Monday, October 24, 2016

Two senses of "decide"


  1. Alice sacrifices her life to protect her innocent comrades.

  2. Bob decides that if he ever has the opportunity to sacrifice his life to protect his innocent comrades, he’ll do it.

We praise Alice. But as for Bob, while we commend his moral judgment, we think that he is not yet in the crucible of character. Bob’s resolve has not yet been tested. And it’s not just that it hasn’t been tested. Alice’s decision not only reveals but also constitutes her as a courageous individual. Bob’s decision falls short both in the revealing but also in the constituting department (it’s not his fault, of course, that the opportunity hasn’t come up).

Now compare Alice and Bob to Carl:

  1. Carl knows that tomorrow he’ll have the opportunity to sacrifice his life to protect his innocent comrades, and he decides he will make the sacrifice.

Carl is more like Bob than like Alice. It’s true that Carl’s decision is unconditional while Bob’s is conditional. But even though Carl’s decision is unconditional, it’s not final. Carl knows (at least on the most obvious way of spelling out the story) that he will have another opportunity to decide come tomorrow, just as Bob will still have to make a final decision once the opportunity comes up.

I am not sure how much Bob and Carl actually count as deciding. They are figuring out what would or will (respectively) be the thing to do. They are making a prediction (hypothetical or future-oriented) about their action. They may even be trying by an act of will to form their character so as to determine that they would or will make the sacrifice. But if they know how human beings function, they know that their attempt is very unlikely to be successful: they would or will still have a real choice to make. And in the end it probably wouldn’t surprise us too much if, put to the test, Bob and Carl failed to make the sacrifice.

Alice did something decisive. Bob and Carl have yet to do so. There is an important sense in which only Alice decided to sacrifice her life.

The above were cases of laudable action. But what about the negative side? We could suppose that David steals from his employer; Erin decides that she will steal if she has the opportunity; and Frank knows he’ll have the opportunity to steal and decides he’ll take it.

I think we’ll blame Erin and Frank much more than we’ll praise Bob and Carl (this is an empirical prediction—feel free to test it). But I think that’s wrong. Erin and Frank haven’t yet gone into the relevant crucible of character, just as Bob and Carl haven’t. Bob and Carl may be praiseworthy for their present state; Erin and Frank may be blameworthy for theirs. But the praise and the blame shouldn’t go quite as far as in the case of Alice and David, respectively. (Of course, any one of the six people might for some other reason, say ignorance, fail to be blameworthy or praiseworthy.)

This is closely to connected to my previous post.


Michael Gonzalez said...

I agree largely with what you've said here. A quick thought:

Alice likely had to do what Bob and Carl did at relevant (pivotal?) points in her past prior to actually performing the great sacrifice. What Bob and Carl are doing seem to me to be steps toward becoming the kind of person who, at the moment of great sacrifice, makes it rather than shirking it. Likewise for the negative scenario.

I don't know if I agree that Alice's act partially constitutes her as a courageous individual. It seems to me that an individual's courage some subjunctive, conditional sort of statement about them that, if they were put in such-and-such sort of situation, they would likely do the courageous thing.

Heath White said...

The difference in the cases (here and in the previous post) would seem to be just the irrevocable nature of one decision/intention vs. the non-irrevocable nature of the other. Virtue is partly about our motivations, which (notoriously) do not track moral reasoning always, so it makes sense that Alice is virtuous in a way Bob and Carl are not.

But I don't think that's a difference in sense. For example,

Intending to kill the wolverine and eat it for dinner, Alice pulled the trigger.
Deciding to save her comrades' lives and ask St. Peter for a special medal when she got to heaven, Alice jumped on the grenade.

If there were different *senses* of 'decide' and 'intend', these sentences would sound odd, but they don't.

My view about decisions/intentions is that they are "stakes in the ground", around which we plan future reasoning and action. This is what separates them from desires or preferences. But some stakes you can pull up, and some you can't.

Alexander R Pruss said...


If intends(1) and decides(1) are the "decisive" versions, and intends(2) and decides(2) are the other sense, then I think every case of intending(1) is a case of intending(2) and every case of deciding(1) is a case of deciding(2). So your sentences are OK as long as the more general meanings are found in each.