Anscombe's "Intention"
September 24, 2015
Stuart W. Mirsky in Ethics, G. E. M. Anscombe, Intentions, Moral Philosophy, Stuart Mirsky, moral reasoning

I recently picked up Elizabeth Anscombe's monograph, Intention, for a second time after an abortive first attempt to get through it. As before, I found the first half dry and abstract and overly focused on what I take to be the minutia of usage re: some key words and, especially, "intention." But this time I saw the first half through and went on to finish the book. It was better, because of the second half, than I initially thought.

Anscombe contended that one could not properly engage in ethics (the doing of moral philosophy) if one had not already developed a suitable analysis of the concept of intentions, the personal element in every morally relevant human action. Intentions underlie, and so underwrite, human activity in its deliberative mode even if there is a wide range of human actions for which the idea of what is intended is irrelevant. It is the intention of the human agent, she thinks, that gives the act to moral evaluation. We don't judge involuntary or reflex or coerced actions in terms of their rightness or wrongness, of course, but keep such forms of judging for those acts which we think about and choose to do for reasons. Yet, the concept of intention is an odd one as Anscombe demonstrates in the first half of this ninety four page monograph. Approaching the issue in terms reminiscent of the later Wittgenstein (her teacher and mentor), Anscombe undertakes a conceptual analysis of how we use the term "intention" which turns out to be rather dry, didactic and abstract, as she proceeds to offer examples like what we mean when we ask questions like "why are you X-ing" and answer "because Y or Z" and so forth, showing how the way we answer and the line of reasoning varies depending on the kind of X-ing and Y-ing we are doing. After a while I have to admit that my eyes glazed over, despite my fascination with this kind of stuff and I found myself occasionally nodding off with all the X-ings and Y-ings and other finely tuned peregrinations she put on display. Yet here examples are salient and useful and worth paying closer attention to as she methodically unravels the way in which our concept of intention informs our treatment of different kinds of actions, suggesting just what kind of thing this peculiar referential object we call "intentions" are. Of course, they aren't things at all, she ultimately concludes, but rather a function of our means of describing certain kinds of actions, the kinds that lend themselves to moral evaluation. Intentions are what we speak of when an agent acts with awareness of what he or she is about, what he or she wants and what is expected to result. Intentions represent the application of awareness in terms of deliberative behaviors.

In the second part of the book, though, Anscombe begins to offer useful observations that make the book about more than just how we use certain terms. Here she takes us beyond the first level analysis of word usage as in how we apply the relevant terms in different kinds of circumstances and human behaviors. She draws our attention here to the fact that the very idea of human action implies subjectness, i.e., an aware, deliberating agent. From this, she moves to make the further and very important point that this implies the role of desire, of wanting or, as she puts it at one point, of appetition (the occurrence of felt needs in the organism, needs which motivate the organism to action).

Intentions consist of the agent's direct awareness of its felt needs combined with its awareness of its actions and its beliefs about the world acted upon. We cannot then, she notes, settle for an account of moral valuing such as the utilitarians offer which amounts to equating goodness with happiness since happiness, itself, is not some particular thing but only a general state in which we find ourselves consisting of a great variety of quite different experiences. Thus "happiness" (being in a state in which we wish to be with its attendant satisfactions of our felt needs) can never equate to the good even if it's quite obvious that being in such a state is often, perhaps even mostly, held to be good.

Here she begins to get into the area of rationality as an explanation for our claims of goodness, arguing that practical reasoning implies the presence of the appetitive aspect of the reasoner forming the basis or major premise in a syllogism capturing the reasoning of the speaker. Arguments for or against particular value choices we make, she contends, come to an end (as Wittgenstein noted for the game of giving reasons in general) and the proper end of these, in the case of so-called practical reasoning, is the appetitive element in the subject's experience. But she also notes that not all appetites (desires, needs, wants) are equal and that part of the moral game involves assessing and commending (or discommending) some appetites over others. And here she points us at the use of reasons as the mechanism we have for distinguishing and selecting or discarding behaviors which reinforce or weaken particular appetites we may have. Yet she does not offer a clear or complete explanation of how reasoning might make the difference or fit in the larger framework of our moral judgments.

What do we say to a Nazi, she asks, who, facing his death, feels that he must kill just a few more Jews in order to die a good Nazi (p. 74)? Certainly the Nazi can argue that doing so is what it means to be a good Nazi for, in his understanding, being a good Nazi is just to kill Jews when you have the chance to do so. On this concept of what's good for a man, once the idea of being a Nazi is embraced, what's left to offer the good Nazi as an argument? Only that he must then consider whether being a Nazi is good for him as a human being and here, she notes, we move into the moral realm. But the reasoning aspect involved can be fully satisfied if the Nazi's desire to be good as a Nazi is to be the end of the man's reasoning process, which, Anscombe argues, it very well may.

In this book at least she declines to step fully into the moral realm but confines herself to pointing out the role of the intentional description in the moral aspect of assessing human behavior. That is, she recognizes, quite explicitly if still somewhat perfunctorily, that the presence of a subject (an aware, deliberating agent) is the underlying assumption for any moral conception. But she declines here at least to offer us a path from this recognition to ethical judgments per se. Basically she argues that subjective experience which agents like ourselves have is not simply a version of the sense impressions we get via our sensory organs from the world around us, i.e., the paradigm bequeathed to us by the early British empiricist philosophers John Locke and David Hume. Rather, she avers, like many a good pragmatist that our experiences are experiences in action, that is, experiences of acting and that these consist of a broad array of subjective occurrences, from the traditional sense impressions we get through our sense organs from the world around us to our felt bodily and emotional needs such as our desires and hungers -- and, indeed, the experiences of actually moving and getting the bodily feedback from our movements as we make them. Here is where our intentionality in our actions is to be found and here, too, must be that place where the moral dimension kicks in.

But this little book, at least, stops before we get there, leaving a moral account based on this picture of intentionality for another place and maybe for others to make. For Anscombe here it appears to be enough that she has unpacked the implications of our notion of intention in regard to how we see and talk about human behavior. Whether being a Nazi is right or wrong, or any other moral decision for that matter, must finally be left for another inquiry where ethical judgments themselves will be the subject matter to be taken up.

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