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Mental Agency as Self-Regulation

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The article proposes a novel approach to mental agency that is inspired by Victoria McGeer’s work on self-regulation. The basic idea is that certain mental acts (e.g., judging that p) leave further work to be done for an agent to be considered an authoritative self-ascriber of corresponding dispositional mental states (e.g., believing that p). First, we discuss Richard Moran’s account of avowals, which grounds first-person authority in deliberative, self-directed agency. Although this view is promising, we argue that it ultimately fails to confront the empirical gap between occurrent judgments and dispositional beliefs. Second, we show how Victoria McGeer's account of self-regulation allows us to bridge this gap by emphasizing that avowals are only reliable and authoritative insofar as we take certain steps to live up to the commitments inherent in our self-ascriptions. Third, we address the question whether and to what extent self-regulation can be seen as a form of mental agency. Unlike the ‘pure’ deliberative form of mental agency advocated by Moran, which is direct, conscious and intra-personal, we follow McGeer and argue for a notion of mental agency as an (often) indirect, unconscious and inter-personal process of self-regulation.

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  1. Strawson (2003), for example, claims that there is nothing incoherent in the idea of a ‘Pure Observer”: a reasoning, thinking and judging creature that has a full and vivid sense of itself as an observer although it has no capacity for any sort of intentional action. Although Strawson admits that it is ‘excessively’ unlikely that any such creature could evolve naturally, he argues that this does not alter the fact that Pure Observers are conceptually possible.

  2. On Moran’s view, one’s mental act (e.g., one’s decision to get out of bed, or to stop gambling) is only as strong as one’s hold on one’s practical reasons (2003, 82). If it turns out, in Oblomov’s case for example, that one’s resolutions turn out to be poor indicators of the future, then on Moran’s view we should say that Oblomov did not, in fact, have sufficient reason to get out of bed. In other words, Oblomov had not properly made up is mind, because he could not accept the commitments that were implied by his resolution.

  3. Note, though, that deliberative instances like these are often not a ‘private’ or individual matter, but something we do together with others: deliberation is often an interpersonal affair. As we shall argue in section 4, we might understand this type of interpersonal deliberation (e.g. calling someone to ask his/her opinion on taking up the new job) as a form of self-regulation.

  4. The IAT requires people to complete several tasks where they are asked to quickly pair two concepts together. For example, you might be asked to pair “women” with “math” or “women” with “liberal arts.” Scoring of the IAT assumes that the more closely you associate two concepts in your mind, the faster you will be able to pair them together on the task. The IAT measures your reaction times and calculates a score accordingly. See:

  5. Since its development in 1997, over 4.5 million people haven taken the IAT online. The collected data strongly suggests that many of these people hold implicit biases towards members of particular groups.

  6. Bilgrami (2006, 2010) argues that there is an ambiguity in the notion of intentional states such as belief. On the one hand beliefs are understood as normative states, i.e. commitments, on the other hand they are viewed as mere dispositions. He thinks we should keep these conceptions strictly separate and then goes on to argue that we always have first-person authority over our intentional states, but only when conceived as commitments. This enables him to deny that first-person authority is undermined in cases of self-deception, such as Sarah’s. He argues that self-deception is not a case of having a false meta-belief about the existence of the relevant first-order belief (which would undermine first-person authority), but rather a true meta-belief about or avowal of a first-order commitment that is incompatible with another first-order dispositional belief state. We agree with Bilgrami that intentional states are inherently normative, but we are hesitant about the distinction he proposes. For one, we think there is no such sharp divide in folk psychology. However, also on Bilgrami’s account there is the question how one gets from making a commitment to being granted first-person authority regarding one’s corresponding dispositional states. This is the question that concerns us in this paper.

  7. We would like to thank an anonymous referee for pointing this out.

  8. Notice that the case would not be any different if Sarah were aware of her implicit biases (and hence could deliberative about her states in a transparent fashion). It is a notorious fact about implicit biases that they persist even when people know they have them.

  9. On Moran’s account, people suffering from weakness of will strictly speaking lack self-knowledge - as they have failed to properly make up their minds. On McGeer’s view, however, avowals might not just express one’s resolutions, but also issue an ‘invitation’ to start engaging in self-regulative practices. A person’s avowal to attend an AA-meeting, for instance, might express self-knowledge in spite of not being sure-fire, because it expresses a commitment to bring it about that one attends the meeting.

  10. See McGeer (2007, 92): “developing deliberative autonomy or ‘spontaneity’ in Moran’s purist sense can be a sign of real psychic disease, indicating a capacity to manipulate oneself through the power of one’s own reason into a condition of deep self-deception.” See also Lear (2004).

  11. Moran allows that there can be what he calls “psychic givens”, but stresses that such “givens” must be reflected upon, only then can they be “understood in terms of the person’s responsibilities, and hence as implying either “endorsement, permission, or disapproval,” or simply passive allowance” (2001, 148). The point here is that for opaque states, even passive allowance is not available, as these states are not available for reflection in the first place. And even if they were, pure awareness often does not do the work.


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We would like to thank Naomi Kloosterboer and two anonymous referees for their valuable comments and suggestions. During the writing of this article, Leon de Bruin’s research was supported by a grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation. The opinions expressed in this publication are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Templeton World Charity Foundation. Fleur Jongepier's research was supported by The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (research project 322-20-003).

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Correspondence to Leon de Bruin.

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de Bruin, L., Jongepier, F. & Strijbos, D. Mental Agency as Self-Regulation. Rev.Phil.Psych. 6, 815–825 (2015).

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