Monday, 15 December 2008

Gardner and Duties to Succeed (Part 1)

In his paper “The Wrongdoing that Gets Results”, John Gardner (2004) argues that there may be moral duties to succeed. Gardner takes this conclusion to have the following two significant implications: (1) that there can be strict liability wrongdoing, and (2) that there can be resultant moral luck. Gardner summarises the conclusions of his paper as follows:
It follows that the argument of this paper supported the view that, within morality in the broad sense, there can be duties to succeed even where trying does not entail success, so that there can be strict liability wrongdoing…. In the only sense of ‘moral’ that has real philosophical significance, viz. the broad sense, I argued that there can be moral luck in the way our actions turn out…(Gardner, 2004, p. 86).
Since (with the exception of cases in which trying entails success) whether one succeeds or not partly depends on factors outside of one’s control (i.e., luck with respect to how things turn out), then moral duties to succeed must implicate what Nagel refers to as "resultant luck". It is generally held that reasons for succeeding just are reasons for trying. However, Gardner argues that sometimes the two kinds of reasons may come apart, such that one has a reason to succeed even though one lacks a reason to try. One case in which this seems to be true is when trying makes one less likely to succeed. For example, we can imagine someone who has an annoying song stuck in his head, but finds that the more he tries to stop thinking about the song, the more he is unable to stop thinking about the song. In such a case, it seems plausible to say that while the agent has a reason to succeed, he lacks a reason to try. However, it is not clear that there are ever cases in which one has a duty to succeed even though trying makes one less likely to succeed. Thus, even if cases in which trying makes one less likely to succeed are also cases in which one has a reason to succeed and no reason to try, it is not clear that such cases lend support for the claim that there are duties to succeed. The lesson, here, is that it is not sufficient for Gardner to show that there may be reasons to succeed that are independent of reasons to try. The reasons to succeed must be of a certain kind, if they are to lend support to the claim that there are duties to succeed and/or strict liability wrongdoing. Gardner presents the following example in support of his claim that there are reasons to succeed that are independent of reasons to try:
Suppose that, since I cannot swim a stroke (and have no boat, and no helicopter, and no telephone, and am perched on a clifftop in the middle of nowhere, etc.) it would be quite futile for me to try to rescue a man who is drowning in the stormy sea below. That this man needs to be rescued is a reason for me to rescue him. If I had no reason to rescue him, after all, I would not be so horrified at the realisation that it would be so utterly futile for me to try. I could walk past without compunction. But, by the logic of satisfactoriness, the futility of my trying does have the consequence that my reason to save the man is not a reason for me to try to save him. No amount of trying on my part will allow me to save him.
Gardner claims that the agent in the clifftop example (who, following Gardner, I will refer to in the first person) has a reason to succeed, but no reason to try, saving the drowning man. The argument relies on three major premises. First, he stipulates that, under the particular circumstances, it is impossible for me to save the drowning man.
(G1): “No amount of trying will allow me to save the man.”
Second, he claims that the fact that the drowning man needs to be saved is sufficient for me to
have a reason to succeed in saving him.
(G2): “That this man needs to be rescued is a reason for me to rescue him.”
Third, he invokes what he (following Anthony Kelly) refers to as “the logic of satisfactoriness”:
(G3): “I have reason to do whatever is sufficient to achieve whatever I have reason
to achieve...” (Gardner, 2004, p. 55)

Gardner emphasises that the type of sufficiency he has in mind, in (G3), is not logical but rather contingent. That is, it only need be the case that my trying can (or will eventually) lead to success, for me to have a reason to try. Since, (by G1) no amount of trying is sufficient to save the drowning man, then (by G3) I have no reason to try to save the drowning man. However, since (by G2) I still have a reason to succeed in saving the drowning man, this is a case in which I have a reason to succeed but no reason to try.

Unfortunately, as it stands, (G2) is highly implausible. One straightforward way in which this is so—and for which, I believe, a charitable reading of Gardner ought to correct—is (G2)’s failure to distinguish between an objective reason and a subjective reason to perform a certain action. While the fact that the drowning man needs to be saved may be a reason for someone (i.e., an objective reason) to save him, it does not follow that it is a reason for me (i.e., a subjective reason) to save him. For example, suppose that I simply fail to see the drowning man. While there still remains a reason for someone to save the man, it fails to constitute a reason for me, in the sense that it is not a reason I am aware of or have subjective access to. Without this distinction between objective and subjective reasons, there would be no way to differentiate between the type of reasons I may have to save someone who is drowning right before my eyes, and the type of reasons I may have (if any) to save someone who, unbeknownst to me, happen to be drowning 10,000 miles away at this very moment. Thus, we would do well to reformulate (G2) in a way that specifies that the reason in question is one to which I have subjective access.
(G2*): That I am aware that the man needs to be rescued is a reason for me to rescue him.
Earlier, I opined that it would be more charitable to read Gardner as being committed to (G2*)
than to (G2). That this is so is suggested by the single piece of evidence Gardner presents in
favour of (G2):
That this man needs to be rescued is a reason for me to rescue him. If I had no reason to rescue him, after all, I would not be so horrified at the realisation that it would be so utterly futile for me to try. I could walk past without compunction. (Ibid, p. 55).

Thus, Gardner seems committed to something like the following claim:
(*) That I feel horror at the realisation that I am unable to φ entails that I have
a reason to φ.
I have serious reservations about the legitimacy of (*), as will eventually become apparent. However, for the time being, I wish to point out that (*) presupposes that I am aware of the circumstances that generate my reasons to act since I could not be horrified by something I was unaware of. Moreover, by Gardner’s lights, not only must the agent be aware of the need in question, but he must also be horrified by his inability to fulfil said need. This imposes an additional qualification to (G2), which we may now capture with following revised premise:
(G2**): That I am aware that the man needs to be rescued (and horrified by my inability to rescue him) entails that I have a reason to rescue him.
Although (G2**) is much more plausible that (G2), in my next post on this topic I will argue that Gardner's argument outlined above still fails.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

CFP: Johns Hopkins Graduate Student Conference

Inside/Outside

An interdisciplinary Graduate Student Conference
hosted by the Humanities Center at the Johns Hopkins University

April 2nd and 3rd, 2009

Keynote Speakers: Espen Hammer (University of Oslo/Essex) and Terry Pinkard (Georgetown University)


Foregrounding the relationship inside/outside, this conference seeks to consider the effects of this pervasive structuring relation across philosophy, literature, the human sciences, politics, and the arts. What work does this distinction do? How do we understand its ubiquity? Furthermore, what is our contemporary relation to this (perceived?) opposition: do we overcome, dissolve, ignore, work through, maintain, or dialectically negotiate this relationship? Papers exploring these and related questions are welcome.

Some suggestions: scheme and content, content and form, mind and world, interiority and exteriority, self and other, inclusion and exclusion, human and inhuman, literary, aesthetic, and political strategies and figures, historical investigations and genealogies, theological figurations and disfigurations, contemporary philosophical approaches ("continental" and "analytic") to this question, etc.


Please send full papers (for a 45 minute presentation), abstract (300 words max.), and contact information (including institutional affiliation) to insideoutsideconference@gmail.com

Deadline for all submissions is January 15th, 2009.

For details, see conference website here.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Williams on Moral Luck (Part 4)

In this post, wish to examine Williams' account of retrospective justification as its own special type of justification, independent of the type of justification implicated in justified action (as defined in my previous post).

Williams does not describe, at length and in a systematic way, what makes retrospective justification different form other types of justification. However, he does identify the Gauguin case as being special in that his decision involves a life-defining project. Williams unpacks this idea by noting that the evaluative standpoint Gauguin occupies once he has become an artist is quite different from that which he occupied when he first made the decision to travel to Tahiti. This suggests the following possibility for making sense of what is special about retrospective justification. Let us suppose that Gauguin was a stockbroker before he became an artist. I will refer to the perspective from which Gauguin would assess his own life at the time he decided to travel to Tahiti as that of Gauguin the stockbroker. The perspective of Gauguin the stockbroker contrasts with that of Gauguin after he has become a famous artist. I will refer to this second perspective as that of Gauguin the artist.

Following Williams, we can suppose that Gauguin the artist feels some regret about the decision of Gauguin the stockbroker to leave his family. Nevertheless, Gauguin the artist also recognises that if Gauguin the stockbroker had not acted as he did, then Gauguin the artist would not exist. Thus, although Gauguin the artist regrets the immoral actions of Gauguin the stockbroker, he is nevertheless grateful that Gauguin the stockbroker acted as he did.

By Williams’ lights, the gratitude of Gauguin the artist points to a special type of justification, which is both success-dependent and fundamentally retrospective. The fact that Gauguin the artist feels grateful is taken to show that he thinks the action was the right course or (in some meaningful sense) justified. However, since the perspective from which Gauguin the stockbroker’s decision is justified only comes to exist many years after the decision was made, there was no way for the justification in question to exist contemporaneously with the decision. In brief, the justification in question must be retrospective since it is located in a perspective that did not exist at the time the relevant action was performed. This presents us with an intelligible difference between the type of justification at play in Williams’ example, and the type of justification we earlier identified with justified action.

But how does this relate to Williams’ claim that if we hold to (M1) we are forced to give up (M2)? Williams observes that even those of us who subscribe to the moral requirement to take care of one’s family may feel grateful for Gauguin’s achievements. However, since his achievements came at the cost of fulfilling his moral obligations, our gratitude is taken to be evidence that we sometimes rank non-moral considerations above moral ones. This conclusion flies in the face of (M2); the claim that moral considerations are supreme. Moreover, we are forced to accept it so long as we hold to (M1), the claim that morality is luck-free, since this precludes the possibility of retrospective moral justification.

In sum, Williams maintains that there will always be cases in which retrospective justification takes priority over all others, a fact that our gratitude for Gauguin’s achievements illustrates. Since moral judgements cannot be retrospective (a la M1), then on such occasions they will always take second place (contra M2).

Monday, 10 November 2008

Williams on Moral Luck (Part 3)

The lesson to be learned from the failure of the uncharitable reading, limned in the previous post, may be put as follows: If the distinction between right action and justified action is to avoid begging the question against Williams, then our account of right action must make room for the concept of retrospective justification. The goal of the charitable reading, then, is to characterise right action in a way that is in keeping with what Williams explicitly says about retrospective justification, and then to use this common ground as a non-question-begging basis for criticising Williams’ argument. As we already noted, a non-question-begging notion of right action cannot be equated with mere successful outcome. This leaves us with three other possibilities: (1) right action just is justified action, (2) right action is a combination of right action and success, and (3) right action is its own special type of success-dependent justification. I will consider each of these possibilities in turn.

According to (1), Williams’ notion of retrospective justification simply equates right action with justified action. However, if we define right action as justified action, then there is nothing (in principle) to prevent Gauguin from being justified at the time in which he makes the decision to leave his family. Since justified action does not require success—only that the agent be justified at the time of making the decision—there is no need to wait until the outcome of his decision is known. This account of right action flies in the face of Williams’ insistence that the justification Gauguin has is only available if he is successful. Consequently, (1) fails to provide a common ground from which we may criticise Williams’ argument.

According to (2), we may define right action as the conjunction of justified action (i.e., action with adequate reasons) and successful action. On this picture, there may be cases of justified action that fail to constitute right action and there may be cases of successful action that fall short of right action. Since this definition of right action implicates success, it would (when applied to the Gauguin case) take on the retrospective nature of Williams’ justification. However, as we already noted, Williams stipulates that Gauguin’s justification is purely retrospective, which means he did not have adequate reasons for his decision at the time he made it. As such, Gauguin’s decision fails to constitute a justified action and therefore, according to (2), fails to constitute an instance of right action. Consequently, (2) also fails to provide a definition of right action that can accommodate Williams’ notion of retrospective justification.

The final proposal is that right action represents its own special type of justification, independent of justified action. If we define right action along these lines, then it is clearly able to accommodate Williams’ notion of retrospective justification. But what could this special type of justification possibly amount to? This will be the question of the next post on this topic.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Williams on Moral Luck (Part 2)

In this post, I begin to look at a certain line of objection to Williams' notion of retrospective justification.

Putatively, to say that Gauguin lacks adequate reasons, at the time of making his decision, just is to say that he is unjustified. On this view, whether or not a decision is rationally justified is based solely on considerations that are available to one at the time one makes the decision. There is no “looking back”, or re-assessment in light of future contingencies. At best, a successful outcome can only vindicate one’s already justified decision. It cannot move it from a state of being unjustified to a state of being justified (in cases of success) nor move it from a state of being justified to a state of being unjustified (in cases of failure).

One way of highlighting the problematic nature of the notion of retrospective justification is in terms of a distinction between justified action and right action. In what follows, I will be discusses one reading of this distinction, which is based on a class discussion in Joseph Raz's "Problems in Legal Philosophy" seminar. I will refer to it as the uncharitable reading (for reasons I hope will become clear later).

According to the uncharitable reading of the distinction, right action is action for which there are adequate reasons; while justified action is action that one has adequate reasons to believe is supported by adequate reasons. On this view, whether a decision is justified is based solely on what an agent is aware of at the time of making the decision. However, one cannot know if a decision is the right one until all the facts are in. On this view, having adequate reasons to act is equated with a successful outcome.

Applying this distinction to the Gauguin case, we may say that travelling to Tahiti constitutes the right action since it is met with success. However, since Williams stipulates that retrospective justification is the only type of justification available to Gauguin, this implies that he did not have adequate reasons to believe his decision was supported by adequate reasons. In short, by Williams’ lights, Gauguin’s decision does not constitute a justified action. However, if this is right, it is not clear how the Gauguin case is different from any other case in which an agent performs an unjustified action and things happen to turn out favourably.

For example, we can imagine an agent, Mr. Jones, who selects the vice president of his company based solely on the fact that he likes her glasses. Even if the vice president turns out to be both competent and effective, we would not think that Mr. Jones decision was justified (retrospectively or otherwise). Moreover, to the extent that the two cases are relevantly alike, it is not clear that we would be any more inclined to regard Gauguin as justified (retrospectively or otherwise). Admittedly, Gauguin may feel a sense of relief that his decision to go against what was morally required of him was not all for naught. But this sense of relief falls short of constituting some alternative type of justification which may be said to make up for the moral justification Gauguin lacks. Williams’ argument, it appears, fails to meet its mark.

Unfortunately, I do not believe the uncharitable reading of the right action vs. justified action distinction gets things quite right. According to the uncharitable reading, right action (i.e., actions for which there are adequate reasons) is equated with successful outcome. This poses at least two problems. Firstly, this characterisation of right action seems to be at odds with Williams’ description of the Gauguin case:
If he fails…then he did the wrong thing, not just in the sense in which that platitudinously follows, but in the sense that having done the wrong thing in those circumstances he has no basis for the thought that he was justified in acting as he did; while if he succeeds, he does have a basis for that thought. (Moral Luck, p. 23)
By Williams’ lights, right action is not simply equated with successful outcome, but rather with a type of justification that Gauguin is (at least) able to offer to himself, if not to others. Thus, the uncharitable reading appears to beg the question against Williams since it characterises right action in a way that is already at odds with what Williams says about the Gauguin case.

Secondly, the equation of adequate reasons with favourable outcome is open to counterexamples. Consider the following example. Imagine that Professor Smith takes his students on a field trip in South America, and that they are captured by a band of guerrillas while hiking through the jungle. The leader of the guerrillas finds a pair of dice in Smith’s pocket and offers him the following choice. He tells Smith that he will roll the dice and that he has to predict whether it will come up snake-eyes or not. If his prediction is right, then his life and that of his students will be spared. But if his prediction is wrong, then he and all his students will be shot. Since Smith knows that the pair of dice is fair, he knows that the chance that they will come up snake-eyes is 1:36. Thus, given the laws of probability, Smith is clearly justified in predicting that the dice will not come up snake-eyes. Unfortunately, to the horror of Smith and his students, the pair of dice does in fact come up snake-eyes, contrary to Smith’s prediction.

Now, according to the uncharitable reading, Smith’s guess constitutes the justified action, but fails to constitute the right action. However, it simply gets things wrong to say that predicting that the dice would come up snake-eyes is supported by adequate reasons. Since, in our example, the pair of dice did come up snake-eyes, the act of predicting it would come up snake-eyes would have undeniably led to a favourable outcome. However, such a prediction would have represented a direct violation of the laws of probability. As such, it could not conceivably be the action supported by adequate reasons. This remains true, even after the dice comes up snake-eyes since the laws of probability remain the same throughout. In brief, the action supported by adequate reasons does not necessarily correspond with the action with a favourable outcome.

In my next post on this topic, I will attempt to articulate a more charitable reading of the distinction between justified action and right action.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Williams on Moral Luck (Part 1)

In his paper, “Moral Luck”, Bernard Williams argues that scepticism about the freedom of morality from luck requires that we adjust our conception of morality. Specifically, there are two widely held beliefs about morality that Williams takes issue with:
(M1) Morality is immune to luck.
(M2) Morality represents the supreme value.
Williams maintains that (M1) is only important if (M2) also holds. He writes:
Even if moral value had been radically unconditioned by luck, it would not have been enough merely to exhibit it as one kind of value among others. Little would be affirmed unless moral values possessed some special, indeed supreme, kind of dignity or importance. (116)
Williams’ strategy is not to argue directly for the existence of moral luck, but rather to argue that as long as we hold that morality is immune to luck, we are forced to give up the idea that morality is of supreme importance. He begins by assuming (for the sake of argument) that moral justification is immune to luck. He then argues that there are special cases in which rational justification is luck-laden—namely, when rational justification depends on success. This allows Williams to set up a contrast between the type of justification that depends on success (and which therefore implicates luck) and the type of justification that does not. This may be described as the first stage of Williams’ argument.

In the second stage of his argument, Williams claims that there are special circumstances in which the type of justification that depends on success takes priority over the types of justification that do not. Since, perforce, success-dependent justification is luck-laden, then moral justification (which we have assumed to be luck-free) cannot be supreme on such occasions. Thus, Williams presents us with a dilemma; either morality is not immune to luck (contra M1), or morality is not the supreme value (contra M2).

Williams motivates the idea of success-dependent justification with an example loosely based on the life of the painter Gauguin. In Williams’ example, Gauguin abandons his family and travels to Tahiti to pursue his dream of becoming a great artist. Ex hypothesi, remaining home and taking care of his family is taken to be the morally recommended course. However, even if we grant that Gauguin lacks moral justification for pursing his artistic ambitions, there may still be other types of justification to be had in support of his actions. Williams stipulates that Gauguin has good reasons to believe that he has what it takes to be a great artist. Even so, given the inherent uncertainty built into Gauguin’s project, he could never know with certainty that he will succeed. In short, Gauguin’s “good reasons” do not guarantee success. Williams writes:
Whether he will succeed cannot, in the nature of the case, be foreseen; we are not dealing here with the removal of an external obstacle to something which, once that is removed, will fairly predictably go through. Gauguin, in our story, is putting a great deal on a possibility which has not unequivocally declared itself. I want to explore and uphold the claim that it is possible that in such a situation the only thing that will justify his choice will be success itself. If he fails…then he did the wrong thing, not just in the sense in which that platitudinously follows, but in the sense that having done the wrong thing in those circumstances he has no basis for the thought that he was justified in acting as he did; while if he succeeds, he does have a basis for that thought. (118)
Thus, according to Williams, there is a kind of justification that Gauguin can have that can only be described as retrospective. Moreover, Williams maintains that this retrospective justification is necessary to rationally justify Gauguin’s actions. Williams acknowledges that this justification may not be of the sort that would justify him in the eyes of others, as moral justification presumably would. Nevertheless, it remains a type of justification to be had.

In my next post I will consider an objection to Williams' notion of retrospective or success-based justification.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Monday, 18 August 2008

Why Questions and Rational Agents

In this post I continue to limn a novel theory of action. I hold that an intentional agent counts as a rational agent if and only if that agent is responsive to should-questions. Examples of should questions include: “Should Sue have a third glass of wine?”, “Should I believe in God?” and “Should I desire revenge?” To ask if Sue should have a third glass of wine is to ask if having a third glass of wine is good. This gives rise to the following question. If having a desire already involves an appearance of the good (as I have claimed), then does not Sue’s desire for a third glass of wine already entail an affirmative answer to the question “is having a third glass of wine good?” I hold that in the case of animals that are unable to deliberate and thereby arrive at judgements about what is good this is in fact the case. However, agents with the capacity for rational deliberation may arrive at judgements about the good that are at odds with their desires. In such agents what appears to be good a la desire may be different from what is judged to be good.

What is judged to be good reflects the perspective of the agent. What appears to be good a la desire reflects the perspective of some subsystem of the agent. On this score, the analogy with theoretical reasoning is rather straightforward. For example, we may say that from the perspective of the visual subsystem it is true that a partially submerged stick is bent. Even so, from an agent-level perspective, it may be false that the partially submerged stick is bent. Thus, both theoretical and practical cognitions exhibit two distinct levels of evaluation—namely, sub-agential evaluations and agent-level evaluations. The sub-agential evaluations in theoretical and practical reasoning are (perceptual) appearances and desires respectively:
(T2): Appearances are sub-agential perspectives on the true

(P2): Desires are sub-agential perspectives on the good
The agent-level evaluations in theoretical and practical cognitions are theoretical and practical judgements respectively:
(T3): Theoretical judgements are agent-level perspectives on the true

(P3): Practical judgements are agent-level perspectives on the good
Sub-agential evaluations, (T1) and (P1), may be had by both rational and proto-rational animals alike. However, in the case of proto-rational animals, an appearance of the good a la desire, leads to intentional action without agent-level evaluations. For such agents, there is only one level of evaluation—namely, the sub-agential. However, for rational animals there are two levels of evaluation: the sub-agential (as represented by desires) and the agent-level (as represented by practical judgements).

Rational deliberation is the process by which competing sub-agential evaluations are weighed against each other in order to arrive at a unified agent-level evaluation of the true/good. The motivation for rational deliberation comes from a desire, inherent in all rational agents as such, for a unified perspective on the true/good. In cases in which all the relevant sub-agential systems agree on what is true/good (which may very well be the majority of cases) a unified agent-level perspective is easy to come by. In such cases, the need for deliberation is minimal and there may be very little difference in the cognitive activity of a rational and proto-rational animal. However, in cases in which two (or more) sub-agential evaluations are at odds with each other, a unified agent-level evaluation can only be arrived at by endorsing one and rejecting the other. In such cases, the advantages of having a capacity for rational deliberation become most apparent.

In cases in which a proto-rational animal experiences two competing sub-agential evaluations, which ever exerts the greater volitional force ultimately determines what the animal believes (in the case of appearances) or which action is performed (in the case of desires). For such animals there is no agent-level evaluation or all-things-considered judgement about what should be believed or done. For such animals, should-questions are simply not applicable. This imposes a significant limitation on the ability of proto-rational animals to achieve right belief or action. Which of the two competing sub-agential evaluation happens to exert the greater motivational force may not be the one that actually gets things right. Consider the partially submerged stick example. Suppose that while it appears true that the stick is bent, from the perspective of the visual sub-system, it also appears true that the stick is straight from the perspective of the tactile sub-system. We can imagine a proto-rational animal for which the deliverances of the visual system exerts greater motivational force vis-à-vis its beliefs than the tactile system. Such an animal would form the belief that the partially submerged stick is bent when it is in fact straight.

Contrast this with rational agents that have the capacity for agent-level evaluations. Confronted with competing appearances (each relative to a particular perspective), the rational agent can only arrive at a unified agent-level assessment by endorsing one of the sub-agential evaluations and rejecting the other. It decides which of the sub-agential evaluations to endorse based on which best coheres with its beliefs, values and commitments. For example, we can suppose that the rational agent has observed the stick being submerged and removed from the water and that it also has the belief that sticks are not the kind of things that can bend and straighten themselves out at will. Moreover, it may also believe that optical illusions are far more common than tactile illusions. When the deliverances of the visual and tactile subsystems are considered in the light of these beliefs, the rational agent may be led to see the tactile subsystem as a more reliable guide to the true, in the particular case. This may then prompt the rational agent to judge that the partially submerged stick is actually straight. I will refer to beliefs that are the product of rational deliberation as judgements. Judgements represent a special subset of beliefs that only animals with the capacity for rational deliberation can have. Judgements have a greater chance of getting things right than beliefs that are not judgements since they are not simply the product of what sub-agential evaluation happens to be stronger.

The upshot of a capacity for judgements is that an animal is more versatile in forming true beliefs in novel circumstances. What appears to be true/good is simply a product of the type of subsystems we have, given our evolutionary history. The fact that it appears to be true that a partially submerged stick is bent is simply an upshot of the type of visual system we happen to have. If instead of light waves, which are subject to refraction, our visual system actually detected delta-waves, which are not subject to refraction, then our visual systems would not tell us that partially submerged sticks are bent. Likewise, the fact that I may desire sweets (perhaps contrary to my better judgement) is also primarily the product of my evolutionary history.

Given how natural selection works, our subsystems offer the types of evaluations that they do because they tended to get things right in the environment of our biological ancestors. However, when we are confronted with unfamiliar circumstances (ones that our ancestors may not have frequently encountered) there is a greater chance that one or more of our subsystems would get things wrong. Rational deliberation serves as a corrective against the fallibility of our subsystems which (though open to modification via training) cannot be adapted at the rate that our agent-level evaluations can. In brief, agent-level evaluations increase our chances of getting things right in novel circumstances since they may serve as a corrective against the errors of our less plastic sub-agential evaluations. This gives rational animals a clear advantage over proto-rational animals in arriving at true beliefs and good actions.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Why-Questions and Motive-Explanations

In this post, I wish to begin constructing a theory of action that builds on the foundation I set up in my previous post. I suggested that the most general purpose of a minimal causal account for some event e2 is to specify which event, from a number of actual or hypothetical alternatives, would feature in a robust causal account of e2, were such an account to be given. I believe this generalises to why-questions of the following form:
(Q) Why did the cat scratch at the door?
One possible because-answers to (Q) is:
(A) Because it wanted to get into the room
The because-answers given in (A) specifies which event would feature in a robust causal account of the action described in (Q). According to (A), it is the cat’s desire to get into the room—rather than, say, a desire to sharpen its claws—that would feature saliently in a robust causal account of the cat scratching at the door.

Unlike the because-answers given in response to the why-question: "Why did the window break?", the because-answer given in response to why-question (Q) implicates a desire - namely, the cat’s desire to get into the room. I hold that to desire X is for X to appear to be good. By ‘good’ I mean that which is beneficial. We may give the concept of the beneficial a Darwinian gloss by defining it in terms of that which promotes biological fitness. To say that a cognitive mechanism represents something as beneficial does not mean that the animal possessing that cognitive mechanism must have a concept of the “beneficial”. Consider, we may say that a cat’s visual system represent something as being true (for example, that there is a mouse over there) without attributing to the cat the concept of truth. Likewise, we may say that a particular cognitive mechanism of an animal aims after biological fitness, even though the animal in question has no such concept and is aware of no such aim. Thus, my claim that to desire something is for that thing to appear to promote biological fitness is meant to be definitional; it applies to all animals that have desires, whether or not they possess the concept of the good, the beneficial or of biological fitness.

In the proceeding discussion I will use the ‘good’ as a shorthand for the beneficial or that which promotes biological fitness. In the light of the above considerations, I take the following conditional to express a necessary condition for desiring X:
(D1) If S desires X, then X appears to be good to S.
This claim should be distinguished from the stronger claim that to desire something is to judge that it is good.
(D2) If S desires X, then S judges that X is good.
The difference between X appearing to be good and judging that X is good may be illustrated with an analogy from theoretical reasoning. To desire X is for X to appear to be good in the same sense that seeing a partially submerged stick as bent is for it to appear to be true that the stick is bent. Often, having an appearance that things are a certain way is enough to prompt one to judge that things are that way. Similarly, having a desire for X is often enough to prompt an “unconditional judgement” in favour of the relevant course of action. However, in the case of agents equipped with the appropriate deliberative capacities, having it appear that something is true may fail to yield the judgement that it is so. I take the same to be true of having an appearance that something is good. Thus, my claim that to desire something is for that thing to appear to be good stands in contrast to the stronger claim that to desire something is to judge that it is good.

Significantly, a single subject may have conflicting sets of appearances. For example, a submerged stick may appear bent when one looks at it, yet feel straight when one touches it. We may say that the stick appears bent, relative to the visual sensory modality, and appears straight, relative to the tactile sensory modality. I believe the same holds with respect to desires. The same thing may appear good relative to the desire for an ice-cream, let us say, but appear bad relative to the desire to remain faithful to one’s diet. Thus, to desire something is always for that thing to appear to be good from a certain perspective.
(D3) If S desires X, then X appears to be good, from a certain perspective
The claim that the cat’s desire to get into the room explains its scratching at the door presupposes that the cat has the belief that scratching at the door would somehow facilitate its getting into the room. Thus, the because-answer offered in response to (ii) takes the form of a belief-desire explanation. Such belief-desire explanations are limited to actions carried out by animals (such as cats, dogs and people) to which we may correctly attribute beliefs and desires. Thus, belief-desire explanations represent a special subset of because-answers. The desire provides us with an agent's motivation for acting and the belief provides us with the explanation of why the particular action was performed. Thus, the agent’s desires and beliefs combine to provide a motive-explanation. Contra Davidson, I believe that motive-explanations (or what he calls "reason-explanations") are equally applicable to rational and pre-rational animals. In this respect, I am in complete agreement with Mary Midgley:
In discussing the central importance of motives, I shall make no special distinction between man and other species, because I think the problem is the same for both. There is nothing anthropomorphic in speaking of the motivation of animals. It is anthropomorphic to call the lion the King of Beasts, but not to talk of him as moved, now by fear, now by curiosity, now by territorial anger. These are not the names of hypothetical inner states, but of major patterns in anyone’s life, the signs of which are regular and visible. Anyone who has to deal with lions learns to read such signs, and survives by doing so. Both with animals and with men, we respond to the feelings and intentions we read in an action, not to the action itself. (Midgley (1978), Beast and Man., pp. 105-6.)
One attractive feature of the above definition of motivation is that it allows for a natural continuity between doxastic and action motivation. On this picture, just as the true is the most abstract characterisation of the aim of belief, so the good is the most abstract characterisation of the aim of desire.

In conclusion, I hold that an action counts as intentional if and only if it possible to give a correct belief-desire or motive-explanation of that action. Hence, any action or event for which a belief-desire explanation cannot be correctly given fails to count as intentional. On this view, because-answers that implicate motive-explanations serve two purposes. First, like because-answers in general, they specify which events would feature in a robust causal account of the event, were such an account to be given. Second, the applicability of motive-explanations determines if an action is intentional or unintentional. On the present account, cats and dogs constitute intentional agents, but not rational ones. (I will have more to say about this later.) Thus, my position differs from that of Davidson since I do not see intentionality as co-extensive with rationality.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Why-Questions and Minimal Causal Accounts

Ordinarily, why-questions are calls for a certain type of explanation—namely, explanations that take the form of a because-answer. For example, if we ask “why did the window break?” then possible explanations (or because-answers) include: “because it was struck by a stone”, “because of an earthquake”, or “because of a strong gust of wind”. The primary aim of a because-answer is to specify the cause (in a minimal sense to be described at present) of an event. According to this minimal account, to say that “e1 caused e2” or that “e2 took place because of e1”, is to say that there is some explanation to be had for e2 in which e1 figures importantly.

A minimal causal account may tell us that e1 explains e2, but it does not tell us how e1 explains e2. Thus, even if one has given an accurate (and perhaps completely satisfactory) because-answer to a why-question, it is still possible to pose a further how-question in response that because-answer. In this way minimal causal accounts stand proxy for more robust causal accounts in which the underlying physical laws and relevant initial conditions are specified. Such robust causal accounts provide an answer to any further how-questions and are the proper domain of the physical sciences.

I take the minimal sense of cause described above to track our quotidian, pre-theoretical use of the word ‘cause’. It should hardly come as a surprise that our quotidian use of the word ‘cause’ (or minimal causal accounts) fails to specify the underlying physical laws and relevant initial conditions that explain how one event causes another. If being able to answer the how-question were necessary for responding to everyday why-questions, then a satisfactory reply to why-questions would be unavailable to the vast majority of people who lack the technical expertise necessary to answer the how-question. To put the matter rather patronisingly, the minimal causal accounts that feature in because-answers implicate the ‘cause’ of the hoi polloi.

But if the purpose of minimal causal accounts is not to explain how one event causes another, then what other purpose could it possible serve? On the present view, the most general purpose of minimal causal accounts is to specify which event, among any number of actual or hypothetical alternatives, would actually feature in a robust causal account, were such an account to be given. For example, a because-answer would specify that it was being struck by a rock, rather than an earth quake or strong gust of wind, which will ultimately feature in a robust causal account of why the window broke. However, the minimal causal account does not say how being struck by a rock—i.e., the relevant physical laws etc.—brings it about that the glass breaks.

(For a detailed discussion of many of the issues raised in this post, see G. F. Shueler (2003), Reasons and Purposes.)


Friday, 27 June 2008

Davidson on Weakness of Will (Part 3)

In my last two posts I described Davidson as advocating a two-stage model of practical reasoning. In this post, I wish to limn an alternative, and what I believe to be a more charitable, interpretation of Davidson’s account. The central insight driving this alternative reading of Davidson is the intuition (originally due to Elizabeth Anscombe) that there is a conceptual connection between intentional action and the applicability of the “why?” question to one’s actions. (I owe this point to Agnes Callard.) To ask “Why did Sue wave at Pam?”, is to ask for Sue’s reason for acting as she did. This question only makes sense if Sue waved her hand deliberately; that is, if her actions were intentional. Hence, for an agent to act intentionally is for that agent to act for a reason.

Davidson defines a reason to φ as the combination of a desire (or pro-attitude) for actions of a certain kind and a belief that φ is an action of that kind. For example, if Sue’s desire to signal her friend Pam in a crowded pub motivates her to wave her hand, then her reason for waving consists in her desire to signal her friend and her belief that waving would be a signalling of her friend. On this belief-desire model, an agent’s (primary) reason for performing an action may be restated in a practical syllogism comprised of a major premise (M), a minor premise (m) and a conclusion (C):
(M): ψ (signalling Pam) is desirable
(m): φ (waving) is an instance of ψ
(C): Therefore, φ is desirable
Thus, for each action one can construct a practical syllogism showing that the action was desirable from agent’s perspective. According to Davidson, what it means for an action to be desirable is that the agent would perform this action, provided that there are no overriding desires:
If my thesis is correct, someone who says honestly ‘it is desirable that I stop smoking’ has some pro attitude towards his stopping smoking. He feels some inclination to do it; in fact he will do it if nothing stands in the way, he knows how, and he has no contrary values or desires. (Davidson in "Intending")
I will refer to the practical syllogism that corresponds to the reason for a certain action as its rationalisation. Two important points are worth noting with respect to rationalisations. First, rationalisations are explanations of an agent’s actions that reflect the point of view of the agent. Second, while a rationalisation spells out the reasons for an agent’s actions, it does not specify whether or not the agent’s reasons are good reasons. Thus, Davidson writes:
When we talk of reasons in this way, we do not require that the reasons be good ones. We learn something about a man’s reasons for starting a war when we learn that he did it with the intention of ending all wars, even if we know that his belief that starting a war would end all wars was false. Similarly, a desire to humiliate an acquaintance may be someone’s reason for cutting him at a party though an observer might, in a more normative vein, think that was no reason. The falsity of a belief, or the patent wrongness of a value or desire, does not disqualify the belief or desire from providing an explanatory reason. (Davidson in "Intending")
Generally, rationalisations enable us to see the actions of an agent as reasonable in the light of an agent’s beliefs and desires. But that is not to say that the agent’s actions would be reasonable if all her beliefs and desires were considered. In the cases of weakness of will, an agent’s actions are only reasonable in the light of specific beliefs and desires, but not in the light of all her beliefs and desires. (I will have more to say about this below.)

In light of the above considerations, I propose that we see Davidson as offering a two-level (rather than two-stage) model of practical reasoning. On this reading, Davidson’s account is seen as providing two levels of explanation for intentional actions: a rational explanation and a causal explanation. The rational explanation of an agent’s actions consists in a practical syllogism that rationalises the action. The reasons an agent has for acting must, if they are to rationalise the action, be the reasons on which she acted. That is, the reasons must have played a causal role in the aetiology of the action. This causal explanation, in which an agent’s reason is seen as the cause of her action, constitutes the second level of explanation.

To rationalise an action is to show how the action is judged to be best, from a certain perspective of the agent. As such, a rationalisation is to be identified with a prima facie judgement which is relative to the set of reasons from which the agent ultimately acts. However, the prima facie judgement from which an agent acts (that which rationalises her actions) may not be the only prima facie judgement made by the agent. For example, in cases of moral conflict, an agent has reasons for two (or more) competing courses of action. On such occasions, the agent makes more than one prima facie judgement, each one relative to the reasons the agent has for each competing course of action. However, since there can only be one primary reason for any given action—namely, the reason which is the cause of the action—then, in cases of moral conflict, only one of the prima facie judgements can correspond with an agent’s primary reason. Combining this claim with our earlier observation that each prima facie judgement is relative to some set of reasons, we may say that the prima facie judgement that is relative to an agent’s primary reason is the one that rationalises the agent’s actions.

On the two-level model, a prima facie judgement is expressive of an agent’s reasons in their evaluative capacity. However, as we already noted, the very reasons that factor into an agent’s evaluations may also cause (or motivate) the agent to act. In there motivational capacity, an agent’s reasons express her sans phrase judgements. Within the two-level explanatory framework, the very reason that features in an agent’s evaluations may also feature in her motivations, albeit in two different capacities.

With these considerations in place, let us return to the problem of continence and incontinence. Recall, both continence and incontinence only arise in cases of moral conflict; occasions on which an agent makes two (or more) prima facie judgements in favour of opposing courses of action. An agent counts as continent when her sans phrase judgement corresponds with the prima facie judgement that is relative to her total set of reasons. An agent counts as incontinent when her sans phrase judgement corresponds with a prima facie judgement that does not reflect her all-things-considered judgement. For example, consider the case of Mr. Smith who makes the following three prima facie judgements:
(c) Prima facie, having a third glass of wine is better than not having a third glass of wine, given r1.

(d) Prima facie, not having a third glass of wine is better than having a third glass of wine, given r2.

(e) Prima facie, not having a third glass of wine is better than having a third glass of wine, given R (where R represents his total set of reasons).
If Mr. Smith were to make the sans phrase judgement that, “not having a third glass of wine is best”, then his sans phrase judgement would correspond with his all-things-considered judgement, as represented in (e). In such a case, Mr. Smith would count as acting continently. However, if Mr. Smith were to make the sans phrase judgement that “having a third glass of wine is best”, then his sans phrase judgement would fail to correspond with his all-things-considered judgement. In such a case, Mr. Smith would count as acting incontinently. However, even if Mr. Smith were to make the latter sans phrase judgement, his actions would still correspond with one of his prima facie judgements, namely that represented in (c). Thus, it is still possible to give a rationalisation of Mr. Smith’s actions, albeit one that does not reflect his all-things-considered judgement. This is the upshot of our earlier observation that rationalising an action requires that we show that the action is based on reasons, not that is based on good reasons. As such, Mr. Smith (or the incontinent agent) still counts as acting intentionally.
With the two-level reading now on the table, we can return to the earlier worry about there being a motivational gap in Davidson’s account. Recall, the motivational gap arose because in order to preserve the consistency of (P1)-(P3), Davidson had to picture prima facie judgements (which are relative to an agent’s reasons) as purely evaluative, while the sans phrase judgements (which implicate the desires of agent) are seen as purely motivational. The upshot was that on the two-stage model an agent could not be motivated by her reasons which (on that picture) were relegated to her non-motivating prima facie judgements.

On the two-level model, the distinction between the purely evaluative prima facie judgements and purely motivational sans phrase judgements remains. However, the prima facie and sans phrase now represents two dimensions of explanation for a single piece of practical reasoning. On the two-level model, the same reasons that features (in their evaluative capacity) in the agent’s prima facie judgements may also feature (in their motivational capacity) in the agent’s sans phrase judgements. The upshot is that on the two level-reading, an agent’s reasons can be said to cause (or motivate) the agent to act, thus avoiding the motivational gap that threatened the two-stage model.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Davidson on Weakness of Will (Part 2)

In my previous post, I suggested that Davidson's bipartite account of practical reasoning is able to preserve the consistency of (P1)-(P3). However, there is a worry that Davidson’s solution leaves it unclear how the weak-willed agent can be said to be motivated by her reasons. This is the objection I wish to consider in the present post.

According to Davidson, the akrates acts for a reason, but not from her all-thing-considered judgement. Recall that in our example, Mr. Smith has three prima facie judgements—(c), (d) and (e)—each of which is relative to some set of reasons:
(c) Prima facie, having a third glass of wine is better than not having a third glass of wine, given r1.

(d) Prima facie, not having a third glass of wine is better than having a third glass of wine, given r2.

(e) Prima facie, not having a third glass of wine is better than having a third glass of wine, given R.
However, Mr. Smith (being weak-willed) ultimately decides to have a third glass of wine, against his all-things-considered judgement.

In the case of the continent agent, the action generating sans phrase judgement corresponds with the agent’s all-things-considered prima facie judgement. That is, the continent agent acts from her total set of reasons. However, in the case of Mr. Smith, his sans phrase judgement corresponds with (c) rather than (e). Hence, Mr. Smith (i.e., the incontinent agent) acts from a subset of his reasons, r1, instead of his total set of reasons, R. Herein, according to Davidson, lies the irrationality of the incontinent agent; she fails to perform the action judged best on the basis of all her reasons.

However, as limned above, there seems to remain a gap in Davidson’s account. On his picture, an agent’s prima facie judgement is always relative to some reason. However, an agent’s sans phrase judgement is not. This opens up a lacuna between one’s reasoned-based evaluations and one’s action generating judgements. Davidson attempts to fill this gap via what he refers to as the “principle of continence”:
(POC) Perform the action judged best on the basis of all available relevant reasons.
Davidson insists that (POC) is a principle that is binding on every rational agent, the violation of which constitutes the fundamental shortcoming of the akrates. Hence, Davidson believes that there is a normative imperative to always act from one’s total reasons. Strictly speaking, as worded by Davidson, (POC) is unable to bridge the logical gap between an agent’s prima facie judgements and her sans phrase judgements. However, we can equip it for this purpose by rephrasing it as follows:
(POC*) Do what is prima facie better, given R.
With the revised version of the principle of continence in place, the logical gap between an agent’s prima facie and sans phrase judgments has been bridged.

However, there still remains a motivational gap; a fact which the possibility of incontinence illustrates. If the principle of continence were sufficient to bridge the motivational gap between an agent’s prima facie and sans phrase judgements then any agent who was rationally committed to the principle of continence would be immune to weakness of will. However, such a conclusion seems implausible since it would imply that the akrates suffered from an extreme intellectual defect. Recall, Davidson invokes the principle of continence as a rule that every rational agent should accept as such. Consequently, to suggest that the akrates believes that she is not rationally obliged to act in accordance with the principle of continence is, by Davidson’s lights, to drum her out of the ranks of rational agents altogether

Davidson’s distinction between prima facie and sans phrase judgements drives a wedge between an agent’s reason-based practical assessments and desire-based motivations. On the one hand, one’s prima facie judgements are always relative to a set of reasons while one’s sans phrase judgements are not. On the other hand, only sans phrase judgements, according to Davidson, are expressive of one’s wants and therefore only sans phrase judgements can be said to motivate. The upshot seems to be that, on Davidson’s account of practical reasoning, one cannot be directly motivated by one’s reasons.

Another way to make this problem vivid is by posing the question: is (POC*) a prima facie or sans phrase judgement? There two considerations that tell against it being the former. First, it is not of the right logical form. (Although (POC*) represents a judgement about an agent’s prima facie judgements, it is not itself a prima facie judgement.) Second, if it were a prima facie judgement (assuming we were able to reformulate it somehow), it would be unable to bridge the motivational gap between Davidson's two stages of practical reasoning. (POC*) must implicate the desires of the agent if it is to serve the motivational role necessary. However, as we noted above, prima facie judgements fail to implicate the desires of an agent. On the other hand, (POC*) cannot be a sans phrase judgement since it does not consistently generate action (as the possibility of incontinence illustrates).

The suggestion that there is a motivational gap between an agent's prima facie and sans phrase judgements seems problematic since it seems to fly in the face of Davidson’s foursquare insistence that one is caused to act by one’s reasons.