Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Intending as a means or as an end

I used to think that it is trivial and uncontroversial that if one intends something, one intends it as an end or as a means.

Some people (e.g., Aquinas, Anscombe, O’Brian and Koons, etc.) have a broad view of intention. On such views, if something is known to inevitably and directly follow from something that one intends, then one intends that, too. This rules out sophistical Double Effect justifications, such as a Procrustes who cuts off the heads of people who are too tall to fit the bed claiming that he intends to shorten rather than kill.

But if one has a broad view of intention, then I think one cannot hold that everything intended is intended as an end or as a means. The death of Procrustes’ victim is not a means: for it does nothing to help the victim fit the bed. But it’s not an end either: it is the fit for the bed that is the end (or something else downstream of that, such as satisfaction at the fit). So on broad views of intention, one has to say that Procrustes intends death, but does not intend it either as a means or as an end.

While this is a real cost of the broad theory of intention, I think it is something that the advocates of that theory should simply embrace. They should say there are at least three ways of intending something: as a means, as an end, and as an inevitable known side-effect (or however they exactly want to formulate that).

On the other hand, if we want to keep the intuition that to intend is to intend as a means or as an end, then we need to reject broad theories of intentions. In that case, I think, we should broaden the target of the intention instead.

In any case, the lesson is that the characterization of intending as intending-as-a-means-or-as-an-end is a substantive and important question.


Brian Cutter said...

Interesting. Here's a potential case of intending something, but not as an end or a means (one that I find more convincing than the Procrustes case), which Peter van Inwagen suggested to me in connection with a different issue. Suppose a machine can detect whether my motor neurons send a signal to the muscle that controls my finger movement. If the machine detects motor neuron activity, then I get some money. I know about the setup, so I intentionally move my finger, the machine detects the neural activity that preceded the finger movement, and I get my money. Here, the finger movement isn't an end; the only end is getting the money. Nor is the finger movement a means. The finger movement doesn't cause me to get the money. The motor neuron activity is what causes that, and the finger movement is just an effect of that activity. But it's not like the finger movement is just a foreseen but unintended consequence of something else I intend. What could that something else be? Motor neuron activity? But I don't have direct intentional control over my motor neurons (in the way I have direct intentional control over my finger movements). Maybe one could say that what I intend is just to *intend* to move my finger, and this is a means to getting the money (since it causes the motor neuron activity). But, assuming my intention to intend to move my finger is successful, it follows that I do intend to move my finger, and then the quesiton arises again---as a means, or as an end? And, again, it seems like neither.

(This is kind of a weird case. When I imagine being in this case, I'm tempted to say "I'm moving my finger in order to make my motor neurons fire," so phenomenologically it feels like a means-end case, even though I know the motor neurons are causally upstream from the finger movement. So, maybe the thing to say is that I intend the finger movement as a means to getting money, even though I know it's not a means to my end, but still it's somehow rational.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Very interesting. I remember thinking about cases like that some years back. I can't remember what exactly I thought of them, but it may have been something like this: We already know that not every means is an efficient cause of the end. Drawing a nose isn't an efficient cause of drawing a face and scoring a goal isn't an efficient cause of winning a game, but both are means. I would call them "partially constitutive means". Now, the finger case is a yet different kind of means, one that is neither efficient causal nor constitutive.

The finger case is weird, but on reflection it looks like it's part of a family of familiar cases. We often have a sequence of things (words, notes, motions, etc.) memorized in such a way that to perform or recall a part we have to perform or recall the whole. The performance of the whole is then a means to the performance of the part. This is a flip of the nose-drawing case: the whole is a means to the part (and we can have an art case like that: I commission an artist to draw my nose, and they can only do that in the context of my face). Similarly, the neural activity is a part of the finger movement.

But it seems right to say something like this here: In these cases, it is not the whole that is a means to the part but rather it is the intending of the whole that is a means to the part. Intending the whole activates a practiced chain of conscious and unconscious activities that includes the part. What is curious about these cases is that one does not care about the whole: it is the *intending* of the whole that one cares about. (Compare one of those weird action-theory cases where you get paid not for doing something but for intending to do it.)

Now that I've identified the case as one where the *intending* is what one cares about, I think one can multiply cases of this sort further. Suppose X is something worthless. I can imagine a guru telling you to intend X, in order to realize the vanity of life. But in the case I'm imagining, it's not *getting* X makes you realize the vanity of life, but it is *intending* X that makes you realize it. Or suppose that you've been in an accident, and you realize that you will have an obscenely large insurance payout if you can't move your foot, so large that it's on the whole better for you if you can't move your foot. So you try to move your foot. Part of trying to move your foot is intending to move your foot. But you don't care about moving your foot! There is no money in that. You're hoping the foot stays unmoved.

So, the general structure is this. Your intending X is a means to something valuable, but X itself is worthless to you (as an end or a means).

I think I want to bite the bullet on this. You can only intend X when you find something valuable in it. So in the above cases, you have to find something valuable in X. This probably requires a metaphysics on which value is easy to find in the world. Wiggling a finger has value: it is at least an *activity*, and every activity is a reflection of God who is pure act.

This sounds like a cheat. I don't think it's a cheat. I think it's just the mechanism of the will: it can only be moved to pursue goods. So if I want the will to pursue something, I need to find a good in the something--perhaps a quite trivial good.

On this story, the above cases turn into ones like this: You pursue some trivial good G1 in order that by the pursuit of G1 you might gain a non-trivial good G2. But you really do pursue G1 as an end in doing so, not just as a means. This is a *very* familiar phenomenon. You pursue a trivial goal in a game (such as getting a ball into net 1 more often than the other team gets the ball into net 2), because the pursuit of that goal is fun, or healthy, or builds sportsmanship. But the goal itself is of little value. But it is of *some* value, or else the whole thing wouldn't work.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I wonder now whether the advocate of a broad theory of intention could use what I said above...

Tom said...

Dr. Pruss,

On a somewhat related note, I was curious for your thoughts on this question related to double effect:

A lot of people have tried to use a counterfactual test to establish whether some effect is intended or merely foreseen, but this doesn't strike me as right. For example, they'll say that diving on a grenade to save the people around you isn't suicide, because if (by some miracle) you survive unharmed, you can still protect the others. Or in the case of someone who goes on a hunger strike to protest their unjust imprisonment, their witness would stand even without their death.

But this test also returns the verdict that pushing the fat man in the way of a runaway train isn't murder, for if the train bounced harmlessly off him you would still save the five people on the track. But this is in direct conflict with the usual analysis of the situation, which is that shoving the fat man is murder (as opposed to redirecting the train, which is merely foreseeing the death of the one).

Alexander R Pruss said...

Until recently, I used to think it's clear that pushing the fat man in front of the train to save the five is not murder. The intention is clearly to block the train rather than damage the body. The death of the man does nothing to help stop the train. And I used to think that something like an intention of death (or more precisely, the accomplishment of death) is a necessary condition of murder.

However, I have come to think that an intention to kill is probably not necessary for an act to be a murder. It seems to me now that the right view is something like this: intentionally inducing an arrangement A of the world, where A includes lethal damage of an innocent. (What is lethal damage? I think it is damage that both normally and actually results in or constitutes death, and does both "in the right way" because of its being damage.)

The lethality does not have to be intended, but A has to be intended. So, blowing up the fat man in the mouth of the cave is murder: one is intending that the body be in such-and-such pieces, and having one's body in such-and-such pieces *is* lethal damage.

On my new view, the case of jumping on a grenade or pushing the fat man before the train is less clear. It is true that we know from Newton that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. So, if the body exerts a force on the grenade fragments or on the train, the grenade fragments and the train exert a corresponding force on the body. But the exertion of the force, or even having an corresponding force exerted on one, is not lethal damage, but is the *cause* of lethal damage.

So, I still think that jumping on a grenade or pushing the fat man before the train is not murder. But I still distinguish the cases. Both are cases of what I have called lethal endangerment ( ). And I think lethal endangerment is something that is impermissible in the absence of the right authority over the victim. The victim typically has the right authority over themselves, and can grant that authority to another (so if I volunteer for the military, I think my commander can command me to jump on the grenade, and can push me if I refuse or if there is no time), and there are other cases of such authority (e.g., God always has authority over us). So, jumping on a grenade is permissible (and laudable), ditto jumping in front of a train, but pushing a fat man before the train is in typical cases impermissible (but it would be permissible with the fat man's authorization, say if he's unable to do it on his own).