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Act and Intent

All valuing assumes both choice (the possibility of selecting different courses of behavior) and action (the physical events which constitute the behaviors selected). Seen in this way, value can be assigned to any action along three vectors:

1) Intent (the purpose for which the action is undertaken)

2) Events (the physical phenomena associated with the act); and

3) Outcomes (the physical phenomena or states of affairs which the act is undertaken to secure)

That is, the sort of valuing we are now considering (this excludes uses of “value” which share the name but involve different practices such as truth values or fixing a symbol with some content) is always about picking an action to perform – either ourselves or to recommend or prescribe for another. To do this sort of thing we must look at the actions themselves to find features in them that commend the actions to us or should, in our estimate, commend them to others.

But if every action can be looked at along these three vectors, we have to determine how they relate both to one another and in light of the kinds of reasons we may give to justify a claim of having found value in them.

Consider a simple act like purchasing an ice cream cone. The act will reflect the agent’s desire for that ice cream cone, a desire which may stem from different needs and wants. At its simplest level the question is just whether the agent wishes to eat it. Does it seem likely to please the palette because, perhaps, the flavor or sensation involved in eating it are the sorts of things we like? Or does the agent see the ice cream as a means of fulfilling a physical need (e.g., assuaging a passing feeling of hunger)?

Perhaps, though, there are other considerations, like the ice cream’s relatively high fat content and consequent deleterious effect on long term health? Or perhaps there’s some concern about lactose intolerance (where the milk in the ice cream may be disagreeable to the agent even if the taste and sensations on the palette are not). How we pick and choose between a decision to obtain and eat the ice cream or to forego it will depend on a variety of factors like these. Evident here is the fact that the valuing process concerns itself with the actions we may decide to take or skip.

Does the action to obtain the ice cream have value for us because the ice cream does? Yes, all else being equal, i.e., as long as we believe we have good reason to obtain and eat the ice cream, though perhaps not, if we don’t.

Assuming we do, though, the next question must be about the physical phenomena constituting the actions themselves. What actions are necessary and most efficacious in securing the envisioned good of that ice cream cone?

Do we have the money to hand or must we find it in some fashion and how difficult will it be to get it? Do we cross the street to the ice cream vendor to make the purchase or do we just shout from afar? The actions that have value in this sense will be the ones most likely to secure for us the desired objective. Crossing the street with the money we need has more value, as a means of obtaining the ice cream, than shouting across the street or promising to pay the vendor tomorrow – or, perhaps, just trying to wheedle the ice cream from the vendor by a bit of fast talk. Though there might be situations in which wheedling or begging is more likely to get us what we want than simply finding the money and paying for it.

Still, this remains a relatively simple case despite apparent complexities. We don’t have a lot of reason to worry over how this sort of thing works. We just take for granted that it does and operate accordingly.

But suppose, in approaching the ice cream vendor, we notice a small child staring longingly at the ice cream on the truck but without any apparent means of obtaining the treat. Perhaps the child simply hasn’t the money. And now we decide to buy the ice cream for the child. This is a gesture that has an apparently moral implication. Why? Perhaps because it involves adjusting our action (in this case in purchasing the ice cream) to the need of another.

If it turns out that we have only enough money for one purchase and choose to spend it on the child instead of ourselves, the moral implication looks even stronger. What seems relevant here, for purposes of making a value assessment, is the reason we have acted to obtain the item.

In the other case, when we were just acting for ourselves, the reason had no obvious moral implication since it’s not typically a matter of moral judgment when a person acts in his or her own interests, at least as long as the interests of another are not adversely affected. (There are, in what we normally call the moral sphere, some exceptions, particularly when we add to the things for which we use the term “moral” claims about personal comportment and lifestyle choices, but it’s at least arguable that they are different kinds of cases warranting different treatment – although they may also be a derivative use. What’s important for now, though, is to remain focused on the kinds of claims that seem genuinely problematic, namely those which prompt a conflict over whether we should act for ourselves or for others in at least some cases.)

In any moral case, the reasons we act, insofar as they reflect our objectives, will count in the valuation calculus though they will not be a concern in cases of valuing things, states of affairs or the actions calculated to bring them about. The reason(s) we act will, if honestly reported, state our intentions, what lay behind our decision to act.

What is important in this case is not so much what has occurred or what actually occurs as a result of our act but what we expect will be brought about by it. But here we venture into controversial territory for what can it mean to consider for valuation (or as the relevant feature of the action to be valued) something as apparently ephemeral as an intention? Abruptly we are faced with the need to put a value on something that seems entirely subjective because it reflects what we were thinking about the action we were performing in terms of our needs, wants, desires and beliefs about what would occur if we chose one course of action instead of another. By subordinating our own desire for the ice cream in question in favor of another we have made a choice which seems to add a moral dimension to the valuing episode which the earlier choices (whether to obtain the ice cream, cross the street with money in hand to purchase it, etc.) did not. And yet the action, up to the point of passing the money to the vendor and receiving the ice cream in hand looked just the same. The difference happens only when the agent hands the ice cream to the child although the agent may have decided well before that to make this gesture.

Yet even after this gesture, the action could well look quite different in moral terms despite the apparent sameness in behavior. Suppose our purchaser had something less noble in mind than making a hungry child happy. Suppose he were intent on tempting the child away from his or her home or parent. In this case the same apparent action has an entirely different look to it and now we want to say it’s not morally good at all.

Unlike the first situation, tempting or kidnapping a child does not involve subordinating the agent’s interest to another’s but, rather, pursuing a different self-interest, in this case one with obviously harmful implications for the child. What matters here, for a moral assessment of the action in question, is what is going on inside the agent’s head, as it were. And yet all we know of that is what we see and what the agent reports if asked to do so.

The action no longer looks as it did because it’s part of a larger continuum of behaviors in which very different intentions are being enacted. The intention is “visible” in the actions but not necessarily discernible in the act seen in isolation. What we require, for judging the action in terms of its intent, is context. That is, a judgment of intent hinges on an open-ended picture of events which we develop on the fly, so to speak, constantly re-thinking what is witnessed and reinterpreting as new information is garnered.

Suppose the ice cream purchaser was really the father of the child and was intent on removing the child from a dangerous situation. Even if the action looked, within the limited context previously described, like a simple matter of kidnapping or seduction, it now takes on an entirely different coloration again. Or suppose the ice cream purchaser were an undercover policeman aware of some danger to the child which the child was not aware of, and the officer’s actions involve drawing the child to safety without causing a fuss. Here, too, the actions will have a quite different look despite superficial similarity.

What’s needed here is interpretation and sufficient information to achieve it. Sometimes, of course, we just don’t have enough information and so aren’t really sure of what we are seeing. But the bottom line is that actions will be seen to have a moral dimension to the extent their intents, their motivations, are discernible and we take intent into account. The moral dimension hinges on awareness or belief about intent where intent implies certain beliefs about outcomes held by the agent, whether or not those outcomes are actually realized.

Moral valuing, then, appears to be one of three ways we can ascribe value to behaviors although the three are not entirely distinct or separable from one another. An action may have value along the three distinct vectors of intent, efficacy and outcomes. And, while the three vectors intersect it is the intentional one that has moral implication.

Note, however, that “intent” does not name a definitive property or feature which actions have but, rather, a complex of subjective elements in the mental life of the agent, including the agent’s various feelings and beliefs as these relate to the actions he or she may take. More, we do not find the intent in some fixed place but along a continuum of behaviors which the agent has performed and continues to perform. Intentions are discernible in patterns of behavior, even while representing the accumulation of subjective states which prompt those behaviors. Intents are not isolated, discrete things or occurrences but patterns of events and, as such, they’re part of the state in which the agent finds him or herself. Evaluating an action in terms of its intention(s) is nothing less than evaluating the agent himself and so will be seen to have more far reaching consequences than the valuations we may place on objects in the world or on the actions calculated to obtain them.

Moral valuing addresses the action as a whole because it concerns itself with intent, the vector that is left unaddressed when valuing things in the world or the actions we take to obtain them.

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