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« The Mechanism of Moral Belief (Part III Making Moral Arguments) | Main | The Mechanism of Moral Belief - Part I (Valuing) »

The Mechanism of Moral Belief - Part II (Agency and Cognition)


Morally Relevant Features

To understand actions and how we can value them in terms of the intentions which underlie them (and which are thus expressed by them), we first have to arrive at an understanding of just what intentions are. And here we have to consider what we mean by the term itself. The word “intention,” when we think about it, doesn’t seem to name anything in particular that we can point at. When we look closely, in fact, there seems to be nothing there. Yet we cannot simply abandon the notion of intention without also abandoning the idea of agential action for if we don’t act for reasons, if we don’t have intentions when acting, which we can report to ourselves or others, if we only behave mechanically (in the fashion of machines), then there can be nothing to hold others or ourselves accountable for. Yet, it’s to this very possibility of accountability that we look when we wish to explain the difference between human and mechanical behavior.

We live in a world in which talk of reasons underpins talk of behavior in creatures like ourselves. Indeed, it cannot even make sense to speak of valuing without a notion of intention – for it takes a thinking subject, with the capacity to think about what it’s doing, before and while doing it, to engage in the very activity we call “valuing.” This activity is first and foremost a rational activity. It’s the process of finding and giving reasons for the different choices we decide to implement through our actions. But what are these strange things, these “intentions” which our reasons express and whose existence we must grant if we’re to make intelligible claims about the kind of behavior we find in ourselves and which those reasons we offer (to others and ourselves) give voice to?

To speak of intentions need not be to speak of particular entities in the world even if the term “intention” seems to imply such a referent. It can be enough to think of an intention as an array of things going on at the psychological level in any agent. That is, intentions need not be understood as a particular kind of discrete phenomenon, not even a mental one, but as sets of mental features that occur in any agent when he or she is acting with deliberation, i.e., with awareness of what he or she is doing and of the implications of doing it. Such phenomena, whatever else we may be inclined to characterize them as, are a part of each and every deliberative agent’s experience. They are the mental features of our world.

In this sense, speaking of intentions is just to speak of an agent’s beliefs, expectations, hopes, desires, and so forth – whatever he or she is up to when acting. It’s to speak of what any agent knows or feels that prompts him or her to act when he or she does. Thus the intention underlying the act, on such a view, is just the many features of the conscious mental life of the agent at the moment of taking action. Drop the notion of mental phenomena, of a mental life, and there’s no longer a basis for thinking the action has reason(s) behind it, i.e., that it’s a product of deliberate agency. But of course we do assume deliberativeness on the part of agents and of the actions they consciously take. To consider an agent’s intentions then amounts to considering the state of mind of the acting agent at the time he or she acts in terms of the reasons the agent can give for his or her behavior in the context of the larger event. Such reasons will reflect the state of the agent’s mind (to the extent the agent is being forthright and is sufficiently self-aware of what he or she has chosen, with at least some level of deliberation, to do). But how do we know there’s a mental life in others of the sort described to begin with if we can’t ever see it for ourselves, access other agents’ minds? Of course, we do see it in the sense that matters and that is in terms of the agents’ actions themselves. An agential act is recognizable to us when it’s performed by an entity capable of making choices without direction from outside itself, i.e., when the action demonstrates behavioral autonomy through its performance. An agent has such autonomy insofar as it can and does act for itself without direction from elsewhere and, in so doing, demonstrates that it has the capacity to choose. Autonomous behavior, when it is clearly and indisputably that, is comprehensible to us as an expression of purpose and this is just to say as an expression of the thoughts, beliefs and motivations behind it.

The idea of intentionality, of being aware of things – indeed, the very idea of awareness itself – clearly depends on the notion of mental life which we come to recognize in others behaviorally. Daniel Dennett notes that this is an evolutionary phenomenon in creatures like us, developed because it conveys a survival advantage in the competition for a continuing place on the planet. Being able to recognize the difference between entities acting with a purpose and those which do not enables entities having this recognitional capacity to interact in more successful ways with those having the same kind of capacity and this has long term survival implications for a species. By discerning purpose in behavior we can better predict the behaviors of others because we are enabled to think about and guess at their plans or their likely reactive dispositions. It gives us an added dimension along which to make predictions about what they will do. Although we do become confused at times about such entities (ascribing purposive behavior to some entities which, on later consideration, we may come to recognize as non-purposive) and we may sometimes fail to recognize purposiveness in entities which don’t immediately manifest it, or don’t do so in ways we are sufficiently aware of or familiar with, we do recognize this capacity a good deal of the time in others.

Dennett calls having this capacity to recognize intentionality in others to adopt an “intentional stance” towards them. That is, we recognize intentionality in certain entities, not because we see something in them but because of how they act – and we recognize that by the ways in which we, ourselves, react to them, i.e., we’re prompted to treat them as intentional when they behave in certain ways and we do so without even having to think about it. The evolutionary advantage we obtain with this capacity to recognize intentionality, because it consists of how we react to them and not just in our observing some particular feature within them, is substantial and built-in. Because time is often of the essence, a built-in recognitional capacity matters in evolutionary terms no less than a speedy fight or flight mechanism or the desire for sexual union with attractive partners. For creatures whose behavior is on a level that reflects cognitive capacity roughly akin to our own, this also means recognizing that they have reasons for their actions in much the same way we have. And in the case of at least some creatures of this type (those with linguistic skills on par with ours) it means we expect them to be able to give their reasons on demand – at least some of the time.

So moral valuing, the assessment of the quality of our reasons for acting, is intricately bound up with the capacity to recognize the mental life of other entities when the behavioral indications of that are present. But how do we arrive at valuational judgments of reasons expressing intentions? What is it in the intentions that might be the good- or bad-making feature(s) that concern us and why should we even consider some intentional states to be better than others? What, indeed, might a better intentional state even amount to? What sort of criterion can be adduced – do we, in fact, adduce – when we want to say of any act that it’s better or worse than another because of the quality of the intentions it expresses?

The Critical Feature in Agential Behavior

An adequate descriptive account of intentions is required if we’re to understand more clearly just what it is about them that we’re valuing and how we do it – for, as noted, intentions are not discrete things with readily recognizable features but a way we have of describing those mental features that coalesce in any thinking agent as a prompt to action. There are no intentions to be found in any unified sense, only mental states of agents when they act. Thus valuing an action for its intentions can amount to nothing more nor less than valuing the agent’s momentary mental state as it underlies the action in question. But what can evaluating a mental state, momentary or otherwise, amount to? Can saying we value what we are now, when it’s what we are now that is doing the valuing, even make sense?

A phenomenological approach like this suggests an arbitrarily bifurcated picture of an agential self, one that divides the supposed self into both a momentary aspect (engaged in the moments leading up to, and culminating in, the actions taken) and an ongoing version which may be thought of as being constituted by the accretion of each momentary self over a set period in an agent’s life – perhaps a lifetime. That is, the idea of evaluating intentions now starts to look very much like judgment of character or of character traits, a fairly traditional notion of ethical assessment (the sort often exemplified by the notion of “virtue ethics”). Risking such a phenomenological account may give us a better and clearer basis for distinguishing relative goodness in the moral context though. Yet such mental phenomena like thoughts, beliefs, feelings, hopes, desires, needs, etc., don’t fit the usual notion we have of things and, more, they will be hard to draw a bead on, precisely because of their peculiar status as non-observable things. How can a thought or a feeling be a knowable “thing” in the sense that rocks and trees, planets and stars and gaseous clouds are? This presents us with a difficult picture, one that seems dangerously metaphysical. Yet without the supposition of a self, and all the psychological things this idea includes, we cannot make sense of a concept like intention – a concept which is, itself, critical to any account we wish to give of human behavior as agential.

Without the supposition that actions are undertaken for a purpose and, as such, express the reasons thinking agents have for acting, we cannot even have a concept of human behavior – in which case we can neither blame nor praise human actors, nor guide nor curtail their acts. Can we speak of agential actions without assuming thoughts and reasons behind them? If we are to understand intentions as nothing more than arrays of momentary psychological phenomena (thoughts, beliefs, feelings, needs, wants, etc.) which the agent has in the course of deciding to act (and acting), these other phenomena must be acknowledged and explored – we must see them as part of the continuum of any given agential entity’s mental life. The modern tendency, in philosophy and, to a great extent, the sciences, has been to seek to move away from these kinds of concepts in explaining our choices and actions but this tendency must be resisted if we are not to be left with an impoverished picture of human behavior. To the extent that concepts like thoughts, beliefs, desires, needs, etc., readily come to mind when we talk about the phenomena of thinking about and choosing our actions, we are in no position to discard such notions and still preserve an agential picture of behavior.

But there’s no reason to think we must ascribe more to these concepts than is required to acknowledge their reality, i.e., we can recognize them as referential (as being referents) in a different sense than that which we take to apply to rocks and trees and other objects of reference which we take to make up the observable world of phenomena. There’s no reason, in fact, to posit mental features as some strange class of entities in the world, situated alongside other, more tangible entities, as if there must be thoughts, feelings or beliefs afloat somewhere in parallel with those things we count as part of the physical world. It’s enough to suppose that in this matter of mental features we are speaking in a more constructivist sense, i.e., that language, with its referential methods, simply obliges us to construct terms of referral if we are to make use of it in cases like this. But just as knowing something will not be the same sort of activity in every case, so referring need not be taken to imply that all referents are of the same type. With this in mind, we can proceed to explain intentions as constituent elements of our momentary selves which occur in the time leading up to, and concurrent with, our taking an action.

This conceptual construct of a “momentary self” may thus be abstracted from the idea of an ongoing self, the latter being understood as just the cumulative occurrences of the momentary mental states we find in each and every instant of our lives. Since, in the moral case, the object of our valuation is the intentional aspect of the action (consisting of what we may, for want of better terminology, call agglomerations of mental features), we can treat this as we would a single frame in an ongoing motion picture. We can then find the valuing entity, the agent engaged in choosing its behaviors, in the larger picture, as it were, the full reel of images which make up the motion picture or at least a fuller segment of the reel, while the phenomenon being valued in the moral case is just that intentional aspect which we can now suppose to be the concatenation of mental phenomena we take to constitute each momentary aspect of the valuing self (during each particular frame – or, better, some smaller fragment of the reel). This metaphor offers a way to comprehensibly describe the odd-seeming phenomena of our mental lives. The self, in this sense, can thus think about and so consider aspects of itself. Moral valuation is then just self-valuation, the object of the valuing process being the evaluator, or an aspect of, him or herself. Valuing, as it were, turned inward in recognition of our cognitive capacity to conceptualize and so think about ourselves as unique phenomena in the universe. Since it’s the ongoing self that values, even while each moment of evaluation reflects the activity of the momentary aspect of the same self, and thus manifests the ongoing self in each instantial occurrence, it should be clear we’re working with no more than an abstract picture here, one reflecting the differentiation of what is really only a single psychological phenomenon: the agential self.

Moral valuing, understood then as the evaluation of actions in terms of their intent, requires that we posit that each agential self (when it has sufficient cognitive capacity to act with awareness of what it’s doing) be capable of looking at and evaluating itself. It does this by objectifying the momentary aspect of itself as it is manifested in each instance of its own thoughtful behavior. Moral judgments on this view are thus cases of the self engaged in examining and considering itself. As such, these kinds of judgments can be applied both to our own actions and, by projection, to the actions of others to the extent their actions show a certain level of mental capacity – i.e., the same capacity to referentialize themselves – in terms of the things they choose to do – as we have.

Subjectness and its Implications

This ability to place value upon each momentary instance of ourselves (that is, on the agglomeration of mental occurrences that constitute the intentions behind every conscious act) requires that we find a basis for doing so, some reason or reasons we can give ourselves (or others) for thinking that some version of the momentary self behind each action we take, and which we recognize on reflection, may be preferable to other possible versions. If we can ascertain some standard of this type, we can find a basis for grounding our moral claims and judgments and so understand how and why we decide between the competing valuational judgments we make every day as deliberating agents, as expressed in our actions.

To the extent that we can show a basis for assigning “goodness” or “badness” to actions in terms of their intentional aspect, we will have a basis for making moral claims, and a means of understanding why and how some actions may be thought better, in a moral sense, than others. If there’s a reason to choose actions which exemplify one kind of behavior over another, but which, as a reason, does not depend on instrumental concerns (what the action is capable of producing for the agent in order to meet his or her particular wants, needs, etc.), then this will provide a basis for choosing to adopt some beliefs about moral goodness while discarding others, a basis which does not depend on self-interest which, by itself, seems inimical to the moral impulse. And, in fact, it can be shown that there is at least one such reason to think, and so to act, in some ways, but not others, based on the quality of intentions alone. It’s implied by Dennett’s insight about what it means to impute intentionality to another.

By looking closely at what it means to be the kind of thing we are, i.e., subjects in the world (possessing those capacities which subjects must have to be subjects), we can find reason to adopt some kinds of behaviors in lieu of others. As noted earlier, to be intentional implies the presence of a mental life for it’s the features of such a “life” that make possible intentional behaviors. To act autonomously is to have needs, wants and purposes internal to the entity in question. Indeed, the very notion of intentionality implies the capacity to form intentions and this can only be explained in terms of a mental life. But, if there is mental life, i.e., if there is that which is required to underlie intention formation, then this also implies that the same thing is going on with intentional creatures we recognize as such as is occurring with ourselves. Recognizing intentionality in others is only accomplished by intentional creatures (for it takes a mental life to recognize anything at all) and, given sufficient cognitive capacity to form and behaviorally implement the kinds of mental features we recognize in ourselves, it follows that recognizing intentionality in others is also to recognize our own potential to be recognized by the other. That is, the very notion of an intentional stance, as suggested by Dennett, implies mutuality.

Having the capacity to recognize mental life in others is also to recognize that others (when they are of the right sort) share what we have – just as we share what is theirs. Thus, to the extent intentional entities have sufficient cognitive capacity, they will also recognize intentionality in others if there is evidence of its presence. An implied subject-to-subject relationship thus exists whenever one intentional creature encounters another (always constrained, of course, by the degree of equivalence in the mental lives of the two). But the implied reciprocity in the recognition that occurs in such cases cannot be fully implemented if it does not also find its way into the intentional behaviors of the entities in question. This is important. Intentional entities, when they recognize intentionality in others, do so by acting in ways that recognize the others’ mental life – and not merely by mouthing appropriate linguistic formulations. Recognition is not accomplished by verbal acknowledgement alone. Such “acknowledgement” stands empty if it consists of words only for our words are tightly bound up with our actions and are, indeed, a form of action. The words we speak are actions and to the extent that our words do not accord with our actions they hang empty in the air, without meaning. To be recognition in any real sense our words must also involve choosing to act in ways that affirm, rather than deny (or ignore) what they express. So recognition of subjectness in others implies mutuality and this implies acceptance of the other’s mental life, i.e., empathy.


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