Vol. 42 No. 2 (2022): New challenges in decision-making processes

Consciousness and responsibility

Mario De Caro
Roma Tre University
Massimo Marraffa
Roma Tre University

Published 2022-12-24


  • conscious thought

How to Cite

De Caro, M., & Marraffa, M. (2022). Consciousness and responsibility. Teoria. Rivista Di Filosofia, 42(2), 81–95. https://doi.org/10.4454/teoria.v42i2.158


Nowadays there is a strong tension between cognitive neuroscience and many ethical views based on the ordinary view of the world. On the one hand, many cognitive neuroscientists and empirically oriented philosophers raise a radical doubt about the ordinary conception of ourselves as conscious thinking agents who causally control their actions – where conscious thinking includes our beliefs, goals, decisions, and intentions. On the other hand, many ethicists still accept the ordinary conception of ourselves and, consequently, look at consciousness as one of the two fundamental bases for attributing responsibility: agents are responsible for their actions as long as such actions reflect their conscious deliberations (the other basis for the attribution of responsibility is that conscious deliberations do contribute causally to the generation of actions).

After exposing this disagreement, we will advocate the adoption of an intermediate position between that advocated by traditional ethicists (who, in spite of the data emerging from mind and brain sciences, keep attributing an absolute primacy to conscious thought in moral agency) and that held by cognitive neuroscientists and philosophers (who venture to claim that the conscious mind is indeed epiphenomenal). We will argue that an alternative and more promising model may be built by referring to some suggestions by Levy, Peter Carruthers, and Matt King. In this light, we will claim that cognitive neuroscience’s findings – rather than showing that the conscious mind is epiphenomenal – require that we offer a finer-grained and unbiased articulation of the dialectic between unconscious processing and conscious reflection.