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We support John Doris's criticism of “reflectivism” but identify three shortcomings: (1) his neglect of humans' evolved predispositions and tendencies, (2) his failure to appreciate that identity and responsibility arise first from parsing our world ontologically, in a process we call “existential framing,” and (3) a potentially alarming implication of his “dialogic” model of identity formation: if identity is negotiated across diverse social situations, why isn't dissociative identity disorder more common?

With his latest book, John Doris expands upon the “situationist” interpretation he first outlined in Lack of Character (Doris 2002), now constructing a skeptical argument against a philosophical dogma he calls “reflectivism,” the idea that “human agency consists in judgment and behavior ordered by self-conscious, accurate reflection about what to think and do” (Talking to Our Selves, Doris 2015b, Ch. 2, p. 1). In his view, evidence against “reflectivism” gives rise to a well-founded skepticism regarding morally responsible agency: if human agency does not meet “reflectivist” criteria, does this mean we are not morally responsible for our actions? Resisting this skeptical hypothesis, Doris proposes a “dialogic” model, where moral agency is achieved via a consensual process of negotiation with others. We are morally responsible agents, in Doris's view, insofar as our actions express our values (Ch. 7). Because values are determined through dialog with others and expressed through collaborative thinking and acting, people do have a kind of agency, and we can hold on to a socially distributed and consensual version of moral responsibility and agency by abandoning reflectivism in favor of dialogism.

We applaud Doris's integration of social psychology evidence into a moral philosophy debate, and we appreciate the desire to mitigate the consequences of scientifically induced skepticism via the proposed dialogic model. Moreover, we second his critique of “reflectivism.” Anyone who holds to such a reductive view of agency should be challenged by the scientific literature suggesting that, for the most part, humans don't act as self-conscious, accurately reflective agents. Nevertheless, we feel that Doris's solution to this problem – his “dialogic” model of morally responsible agency – has several shortcomings. First, it fails to account for how the moral situation is constructed and constrained by humans' evolved predispositions and tendencies. Second, while focusing on social negotiation of values, Doris ignores how identity and responsibility arise implicitly as we evaluatively parse our world, in a process we call “existential framing.” Finally, Doris does not address a potentially alarming implication of his situationist and dialogic model of identity construction: If identity is determined through negotiation across diverse social situations, shouldn't everyone suffer from something like dissociative identity disorder?

1. Born evaluators

To begin our critique with what is most obvious, Doris largely ignores the growing literature on the evolution and development of moral psychology, which would contextualize his account of the social negotiation of morally responsible agency. What do humans bring by way of evolved predispositions and constraints? Work from Jonathan Haidt, Frans De Waal, and others can help us appreciate the psychological significance both of our behavioral homologies and analogies with other species and of those features that are uniquely human. Any theory of moral psychology must be consistent with what we know of our evolved tendencies and developmental constraints.

In this connection, developmental evidence is especially revealing. Long before they can explicitly negotiate values with others, infants perceive and understand social dominance (e.g., Gazes et al. 2015; Mascaro & Csibra 2012; Thomsen et al. 2011), also preferring agents who express generosity over those demonstrating stinginess and unfairness (Hamlin et al. 2010). Finally, “inequity aversion” emerges reliably in children between the age of three and five years, in highly contrasted societal, religious, and economic environments (Blake et al. 2015; Rochat et al. 2009). Some asynchronies exist, but the developmental trend is universal and impervious to the drastically different ways children dialog about – and thereby co-create – values, across diverse cultures. Thus, in our view, it would be misleading to propose that prosocial preferences and inequity aversion are values created through social negotiation, while ignoring the contributions of our biology.

These examples illustrate an important point. If equity and prosociality are among the “values” toward which humans are predisposed, Dorisian agency is determined by something that precedes social negotiation. The emphasis of our critique, however, is on something even more basic than values: valuation itself. Humans are born evaluators, showing differential attraction and repulsion to objects in the world from birth. Even in the womb, fetuses develop preferences for their mother's voice or the smell of their amniotic fluid. We don't arrive through dialog at a value for our mothers; we are predisposed to seek comfort and sustenance, with corresponding feelings of warmth and connectedness, which babies evince from early on (e.g., Bigelow & Rochat 2006). Similarly, we don't have to be taught to enjoy sweet foods and (initially, at least) to have an aversion to very sour or bitter things (e.g., Rosenstein & Oster 1988). Through such innately specified preferences, we begin to make distinctions among foods, people, and other things, as we implicitly carve our world into qualitatively specified ontological categories. Thus, before we begin to negotiate explicit values, we already parse things and events in the world evaluatively. And this is crucial because, as we will argue in the next section, the value-laden specification of what something is, often carries implicit consequences for how we ought to treat it. The explicit negotiation of moral responsibility is thus typically a renegotiation of normative stances we have already adopted. To start with negotiation is to start too late.

2. Existential framing

In a 1963 interview, James Baldwin distilled the problem of race in America by attributing to white people a perverse “need”: “What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I'm not a nigger, I'm a man, but if you think I'm a nigger, it means you need it.” 1 What is this “need,” and how does the invention of a new ontological category – a “n**ger” – fulfill it? We can start by simply recognizing that one might feel many obligations toward a “man,” but far fewer toward a “n**ger.” And before asking why this is so, we should first recognize that inventing a new ontological category was and is the most straightforward way to justify inhumane treatment of others, even as whites trumpeted values like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Typically, we don't spend much time arguing about such values. Instead we argue directly about identities and truths (e.g., What is the case? Isn't Baldwin a man?).

Consider, for example, the fraught issue of abortion. Both parties to the debate expressly agree on the values of human life, freedom of choice, basic care and protection for women and babies, and so on. Thus – moral grandstanding aside – the debate does not hinge on arguments over such values but on ontological claims that carry normative implications. What is a fetus? Is it an autonomous human being or part of a woman's body? Or something ontologically in-between? When and how does a fetus transition from one ontological category to another? Is abortion safe or unsafe? How painful are the various alternatives for mothers and fetuses? What is the burden of unwanted births on mothers, children, and society? And so on. Again, this is generalizable. We typically accomplish little by arguing that freedom is good, or that human life is precious – these are platitudes. Instead, most of the action is in the fight over ontologies.

How and why does this happen? Well before humans form explicit values, we are involved in relations of attraction/repulsion, intimacy, ownership, belonging/exclusion, cooperation/competition, etc. – relations that help us navigate our world successfully. For instance, the simple, preconceptual experience of trust and intimacy between people already imposes normative expectations for how such “friends” ought to treat each other – expectations that subsequently undergo social (re)negotiation. The same implicit formation of normative expectations occurs across diverse contexts, as we form relationships with our families, homes, pets, or co-workers; as well as with those we perceive as disgusting or threatening. We and these entities are reciprocally co-defined in terms of perceived value, and these ontological determinations carry implications for how we ought to behave. Thus, before we ever negotiate “values,” we already develop our identity by discriminating among people, places, beliefs, and things – and we do so in terms that carry normative implications. The adoption of shared values is a secondary abstraction and renegotiation of these implicitly formed normative expectations.

We propose to call this primary process “existential framing,” a term emphasizing that our meaningful relationships with things in the world – in the Heideggerian sense of “existence” – shape or “frame” moral perception and judgment in all contexts. Existential framing has normative consequences that needn't be mediated by explicit value-negotiation. We simply treat “friends” one way and “foes” another; “pets” one way and “pests” another; “home” (my home) one way and “property” (a house) another. We only need to negotiate about explicit values in situations where these norms of behavior are contested.

Like Doris, we acknowledge the profound importance of dialog for establishing values – along with the pervasive dialogicity of human thinking. However, we feel that to indulge this argument over reflectivism versus dialogism is to focus on relatively superficial features, missing what might be more decisive for morality, agency, and identity. For example, Doris's suggestion that suffrage and civil rights are about groups' demand for “an identity that better expresses their values” (Ch. 6, p. 28) seems to miss the point. One could instead argue that the essential demand of suffrage and civil rights is not a claim about values (which values are specific to a gender or race?), but instead a claim to value itself – a repudiation of devalued and distorted identities and an assertion of reality. Or take the final chapter of Talking to Our Selves, where Doris summarizes the story of “Ishi,” the last of the Yahi people in California. Doris attributes Ishi's loss of identity to “cultural devastation” (Ch. 8, p. 1). In so doing, he doesn't consider what it must have meant for Ishi's identity when, after having lived for years alone, he was forced by starvation to leave his home in the Sierra Nevada wilds and move into an anthropology museum. Ishi's loss was of course social and cultural, but it was surely more than this – it must have also been a loss of place, a loss of relations to forests, canyons, mountains, rivers, animals, and plants; a loss of relations of stewardship over and loving intimacy with these things; a loss of self-direction and self-determination. Damage to Ishi's identity must have been precipitated by more than a loss of culture or social ties because relations of intimacy, ownership, attraction, and stewardship with respect to non-human things also contribute to who and what we are. And such qualitative relationships also orient our agentive activity within a meaningful context. Doris's dialogic and “emphatically social” (Ch. 8, p. 1) model of morally responsible agency eludes this deeper dimension of existential framing, which we think is primordial in the determination of moral identity and responsibility.

3. Multiple moral hats

We conclude with a final provocation. Humans must negotiate a variety of social spheres, fulfilling roles that entail diverse responsibilities and parochialisms. Watching the news and reading the paper, we observe that being a loving father in the family sphere does not necessarily prevent one from being unmasked as a ruthless criminal in another sphere. In view of Doris's model of social and dialogic identity construction, this suggests to us that humans should end up developing a multiplicity of imperfectly aligned identities, corresponding to our roles in the distinct social situations in which we are embedded: submissive and obedient in one, domineering and violent in another. Nevertheless, even very great hypocrites tend to view themselves as having a single, coherent identity (and here, dissociative identity disorder is an exception that proves the rule). Our question is: How do we somehow manage to maintain a sense of coherence in our negotiated moral identity despite our constant switching of roles and moral “hats”? This crucial psychological conundrum tends to be neglected in moral philosophy, and continues to be so, even as Doris's situationist and dialogical account would seem to magnify the paradox of our inescapable moral ambiguities across social spheres.


1. See the film, I Am Not Your Negro (Peck 2016).


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