Tuesday 8 May 2018

Self-deception, Delusions and Responsibility

Quinn Hiroshi Gibson is currently a Teaching Fellow in the Global Perspectives on Society program at New York University Shanghai. He received his PhD in philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley in 2017. He works on the moral psychology of self-deception, addiction, delusion, and other psychiatric disorders. His personal website can be found here.

In my recent article ‘Self-deception in and out of Illness: Are some subjects responsible for their delusions?’ I argue that there is significant overlap between self-deception and delusion. Obviously, whether this is true depends on how we think about self-deception. So, in this paper I offer an account of self-deception, which I call Self-deception as Omission. According to my view, self-deception that p occurs if an agent `intentionally omits to seek, recognize, or appreciate externally available evidence for not-p, for reasons which ultimately derive from her desire that that p be true, in a way which enables the maintenance of her belief that p.’

Most other views of self-deception face the difficulty of trying to account for how we get into the self-deceptive state. This is notoriously difficult to do. Three features of the self-deceptive process don’t seem to hang together very well: (1) that it is an intentional process (2) that the ‘self’ that is the agent of the process is unified and (3) that the process yields belief. Other views put pressure on one or more of these features, but often end up harbouring the original difficulty in concealed form.

My view says that it is sufficient for self-deception that the agent is guilty of a certain epistemic violation in the maintenance of her belief, so the self-deceptive state does not depend on coming about through some distinctively self-deceptive process at all. This allows us to sidestep these difficulties altogether. Indeed, I think the only way to decisively respond to such difficulties is to sidestep them altogether. (The argument I am able to offer in this paper for the superiority of my view of self-deception over others is necessarily compressed, but a more complete elaboration and defense of the view is available in my 'Self-deception as Omission’, currently under review, but available as a draft here).

If I am right about the sufficient conditions for self-deception, then some delusional subjects will in fact satisfy those conditions. I focus on cases of Reverse Othello Delusion and Capgras delusion, but any delusional state which is sustained by the right kind of motivated epistemic failure will count. I suggest that if we accept a two-factor theory of monothematic delusion, there is room for the right kind of motivation to be playing a role in many different examples of delusion.

Although my view of self-deception is deflationary in some respects, it preserves the moral significance of the phenomenon: Self-deception is (pre-theoretically, at least) paradigmatically intentional behavior for which the self-deceiver is prima facie blameworthy. My view does justice to this, but locates the agency in the phenomenon not in the process of belief formation, but in the dynamics of belief maintenance. The epistemic failure of the self-deceived agent is motivated in way that makes it attributable to him, roughly in the sense of Watson (2004) and Shoemaker (2011).

For typical self-deceivers this attributability underlies blameworthiness – they do not have adequate excuse for their motivated epistemic failure. Delusional subjects who are self-deceived, however, typically are excused (e.g., on account of distress or necessity). Nevertheless, it is significant that the self-deceptive state is attributable. It allows us to identify an agential contribution – to wit, a role played by the delusional subject’s will – and this, in turn, illuminates the ways in which the dynamics of delusion are continuous with ‘ordinary’ cognitive processes.

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