Thursday, October 1, 2020

Intentions and reasons

An interesting question is whether one’s intentions in an action supervene on facts about one’s reasons and desires in the action. I don’t know the answer, but I also don’t know of a good way to account for intentions in terms of reasons and desires.

Judith Jarvis Thomson suggests this:

  • for a person to X, intending an event E, is for him to X because he thinks his doing so will cause E, and he wants E.

This is false. The standard (at least for me) method of generating counterexamples to conjunctive principles is to find cases where the conjuncts are coincidentally satisfied in ways other than what one had in mind in formulating the principles.

So, here is the counterexample. I am alone in an eccentric friend’s house, and I want to take an ibuprofen. I look in the medicine cabinet, and I see a jar full of pills of different sizes, colors and shapes all jumbled together. I call up my friend asking where the ibuprofen is. My friend says: “Ah, ibuprofen. That’s the pill that will hurt your throat when you swallow them.” I look in the jar, and indeed there is exactly one pill that is large enough to hurt the throat upon swallowing. I swallow the pill because I think doing this will hurt my throat. But I don’t intend my throat to get hurt. So far I don’t have a counterexample: I have failed to satisfy the “he wants E” conjunct. But now just throw that conjunct into the story in a motivationally irrelevant way. Perhaps I want my throat to be hurt, due to my being a masochist. But I promised my accountability partner that I would refrain from intentionally hurting myself, and I’ve gotten pretty good at keeping this promise, so I don’t intend to get hurt.

One could add to Thomson’s conditions:

  • and his wanting E is a cause of his action.

But we can just multiply the the coincidental satisfaction of conditions. For instance, perhaps my psychiatrist informed me that my masochistic desires are caused by headaches, and so if I get rid of my headache, my masochistic desires will disappear. Thus, my desire to hurt my throat is a cause of my relieving my headache. But I don’t relieve my headache in order to hurt my throat.

All this makes me think that it’s not unlikely that having a particular intention in an action is a primitive datum about the action: perhaps actions are teleological entities, and the intentions are their telê.

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