Saturday, November 23, 2019

Intending the end without intending the known means

It is said that:

  • he who intends the end intends the means.

But the person who doesn’t know how a computer keyboard works does intend to close circuits when writing an email, even though the closing of circuits is the means to writing emails.

Perhaps, though, when they learn how computer keyboards work, that might change their intention, so that now they intend to close circuits whenever they intentionally type a character? But that is psychologically implausible: the activity of the practical intellect involved in typing is normally unchanged by learning how a keyboard works. (There are, of course, special circumstances where it may change. For instance, if one knows that one is near some very delicate electrical equipment whose functioning could be affected by the closing of these circuits, then one’s deliberation might change.) The knowledge of what happens in typing remains merely non-occurrent knowledge, not affecting the activity of the practical intellect or the will.

One might think, though, that if one occurrently knows that the means to typing an email is the closing of circuits, one is intending to close circuits. But even this need not be true. For instance, a person who is writing a technical article on how keyboards work may well be occurently knowing that their movements are transformed into data in computer memory by means of closing electrical circuits, but this occurrent knowledge may very well still not affect either their practical intellect or their will. (Indeed, when I wrote the opening paragraph of this post, I no doubt occurrently knew how keyboards work, but I don’t think this affected my intentions.)

For one’s knowledge to affect one’s intentions it needs to enter into the deliberation. For that, it needs to be occurrently and practically taken by the agent as practically relevant. For most people under most circumstances, that computer keyboards work by closing circuits is not practically relevant. But if it is Sabbath and one is an Orthodox Jew who believes that closing circuits is forbidden on the Sabbath, then the knowledge is apt to be taken as practically relevant: if one still types, that is apt to become an act of rebellion or of akrasia, and if one refrains from typing, that act is apt to be done as a mitzvah. However, one could imagine the sad case of such an Orthodox Jew who types on the Sabbath anyway, and eventually becomes so calloused that the fact that circuits are being closed stops entering into deliberation, though the fact is still known by the theoretical intellect. Such a person’s intentions may eventually drift to those of the typical gentile.

So, what is one to say about the principle that he who intends the end intends the means? There is of course a trivial version:

  • he who intends the end intends the intended means.

Maybe we can do a little better:

  • in intending the end one intends the means insofar as they enter into deliberation.

I am not sure this is right, but it’s the best I can do right now.

Note an interesting thing. If this last version is right, then the means may enter into deliberation on the opposite side, against the action. For instance, if one thinks it’s forbidden to close electrical circuits on the Sabbath, but one chooses to do so, that the means involve the closing of electrical circuits is apt to enter into deliberation on the con side of typing, not on the pro side (unless one is positively rebellious).


Unknown said...

I'm not a philosopher, but I really enjoy this blog and this post made me think of something I read yesterday. It was a psychology paper by Birch and Bloom (2007) on why adults and young children occasionally make errors in figuring out what people believe. One theory is that our own knowledge can bias our attributions of what other people believe, but only when there is a plausible mechanism for it to do so. This seems quite similar to what you refer to as knowledge being "occurrently and practically taken by the agent as practically relevant".
The paper was looking specifically at how we figure out other people's beliefs, but I'm wondering if this could be applied to intentions as well. More specifically, it would be cool to test if one's attributions of other people's intentions is affected by our own knowledge when that knowledge is "occurrently and practically taken as practically relevant".

Larry Masek said...

Could we make the principle closer to the traditional version by saying "He who intends the end intends HIS means"--where "his means" refers to the means that enter into the agent's deliberation?

Your case about the keyboard shows that the agent's means can be narrower than what actually brings about the agent's end. I think the agent's means can be broader too. If a 20-year-old tech wiz uses a manual typewriter for the first time, the tech wiz could intend to move levers in order to close circuits in order to put words on the page, even though there are no circuits to be closed.

Helen Watt said...

Yes, he who intends the end intends his own means - whether or not they're the actual causal means: you may be intending more or less than is causally necessary. But of course, your soul-searching shouldn't stop there.

If you discover the actual causal means and they're unchoiceworthy, even if you can somehow avoid choosing them, then surely you're obliged to abandon the whole course of action (perhaps slaves will be painfully forced to move large levers for every word you type). Whatever you're actually choosing, the causal chain must be choiceworthy at every point.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Helen: I pretty much agree. So we need to say in Double Effect that the causal means must be acceptable, even when not literally intended.
I am a little worried about "choiceworthy" as that is dependent on the details of description. Qua transmitting keystrokes, all is well. Qua employing slaves, it's wrong. We don't want to say that the means must be choiceworthy under all descriptions, though, as that would destroy Double Effect.

Helen Watt said...

Alex: Can you think of a case though where the means-end causal elements themselves are morally OK - in the sense that if you DID intend that causal means you would be within your rights - but the causal means itself under some other description is not choiceworthy? Is this about the means-end causal elements or about side-effects outside the means-end causal chain?

It's true that many hypothetical side-effects of your chosen means would be outweighed by good effects. But arguably, some intention-side-effect combinations are morally conclusive.

If human beings are involved in the means-end causal chain, we'll at least have to insist on a description that includes that fact - even if a similar means-end causal chain could have been achieved by already-dead human beings or indeed sacks of potatoes.

We can imagine a situation where unbeknownst to me, my key-tapping causes slaves to be pushed from a great height onto levers which then produce typed words. Like the sound of the collision, the death caused by the collision is not part of the means-end causal chain (neither will affect the words being typed). But the death of the very same person used in the means-end causal chain, as a further causal result of that means-end chain, is morally conclusive.

Philip Rand said...

Helen Watt

What happens when you press a key, hear the sound of the collision and no letter is typed?

Helen Watt said...

Philip Rand

Something amiss with the mechanism, I suppose!

Philip Rand said...

Helen Watt

So, how is the nomos to be understood?

Helen Watt said...

Don't choose a plan whose causal components are unchoiceworthy (even if you're not currently choosing those components - once you realise how the causal route works, abandon your plans).

Philip Rand said...

Helen Watt

So, zero-sum... one always loses to the phenomenon, i.e. you can't win...

That is your position?

Helen Watt said...

You just need a better plan!

Philip Rand said...

Helen Watt

Interesting... so, Double Effect is a Liar Paradox...

Heath White said...

The structure of the example seems to be this. I intend the end of getting a 'S' on my screen; I type the S-key as a means to do so, and intend that. I have no views, and thus no intentions, about how typing the S-key causes the 'S' to appear on my screen.

Real-life example: I want a t-shirt from an Amazon seller, so I order it. Unbeknownst to me, each t-shirt is made to order by oppressed pieceworkers in Cambodia, so my ordering causes a moral evil. So I intend to buy a shirt, I intend to order it from Amazon as a means, but I do not know about, nor intend, oppressing Cambodian pieceworkers.

More generally: there is a causal chain A-B-C, and one intends C as a means to A. But one need not intend B if one only knows that C causes A and is ignorant about B, i.e. ignorant about how C causes A. Note that for a great many causal chains we are ignorant about pieces of them.

I think Alex is right that intention follows deliberation. Deliberation is by way of known (or believed) causal chains, which may match up imperfectly with actual causal chains. For example you can intend to do a rain dance in order to bring rain; this will have no actual effect, but it is nevertheless intended as a means. And as the previous examples show, you can intend pieces of the necessary means, not intending the ones you don't know about.

So: he who intends the end, intends the means that he believes are necessary to bring the end about.

For purposes of thinking about double effect, it seems (at least) that the believed means must be morally acceptable given the believed consequences. You might want to add a clause about means you could reasonably be expected to know, or find out about ... perhaps I ought to look into how my t-shirts arrive from Amazon.