Explaining Deception (The Explaining Series)

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If I falsely believe that I have not left the burner on, the cost is extremely high—my house being destroyed by fire. The asymmetry between these relative costs alone may account for my manipulation of evidence confirming the false belief that I have left the burner on. Drawing upon recent empirical research, both Mele and Scott-Kakures advocate a model of this sort, since it helps to account for the roles desires and emotions apparently play in cases of twisted self-deception.

Specifically, Mele refuses to identify the motivating desire as a desire that p , leaving the content of the motivation in question open. Nelkin , however, argues that the motivation for self-deceptive belief formation should be restricted to a desire to believe that p. I might want to hold the belief that I have left the burner on, but not want it to be the case that I have left it on. The belief is desirable in this instance, because holding it ensures that it will not be true. Restricting the motivating desire to a desire to believe that p , according to Nelkin, makes clear what twisted and straight self-deception have in common as well as why other forms of motivated belief formation are not cases of self-deception.

Mele argues that self-deceivers need not have the specific desire to believe that p , since a variety of other desires might well alter the acceptance thresholds such that p is believed, even a desire not to acquire a false belief that p might serve to motivate self-deceptive belief that p. Nelkin acknowledges the boundaries between cases of self-deception and other sorts of irrational motivated belief are blurry, but notes that scrutiny of the content of the motivation is necessary for adjudicating individual cases, and suggests that the nearer this content gets to the desire to believe that p the more clearly it is a case of self-deception.

Though non-intentional models of twisted self-deception dominate the landscape, whether desire, emotion or some combination of these attitudes plays the dominant role in such self-deception and whether their influence merely triggers the process or continues to guide it throughout remain matters of controversy.

Despite the fact that much of the contemporary philosophical discussion of self-deception has focused on epistemology, philosophical psychology and philosophy of mind, the morality of self-deception has been the central focus of discussion historically. As a threat to moral self-knowledge, a cover for immoral activity, and a violation of authenticity, self-deception has been thought to be morally wrong or, at least, morally dangerous.

There are two major questions regarding the morality of self-deception: First, can a person be held morally responsible for self-deception and if so under what conditions? Second, is there is anything morally problematic with self-deception, and if so, what and under what circumstances? The answers to these questions are clearly intertwined. If self-deceivers cannot be held responsible for self-deception, then their responsibility for whatever morally objectionable consequences it might have will be mitigated if not eliminated.

Nevertheless, self-deception might be morally significant even if one cannot be taxed for entering into it. Whether self-deceivers can be held responsible for their self-deception is largely a question of whether they have the requisite control over the acquisition and maintenance of their self-deceptive belief. In general, intentionalists hold that self-deceivers are responsible, since they intend to acquire the self-deceptive belief, usually recognizing the evidence to the contrary.

Even when the intention is indirect, such as when one intentionally seeks evidence in favor of p or avoids collecting or examining evidence to the contrary, self-deceivers seem intentionally to flout their own normal standards for gathering and evaluating evidence. So, minimally, they are responsible for such actions and omissions. Initially, non-intentionalist approaches may seem to remove the agent from responsibility by rendering the process by which she is self-deceived subintentional.

If my anxiety, fear, or desire triggers a process that ineluctably leads me to hold the self-deceptive belief, I cannot be held responsible for holding that belief. How can I be held responsible for processes that operate without my knowledge and which are set in motion without my intention? Most non-intentionalist accounts, however, do allow for the possibility that self-deceivers are responsible for individual episodes of self-deception, or for the vices of cowardice and lack of self-control from which they spring, or both. To be morally responsible in the sense of being an appropriate target for praise or blame requires, at least, that agents have control over the actions in question.

Mele , for example, argues that many sources of bias are controllable and that self-deceivers can recognize and resist the influence of emotion and desire on their belief acquisition and retention, particularly in matters they deem to be important, morally or otherwise. The extent of this control, however, is an empirical question. Other non-intentionalists take self-deceivers to be responsible for certain epistemic vices such as cowardice in the face of fear or anxiety and lack of self-control with respect the biasing influences of desire and emotion.

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Whether self-deception is due to a character defect or not, ascriptions of responsibility depend upon whether the self-deceiver has control over the biasing effects of her desires and emotions. Levy has argued that non-intentional accounts of self-deception that deny the contradictory belief requirement should not suppose that self-deceivers are typically responsible, since it is rarely the case that self-deceivers possess the requisite awareness of the biasing mechanisms operating to produce their self-deceptive belief.

Lacking such awareness, self-deceivers do not appear to know when or on which beliefs such mechanisms operate, rendering them unable to curb the effects of these mechanisms, even when they operate to form false beliefs about morally significant matters. Levy also argues that if self-deceivers typically lack the control necessary for moral responsibility in individual episodes of self-deception, they also lack control over being the sort of person disposed to self-deception.

Non-intentionalists may respond by claiming that self-deceivers often are aware of the potentially biasing effects their desires and emotions might have and can exercise control over them DeWeese-Boyd They might also challenge the idea the self-deceivers must be aware in the ways Levy suggests. One well known account of control, employed by Levy, holds that a person is responsible just in case she acts on a mechanism that is moderately responsive to reasons including moral reasons , such that were she to possess such reasons this same mechanism would act upon those reasons in at least one possible world Fischer and Ravizza Guidance control, in this sense, requires that the mechanism in question be capable of recognizing and responding to moral and non-moral reasons sufficient for acting otherwise.

In cases of self-deception, deflationary views may suggest that the biasing mechanism, while sensitive and responsive to motivation, is too simple to itself be responsive to reasons. According to Nelkin , expecting self-deceivers to have such a capacity is more likely if we understand the desire driving their bias a desire to believe that p , since awareness of this sort of desire would make it easier to guard against its influence on the process of determining whether p.

In view of these considerations, it is plausible that self-deceivers have the requisite control for moral responsibility on deflationary approaches, and certainly not obvious that they lack it. Insofar as it seems plausible that in some cases self-deceivers are apt targets for censure, what prompts this attitude?

Why do we blame her? Here we confront the nexus between moral responsibility for self-deception and the morality of self-deception. Understanding what obligations may be involved and breached in cases of this sort will help to clarify the circumstances in which ascriptions of responsibility are appropriate.

While some instances of self-deception seem morally innocuous and others may even be thought salutary in various ways Rorty , the majority of theorists have thought there to be something morally objectionable about self-deception or its consequences in many cases. Linehan argues that we have an obligation to scrutinize the beliefs that guide our actions that is proportionate to the harm to others such actions might involve.

When self-deceivers induce ignorance of moral obligations, of the particular circumstances, of likely consequences of actions, or of their own engagements, by means of their self-deceptive beliefs, they may be culpable. They are guilty of negligence with respect to their obligation to know the nature, circumstances, likely consequences and so forth of their actions Jenni ; see also Nelkin Self-deception, accordingly, undermines or erodes agency by reducing our capacity for self-scrutiny and change.

Baron If I am self-deceived about actions or practices that harm others or myself, my ability to take responsibility and change are also severely restricted. By alienating us from our own principles, self-deception may also threaten moral integrity Jenni Furthermore, self-deception also manifests certain weakness of character that dispose us to react to fear, anxiety, or the desire for pleasure in ways that bias our belief acquisition and retention in ways that serve these emotions and desires rather than accuracy.

Such epistemic cowardice and lack of self-control may inhibit the ability of self-deceivers to stand by or apply moral principles they hold by biasing their beliefs regarding particular circumstances, consequences or engagements, or by obscuring the principles themselves. In all these ways and a myriad of others, philosophers have found some self-deception objectionable in itself or for the consequences it has on our ability to shape our lives.

Those finding self-deception morally objectionable generally assume that self-deception or, at least, the character that disposes us to it, is under our control to some degree. This assumption need not entail that self-deception is intentional only that it is avoidable in the sense that self-deceivers could recognize and respond to reasons for resisting bias by exercising special scrutiny see section 5. It should be noted, however, that self-deception still poses a serious worry even if one cannot avoid entering into it, since self-deceivers may nevertheless have an obligation to overcome it.

If exiting self-deception is under the guidance control of self-deceivers, then they might reasonably be blamed for persisting in their self-deceptive beliefs when they regard matters of moral significance. If radically deflationary models of self-deception do turn out to imply that our own desires and emotions, in collusion with social pressures toward bias, lead us to hold self-deceptive beliefs and cultivate habits of self-deception of which we are unaware and from which cannot reasonably be expected to escape on our own, self-deception would still undermine autonomy, manifest character defects, obscure us from our moral engagements and the like.

For these reasons, Rorty emphasizes the importance of the company we keep. Our friends, since they may not share our desires or emotions, are often in a better position to recognize our self-deception than we are. With the help of such friends, self-deceivers may, with luck, recognize and correct morally corrosive self-deception.

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Evaluating self-deception and its consequences for ourselves and others is a difficult task. It requires, among other things: determining the degree of control self-deceivers have; what the self-deception is about Is it important morally or otherwise? As Nelkin contends, determining whether and to what degree self-deceivers are culpably negligent will ultimately need to be determined on a case by case basis in light of answers to such questions about the stakes at play and the difficulty involved. Despite the difficulties involved in assigning responsibility, this discussion indicates the wide variety of serious moral problems associated with self-deception that account in part for the attention that has been devoted to this phenomenon from the very beginning, especially within the Christian tradition e.

Why do human beings have this capacity in the first place? Why would natural selection allow a capacity to survive that undermines the accurate representation of reality, especially, when inaccuracies about individual ability or likely risk can lead to catastrophic errors? McKay and Dennett argue that positive illusions are not only tolerable evolutionarily speaking, they actually appear to directly contribute to fitness.

Overly positive beliefs about our abilities or chances for success appear to make us more apt to exceed our abilities and achieve success than more accurate beliefs would Taylor and Brown , Bandura Alternatively, some argue that self-deception evolved to facilitate interpersonal deception by eliminating the cues and cognitive load that consciously lying produces and by mitigating retaliation should the deceit become evident von Hippel and Trivers ; Trivers , , Others have complained that there is little data to support this hypothesis Dunning , Van Leeuwen a, a.

Van Leeuwen a raises the concern that the wide variety of phenomena identified by this theory as self-deception render the category so broad that it is difficult to tell whether it is a unified phenomenon traceable to particular mechanisms that could plausibly be sensitive to selection pressures. In view of these shortcomings, Van Leeuwen a argues the capacity for self-deception is not a product of evolution; it is a spandrel —a byproduct of other aspects of our cognitive architecture—not an adaptation, at least, not in the strong sense of being positively selected.

That leaves open the possibility that this capacity has nevertheless been retained as a consequence of its fitness value. Lamba and Nityananda test the theory that self-deceived are better at deceiving others, specifically whether overconfident individuals are overrated by others and underconfident individuals, underrated.

In their study, students in tutorials were asked to predict their own performance on the next assignment as well as that of each of their peers in the tutorial in terms of absolute grade and relative rank.


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Comparing these predictions and the actual grades given on the assignment suggests a strong positive relationship between self-deception and deception. Those who self-deceptively rated themselves higher were rated higher by their peers as well. These findings lend suggestive support to the claim self-deception facilitates other deception. While these studies certainly do not supply all the data necessary to support the theory that the propensity to self-deception should be viewed as adaptation, they do suggest ways to test these evolutionary hypotheses by focusing upon specific phenomena.

Whether or not the psychological and social benefits identified by these theories explain the evolutionary origins of the capacity for self-deceit, they may well shed light on its prevalence and persistence, as well as pointing to ways to identify contexts in which this tendency presents high collective risk Lamba and Nityandanda Collective self-deception has received scant direct philosophical attention as compared with its individual counterpart.

Collective self-deception might refer simply to a group of similarly self-deceived individuals or to a group-entity, such as a corporation, committee, jury or the like, that is self-deceived. These alternatives reflect two basic perspectives social epistemologists have taken on ascriptions of propositional attitudes to collectives.

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This summative understanding, then, considers attitudes attributed to groups to be nothing more than metaphors expressing the sum of the attitudes held by their members. To say that students think tuition is too high is just a way of saying that most students think so. On the other hand, such attributions might be understood non-summatively as applying to collective entities, themselves ontologically distinct from the members upon which they depend. The non-summative understanding, then, considers collectives to be, like persons, apt targets for attributions of propositional attitudes, and potentially of moral and epistemic censure as well.

Following this distinction, collective self-deception may be understood in either a summative or non-summative sense. In the summative sense, collective self-deception refers to self-deceptive belief shared by a group of individuals, who each come to hold the self-deceptive belief for similar reasons and by similar means, varying according to the account of self-deception followed.

We might call this self-deception across a collective. In the non-summative sense, the subject of collective self-deception is the collective itself, not simply the individuals comprising it. The following sections offer an overview of these forms of collective self-deception, noting the significant challenges posed by each.

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Understood summatively, we might define collective self-deception as the holding of a false belief in the face of evidence to the contrary by a group of people as a result of shared desires, emotions, or intentions depending upon the account of self-deception favoring that belief. What distinguishes collective self-deception from solitary self-deception just is its social context, namely, that it occurs within a group that shares both the attitudes bringing about the false belief and the false belief itself.

Compared to its solitary counterpart, self-deception within a collective is both easier to foster and more difficult to escape, being abetted by the self-deceptive efforts of others within the group. Virtually all self-deception has a social component, being wittingly or unwittingly supported by one's associates See Ruddick In the case of collective self-deception, however, the social dimension comes to the fore, since each member of the collective unwittingly helps to sustain the self-deceptive belief of the others in the group.