Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"He who intends the end intends..."

It is a classic maxim that:

  1. He who intends the end intends the means.

Here is a problem. I take a pill to relieve a headache. Unbeknownst to me, the pill relieves the headache by means of numbing certain pain receptors I know nothing about. Plainly, I don't intend to numb these pain receptors, since I don't know anything about them. So I intend the end but don't intend the means.

One might weaken (1):

  1. He who intends the end intends the known means.
This also doesn't work. Suppose I have always taken a pill to relieve a headache. My reasoning has always been: "This pill relieves headaches and has few side-effects. I have good reason to relieve my headache. So I will take this pill." At a certain age, I learned how that pill works. But my knowledge of how that pill works in no way affected my practical reasoning, since it didn't undercut any part of the practical syllogism I employed. But intention is a matter of practical reasoning, so my newly gained knowledge did not affect my intentions. Alternate argument: intentions are explanatory of action, but the knowledge of how that pill works did not change the explanation of my actions, so it did not change my intentions.

Moreover, there are cases where two causal pathways are known to causally contribute to an end, but only one is intended. For instance, take the classic case of bombing the enemy HQ in order to end the war sooner, while accepting that civilians on the streets around the HQ will die. Suppose, for instance, that ne expects that the destruction of the enemy HQ in itself hastens the end of the war by a month, but that the deaths of the civilians are expected to hasten the end of the war by another month. The bombing can still be legitimate, as long as one only intends the first of these two means. In fact, it can still be legitimate even if the deaths of the civilians are a greater effect. Imagine that one is planning to bomb the enemy HQ because it hastens the end of the war by a month and one has prudently decided that the proportionality condition in the Principle of Double Effect holds. An analyst then announces that the deaths of the civilians will hasten the end of the war by another two months. Surely the analyst's announcement shouldn't stop one from bombing.

Now the last case may seem a bit unfair. We might say: there are two causal pathways to hastening the end of the war, but only one of them is the means to it. But if we say that, then by "means" we mean "intended means" and (1) becomes:

  1. He who intends the end intends the intended means.
But this is trivial if by "the intended means" we mean "all the intended means" and dubious if we mean "the one and only intended means", since there may be several intended means in an action.

I suggest a very simple alternative repair to (1). Just replace a definite article by an indefinite one:

  1. He who intends the end intends a means.
This is not trivial: it implies that every action has an intended means. One might worry about God's creating ex nihilo. I think there we can stipulate that God's creating A is a means to the existence of A, even if it turns out that God's creating A just is the existence of A (cf. chapter 12 of my PSR book), by generalizing the notion of a means to that of "the way in which the event is made to happen."

(I would expect that (1) would be a translation of some Latin maxim. Latin doesn't have articles, so whatever Latin would be behind (1) might well be understandable as (4).)

Now go back to the original pill case. I don't intend to numb my pain receptors. So what means do I intend? Answer: I don't intend any specific means—I simply intend whatever means it is by which the pill relieves headaches. That's why my intentions don't need to change when I learn how the pill works.

Now consider this wackier case. Suppose that I learn that the way the headache relief pill works is this. There is a homunculus inside me that has the power to relieve my headaches. When I take the pill, I cause horrific pain (much greater than my headache) to the homunculus, and he rushes to relieve my headache, afraid that if he doesn't, I'll take another dose. If I am right that given a normal story about how pain relief works, I need not be intending to numb pain receptors, likewise in this story I needn't be intending to torture the homunculus, even though I know about the homunculus and his pain. However, I do intend whatever means it is by which the pill relieves headaches. And that means is in fact horrific pain for the homunculus. I accomplish my means, and so my accomplishment in fact includes horrific pain for the homunculus. And it is really bad when one's accomplishment is known to have horrific pain for someone else as a part of it.


Anonymous said...

I think leaving out the definite article is a good solution to the problem, but it does seem to sidestep a worry generated by the initial formulation which interests me. I take it that one can only intend possible ends, and thus possible means, because no end is possible whose means is impossible. One advantage of specifying the means as in the formulation with the definite article is that it makes readily apparent failures of practical rationality. Suppose I say that I intend to travel outside of the milky way galaxy and you ask me how I plan to get there. If I give a definite response, such as, "by rocketship" and you continue to question how this means will accomplish my end, it will become clear eventually that I can't intend my end. However, if I respond to your initial question by saying, "somehow! whatever it takes!" my practical irrationality (because of the impossibility of my end given the impossibility of the means) is clouded by the open-endedness of my answer.

James Bejon said...


Interesting comments. I'm not sure about intending the impossible though. Suppose I try to prove a mathematical theorem that (unbeknown to me) is false. Proving it is impossible, right? But surely I intend to do so.

"He who intends the end intends a means"

I can see the benefit of the indirect article here. My worry, however, is that, where all the possible means of achieving something are, unbeknown to me, undesirable in some way, then it follows, I assume, that I intend one of them.

Jarrett Cooper said...

Prof. Pruss,

I don't see (2) being that much of a problem defending.

It seems like you didn't account for irrationality on behalf of the person that learns how the pill works but yet this new knowledge isn't affected by the person's reasoning--in still taking the pill to relieve the headache.

I also don't agree with your (3) and how it's trivial if by "the intended means" we mean "all the intended means." What matters is that knowledge is subject dependent. So it's not necessarily the case that all the intended means that I know are in fact all the intended means there actually are. For example, a medical student can have a good knowledge of medicine and go to the pharmacy and know that two of the medications will relieve his headache; however, if the pharmacist told him about the other medicines that could relieve the headache, then the student would have more means at his disposal which he could intend to end his headache.

So when one has knowledge of the various medications and the ways in which these medications relieve headaches, then we can say the individual is always intending to relieve his headache, but we can be more precise and say the individual intends to block the pain receptors, or to increase serotonin in which overrides the sensation of pain, or etc.

Though all of this implies rationality on behalf of the individual. However, for the individual that's being irrational, then the above will not hold up.

In all, I don't think one has to take the weakest option (4), but can adopt (2) and we can then qualify (2) so that known means is dependent on the individual subject and not all the known means there possibly are.