Special issue of Inquiry on “Folk Psychology and Moral Agency”


We thought some of you would be interested in the new issue of Inquiry (October 2009), which is devoted to the topic of “Folk Psychology and Moral Agency.” To access the online table of contents, please click here.

Here are the article titles, names of contributors, and article abstracts:

Understanding Norms Without a Theory of Mind (Kristin Andrews)

I argue that having a theory of mind requires having at least implicit knowledge of the norms of the community, and that an implicit understanding of the normative is what drives the development of a theory of mind. This conclusion is defended by two arguments. First I argue that a theory of mind likely did not develop in order to predict behavior, because before individuals can use propositional attitudes to predict behavior, they have to be able to use them in explanations of behavior. Rather, I suggest that the need to explain behavior in terms of reasons is the primary function of a theory of mind. I further argue that in order to be motivated to offer explanations of behavior, one must have at least an implicit understanding of appropriate behavior, which implies at least an implicit understanding of norms. The second argument looks at three cases of nonhuman animal societies that appear to operate within a system of norms. While there is no evidence that any species other than humans have a theory of mind, there is evidence that other species have sensitivity to the normative. Finally, I propose an explanation for the priority of norms over a theory of mind: given an understanding of norms in a society, and the ability to recognize and sanction violations, there developed a need to understand actions that violated the norms, and such explanations could only be given in terms of a person’s reasons. There is a significant benefit to being able to explain behavior that violates norms, because explanations of the right sort can also serve to justify behavior.

At the Heart of Morality Lies Folk Psychology (Steve Guglielmo; Andrew E. Monroe; Bertram F. Malle)

Moral judgments about an agent’s behavior are enmeshed with inferences about the agent’s mind. Folk psychology—the system that enables such inferences—therefore lies at the heart of moral judgment. We examine three related folk-psychological concepts that together shape people’s judgments of blame: intentionality, choice, and free will. We discuss people’s understanding and use of these concepts, address recent findings that challenge the autonomous role of these concepts in moral judgment, and conclude that choice is the fundamental concept of the three, defining the core of folk psychology in moral judgment.

Empathy and Instinct: Cognitive Neuroscience and Folk Psychology (Anne Jaap Jacobson)

Might we have an instinctive tendency to perform helpful actions? This paper explores a model under development in cognitive neuroscience that enables us to understand what instinctive, helpful actions might look like. The account that emerges puts some pressure on key concepts in the philosophical understanding of folk psychology. In developing the contrast, a notion of embodied beliefs is introduced; it arguably fits folk conceptions better than philosophical ones. One upshot is that Humean insights into the role of empathy and instinct in the production of helpful actions are affirmed.

Feeling for Others: Empathy, Sympathy, and Morality (Heidi L. Maibom)

An increasingly popular suggestion is that empathy and/or sympathy plays a foundational role in understanding harm norms and being motivated by them. In this paper, I argue these emotions play a rather more moderate role in harms norms than we are often led to believe. Evidence from people with frontal lobe damage suggests that neither empathy, nor sympathy is necessary for the understanding of such norms. Furthermore, people’s understanding of why it is wrong to harm varies and is by no means limited to considerations of welfare arising from the abilities to sympathize and/or empathize. And the sorts of considerations of welfare that are central to sympathy and, to some extent empathy, are often already moralized. As such, these considerations cannot form the non-moral foundation of harm norms. Finally, empathy and sympathy are not the only emotions that motivate harm norms. Indeed, much of the evidence that has been adduced in favor of the motivational force of empathy and sympathy are studies on helping, which is quite a different behavior than aggression inhibition. Understanding and being motivated by harm norms are complex abilities. To understand them better, we need to move beyond the current fixation on empathy and sympathy.

Joint Agency: Intersubjectivity, Sense of Control, and the Feeling of Trust (Axel Seemann)

In this paper, I am going to be concerned with the capacity of human beings to act jointly. In particular, I will focus on the phenomenal aspect of collective action. I shall suggest that the experience of being jointly engaged with another is complex: it comprises both a practical grasp of oneself and of the other person as single agents participating in the joint pursuit, and an experience of collective immersion in the activity, which includes a sense of joint control. This suggestion gives rise to a number of puzzles: firstly, what is the relation between jointly engaged agents’ awareness of self and other and their sense of a joint engagement? Secondly, how are we to substantiate the idea of a sense of joint control if it is also obviously true that I don’t, however close our psychological and bodily attunements, have control over your doings? I shall argue that a satisfactory solution to these puzzles is possible only if we take seriously the notion of a perceptually constituted “intersubjective perspective” that is shared by the participants in joint activities and gives rise to an attitude of mutual trust.

Moral Agency, Conscious Control, and Deliberative Awareness (Maureen Sie)

Recent empirical research results in the behavioral, cognitive, and neurosciences on the “adaptive unconscious” show that conscious control and deliberative awareness are not all-pervasive aspects of our everyday dealings with one another. Moral philosophers and other scientists have used these insights to put our moral agency to the test. The results of these tests are intriguing: apparently we are not always (or ever?) the moral agents we take ourselves to be. This paper argues in favor of a refinement of our common perception of moral agency that can accommodate these results; however, it also argues against the suggestion that this refined concept is the result of a radical new understanding of our everyday moral practices.

The Ethical Dimension of Folk Psychology? (Karsten R. Stueber)

Participants in the debate about the nature of folk psychology tend to share one fundamental assumption: that its primary purpose consists in the prediction and explanation of another person’s behavior. The following essay will evaluate recent challenges to this assumption by philosophers such as Joshua Knobe who insist that folk psychology and its concepts are intimately linked to our ethical concerns. I will show how conceiving of folk psychology in an engaged manner enables one to account for the evidence cited in favor of an ethical interpretation of folk psychology, without undermining the claim that it is primarily an explanatory practice. Nevertheless, I will suggest that the basic cognitive stance of folk psychology has ethical implications that have been insufficiently noted in the contemporary context.

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