Monday 26 April 2010

On Reasons and Animals: My Reply to Ben

Special thanks to Ben for his thoughtful feedback on my previous post (see comments). I concede that our ordinary linguistic practice often includes the metaphorical attribution of agency. But of course, that does not mean that such attributions are always metaphorical. For example, no one worth taking seriously (at least for the purposes of the present discussion) would say it is metaphorical in the case of fully competent human beings. So the question is, on which side of the divide does our agency-attributions to animals fall? Is it like our agency-attribution to inanimate objects, or is it more like our attributions to human beings?

Now there are clearly numerous respects in which animals are more like human beings than they are like inanimate objects. Hurley’s monkey, for example, has a heart, brain and haemoglobin bearing blood cells; as do we. But these points of similarity are not salient to the question at hand. Thus, in this post, my task will not be merely to show that animals are more like humans than they are like inanimate objects. That’s a given. Rather, it will be to show that they are similar to humans in ways that are salient to the question of agency. Consequently, when assessing my claims, one cannot simply ask if they are true; one must ask if they’re relevantly true. This is the question I wish to take up.

One striking difference between animals and inanimate objects is that the former are ordinarily assumed to possess motivational states while the latter are not. Moreover, the claim that animals possess motivational states is meant to be taken literally. This is a point made quite emphatically by Mary Midgley:
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.)
I believe that the difference between animals and inanimate objects highlighted by Midgley is salient to the question of agency. In the knife case, the focus is on the event (the cutting of the hand). But in the animal case, the focus is on the animal’s inner (read: psychological) states. If one sees a lion walking towards you, it is important to be able to distinguish between whether it is being motivated by a desire to eat you or a desire to reunite with its pride that is gathered under a tree fifty feet behind you. Our folk psychology is what provides us with the tools we need to interpret the lion’s actions. But notice, we are not simply paying attention to the bodily movements of the lion, but also to the inner psychological states (e.g., the lion’s intentions), which we hope to opine by observing the bodily movements. Our concern is primarily with the lion’s psychological states since they will determine what the lion will do next. Moreover, while we may attempt to put ourselves in the lion’s shoes in order to help us opine what its intentions are, we nevertheless assume that these psychological states are real and that they belong to the lion.

The preceding claims are supported by a key assumption of any folk-psychological attempt to make sense of animal behaviour—namely, that when we attribute motives and intentions to animals, we may get things wrong. For example, we assume that it is possible for us to mistakenly conclude that the lion intends to reunite with its pride when it actually has its sights set on us; and this assumption entails that the lion’s inner states exist quite independently of our beliefs about them; that they are not simply hypothetical states we attribute to the lion. This does not seem to be true of inanimate objects, which occupy a very different place in our folk psychology. We do not, for example, think we can be mistaken about the motivations of an inanimate object. There is simply nothing to be mistaken about. I believe this difference suggests that while the motivations we attribute to inanimate objects are metaphorical, the same is not true in the case of animals. When we attribute a motive to an animal we typically take ourselves to be attributing something objectively real, something we may possibly be mistaken about.

I believe the above observations may reveal a difficulty with Ben’s alternative proposal. He writes:
We attribute rational agency to non-rational animals (and even inanimate objects) because we think about the relevant behavior/events (in these, but not necessarily all cases) by adopting the animal's (or object's) perspective from within our own first-personal point of view.
The problem with this proposal is that it overlooks what we ordinarily take to be an important difference between animals and inanimate objects. In the case of inanimate objects, like a knife, there is simply no perspective to adopt. The knife does not enjoy any representational states; it does not see, taste our experience the world in any way. It does not have desires, wants, or appetites. This is why talk of adopting a knife’s perspective can only be metaphorical. But animals, like Hurley’s monkey, are ordinarily assumed to have a perspective in the most literal sense imaginable. They enjoy representations of the world, and are plausibly assumed to be motivated by desires and appetites, and so on.

I hold that having motivational psychological states and being moved to act by them is sufficient for agency. Since the term agent, at least as it features in philosophical discussions, is a term of art, this definition may be seen as stipulative. Given the account of agency I favour (and one is of course free to suggest a better philosophical account), it follows from the conclusion of the preceding paragraph that animals may be agents (in a non-metaphorical sense). But terminological issues aside, the claim I actually set out to defend in my previous post has little to do with whether or not animals are agents and more to do with the concept of a reason and with what it means to be responsive to reasons. My contention is that there is an ordinary usage of the word ‘reasons’ that is consistent with the claim that animals may be responsive to reasons, and it is this usage of the word that I wish to subject to philosophical analysis.

In attempting to identify the ordinary usage of the word ‘reason’ that I have in mind, it may be helpful to distinguish between reasons-for-which an agent acts and the reasons-with-which an agent acts. The latter refers to considerations that an agent takes to be a justification for her carrying out a certain action. By contrast, let us say that the former refers to whatever motivates an agent to act. (Note: I may not be drawing this distinction in the same way others have.) When we specify the reasons-for-which an agent acts, there are typically two forms that our explanations take: We may say that a lion is walking towards me in order to devour me (an mode of explanation that emphasises the lion’s goals; think pull rather than push), or we may say the lion is walking towards me because it wants to devour me (a mode of explanation that cites specific desires that the lion possesses; think push rather than pull).

I believe that there is an ordinary and intuitive use of the word ‘reason’ according to which the following is true: to say that the lion approached the man because it desired to devour him is to give the lion’s reason for approaching the man. Likewise, to say that the lion approached the man in order to devour him is, again, to give the reason the lion approached the man. It is this usage of the word ‘reason’ that I am interested in preserving: reasons as reasons-for-which. I do not claim that it is the only usage of the word; I do not even claim that it is the only usage of the word that has a legitimate claim to being part of our ordinary linguistic practice. There may be multiple ordinary usages (i.e., meanings) of a single word. I only claim that it is a legitimate part of our ordinary linguistic practice (rather than my personal concoction), and it also happens to be a part of our ordinary linguistic practice that I wish my account of reasons and agency to preserve.

Thursday 22 April 2010

McDowell on Rational Animals

In my previous post on this topic, I described Burge's alternative to M-rationalism. Following Burge, I hold that justification is not the only type of warrant. Moreover, consistent with Burge, I hold that a psychological transition need not be motivated by a higher order attitude that takes the transition as its object in order for that transition to provide that agent with a justification for beliefs based on that transition. However, I part ways with Burge by advocating a broader and more inclusive conception of reasons; one that has application not only to justification but also to entitlement. In a slogan: only reasons warrant. I wish to say that the transitive inference performed by Hurley’s monkey provides it with a reason that warrants the monkey’s inference-based belief. On this view, a transition may count as reason-conferring even if the agent lacks the conceptual resources necessary to recognise that it accords with a rational principle. This less restrictive conception of reasons has application to all potentially belief-yielding psychological transitions, not only the psychological transitions of rational animals (in the sense reserved for mature humans). In short, one does not have to be a rational animal to have a reason.

The broader and more inclusive conception of reasons presently on offer is consistent with that of John McDowell, who draws a distinction between “responsiveness to reasons” and “responsiveness to reasons as such”:
The notion of rationality I mean to invoke here is the notion exploited in a traditional line of thought to make a special place in the animal kingdom for rational animals. It is a notion of responsiveness to reasons as such. That wording leaves room for responsiveness to reasons, though not to reasons as such, on the other side of the division drawn by this notion of rationality between rational animals and animals that are not rational. Animals of many kinds are capable of, for instance, fleeing. And fleeing is a response to something that is in an obvious sense a reason for it; danger, or at least what is taken to be danger. If we describe a bit of behaviour as fleeing, we represent the behaviour as intelligible in the light of a reason for it. But fleeing is not in general responding to a reason as such. (Italics his)
Following McDowell, I reserve the title “rational animal” for those agents that have the capacity to conceive of reasons as such. What makes one a rational animal (in the sense reserved for mature human beings) is not the ability to possess reasons—for this is an ability shared by some non-rational animals—but the ability to recognise one’s reasons as reasons. However, as McDowell’s “fleeing” example illustrates, an agent does not have to be a rational animal in order to possess or be responsive to reasons simpliciter. Hence, a distinction is drawn between the necessary conditions for possessing reasons; conditions that do not require the possession of the relevant concepts; conditions that some non-rational animals can meet; and the conditions for having beliefs about one’s reasons; conditions that do require the possession of the relevant concepts; conditions that only rational animals can meet. One does not have to be a rational animal to have reasons; but one must be a rational animal to reflect on them.

This manner of speaking strikes me as more natural, from a terminological point of view, than that of Wallace and Burge. To say that a psychological transition is rational is, intuitively, to say something about that psychological transition. To say that an agent is a rational animal is, intuitively, to say something about that agent. But on the Wallace-Burge way of putting things, to say that a psychological transition is rational is actually to say something about the agent enjoying the transition. This is because both Wallace and Burge make the status of a psychological transition dependent on whether or not the agent enjoying the transition possesses certain conceptual capacities, a fact that I take to be independent of the nature of the transition itself. By contrast, the conception presently on offer makes a transition’s status as rational contingent on the transition’s non-arbitrary truth-conduciveness, and an agent’s status as rational contingent on the agent’s conceptual capacities. This preserves a clear distinction between the rational status of a transition and the rational status of an agent; providing us with at least the option of talking about the two independently, should we need to do so.

The need to speak of the rational status of a transition independently of the status of the agent performing it arises in the case of Hurley’s monkey. We can imagine circumstances in which inferences performed by Hurley’s monkey comply or fail to comply with the norms of rationality. It would therefore be useful to be able to talk about the rational status of such an inference even if we recognise that Hurley’s monkey is not a rational animal. Moreover, there may be instances in which there is simply insufficient empirical evidence available to determine whether or not a particular agent has the conceptual resources necessary to recognise reasons as such. It would therefore be useful to be able to talk about the rational status of a transition performed by an agent without having to take a stand on whether or not the agent is rational. As it happens, our ordinary linguistic practice already provides us with tools needed for such a task, for it is part of said practice to talk about the reasons that some nonhuman animal has to behave in such and such a manner or hold such and such a belief, while leaving fixed the question of whether or not that animal can respond to reasons as such. This brings us to the most straightforward motivation for adopting a conception of reason that has application to agents that cannot recognise their reasons as such, agents that may be entitled but not justified; to wit, such a conception comports with our ordinary linguistic practice.

Saturday 3 April 2010

Burge's Alternative to M-rationalism

In my previous post, I presented a number of objections to the M-rationalist account suggested by R. J. Wallace. An alternative to Wallace's account is provided by Tyler Burge, who maintains that “a norm need not be understood or intentionally adhered to by the individual that it applies to or governs.” By Burge’s lights, the inference performed by Hurley’s monkey may be described as governed by the principle of transitivity even though the monkey performing the inference lacks the concept of transitivity and is not guided in its cognitive activity by its recognition of the concept. Hence, Burge’s slogan: “norms need not guide.” If we assumed that being governed by a rational norm is sufficient for a psychological transition to be rational (i.e., reason-conferring), then Burge’s account of what it means for a psychological process to be governed by a rational principle would entail that the transitive inference of Hurley’s monkey is a rational transition. However, as we shall soon see, things are not so simple on the Burgean account.

Burge distinguishes between two types of epistemic warrant; entitlement and justification. Regarding the former, he writes:
Individuals can be epistemically entitled to a belief without having reasons warranting the belief, without having the conceptual repertoire necessary to have relevant reasons for the belief, and without having the concepts needed to understand or even think the entitlement.
By contrast, Burge defines justification as “warrant by reason that is conceptually accessible on reflection to the warranted individual.” By his lights, Hurley’s monkey may be entitled to its inference-based belief. But insofar as Hurley’s monkey lacks the conceptual resources necessary to recognise that the inference is generalisable, it does not have a justified inference-based belief. And herein lays the rub. Burge only applies the label “reasons” to warrants that are conceptually accessible to the warranted agent—i.e., justifications. The upshot is that while Hurley’s monkey is entitled to its inference-based belief, it does not have reasons for this belief.

In this respect, Burge appears to be on the same page (albeit not the identical paragraph) as the Wallace. When Wallace conceives of a rational norm “governing” a psychological transition, he specifically has something akin to Burge’s notion of justification in mind. By contrast, when Burge conceives of a rational norm “governing” a psychological transition, he has not only justification but also entitlement in mind (the latter failing to even enter Wallace’s consideration). Thus, we have two different conceptions of what it means to be “governed” by a rational principle, the first (due to the Wallace) confined to transitions that take place within the space of justifications and the second (due to Burge) that includes transitions that take place within the space of entitlements.

Apart from Burge’s introduction of the notion of entitlements, the differences highlighted thus far between the two thinkers strike me as primarily terminological. Insofar as Hurley’s monkey lacks the appropriate concepts, both thinkers are committed to saying that it lacks reasons for its inference-based belief and both thinkers are ultimately committed to denying that the monkey’s inference-based belief is justified. However, Burge goes beyond Wallace in identifying a category of epistemic warrant that the latter simply fails to consider; namely, entitlement. Consequently, Burge has the resources to say that the inference-based belief of Hurley’s monkey is warranted, while Wallace does not.

There is also a substantive difference in the conception of justification adhered to by both thinkers. According to Wallace, a psychological transition is reason-conferring only if the agent engages in the transition because she recognises that it accords with a rational norm. By contrast, Burge only requires that the agent possess the conceptual resources necessary to recognise that the psychological transition is generalisable; it is not necessary that the agent engage in the transition because she recognises that the transition is generalisable or accords with a rational norm. Thus, Burge's account lacks the motivational implications of Wallace's account.