Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Conditional vs. means-limited intentions

This morning, I set out to walk to the Philosophy Department. If asked my intention, I might have said that it was to reach the Department. And in actual fact I did reach it. Suppose, however, that as I was walking, my wife phoned me to inform me of a serious family emergency that required me to turn back, and that I did in fact turn back.

Here’s a puzzle. The family emergency in this (fortunately) hypothetical scenario seems to have frustrated my intention to reach the Department. On the other hand, surely I did not intend to reach the Department no matter what. That would have been quite wicked (imagine that I could only reach the Department by murdering someone). If I did not intend to reach the Department no matter what, it seems that my intention was conditional, such as to reach the Department barring the unforeseen. But the unforeseen happened, so my conditional intention wasn’t frustrated—it was mooted. If I intend to fail a student if he doesn’t turn in his homework, and he turns in his homework, my intention is not frustrated. So my intention was frustrated and not frustrated, it seems.

Perhaps rather than my intention being frustrated, it was my desire to reach the Department that was frustrated. But that need not be the case. Suppose, contrary to fact, that I was dreading my logic class today and would have appreciated any good excuse to bail on it. Then either I had no desire to reach the Department or my desire was conditional again: to reach the Department unless I can get out of my logic class. In neither case was my desire frustrated.

Let me try a different solution. I intended to reach the Department by morally licit means. The phone call made it impossible for me to reach the Department by morally licit means—reaching the Department would have required me to neglect my family. My intention wasn’t relevantly conditional, but included a stipulation as to the means. Thus my intention was frustrated when it became impossible for me to reach the Department by morally licit means.

The above suggests that our intentions should generally be thus limited in respect of means, unless the means are explicitly specified all the way down (and they probably never are). Otherwise, our intention wickedly commits us to wicked courses of action in some possible circumstances. Of course, the limitation, just as the intention itself, will typically be implicit.


Michael Gonzalez said...

This distinction between intentions and intentions-given-limited-means is interesting to me. I have a sort of ongoing confusion about why Determinists think physics and laws of nature have anything at all to do with freedom of the will. I happen to be composed of physical parts and that limits my means for accomplishing that which I intend. Still, my intending it, and my working toward it within those means-limitations is paradigmatic of even the most Libertarian of free-will models! Your case has a moral limitation on the means, but it could just as well have been a physical limitation and that doesn't mean you aren't a free agent pursuing your own free intentions within the (usually implicit) limits of your means.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I now wonder about what I said. Suppose that the only way for me to reach the Department is morally illicit, but alas I do go for the morally illicit means. While I do wrong in doing so, is not what I do rationally comprehensible in the light of my intention to reach the Department. But if my intention were to reach the Department by morally licit means, then my taking the morally illicit means is rationally incomprehensible (just as it would be incomprehensible if my intention were to hop across the room on one foot and I proceeded to walk across the room).

Maybe what's going on in such a case is this. I realize that I can't have what I intended--getting to my Department by morally licit means. I then try to have a part of what I intended--getting to my Department. (Wouldn't we say something like that about the hopping case?) This requires forming a new intention, an intention to reach the Department, but such formation is an easy process in sinful humans.

I don't know. I also worry whether it's realistic that in typical cases people form intentions with a moral limit on them. All this is hard stuff.

Michael Gonzalez said...

What happens if we view all individual cases of "forming an intention" as actually part of an overall "flow" or "path" in a person's life? After all, each step they made was definitely intentional, but there was no individual "forming an intention" before each step. Likewise, it is unlikely that you are headed to the Department without any context as to why, when you've been there before, your position and job and education and so on and so on. Everything is embedded in context and history. No action is an island.

The reason I think this helps (in addition to it's many other advantages, in my opinion) is that the "by licit means" stipulation has to do with your character and history. It is a contextually implicit truth just like "by physically feasible means" is. For example, if you have a limp due to previous events, you will get there in a way that is permissible for people with limps. It isn't that you desire to get there in a limp-permitting way, necessarily. But nor is it the case that you wish to get there NO MATTER WHAT and are just forced into the limp-permitting way. It is more that a person with a limp intends to go to the Department (probably to accomplish things which are specific to that person and make sense only in-line with their particular biography). Likewise, a moral person is heading toward the Department for their own reasons...

I don't mean to ramble, but the point is just that intentions and actions don't exist in a vacuum nor without reference to the overall things a person is accomplishing or the character of the person.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yeah, something about the shape of life as a whole helps with the realism problem.

However, I am not sure that the physical limitations enter into the intention in the same way that the moral ones. Here's why. Suppose that on my way to my Department my limp miraculously disappears. Then there is no rational pressure whatsoever to continue going in a limp-permitted way. But if I had an intention to go to the Department in a limp-permitted way, then wouldn't there be rational pressure to go in a limp-permitted way even so?

So it seems that my intentions are not means-limited in this case, or if they are, the limitation is conditional on the limp: Go in a limp-permitted way unless the limp stops.

But the moral limitations are different. If I discover mid-way that there is a more efficient but immoral way to get to the Department, there is no rational pressure to take that way, given that my intention is morally means-limited.

Michael Gonzalez said...

I think the right analogy would be if you miraculously stopped being a moral person (perhaps some random stroke that erased your memories and moral conditioning?... instant sociopathy? I don't know... some such miracle).

Finding a more expedient, yet less moral way, is really analogous to finding a more expedient, but not-as-limp-permitting path, no?

I guess my main point is that you are not just a person with moral limitations to your intentions. You are a moral person (a person embedded in a life which has conditioned you for morality and in which you think and act naturally like a moral man). So, since it is YOU walking toward the Department, and not just some biography-less blank "person", it follows that you will do so in the moral way. The action is embedded in the overall biography and it is permeated with context and history.

Looking at a snapshot doesn't capture the truth. That's what I, personally, think is also a problem for most analyses of A-theory vs. B-theory of time. The B-theorist tends to forget that the A-theorist thinks of the present as permeated with and embedded in a context and a history and a set of intentions for the future. Likewise, typical discussions of free will center on a single choice in a vacuum without context, history, and the overall flow of a person's life being factored in. At that very second, they appear to making a single choice. But they are actually upholding LOTS of long-term, life-long, broad Choices.

Michael Gonzalez said...

On reflection, I think I can say that last part a little better: Dr. Pruss walking to the Department is a very different event from anyone else walking from the same starting point to the same Department. Dr. Pruss carries his history, social context, and the various life trajectories he is upholding all the time simultaneously... all of that he carries and expresses in each choice of his life. Just as "heading to the Department" permeates each intentional step he takes (despite their being no individual "act of intending" preceding each individual step), so likewise each trip to the Department is permeated with broader considerations and contexts.

Heath White said...

Here's a different suggestion: you changed your mind. You started off with one intention, circumstances changed, so you abandoned it and formed a different intention.

We understand this is how beliefs work. I believe P, get some new evidence E, and then abandon P and form an incompatible belief Q. It is a mistake to hold that my initial belief was REALLY of the form P-unless-E or some such.

The root of the mistake, I think, is trying to pack the *justification* of the belief (/intention)--and thus the conditions under which it would change--into the *content*, so that the belief (/intention) doesn't change under new conditions.

Alexander R Pruss said...


But it seems that my intention was *frustrated* and not merely abandoned. And it seems that if it turns there was no emergency but just a mistake, I can continue walking to the Department under the sway of the very same intention I had previously--I don't need to form a new intention, it seems.

Here's another thought. There is such a thing as my ordinary intention to walk to the Department and there is such a thing as the unscrupulous intention to walk to the Department no matter what by whatever means necessary.

The intension of the content of an intention corresponds to something like the collection of all logically possible courses of action that fulfill the intention. But if my ordinary intention is unconditional and doesn't limit means as you suggest, then any course of action, under whatever circumstances, that gets me to my Department fulfills the intention. Hence, on your suggestion, my ordinary intention is intensionally equivalent in content to the unscrupulous one. But it seems the two intentions differ in content. And it doesn't seem to me to be plausible that they differ merely hyperintensionally.

Heath White said...


I would say your *desire*, which still stands no doubt, was frustrated, but your intention was not (you stopped trying to get to the department. "Frustration" is when you try and fail.) If you were dreading logic and relieved not to have to go, I don't think we would say your intention was frustrated--because the desire was not there.

And so I would also say you do need to form a new intention in the case of a false emergency. But this rests on controversial questions about how to count intentions, so it won't settle anything.

I would not pack intended (or permissible) means into the end intention. The content of an intention is just a proposition to be made true. (Minor caveats about propositions de se here.) The intention "walk to the Department" is indeed the same intention regardless of the means entertained. It's just that most of us take as defeating reasons for this intention things like having to kill people.

Compare: there is such a thing as believing in phlogiston (or whatever) in a way sensitive to evidence, and believing in phlogiston come what may. The content of the belief in both cases is the same. But the reasons for believing it differ and thus the conditions under which you would abandon the belief differ. But it is a mistake to pack those reasons into the content of the belief.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I need not have any desire to get to the Department. I might only have the desire to get to the Department barring a good excuse (or no desire at all--but you might think that where there is action there is desire). And that desire wasn't frustrated when I got the excuse. But *something* was frustrated.

Heath White said...

What if we approach this from the other end, and consider a situation where you do, uncontroversially, change your plans. You were going out for burgers, but you got a phone call that you won a million dollars. All you have to do is pick it up in the next hour at the town hall. So you abandon your burger plan and head for the town hall.

Now, was your burger-eating intention frustrated? (I would say no.) Was it an intention to eat burgers-unless-I-get-a-million-dollar-phone-call? (No.) But what difference do you see between this case and the first one about walking to the department? Whatever it is, that will fill in something about "frustration."

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think your intention was frustrated. You don't get the yummy burgers. But it's worth it.