Two Theories of Mind
By Arnold Kling
- … people see minds in terms of two fundamentally different factors, sets of mental abilities we label experience and agency.
- The experience factor captures the ability to have an inner life, to have feelings and experiences. It includes the capacities for hunger, fear, pain, pleasure, rage, and desire, as well as personality, consciousness, pride, embarrassment, and joy…
- The agency factor is composed of a different set of mental abilities: self-control, morality, memory, emotion recognition, planning, communication, and thought. The theme for these capacities is not sensing and feeling but rather thinking and doing.
- —Daniel M. Wegner and Kurt Grey, The Mind Club, p. 10-111
The late Daniel Wegner was a professor of psychology at Harvard University, and Grey was one of his graduate students. The Mind Club is the best book that I have read on the issue of the “theory of mind,” an issue that interests philosophers and cognitive neuroscientists. I only came across it in April of 2021 through an email from one of my blog readers. I believe that it has important implications for moral, social, and political philosophy.
Wegner and Grey conclude that when we perceive that an entity falls short of having a mind of the same nature as our own, we tend to categorize it in one of two ways. An entity could lack the ability to experience feelings; or it could lack the ability to make intentional decisions. Of course, we may regard some inanimate objects, such as rocks, as lacking both feelings and the ability to make intentional decisions.
Wegner and Grey see a baby and a robot as occupying opposite ends of the spectrum of incomplete minds. The baby lacks the ability to plan and make choices. The robot lacks the ability to feel sensations and emotions.
- Imagine that the baby and the robot were just about to tumble off a cliff and you could save only one of them. Which would you save? Likely you would save the baby… imagine that the baby and the robot have found a loaded gun and are playing with it, when it goes off and injures someone. Which of them would you hold responsible? If you’re like most people you would forgive the baby and condemn the robot to the junkyard. p. 14
The authors call this combination of an innocent feeler and a guilty doer the moral dyad. It consists of an agent and a patient, an intentional thinking doer and a suffering vulnerable feeler. (p.49)
What is interesting is that we tend to interpret events using this moral dyad in cases that lack the clarity of the robot-baby example. Our attributions of mental qualities tend to be inconsistent and poorly justified.
Inconsistency shows up in the way that most of us view the painful death of animals.
- Why is the death of a pet a tragedy and the death of a chicken a routine step toward dinner? (p. 44)
A vegan might proudly claim consistency in opposition to animal suffering. Then perhaps the vegan supports abortion, which would seem inconsistent to those who believe that a fetus can feel pain.
One of my favorite cartoons shows a man holding a giant sledgehammer, threatening a computer. The caption reads, “Hit any key to continue.”
Who of us has never gotten angry with a computer, at an automated response system that claims to be ready to “help” with our service problem, or at a traffic jam? When we get upset at these mechanical systems, it is because we cannot help but assign to them the mental quality of a thinking doer. Wegner and Grey write,
- … the tendency to see mind in technology occurs primarily when it disobeys our desires. When machines function smoothly, we feel in control, but when they misbehave, we see mind to help us understand…
- … people search for an agentic mind to take the blame when they feel vulnerable and exploited. (p. 63-64)
Wegner and Grey say that we use two different approaches for trying to enter the minds of others. When we try to understand their feelings, we use simulation. We try to imagine ourselves in a similar situation. When we try to understand their actions, we use theorizing. We try to imagine the chain of reasoning that someone used in order to arrive at an action.
It seems that often we can understand either feelings or motives, but not both. When we perceive only feelings, we see a moral patient. When we see only motives, we see a moral agent.
- It seems that being a moral patient reduces agency, and being a moral agent reduces patiency. When we see others—and ourselves—as vulnerable feelers, it is hard to see them as thinking doers; and when we see others—and ourselves—as thinking doers, it is hard to see them as vulnerable feelers. (p. 111)
The rest of the book contains interesting insights. Nevertheless, for the remainder of this essay, I want to focus on some of the ways that the moral dyad appears to play out in contemporary culture.
For example, in the highly charged issue of deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police, it seems that many people can only see those killed as vulnerable feelers, without agency. And they see police as cold-hearted agents, without feelings—no one takes to the streets to protest the killing of a cop.
From the moral dyad perspective, George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis could in no way be blamed on his choices to abuse drugs and resist arrest. It could only be blamed on the intentions of the police officer who restrained him. By the same token, a policeman who in April 2021 shot and killed a woman who was getting ready to stab someone with a knife is regarded as having disregarded non-lethal options available (“shoot at the knife”), rather than as feeling urgency about protecting the potential victim.
People have a natural moral bias against groups and abstract entities. In term of the moral dyad, we place organizations in the thinker-doer role, not the feeler role. Wegner and Grey use the example of a survey in which people were asked about a corporate CEO who cares only about profits. If the company reduces its environmental impact in pursuit of profit, people give the CEO no moral credit. But if its environmental impact worsens in pursuit of profit, people assign the CEO moral blame.
- Psychologically we perceive the good act to be merely incidental and the evil act to be intentional. (p. 212)
I would infer that people are likely to be prejudiced against both the market and the government. That is, when the market or the government produces a good result, this will be regarded to be taken for granted or viewed as accidental. When the market or the government produces a bad result, this will be regarded as wrong and intentional.
Accordingly, I come away from the book with a pessimistic view of culture. Our instinct to interpret events using the moral dyad model means that we are biased toward moral outrage. We want to see every unhappy outcome as the result of bad intentions on the part of some perpetrator. In a democracy that responds to popular opinion, this is not likely to end well.
 Daniel M. Wegner and Kurt Grey, The Mind Club: Who Thinks, What Feels, and Why It Matters. 2016.
*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of several books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy; and Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.
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