By Peter Dalton

Critical Commentary on Alfred Mele’s Self-Deception Unmasked (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton UP, 2001)

Peter Dalton, Florida State University 

In Self-Deception Unmasked, Alfred Mele focuses almost entirely on explaining self-deception, and he argues effectively for explanations that stress non-agency (and hence that are causal in nature) rather than ones that cite agency (and hence that involve intention, trying and purpose). I want to do something that may seem irrelevant to his concerns, for I want to focus on the conceptual analysis of self-deception. I hope to show, however, that the proper analysis of self- deception points toward the general correctness of explanations stressing non-agency.

I believe that an analysis of self-deception must rest on a recognition of three epistemic levels. If we let ‘W’ stand for a belief, then the three levels that pertain to self-deception are as follows:

(1) A person believes W, and W is false.
(2) This person believes W because of some incorrect thinking.
(3) This person is not aware of the incorrect thinking that has led him to believe W,
and he either believes that he has thought correctly or at least does not believe that
he has thought incorrectly.
On my view, (1) is the level of falsehood, (2) of deception, and (3) of self-deception. Mele’s book does not concern itself with (1), nor should it; its focus is psychology, or more generally the workings of the human mind. His book stays almost entirely at level (2), as nearly every page discusses varying attempts to categorize or explain the kinds of incorrect thinking that lead to false beliefs at level (1). The question is whether his, or any other, explanation of self-deception can restrict itself to level (2). I doubt it. I think every such account must proceed eventually to level (3), for reasons I’ll now recount.

As Mele recognizes, while every case where a person believes a falsehood may be labeled “deception,” not every such deception is a case of self-deception. Is it certain kinds of level (1) beliefs that mark out a case of deception as self-deception? Someone might think so, as the phrase “self-deception” seems to imply some kind of deeply flawed belief about one’s self. This is dubious, however, since many of the beliefs held by self-deceived people aren’t about themselves; and while all such beliefs in a broad sense concern the believer, that alone doesn’t mean that the believer is self-deceived. It is possible that any belief could, in the right context, involve a person in self-deception (e.g., a philosopher might become so obsessed with the arguments of the Meditations I, that she comes to believe that 2 plus 3 might not equal 5.)

Is it certain kinds of incorrect thinking that mark a case of deception as one of self- deception? If this were true, we could analyze self-deception by sticking to level (2). Someone might get the impression that Mele believes this since his sufficient conditions for self-deception might seem to limit themselves to levels (1) [criterion (1)] and (2) [criteria (2)-4)]:

  1. The belief that which S acquires is false.
  2. S treats data relevant, or at least seemingly relevant, to the truth value of in a motivationally biased way.
  3. This biased treatment is a nondeviant cause of S’s acquiring the belief that p.
  4. The body of data possessed by S at the time provides greater warrant for ~p than for p. 1

But since Mele doesn’t require that everything that leads someone to believe “p” (his symbol for the false belief) occur at level (2), he may be open to an analysis of self-deception that moves on to level (3).

Here’s why I think we need to move to level (3). Someone who is self-deceived is ignorant in an important way about something that concerns himself. The problem isn’t simply that he doesn’t know something about himself, it’s the kind of thing he doesn’t know and why he doesn’t know this. Think of Sartre’s classic examples of bad faith: the woman who can’t decide if a man is making a sexual advance toward her, the waiter who confuses his put-on waiterly role with his genuine self, and the man who wonders if his homosexual acts make him a homosexual. 2 Each doesn’t know something about himself or herself. Each seems to hold some false beliefs about herself or himself. The problem, which Sartre subtly depicts, lies in the confused and illogical thinking that leads these people to hold these false beliefs. It isn’t just that these people think incorrectly; if it were, their self-deception would be confined to level (2). The real problem—what most disturbs the reader—is that they don’t know that they think this way, and the interesting question is why they don’t know this. Each has some dim awareness that their thinking may be amiss, but it’s part of their self-deception that they can’t quite figure this out. If they could, it’s unlikely that they would believe W. This is why I think that a proper analysis of self-deception must involve level (3). Deception about one’s self involves a lack of knowledge of the incorrect thinking that leads one to be deceived about something else. This is why self-deception can center on a belief that isn’t about oneself (e.g., the belief that one’s wife is having an affair). But that’s the deception, a level (2) matter. To get self-deception, we must bring in a self that is ignorant, confused or thinking wrongly at level (3) about the thinking that has led it to be deceived at level (2). Mele’s book uses the apt metaphor of a mask. If self-deception exists at both levels (2) and (3), then it involves a two-sided mask, one that hides both the falsity of W and why one came to believe W.

Does this mean that Mele’s book is one big category mistake, since he confines himself to level (2)? No. My hunch is that the kinds of psychological errors, flaws and habits he cites as explaining level (2) deception will also help us explain level (3) self-deception (e.g., people who have fragile self-esteem are prone to err at all levels, and a man who would be extremely upset if he discovered that his wife has been unfaithful to him will not critically reflect on the thinking that has led him to believe that she has always been faithful to him.). I doubt that Mele’s explanations can provide the whole story about level (3 )self-deception. While they focus on the incorrect thinking that led a person to believe something that is false, I don’t think they focus enough on why the person is unaware of the incorrectness of this thinking.

Now for a word about agency. We’re often blind to self-deception. Indeed, I think a proper analysis requires some such blindness. Self-deception also calls for thinking. While some philosophers characterize thinking in a way that makes it an act or at least a result of agency, these conceptions are too narrow. Sometimes thinking just occurs. Sometimes thinking is uncontrolled (e.g., the way background information influences an inference). And sometimes thinking is forced onus(e.g., obsessive thinking). Lastly, self-deceived thinking is incorrect. Mele persuasively argues that incorrectness is usually not intended or sought, which means it’s not the result of agency or at least not the result of responsible, knowing agency. If all this is right, if self-deception is not the work of agency but is something we undergo, then we have a strong reason for agreeing with Mele that explanations of self-deception must stress non-agency.

Works Cited 

Mele, Alfred. Self-Deception Unmasked. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton UP, 2001.

Sartre, Jean Paul. Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel Barnes. New York: Washington Square Press, 1956.

  1. Alfred Mele, Self-Deception Unmasked (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton UP, 2001) 50-51, 120.
  2. Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel Barnes (New York: Washington Square Press, 1956) 96-98, 101-103, 107-108.

Peter Dalton

Peter Dalton is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University. His research interests include ethics, metaphysics, metaphilosophy, and the history of modern philosophy.