Maureen Sie (TiLPS, Tilburg)

This week we are continuing our mini-interview series with the answers of Prof Maureen Sie. She is Chair of Philosophy of Moral Agency at TiLPS, Tilburg University, and also chair of  the Practical Philosophy division of the Dutch Research School of Philosophy (OZSW). Prof Sie’s work addresses free will, philosophy of action, moral psychology, and meta-ethics, and she engages intensely with scientific results. Recently she co-edited with Derk Pereboom a volume of essays titled Basic Desert, Reactive Attitudes and Free Will. Enjoy!


1. How did you first become interested in Philosophy of Action?


When I was orienting myself what to write my master thesis about (in the early nineties), I found a book in the library by Hannah Arendt, a philosopher that had not been discussed in any of the courses I took at the department of Philosophy in Utrecht (in the whole curriculum there was not one single text or book of a female philosopher, though Beauvoir was mentioned once, in connection to her lover). The title of the book Thinking intrigued me and the question raised on the page I opened did too “could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of specific results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil- doing or even actually “condition” them against it?” (Arendt, The Life of the Mind, 1971, p. 5). For Arendt the value of thinking, to say it in a very abbreviated manner, is primarily in enabling us to act. Hence, she understands theory (thinking) from the perspective of acting. Although I have not worked on Arendt since then, I think that she sparked my interest in the philosophy of action.


After that I wrote a dissertation on free will and moral responsibility in the late nineties arguing that the justificatory issue taking central stage in the philosophical discussions loses its practical urgency vis-a-vis actions that express what I then called “potential normative disagreements.” That is, I argued that once we see that many of the actions we respond to with blame, moral indignation and resentment (hereafter: the moral sentiments) potentially disclose a disagreement with our values and norms, the incompatibilist worries lose much of their grip on us (it was later published as Justifying Blame: Why Free Will Matters and Why it does Not).


2. What are you working on at the moment?


In the more recent past I have addressed the topic of free will and moral responsibility in relation to findings in the behavioral, cognitive and neurosciences which show that much of what we do is influenced in ways that escape our attention. Those findings—especially the surprise with which they were met by the scientists and the conclusions they draw from them—made me realize that the view of moral agency I took for granted in articulating my Strawsonian view on the importance of the moral sentiments, might not be as widely shared as I thought. To me, the importance of moral sentiments is crucial in becoming aware of the reasons for our actions, for exchanging them, and more broadly, to (opening) the moral conversation on how to regulate our shared practices with one another: to figure out what normative expectations we think legitimate, under what circumstances and for what reasons. Such a view makes sense when you believe that much, if not the majority, of the considerations on which we act escapes our awareness.


In current discussions of moral responsibility I am primarily drawn to the scaffolding views of moral responsibility, defended by Victoria McGeer and Manual Vargas. They focus on the crucial role moral sentiments play in steering interacting agents in directions we judge desirable and enabling them to develop the specific abilities required to function as moral agents. Besides these scaffolding functions, the moral sentiments also remain crucial in sorting out how to interact with one another (I argue for this in Sie 2016, 2018a).


I have also contributed to discussions on how to understand and evaluate the ‘moral hypocrisy’ paradigm in social psychology (Sie 2015); our moral responsibility for implicit bias (Sie 2017, 2018a); and the empirical research on love as the basis of moral agency (Sie, 2018b). Social psychologists working in the moral hypocrisy paradigm share the idea that what we do is primarily motivated by the wish to appear moral. I have argued that the empirical literature suffers from a very simple-minded understanding of moral agency, focusing mainly on the fascinating work of the psychologist Daniel Batson. When one evaluates the literature from a philosophical point of view, one can accommodate the view that we often act for reasons without being aware of what exactly those reasons are. In that case the pessimistic conclusions drawn by some psychologists turn out to be unwarranted.


I suspect that it is clear why implicit bias is of interest to someone who believes that the majority of what we do is done for reasons that escape our awareness. In Sie 2017, co-authored with Nicole van Voorst Vader-Bours, I have argued that we best understood our moral responsibility for harmful stereotypes and prejudices as indirect, a responsibility we bear on account of us being part of a collective in which those prejudices and stereotypes are kept alive.


Finally, with respect to my ideas on love as a basis for moral agency, I just published my first venture in this domain examining and elaborating on the framework offered by C.S. Lewis in his The Four Loves. I like the fact that he distinguishes four kinds of love (friendship, romantic love, affective love and charity, which I rename kindness), has a keen eye for their darker sides and understands them as mutually depending on one another to prevent these darker sides from getting the upper hand. I also think the framework he develops is well-suited to discuss what we can learn about morality from the empirical literature on love (e.g. the neuroscientific research on oxytocin).


3. What is your 5-15 sentence account of what an action is?


An action is a move within a social setting that expresses an individual’s particular take on things, like her views, values, and what she cares about. In its most exemplary form such a move is made intentionally with the aim of expressing that individual’s particular take. Take as examples when someone invites a controversial political figure to their university because they believe in the value of free speech, or when someone does not applaud a philosopher’s lecture at a public gathering to express that they take offense at the kind of person this philosopher is and they believe that protesting in these minor ways is the best way of someone in their position to communicate their resistance to people like them.


What I find more interesting to attend to, though, is the fact that we often act without such aims, sometimes accidentally and occasioned by the situation we find ourselves in, i.e., not realizing why we do what we do. I might for example end a friendship with someone by making a particular remark, something I did not plan on doing and something that comes about in a particular social setting without which the remark would not have made sense or be possible. Nevertheless, I might come to realize afterwards that with that remark, I ended my friendship with that person and also come to understand that as an action of mine.


4. In your view, what were the three most important recent developments in philosophy of action?


Attention on:

(1) the embedded, embodied and extended nature of our agential capacities (e.g. see the work of people like the aforementioned Victoria McGeer and Manual Vargas, but also philosophers like Jesse Prinz and David Velleman, who all addressed one or more of these aspects), and closely related to this,

(2) the social dimension of our agency (e.g., the work of Barbara Herman, Bryce Huebner, Catriona Mackenzie) and

(3) how to understand the role of deliberative awareness, the awareness of the reasons for which we act, in their ‘production’ (e.g., the work of Nomi Arpaly, Philip Pettit, Angela Smith, Neil Levy).


5. What direction would you like to see the field go in?


I very much enjoy the interaction of scientists from outside philosophical with topics such as free will and moral responsibility (e.g., Libet, Wegner, Gazzaniga) and moral judgment and decision-making (e.g., Jonathan Haidt, Timothy Wilson, Cordelia Fine, Daniel Batson, Kahneman and Tsversky, Thaler and Sunstein and so on) that has generated an enormous (public) interest in those topics. As a result, many have taken up discussing these issues in less philosophically specialized ways (e.g. Daniel Dennett, Patricia Churchland, Jesse Prinz, Joshua Greene, John Doris, Gregg Caruso, Owen Flanagan), often also engaging with a wider audience. In my own country (the Netherlands) I have gained much from discussing philosophy in public debates with scientists whose work led them to make, often bold and unsubstantiated claims, about free will and moral responsibility, and also from witnessing how people without a background in philosophy respond to sophisticated philosophical positions such as compatibilism.


I hope the field in general will continue to develop in dialogue with other disciplines and the wider public. However, I also hope that it will keep accommodating more specialized discussions about which it is not immediately clear what they contribute to other disciplines or to a better grasp on the many challenges our society faces. Not because I always take a deep interest in those discussions themselves, but because I believe that it is in engaging in those discussions that many philosophers acquire the “thinking tools” that enable them to make valuable contributions to discussions that do matter.


Many thanks to Prof Sie for her answers!

2018 December 1


We hope to welcome you back next weekend again