Thursday, 24 July 2008

Why-Questions and Motive-Explanations

In this post, I wish to begin constructing a theory of action that builds on the foundation I set up in my previous post. I suggested that the most general purpose of a minimal causal account for some event e2 is to specify which event, from a number of actual or hypothetical alternatives, would feature in a robust causal account of e2, were such an account to be given. I believe this generalises to why-questions of the following form:
(Q) Why did the cat scratch at the door?
One possible because-answers to (Q) is:
(A) Because it wanted to get into the room
The because-answers given in (A) specifies which event would feature in a robust causal account of the action described in (Q). According to (A), it is the cat’s desire to get into the room—rather than, say, a desire to sharpen its claws—that would feature saliently in a robust causal account of the cat scratching at the door.

Unlike the because-answers given in response to the why-question: "Why did the window break?", the because-answer given in response to why-question (Q) implicates a desire - namely, the cat’s desire to get into the room. I hold that to desire X is for X to appear to be good. By ‘good’ I mean that which is beneficial. We may give the concept of the beneficial a Darwinian gloss by defining it in terms of that which promotes biological fitness. To say that a cognitive mechanism represents something as beneficial does not mean that the animal possessing that cognitive mechanism must have a concept of the “beneficial”. Consider, we may say that a cat’s visual system represent something as being true (for example, that there is a mouse over there) without attributing to the cat the concept of truth. Likewise, we may say that a particular cognitive mechanism of an animal aims after biological fitness, even though the animal in question has no such concept and is aware of no such aim. Thus, my claim that to desire something is for that thing to appear to promote biological fitness is meant to be definitional; it applies to all animals that have desires, whether or not they possess the concept of the good, the beneficial or of biological fitness.

In the proceeding discussion I will use the ‘good’ as a shorthand for the beneficial or that which promotes biological fitness. In the light of the above considerations, I take the following conditional to express a necessary condition for desiring X:
(D1) If S desires X, then X appears to be good to S.
This claim should be distinguished from the stronger claim that to desire something is to judge that it is good.
(D2) If S desires X, then S judges that X is good.
The difference between X appearing to be good and judging that X is good may be illustrated with an analogy from theoretical reasoning. To desire X is for X to appear to be good in the same sense that seeing a partially submerged stick as bent is for it to appear to be true that the stick is bent. Often, having an appearance that things are a certain way is enough to prompt one to judge that things are that way. Similarly, having a desire for X is often enough to prompt an “unconditional judgement” in favour of the relevant course of action. However, in the case of agents equipped with the appropriate deliberative capacities, having it appear that something is true may fail to yield the judgement that it is so. I take the same to be true of having an appearance that something is good. Thus, my claim that to desire something is for that thing to appear to be good stands in contrast to the stronger claim that to desire something is to judge that it is good.

Significantly, a single subject may have conflicting sets of appearances. For example, a submerged stick may appear bent when one looks at it, yet feel straight when one touches it. We may say that the stick appears bent, relative to the visual sensory modality, and appears straight, relative to the tactile sensory modality. I believe the same holds with respect to desires. The same thing may appear good relative to the desire for an ice-cream, let us say, but appear bad relative to the desire to remain faithful to one’s diet. Thus, to desire something is always for that thing to appear to be good from a certain perspective.
(D3) If S desires X, then X appears to be good, from a certain perspective
The claim that the cat’s desire to get into the room explains its scratching at the door presupposes that the cat has the belief that scratching at the door would somehow facilitate its getting into the room. Thus, the because-answer offered in response to (ii) takes the form of a belief-desire explanation. Such belief-desire explanations are limited to actions carried out by animals (such as cats, dogs and people) to which we may correctly attribute beliefs and desires. Thus, belief-desire explanations represent a special subset of because-answers. The desire provides us with an agent's motivation for acting and the belief provides us with the explanation of why the particular action was performed. Thus, the agent’s desires and beliefs combine to provide a motive-explanation. Contra Davidson, I believe that motive-explanations (or what he calls "reason-explanations") are equally applicable to rational and pre-rational animals. In this respect, I am in complete agreement with Mary Midgley:
In discussing the central importance of motives, I shall make no special distinction between man and other species, because I think the problem is the same for both. There is nothing anthropomorphic in speaking of the motivation of animals. It is anthropomorphic to call the lion the King of Beasts, but not to talk of him as moved, now by fear, now by curiosity, now by territorial anger. These are not the names of hypothetical inner states, but of major patterns in anyone’s life, the signs of which are regular and visible. Anyone who has to deal with lions learns to read such signs, and survives by doing so. Both with animals and with men, we respond to the feelings and intentions we read in an action, not to the action itself. (Midgley (1978), Beast and Man., pp. 105-6.)
One attractive feature of the above definition of motivation is that it allows for a natural continuity between doxastic and action motivation. On this picture, just as the true is the most abstract characterisation of the aim of belief, so the good is the most abstract characterisation of the aim of desire.

In conclusion, I hold that an action counts as intentional if and only if it possible to give a correct belief-desire or motive-explanation of that action. Hence, any action or event for which a belief-desire explanation cannot be correctly given fails to count as intentional. On this view, because-answers that implicate motive-explanations serve two purposes. First, like because-answers in general, they specify which events would feature in a robust causal account of the event, were such an account to be given. Second, the applicability of motive-explanations determines if an action is intentional or unintentional. On the present account, cats and dogs constitute intentional agents, but not rational ones. (I will have more to say about this later.) Thus, my position differs from that of Davidson since I do not see intentionality as co-extensive with rationality.

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