrate unconscious processing. In the example, there are two parallel lines that are the same length, but appear to be different lengths due to arrow directions. This is an example of incongruent parallel processing, or when different psychological processes interfere with each other and issue divergent outputs regarding the same thing. As Doris put it, “So the idea is your reason tells you that they’re the same length, it’s an illusion, but your perceptual system doesn’t play along.”

This happens all the time when people make decisions, like voting. In his talk, Doris cited a study that showed that candidates listed on top of ballots have a 3% advantage over their peers. In instances like this, where behavior is not governed by reason, Doris claims that our decisions are not entirely backed by reason. In these types of situations, it is not unreasonable to question if we ever had the power to exercise judgment when making decisions in the first place.

Despite the fact that a lot of human behavior is unreflective, Doris believes that we do actually have self-direction, but “It’s more complicated than we have thought.” His reasoning for this is that humans commonly use emotions like anger and admiration as markers for testing whether someone is morally responsible. To Doris, “Someone is running their own life when their behavior expresses their values and all I mean by that is when someone is exercising agency, they’re running their own life when they’re doing what that matters to them. When the addict can’t quit smoking in spite of the anxiety of what she’s doing to her health, she is not an agent.”

In fact, inaccurate self-awareness can help with the exercise of agency, whereas accurate self-awareness can impede it. For instance, studies show that sick patients get healthier when they believe they are in control of their health—even when they are not. With this said, Doris concluded, saying, “So what I in fact think is, being wrong about yourself actually often help you to realize your values in your life. And that’s good because we’re wrong about ourselves all the time.”