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Stuart W. Mirsky
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Entries in Other Minds (2)


Intentions and Selves (3rd Re-Write)

If moral valuing treats of intentions, and intentions are part of every action, what is it about them that excites our moral judgment?

Why is an action such as the purchase of an ice cream cone, to satisfy our own need or desire for it, subject only to evaluation based on the value we place on the ice cream – or on the capacity of the selected actions to acquire it – but, if we consider the intention behind the act, insofar as it relates to other persons, we see it in an entirely different way? Here is where the question of our feelings toward our fellows (and those we take to be equivalent) kicks in.

Intentions are a different sort of thing than the physical phenomena which the action, the items, or the states of affairs desired, are. There’s no actual thing we can point to as the “intention” and yet we cannot explain agential behavior without it. Agential behavior supposes motives, aims – that the actions are performed for a reason. And it takes an intentional agent to have reasons.

Daniel Dennett proposes that we recognize intentions in another by taking what he calls the “intentional stance,” one of three possible “stances” available to us in relation to things in the world . . .

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Finding reasons to do good

Empathy, the recognition of the experience of others, as if we ourselves were experiencing it, begins with similarities of behaviors . . ., similarities sufficient to convince us that we are in the presence of another mind, behaviors which we seem to be “programmed” to recognize and react to. It’s a species tool, one may say, for enabling a certain level of interaction with others of our kind – and, sometimes, beyond our kind . . .

To the extent empathy is just one of a variety of characteristics and behavioral traits that we happen to inherit from our progenitors, it’s not a given that we all have it, or that we all have it to the same degree. Genes have been known to misfire or even drop out of individual members of a species and so the expressions of them are lost. To the extent empathy, which enables us to identify with others – to put ourselves in their shoes and so feel their pains and joys as if they were our own – is just an inherited trait, it cannot be praised nor, its absence, condemned.

Yet much of what we think of as moral behavior hangs on empathy, on not doing to another what we would not have done to us or, put another and slightly more parochial way, of treating our neighbors as ourselves . . .

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