Friday, August 26, 2011

Reasons, intentions and explanation

The following seems prima facie quite plausible:

  1. You intend that p in doing A if and only if it is a part of your reason for doing A that p might result from your doing A.

Until just about now, I was thinking that there were decisive counterexamples to this principle. Consider for instance the case of the strategic bomber who does not intend there to be civilian casualties, but chooses the time of her bombing raid in such a way as to maximize the availability of hospital space for the civilian wounded. Then that her action might result in civilian casualties is a part of her reason for performing the action at the time at which she performs it. But the time of an action is a part of what identifies the action. So that her action might result in civilian casualties is a part of her reason for performing the action she does. Yet she plainly does not intend the civilian casualties.

If this example does not convince simply because one thinks that strategic bombers really doe intend civilian casualties, consider a different example. I choose to undergo a simple operation at an excellent hospital, rather than a low-end hospital, because the operation might result in complications that are better treated at the excellent hospital. It seems to be a part of the my reasons for acting as I do—having the operation at that hospital—that the operation may result in complications.

Or so I thought. But now I think I was confused, and these counterexamples to (1) don't work. This doesn't show that (1) holds. But it would be really nice if (1) did hold—we would then have a neat reduction of intentions to reasons.

Here's why I was confused. Take the hospital example, where things are clearer. Let A be the action of asking the surgeon at the excellent hospital to perform the operation. Then the objection to (1) goes as follows: it is a part of my reason for performing A (specifically, the "at the excellent hospital" part of A) that complications may result from A. But I think not.

The problem is related to a mistake that is sometimes made in explanation, which is to make it insufficiently general. Here is a case of that. "Why did Smith eat chocolate ice cream?" "Because the choice was between chocolate and mint, and he slightly preferred chocolate." While we speak in this way, that is in fact not the right way to speak. As Wes Salmon said, irrelevance is harmless in arguments but fatal in explanations. The "he slightly preferred chocolate" implicitly contains an irrelevant claim. That he slightly preferred chocolate is equivalent to the conjunction of two claims: "he at least slightly preferred chocolate" and "he at most slightly preferred chocolate". Of these two claims, the second does nothing for the explanation of why Smith ate chocolate ice cream. It is quite irrelevant. It is only the first claim that enters into the explanation. Thus the correct explanation is that the choice was between chocolate and mint, and he at least slightly preferred chocolate. This explanation leaves out the irrelevant fact that he at most slightly preferred chocolate, a fact that makes the explanandum more puzzling if anything (explanation removes puzzlement).

We can now formulate my reason for choosing to have the operation in the better hospital more precisely. Let's say the less good hospital is the Sextus Hospital and the better is the Harvey Hospital. Then my reason for opting for the Harvey Hospital should be put as follows:

  1. The chance of complications is no greater at Harvey than at Sextus, and the chance of poorly treated complications is greater at Sextus than at Harvey.
The fact that there still is a chance of complications if I have the operation at Harvey is not, then, a part of my reason for choosing to have the operation at Harvey—it is rather like the fact that the man in my example at most slightly prefers chocolate—and hence I do not have a counterexample to (1).

Now go back to the strategic bomber case. The correct way to render the bomber's reason for choosing the time of the raid is:

  1. The number of civilian casualties at this time is no greater than at the other time, but the number of casualties receiving inadequate hospital treatment is smaller than at the other time.
Again, that the bombing results in the casualties is not among the reasons.

Now, since in fact it is unlikely that the bomber actually thinks the complex thought (3), we shouldn't identify reasons with actual thinkings of the listed contents.

In an earlier post I said that intentions supervene on reasons, and that an important task is to give an account of how reasons determine intentions. I currently have no counterexample to the claim that (1) is such an account. But I am also very suspicious in general of attempts at necessary and sufficient conditions, so I am sceptical that I've succeeded in (1).

It occurs to me that Kamm's triple effect cases might be counterexamples to (1), depending on how one understands reasons for action. I read Kamm's cases as cases of defeater-defeaters. If we don't count a defeater to a defeater as a reason-in-favor, then (1) survives Kamm's cases.


Alexander R Pruss said...

Alas, I have an apparent counterexample to the sufficiency of the condition for intending.

Suppose you give me a bunch of components, including an LED, and you tell me that you'll give me $100 if I do something that might result in the LED lighting up. So, I put together an indeterministic circuit that has a 60% chance of getting the LED to light up when a button is pressed, and I press the button.

I didn't intend that the LED light up. For I've succeeded in my plan whether or not the LED lit up. But I did press the button because it might result in the LED lighting up!

It won't help to adjust the principle by changing "might" to "might well" or "will likely". And of course "will certainly" will make the condition too strong--we typically intend things that our actions don't necessitate.


Alexander R Pruss said...

I wondered if the Kamm cases can be handled just as I handle the hospital choice case.

Take the party case. You want to run a party, but are afraid that people will make a mess. However, you think that they will help you clean up. Do you intend that they clean up?

Is the fact that people will help you clean up a reason for your action? No: what is a reason for your action is that they will leave no mess behind them.

I think that's still not good. For it is not your intention in throwing the party that there be no mess left. I think we should still go defeater-defeater and say that the fact that no mess will be left behind isn't a reason for your action--it's a defeater to a reason against your action.

Plus, pushing the explanation in this way is apt to lose the principle that she who wills the end wills the means.

But my LED counterexample is more serious. I wonder if there is some clever way to modify my necessary and sufficient condition.

Thinking about the difference between these two cases helps. In both, you have a button that has a 60% chance of lighting the LED.
Case 1: You get $100 if the LED lights up.
Case 2: You get $100 if you do something that might (or might well or might likely) result in the LED lighting up.

In Case 1, you press the button with the intention of lighting the LED. In Case 2, you have no such intention.

It's helpful now to ask: How does the structure of the reasons differ in the two cases? In both, it is a part reason for action that if you press the button, the LED might light up. But in both cases there is also another part of the story which helps explain why this conditional is a reason for action. In Case 1, the additional part of the story is that you get $100 if the LED lights up. In Case 2, the additional part of the story is that you get $100 if you do something that might light the LED.

So, in Case 1, your fuller reason for acting is:
(A) If you press the button, the LED might light up, and if the LED lights up, you get $100.

And in Case 2, it is:
(B) If you press the button, the LED might light up, and if you do something such that the LED lights up, you get $100.

I wonder if there is a way of modifying the principle in my post to distinguish these.

Here's another possibility. Maybe I've misrepresented the reasons in Case 2. Maybe that the LED might light up if I press the button is not among the reasons in Case 2. For what I need as the correct reason is: If I press the button, I will do something the doing of which might result in the lighting up. It is this conditional that enters as a reason into my practical reasoning. The conditional that if I press the button, the LED might light up is only an epistemic reason to believe the more complex practically-relevant conditional.

Heath White said...

I think there is a structural problem with (1) in that my reason for doing A is often a set of considerations for doing A rather than B; but my intention in doing A is not comparative. Note that your examples appeal to comparisons like this.

How about this for a counterexample. Sometimes we do things one way rather than another, because they might have side-effects which we would welcome (or in order to avoid unwelcome side-effects), but (avoiding) those side-effects are not part of our intention in acting. Suppose I can drive more than one way to work. I have recently acquired a flashy new car. I choose the path that goes past a neighbor’s house on the off chance that he might be home, see me in my new car, and become envious. Probably, however, he is not at home or if he is, not staring out the window. And my main intention is to get to work, not to show off to my neighbor.

Also: I can get a mortgage pretty much anywhere, but I choose one bank rather than another because it is local and I like the idea of supporting a local bank. But it’s really not that important, and my intention in getting a mortgage is just to be able to buy a house. Likewise, I can get gas anywhere, but I avoid BP, because they polluted the Gulf of Mexico. My intention in filling up, though, is not to stick it to BP, but to put gas in my car.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think even the comparative things can give rise to intentions. When I choose A, I am also intending to avoid the inconveniences of B.

Your cases are really interesting. I think I would say, independently of (1), that these are cases where you have a primary and a secondary intention.