Dual process theorists in psychology maintain that the mind’s workings can be explained in terms of conscious or controlled processes and automatic processes. Automatic processes are largely nonconscious, that is, triggered by environmental stimuli without the agent’s conscious awareness or deliberation. Automaticity researchers contend that even higher level habitual social behaviors can be nonconsciously primed. This article brings work on automaticity to bear on our understanding of habitual virtuous actions. After examining a recent intuitive account of habitual actions and habitual virtuous actions, the author offers her own explanation in terms of goal-dependent automaticity. This form of automaticity provides an account of habitual virtuous actions that explains the sense in which these actions are rational, that is, done for reasons. Habitual virtuous actions are rational in the sense of being purposive or goal-directed and are essentially linked with the agent’s psychological states. Unlike deliberative virtuous actions, the agent’s reasons for habitual virtuous actions are not present to her conscious awareness at the time of acting.
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Strictly speaking, the representation of the goal, and not the goal itself, is nonconsciously activated. I try to be as precise as possible, and refer mainly to the activated representation of the goal. Sometimes this locution is cumbersome, and I refer simply to the activation of the goal. One might think that referring to the representation of a goal, as opposed to simply referring to a goal, is to introduce a distinction without a difference, since having a goal is the same thing as having a representation of it. This is not quite right, however, for my representation can extend beyond the conceptual content of the goal itself. We can see this by noting that representations of goals can change, yet the goal itself remains the same. My goal to lose weight, for example, can remain essentially the same in terms of conceptual content, yet my representation of it can change from negative to positive, depending on changes in the attitude with which I view it.
For consequentially ascribable versus independently intelligible desires, on which I draw for insight about goal ascription, see Dancy (1993, pp. 8–9).
I am grateful to Timothy Crockett for this example.
The analogy of virtue-relevant goals with deep language structures can be taken only so far. My claim is not that representations of virtue-relevant goals are innate, as are language capacities, only that they are deep-seated.
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I would like to thank Timothy Crockett, Michael Monahan, Theresa Tobin, and anonymous reviewers for this journal for helpful comments on earlier versions of this essay.
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Snow, N.E. Habitual Virtuous Actions and Automaticity. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 9, 545–561 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-006-9035-5
- goal-dependent automaticity
- intervention control