Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Intentional acts that produce their own intentions

Start with these assumption:

  1. If you are at least partly responsible for x, then x is at least partly an outcome of an intentional act with an intention that you are at least partly responsible for.

  2. You are at least partly responsible for something.

  3. You do not have an infinite regress of intentions.

  4. You do not have a circle of distinct intentions.

For brevity, let’s drop the “at least partly”. Let’s say you’re responsible for x. Then x must be an outcome of an intentional act with an intention I1 you’re responsible for; the intention I1 then must be an outcome of an intentional act with an intention I2 you’re responsible for; and so on.

It seems we now have a contradiction: by (1) and (2), either you have infinitely many intentions in the list I1, I2, ..., and hence a regress contrary to (3), or else you come back to some intention that you already had, and hence you have a circle, contrary to (4).

But there is one more possibility, and (1)–(4) logically entail that this one more possibility must be true:

  1. For some n, In = In + 1.

This is like a circle, but not quite. It is a fixed point. What we have learned is that given (1)–(5):

  1. You have at least one intention that is at least partly an outcome of an intentional act with that very intention.

This seems even more absurd than a circle or regress. One wants to ask: How could an intention be its own outcome? But this question has a presupposition:

  1. Any at least partial outcome of an intentional act is an at least partial outcome of the intentional act’s intention.

What we learn from (6) is that the presupposition (7) is false. (For if (7) were true, then given (6) some intention would be its own at least partial outcome, which is indeed absurd.)

But how can (7) be false? How can an outcome (again, let’s drop the partiality for brevity) of an intentional act not be an outcome of the act’s intention? I think there are two possibilities. First, the act’s intention can itself be an outcome of the act. Second, the act’s intention can be something that is parallel to the act and neither is an outcome of the other. The second view fits with acausalist views in the philosophy of intention, but it does not seem plausible to me—there needs to be a causal connection of some sort between an intentional act and its intention. And in any case the second view won’t help solve our puzzle.

So, we are led to a view on which at least sometimes the intention of an intentional act is an outcome rather than a cause of the act. If we think of an intention as explaining the rational import of an act, then in such cases the rational import of the act is retrospective in a way.

It would be neatest if every time one performed an intentional act, the intention were an outcome of the act. But we have good reason to think that sometimes the intention precedes the intentional act. For instance, when I decide on a plan of action, and then simply carry out the plan, the plan as it is found in my mind informs my sequence of acts in the way an intention does, and so it makes sense to talk of the plan as an intention. But now think about the mental act of deliberation by which I decided on the plan, including on the plan’s end. Here it makes sense to think of the plan’s end as being a part of the intention behind the mental act—the mental act is made rational by aiming at the plan’s end.

But all this is predicated on (1). And it now occurs to me that (1) is perhaps not as secure as it initially seemed. For imagine this case. I am trying to decide on what to do, so I engage in deliberation. The deliberation is an intentional mental act, whose intention is to come to a decision. But perhaps I do not need to be responsible for this intention in order to be responsible for the decision I come to. I can be simply stuck with having to come to a decision, and still be responsible for the particular decision I come to. In other words, deliberative processes could be a unique case where I am responsible for an act’s outcome without being responsible for the act’s intention. That doesn’t sound quite right to me, though. It seems that if the outcome of the deliberative processes is not what I intend, and, as is often the case, is not even what I foresee, then I am not responsible for that outcome.

No comments: