Thursday, October 20, 2016

Two senses of "intend"?

Consider these sentences:

  1. Intending to kill the wolverine, Alice pulled the trigger
  1. Intending to get to the mall, Bob started his car.

If Alice pulls the trigger intending to kill the wolverine and the wolverine survives, then necessarily Alice’s action is a failure.

But suppose that Bob intends to get to the mall, starts his car, changes his mind, and drives off for a hike in the woods. None of the actions described is a failure. He just changed his mind.

If nanoseconds after the bullet leaving the muzzle Alice changed her mind, and it so happens the wolverine survived, it is still true that Alice’s action failed. Given her intention, she tried to kill the wolverine, and failed.

In the change of mind case, Bob, however, didn’t try to get to the mall. Rather, he tried to start to get to the mall, and he also started trying to get to the mall. His trying to start was successful—he did start to get to the mall. But it makes no sense to attribute either success or failure to a mere start of trying.

There seems to be a moral difference, too. Suppose that killing the wolverine and getting to the mall are both wrong (maybe the wolverine is no danger to Alice, and Bob has promised his girlfriend not to go to this mall). Then Alice gets the opprobrium of being an attempted wolverine killer by virtue of (1), while Bob isn’t yet an attempted mall visitor by virtue of (2)—only when he strives to propel his body through the door does he become an attempted mall visitor. Even if killing the wolverine and getting to the mall are equally wrong, Bob has done something less bad—for the action he took in virtue of (2) was open to the possibility of changing his mind, as bringing it to completion would require further voluntary decisions. What Bob did was still wicked, but less so than what Alice did.

Action (1) commits Alice to killing the wolverine: if the wolverine fails to die, Alice is still an attempted wolverine killer. But Bob has undertaken no commitment to visiting the mall by starting the car.

This suggests to me that perhaps “intends” may be used in different senses in (1) and (2). In (1), it may be an “intends” that commits Alice to wolverine killing; in (2), it may be an “intends” that only commits Bob to starting trying to visit the mall. In (1), we have an intending that p that constitutes an action as a trying to bring it about that p.


Michael Gonzalez said...

This reminds me very much of Anscombe's "The Intentionality of Sensation: A Grammatical Feature". In the spirit of that paper:

What if the "wolverine" actually turns out to have been a person (perhaps too far in the distance or too dark outside to tell the difference)? Did Alice intend to shoot the person? She aimed directly at them with the intent to shoot. There is no wolverine, so did Alice intend to shoot a non-existent thing? I think the point is that most of these putative "mysteries" are really just confused uses of language.

In any case, I originally thought of the Alice and Bob case as a circumstantial difference. After all, he could live right next door to the mall. If Alice were The Flash, then she would have a similar situation to Bob, since she would fire the gun, but then have plenty of time to reconsider and go catch the bullet in mid-flight.

But I wonder if it isn't more about the difference between performing a single action (and that's all it takes on your part to cause the outcome) vs. initiating a chain of actions that you will have to do (in which case you could change your mind at any of the steps).

Unknown said...

"But I wonder if it isn't more about the difference between performing a single action (and that's all it takes on your part to cause the outcome) vs. initiating a chain of actions that you will have to do (in which case you could change your mind at any of the steps)."--Michael Gonzales

I'll start with the assumption that, initially, the act of gratuitous wolverine murder is equally culpable to disobedience towards one's girlfriend. (I'd love to hear someone open with that in a conversation where those ignorant of the context were present)

It seems to me that the chain of actions offers multiple opportunities to reconfirm the intention to do wrong. If we take Jesus's apparent view that sin lies in the intention (and perhaps also in the act itself, actualizing an intention), then neither success nor failure change the fact that a wrongdoing occurred. If Bob resolves himself more than once on his way to the mall he sins each of those times and is more guilty.

It seems to me that in the circumstances Dr. Pruss described, Bob and Alice are equally guilty for having both intended wrong and actualized their intentions (Alice intended to shoot a wolverine without warrant, and she performed this action. Bob intended to go to the mall, and he made the necessary preparations to do so until repenting...either way, Bob still actualized his intentions, and is perhaps more guilty for having maintained these intentions longer than Alice, who only had them for as long as she could actualize them, assuming she changed her mind after killing the Wolverine).

Michael Gonzalez said...

Jo, I think Pruss' point is that Bob DIDN'T actualize his intentions, since he never actually went to the mall.

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Michael: I see what you mean. I guess, then, I'd say that he actualized intentions to rebel against his girlfriend in many ways before refusing to fulfill the initial goal. He prepared himself to go to the mall, got in the car, began to drive there...each of these represent a failure that required wrongful intent and persistence in (actualization of) them. Of course, by changing his mind there is a sort of redemption that comes....but of course, refusing to even entertain for a second the thought of, say, sexual immorality, is far more honorable than dwelling on such a thought despite resisting adultery, for example. In the same way, Bob spent considerable time outside of his girlfriend's will and demonstrated disobedience--regardless of whether his action was entirely, partly, or not at all redeeming on your view.

In another example, consider that the penal court system, which differentiates on actions made with long-lasting intentions and those that are come in a sudden, volatile demonstration of their lack of self-control. (there's premeditated murder, and then spontaneous murder...both are wrong, but the former is treated more severely than the latter for the reasons I described).