Monday, May 9, 2011

A tentative prolegomenon to a theory of requests, commands and promises

The standard formal analysis of requests is that a person y requests a person x to bring it about that p (or, simply, to A—I will stick with the bringing about language for some formal reasons, but I think there are also reasons why one might prefer to talk of actions instead). In other words, a request is a relation that holds between two persons and a (centered?) proposition.

But this is insufficient to capture the full range of phenomena. I hand you a list of tasks and ask you to do them all. I don't actually know what is on the list. Perhaps I had a longer list of tasks and had a computer divide up the longer list between a number of people, and so I am handing you a printout of your portion.

On the standard analysis, we should either take this as a case of my issuing n requests, one for each item on the list, or as a case of my issuing a single request that you bring it about that all the items are done by you. Neither option is satisfactory. The suggestion that I issued n requests seems unsatisfactory on the grounds that I don't know what is on the list, and may not even know what the number n is. (Moreover, the list need not yet be printed out. I could ask you to do all the items that will show up on the screen when you log in.)

The suggestion that I issue a single request that you do all the items fails. For suppose you decline to do the nth item, but do do all the rest. This can be a perfectly reasonable response. But for what reason, given that you declined to do the nth item, did you do all the rest? The obvious answer is: "Because I asked you to." But I didn't, at least not on this reading. I asked you to bring it about that you did all the items. You didn't bring this about. So what was the point of doing what you did? It is worth noting that we do have room for a conjunctive request which gives no reason to do only some of the conjuncts. "Find me a hammer and a nail"—there need be no point to finding only one of the two. So we need a way of distinguishing the kind of request which distributively gives you a reason to do each task—and that is the kind of case I had in mind—and the kind of request which gives you only a reason to do them all. The latter is nicely modeled in the "y requests that x bring it about that p" way. The former is not.

To make it even clearer that not all requests have the "y requests that x bring it about that p" logical form, suppose I hand you the list but add that my request has a greater emphasis on the items higher up on the list. First of all, the mention of emphasis shows that everyone should grant that requesting's logical form is at least quaternary: "y requests with strength s that x bring it about that p". But in this case, there is simply no way of offering a single request with this quaternary logical form that does the job. If I request that you bring it about that all the tasks are done by you, the logical form above does not allow the strength to vary between the tasks on the list. But surely it can.

Here is my tentative suggestion. There is a function r from quadruples (y,x,p,t) where y is a person (requester), x is a person (requestee), p is a proposition and t is a time[note 1], to strengths (these might be represented as numbers sometimes), including a null strength in cases where no request has been made. Thus, r(y,x,p,t) is the strength with which y counts at t as having requested x to bring it about that p. Moreover, x at t has a reason proportional in strength to r(y,x,p,t) to bring it about that p for each y such that r(y,x,p,t) is non-null. Furthermore, each mature person x keeps track, as best she can, of the non-null values of r(y,x,p,now), and uses them in deliberation. I will call r the "request function".

There is a class of speech acts which are "request strength modifiers." Request-strength modifiers affect the time evolution of r(y,x,p,t). The simplest is the simple request of strength s that x bring it about that p. If t1 is the time before the simple request was issued and t2 is the time after it was issued, then (assuming nothing else relevant happened) r(y,x,p,t2)=r(y,x,p,t1)+s—in other words, the simple request increases the strength of request at a single proposition (in the paradigmatic case, r(y,x,p,t1) is null, and r(y,x,p,t2)=s). But there is a dizzying variety of other request strength modifiers. I could, for instance, reinforce all requests that I made on Tuesdays while canceling all requests that I made on Wednesday.

The individual y has in principle a great amount of control over the dynamic evolution of r(y,x,p,t). She can issue any, or almost any [note 2], kind of modification to r(y,x,p,t) that she is capable of describing to x.

The example I gave earlier of handing someone a list and prioritizing the items in the order given modifies r(y,x,p,t) for those values of p expressed in the list, and modifies them in degree dependent on where they are found on the list. The request function gives us an enormous amount of authority over reasons available to our fellows, an authority to be used carefully.

Because of the complexity of possible changes in the request function, we have developed complex performative language. If I say: "I'd like you to do all the items on the list, though I'd the odd numbered ones more than I want the even numbered ones", I am not describing my preferences. I am engaging in request strength modification by performatively describing a part of the structure of r(y,x,p,t), where y is me, x is you and t is now or shortly after now. The description is performative in that it makes r(y,x,p,t) have the values it is described as having (with whatever vagueness we want to include, e.g., on the side of strengths). The use of preference language is not to be taken literally—what is being described is not an inner state, but the function r(y,x,p,t). The lack of literalness is important. I can request something of you that I do not actually desire, and I can desire something I do not request. (This is important in constituting consent, for instance.) It is also important not to take r(y,x,p,t) to describe y's mental state at t, because y may have forgotten some of her requests to x, but unless they are canceled or mooted, they continue to be a part of r(y,x,p,t).

This way of thinking about requests gives a neat solution to the problem of characterizing conditional requests. Suppose I ask you to go kayaking with me tomorrow if it's not raining. One might try to model this with a material conditional. I am asking you to bring it about that if it's not raining, then we go kayaking. But on a material conditional reading, I am asking that you bring it about that it rains or we go kayaking. Surely, however, there is an asymmetry in my request that would make it odd for you to try make it rain.

The request function approach gives a better story. Because y has almost complete control over r(y,x,p,t) for future t, the requester y can make r(y,x,p,t) change its value conditionally on some factors that y does not actually know. (The case of the list of tasks was already like that.) I can, thus, make r(I,you,<we go kayaking at t2>,t) be non-zero if and only if it doesn't rain at t2.

Complex standing requests can be handled similarly ("Let's go kayaking every Wednesday on which it isn't raining and on which you aren't working on a paper on indicative conditionals"). We can even model some subtleties, such as whether the reason comes to be operative now (which gives me a present request-based reason to prepare for the kayaking if need be) or only comes to be operative tomorrow, since the changes in r(y,x,p,t) can be stipulated to only apply when t>t1, say. Moreover, requests can have expiration dates—when t hits such a date, r(y,x,p,t) goes down (not necessarily to null, because there might have been two requests for p, and only one expired).

Commands are like requests. There is a command function c(R,x,p,t) whose values (strengths of command) give reasons to x. It is different in that the first argument place is filled not by an individual but by an individual authority role. I am Canadian. The commands of Her Majesty Elizabeth II do not go into a slot of "commands of Ms. Elizabeth Windsor", but into a slot of "commands of the monarch in right of Canada". (I am inclined to count legislation signed by her representative as a command of hers.) Thus, when Elizabeth goes to her reward, the commands of her successor in right of Canada will go into the same slot as hers did. Moreover, the same individual can have more than one individual authority role: Elizabeth had the authority of a mother and of a moarch over her son when he was younger, and now she only has the latter authority, and it is with the role that we keep track of the commands. A mature individual x will keep track, as best she reasonably can, of the non-null values of c(R,x,p,now).

Likewise, there are command strength modification speech acts. A difference between these and request strength modification speech acts is that the ability of R to modify c(R,x,p,t) tends to be strictly limited in all sorts of ways. Commands to act immorally are invalid (this might be true for requests), as are commands that exceed R's authority over x (there will be none such is when R is God). Such commands leave c(R,x,p,t) unchanged. Complex command strength modification speech acts will also often involve performative descriptions of c(R,x,p,t), and may sometimes use the same kind of apparently autobiographical language of preferences (though "need" and "want" are more likely than "I'd like"), with the commands being distinguished by context or tone or explicit markers ("This is not a request").

Finally, there is a function v(x,y,p,t) that encodes of the strengths of x's promises to y (I will use the term also for very weak committive states like "I'll do A if I can"). Promises like requests and commands have a strength. The rules on the evolution of the function are more complex, however. In the case of requests and commands, one and the same party was able to increase and decrease the strength of a request. But only the promiser can can create a promise or increase the strength of an existing one, while it is the promisee or, in some cases, an appropriate authority (parents can cancel the promises of their children, and the Church can commute or cancel vows to God) who gets to cancel a promise ("I am not holding you to that") or decrease its strength ("Don't do it if it's a lot of trouble").

The strengths of promises are definitely not numerical. There may be low level not-quite-commitments that create reasons—"I'll do it if I can"—which we don't normally count as promises. And the difference between these and full-blown promises is qualitative. Perhaps the strength of a promise (and maybe the same goes for a request or command) should be seen as a list of strengths. For instance, I might make a wimpy not-quite-commitment to come to your party, in which case v(x,y,p,t) comes to be "not-quite-commitment". I might then additionally promise it. Now I have "not-quite-commitment plus full-promise" as my strength. It's important to keep both in the strength. FOr you might release me from the full-promise without releasing me from the not-quite-commitment. Moreover, each of these separately generates a reason, unless I took the promise to override the not-quite-commitment. (While the promiser can't cancel or weaken a promissive act, she can upgrade it.)

And so there are promise strength modification speech acts. However, unlike in the command and request case, they bifurcate naturally into strengtheners that promisers can make and weakeners that promisees and some authorities can make.

The same points about conditionality and expiry that I made about requests apply to promises and commands.


Heath White said...

I would think that something like "I hereby distributively assert that the various prices for stocks published in the Wall Street Journal this morning were true as of press time" would be a set of n assertions, whose number and content I do not know. I would count them as assertions since I am undertaking to defend each of them; if any are wrong, *I* am wrong.

That to say that I think you write off the "n requests" option too quickly.

Alexander R Pruss said...


In short: I don't think we disagree.

In long:
In my forthcoming Proceedings of the ACPA paper on lying, I've tried to distinguish between endorsement and assertion. One may think of assertion as including two elements: the expression of a proposition and the endorsement of what was expressed. The endorsement is responsible for the illocutionary force. The expression is responsible for the content. There may then be times when you endorse without expressing a proposition, but simply indicating a proposition, as in your example.

I suspect that in the end there is no interesting normative difference between assertion and endorsement, as it is the endorsement part of the assertion that is responsible for the normative elements. Thus, the prohibition against endorsing what one knows to be falsehoods has exactly the same weight as the prohibition against asserting what one knows to be a falsehood.

Nonetheless, despite the normative similarity, I am inclined to continue distinguishing assertion from endorsement. A particularly compelling case is like this. I set up a website to automatically report the current temperature in Waco. In so doing, I am distributively endorsing sentences on the site like: "The current temperature is 85F." But there is something odd about saying that I am asserting this. Imagine that I die and the website continues functioning. Am I continually, posthumously asserting new things?

It could be that the distinction between acts of assertion and acts of endorsement is one of degree. It could be that there is a continuity between "I endorse the proposition expressed by the sentence on my website" and "I assert that the current temperature is 85F." But there still seems to be an ordinary-language distinction between these two. We would not describe the first person as having asserted that the temperature is 85F, especially if she did not know what the sentence on her website was.

This ordinary-language distinction does not, I suspect, cut language at its joints.

To cut language at its joints, we would need to introduce an endorsement function e, parallel to r, c and v, and then commitment strength modification speech acts, of which simple assertion would be a paradigm. But unfortunately I don't know what the arguments of the endorsement function are. Is the function of the form e(x,y,p,t) or just e(x,p,t) (where x is the speaker and y is the listener)? There are tricky questions here. If I say to you that the sky is blue, and Fred is openly listening, have I endorsed to Fred that the sky is blue?

This may matter. For I am inclined to think that only if I have endorsed p to x is x able to believe p on my testimony rather than simply to take my testimony as evidence. A formal difference is that if you take my testimony that p as evidence, you can in principle take it as evidence for ~p (some colleagues and grad students may very well take "Alex has a metaphysical intuition that p" to be evidence for ~p); but you cannot believe that ~p on my testimony that p, at least if you know that my testimony is that p.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Here's a problem for my suggestion about extending the account to assertions/endorsements. We can imagine a somewhat silly person who, after every statement, repeats as a mantra: "I disendorse all false propositions and I endorse all truths." This nullifies the status of previous claims, thereby rendering all the previous claims empty. But it shouldn't do that, should it?

Heath White said...

I am inclined to individuate assertions in terms of normative obligations undertaken and maintained. This is, I think, your endorsement. So maybe we don’t disagree. Miscellaneous points:

First, I would initially think you cannot be responsible for anything that happens after your death, so I would initially think that you are making assertions with your website while alive but not after you are dead. However, I can imagine an alternative view. You can set in motion a train of events which will kill someone after you are dead, and by parity of reasoning you can set in motion a website which will assert after you are dead, and you are posthumously responsible for both.

Second, the relevant distinction between your acts of assertion and acts of (mere) endorsement would seem to be the distinction where you use a noun phrase to express your proposition vs. using a singular term to refer to it. I think there are tricky questions here: What do you want to say when you know the referent of the singular term, e.g. “the Pythagorean Theorem”? What do you want to say when you only understand it imperfectly, e.g. “the theory of quantum mechanics”? What do you want to say when you think you understand it but you don’t? I’m doubtful that a degreed notion is what you need here. (Keep in mind, for starters, that the listener’s understanding may be greater or less than the speaker’s.)

Third, I don’t think you need to include the listener in the identification of the assertion, except as needed to fill out the content (e.g. the referent of ‘you’). Instead, one can multiply assertions/endorsements. For example: both of my girlfriends call me up simultaneously on separate lines, wondering where I am. I say into both receivers (with a single utterance), “I’m coming home now.” To one I am lying and to the other I am telling the truth. Here, we don’t need to incorporate listeners into the speech acts, we just need to realize I have undertaken two sets of obligations with a single utterance. That would handle the testimony point.

Finally, on your silly person: I think it was Origen who said, “Whatever is true is ours.” But perhaps the solution is that it is not so easy to get out of endorsement-responsibilities as his silly method suggests.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Suppose that contextualism holds with regard to assertibility. Then identifying the listener may be important. Suppose that there is more riding for you on getting p right than there is riding for Chauncey. My evidence for p may be sufficient to make p assertible to Chauncey without it making p assertible to you. In that case, keeping track of whom I asserted it to is important.

Another reason is for withdrawal of endorsement. I tell Samantha that p. I change my mind. I have reason to withdraw the claim. But not if Samantha died right after I told her.

"Second, the relevant distinction between your acts of assertion and acts of (mere) endorsement would seem to be the distinction where you use a noun phrase to express your proposition vs. using a singular term to refer to it."

Maybe. But notice that if I can use a noun phrase N to describe the proposition, I can also introduce a nullary predicate into the language by stipulating: "The nullary predicate 'xyzzy' expresses the proposition such that N." And after stipulating I just say: "xyzzy." (The English "It rains" is a nullary predicate.) So any proposition I can describe with a noun phrase I can also assert. But there still seems to be some sort of degreed difference in explicitness.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think I want to change terminology. In the world, we have request, command, promise and assertion fields. (I am not saying that we have them irreducibly. They may be grounded in other stuff.) They are represented by mathematical functions, the way that a (classical) gravitational field is represented by a function from spacetime to vectors.

Talking about them as fields makes it clearer that they are things in the world that we can affect. Maybe they even affect us (in a spooky or non-spooky way).

Alexander R Pruss said...

And I'd like to merge requests and commands into a single request field, taking a role as an argument. But the role can be "one's friend John" or "one's fellow human Sarah" in the case of requests. There is then a qualitative difference between strengths that count as commands and strengths that count as mere requests (so strengths shouldn't be modeled numerically) and strengths that count as combinations of these ("I order you to do this. Please!")