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Vices of Inattention

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Why do we routinely betray moral commitments that, in some sense, we authentically embrace? One explanation involves inattention: failure to attend to morally important aspects of our lives. Inattention ranges from an unmotivated lack of focus, or “simple” inattention, to more purposeful and wilful self-deception. Self-deception has received exhaustive and insightful treatment by philosophers and psychologists; what remains unexamined is the less complex, but more pervasive phenomenon of simple inattention. Since inattention is at least equally important in accounting for our routine moral failures, this gap is an important one to fill.

In this essay I examine moral dimensions of inattention: what makes it problematic, what vices it reflects, what duties we have to overcome it, and how we might try to do that. I argue that inattention obscures responsibilities to prevent harm, erodes autonomy, manifests a lack of virtue, and undermines integrity. For these reasons, we have obligations of attentiveness. I propose that we should attend (at least) to apparent violations of our moral values in which we are personally implicated, which we have power to affect, and to which we have been directed by clues that something is amiss. I end with practical suggestions for enhancing our attentiveness.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: November 1, 2003

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