Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Reasons as construals

Scanlon argues that intentions do not affect the permissibility of non-expressive actions because our intentions come from our reasons, and our reasons are like beliefs in that they are not something we choose.

In this argument, our reasons are the reasons we take ourselves to have for action. Scanlon’s argument can be put as follows (my wording, not his):

  1. I do not have a choice of which reasons I take myself to have.

  2. If I rationally do A, I do it for all the reasons for A that I take myself to have for doing A.

And the analogy with beliefs supports (1). However, when formulated like this, there is something like an equivocation on “reasons I take myself to have” between (1) and (2).

On its face reasons I take myself to have are belief-like: indeed, one might even analyze “I take myself to have reason R for A” as “I believe that R supports A”. But if they are belief-like in this way, I think we can argue that (2) is false.

Beliefs come in occurrent and non-occurrent varieties. It is only the occurrent beliefs that are fit to ground or even be analogous to the reasons on the basis of which we act. Suppose I am a shady used car dealer. I have a nice-looking car. I actually tried it out and found that it really runs great. You ask me what the car is like. I am well-practiced at answering questions like that, and I don’t think about how it runs: I just say what I say about all my cars, namely that it runs great. In this case, my belief that the car runs great doesn’t inform my assertion to you. I do not even in part speak on the basis of the belief, because I haven’t bothered to even call to mind what I think about how this car runs.

So, (2) can only be true when the “take myself to have” is occurrent. For consistency, it has to be occurrent in (1). But (1) is only plausible in the non-occurrent sense of “take”. In the occurrent sense, it is not supported by the belief analogy. For we often do have a choice over which beliefs are occurrent. We have, for instance, the phenomenon of rummaging through our minds to find out what we think about something. In doing so, we are trying to make occurrent our beliefs about the matter. By rummaging through our minds, we do so. And so what beliefs are occurrent then is up to us.

This can be of moral significance. Suppose that I once figured out the moral value of some action, and now that action would be very convenient to engage in. I have a real choice: do I rummage through my mind to make occurrent my belief about the moral value of the action or not? I might choose to just do the convenient action without searching out what it is I believe about the action’s morality because I am afraid that I will realize that I believe the action to be wrong. In such a case, I am culpable for not making a belief occurrent.

While the phenomenon of mental rummaging is enough to refute (1), I think the occurrent belief model of taking myself to have a reason is itself inadequate. A better model is a construal model, a seeing-as model. It’s up to me whether I see the duck-rabbit as a duck or as a rabbit. I can switch between them at will. Similarly, I can switch between seeing an action as supported by R1 and seeing it as supported by R2. Moreover, there is typically a fact of the matter whether I am seeing the duck-rabbit as a duck or as a rabbit at any given time. And similarly, there may be a fact of the matter as to how I construed the action when I finally settled on it, though I may not know what that fact is (for instance, because I don’t know when I settled on it).

In some cases I can also switch to seeing the action as supported by both R1 and R2, unlike in the case of the duck-rabbit. But in some cases, I can only see it as supported by one of the reasons at a time. Suppose Alice is a doctor treating a patient with a disease that when untreated will kill the patient in a month. There is an experimental drug available. In 90% of the cases, the drug results in instant death. In 10% of the cases, the drug extends the remaining lifetime to a year. Alice happens to know that this patient once did something really terrible to her best friend. Alice now has two reasons to recommend the drug to the patient:

  • the drug may avenge the evil done to her friend by killing the patient, and

  • the drug may save the life of the patient thereby helping Alice fulfill her medical duties of care.

Both reasons are available for Alice to act on. Unless Alice has far above average powers of compartmentalization (in a way in which some people perhaps can manage to see the duck-rabbit as both a duck and a rabbit at once), it is impossible for Alice to act on both reasons. She can construe the recommending of the pill as revenge on an enemy or she can construe it as a last-ditch effort to give her patient a year of life, but not both. And it is very plausible that she can flip between these. (It is also likely that after the fact, she may be unsure of which reason she chose the action for.)

In fact, we can imagine Alice as deliberating between four options:

  • to recommend the drug in the hope of killing her enemy instantly

  • to recommend the drug in the hope of giving her patient a year of life

  • to recommend against the drug in order that her enemy should die in a month

  • to recommend against the drug in order that her patient have at least a month of life.

The first two options involve the same physical activity—the same words, say—and the last two options do as well. But when she considers the first two options, she construes them differently, and similarly with the last two.

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