Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Means-end reasoning

It is very plausible, and rarely disputed except by way of minor qualification (e.g., adding a knowledge condition), that:

  1. If one has a reason to pursue an end e, and m is a means to e, then one has a reason to pursue m.
(Of course, the reason to pursue m may not be an all-things-considered reason.) Now here is a philosophical puzzle. Why is (1) true? How does the fact that I have reason to pursue e give me reason to pursue m, just because if I achieve m, I will also achieve e?

Maybe (1) as it stands is false. After all, there is reason to eliminate educationally useless courses at a university. One means to doing this is to shut down the university. But does that mean that one has even a prima facie reason to shut down a university just because there are some educationally useless courses there? Speaking more generally, suppose there are two incompatible means, m1 and m2, each of which is a means to e. It is plausible that this gives me a reason for the disjunctive pursuit of m1 or m2, but why should it give me a reason for pursuing m1?

I think (1) can still be held up in the light of the above criticisms, but perhaps what these criticism push one to is accepting:

  1. If one has a reason to pursue an end e, and there are some means to e, then one has reason to pursue at least one of the means to e.
If m1 and m2 are the only means to e, then one has reason to pursue at least one of m1 and m2, but perhaps one does not have reason to pursue specifically m1 (or specifically m2). However, pursuing m1 (or m2) satisfies the disjunctive reason.[note 1]

Oddly enough, I think (2) can still be questioned. Suppose you are capable of achieving e directly, in addition to an indirect way. For instance, let's say that e is having one's arm be raised. Well, one can do this directly—one just raises one's arm.[note 2] But one can also bring it about that one's arm is raised by building a Rube Goldberg contraption that raises one's arm. Does one's reason to have one's arm be raised give one reason to build the contraption? I think it is rather plausible that it does not. And if not, then (2) is problematic in the same way that (1) was. Perhaps a clearer way to see this is to imagine a being like God who can act directly.

But something of (2) can survive. Let us say that m is a necessary means to e provided that e cannot be achieved but through m. The "cannot" can have different amounts of modal force, but I am not going to worry about this. Then:

  1. If m is a necessary means to e, and one has reason to pursue e, then one has reason to pursue m.
We get (2) out of (3) in those cases where e cannot be achieved directly, since then the disjunction of all means is a necessary means (here I think of a means as the whole intermediate process from action to end; one needs to be more precise in general, but not for the purposes of this post).

But whether what we accept is (1), (2) or (3), the question of why it is true remains. Here is one approach to a solution. Sometimes one has reason to pursue something solely by a particular means. Thus, ideals of sportsmanship give the Olympic runner reason to win by means of training and hard work, and give her no reason to win by means of drugs, disabling opponents, vel caetera, since a victory achieved by such means would not be a victory that satisfies the reasons of sportsmanship. (On the other hand, reasons of financial gain give one reason to win by any means possible that does not preclude the financial gain.) If this is right, then sometimes a reason to pursue an end includes in itself a specification of the appropriate means.

But we can simplify this. Rather than talking of the reason as including a specification of the ends, we can include the means in the end. Sportsmanship thus gives one reason to achieve victory by means of training and hard work.

Now what if we say that the means is always included in the end? Then some ends are of the form victory by any means or directly, others are of the form victory by any means, or directly, as long as this is compatible with one's survival, and so on. And then, I think, the mystery about why reason to pursue the end gives a reason to pursue the means is somewhat dispelled. If the end one has reason to pursue always carries a specification of how that end is to be achieved, then it seems plausible that doing anything that falls under that specification is doing something one has reason to do, or at least is doing something that satisfies a reason one has.


philotheos said...
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philotheos said...

Hi, I was wondering what it really means to say that the “means are always included in the end.” Are you proposing that all ends, when fully spelt out, logically entail the means? I.e., we could deny the means and affirm the ends only on pain of contradiction. On such a view, means-end rationality seems to need an explanation only because we have not fully spelt out the ends.

But this does not seem plausible. For one, the “necessary” in “necessary means” might not be of the logical stripe (as you have noted). It might be true that

“Sportsmanship thus gives one reason to achieve victory by means of training and hard work.”

But the question remains as to whether some method of training is indeed a means to achieve victory. In some possible world with different laws of nature, it might be the case that I could train myself to run the 400m race by eating more ice-cream daily. (Since I do not like ice-cream, it is real hard work.) So the modal force of the “cannot” in necessary means might matter. Surely we would not want to say that eating more ice-cream is a means to fulfill the requirements of sportsmanship. (Of course, neither would we have any reason to eat more ice-cream given that we have a reason to pursue sportsmanship. So this does not nullify (3).)

But since what counts as means to an end are logically contingent, to say that the means is always included in the end cannot mean that the ends, when fully spelt out, logically entail the means. Perhaps, then, it means that they entail the means, given the laws of nature and the present state-of-affairs in the world. So then, we might want to say that (3) (or even (1) or (2)) is true because the means to achieve an end is always implicit in the conjunction of the end and how things are with respect to the state of affairs in the world and the laws of nature. This seems plausible, and at the same time accounts for the seemingly contingent relation between an end and the means to achieve it. (So, there are at least two reasons why a means to an end seems different from the end itself, the other one being that the end is not fully spelt out.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

By saying the means are included in the end, I guess I mean something like this: The end might include the means under some general description. Thus, one's end may be "power by any means". Then the description is completely general. Or it may be "power by means of cleverness".