The Moral and the Mental
May 9, 2014
Stuart W. Mirsky in Ethics, Moral Philosophy, Stuart Mirsky, consciousness, mental

One of the issues that has come into focus for me while exploring the best way of accounting for (and so of explaining) how moral valuing works is the importance, in all this, of a robust picture of the self. That is, the elements we associate with subjectivity, with being a subject, seem to be critical in any account of moral valuing, not only because valuing itself implies the presence of a subject but because what is of particular interest in the moral game is the value placed on the self, i.e., the acting subject. Thus there is a need to presume the reality of the self in a way that sometimes seems to imply "entity." But, of course, given the insights of many modern philosophers, especially Wittgenstein, we don't want to do that for selves aren't things, aren't existents that parallel the bodies which have them!

The species of valuing which we call "moral" considers the quality of agents' acts and that quality can only be assessed if the acts in question are seen in their entirety and not in piecemeal fashion (which is how acts gain value for us when we are valuing the things they can obtain, achieve or produce for us). To make a moral judgment about an act, we have to go beyond the derivative value accorded the act as means to end. We have to consider the act as a whole. So what's involved in seeing an act in its entirety? Well, to the extent an act consists of certain physical events brought about by an agent, and, in a more extended sense, in certain outcomes those events achieve for the agent, it also consists of what the agent intends, i.e., what the agent undertakes the act in order to accomplish. And intentions, whatever else we may want to say of them, are mental phenomena. They happen in the minds of agents, in the thoughts, beliefs, wishes and inclinations which agents have and which underlie, in a generative sense, the acts performed.

But intentions aren't real phenomena in the sense that physical phenomena are "real" because we can't pick them out for observation, describe them in terms of where they are in time and space, where they start and stop in the world. Intentions are just a way we have of speaking about why certain entities act in certain ways. That is, we say so and so wanted to do X, avoid Y, acquire Z, etc. Why they want to do any of these things is a matter of their beliefs, wishes, inclinations, etc., but those things, their beliefs, wishes and inclinations are not more easily picked out or described than the intentions we say they constitute when combined in ways that produce acts by entities with those mental phenomena.

Citing an intention is a way of speaking about certain behaviors. As Daniel Dennett suggests, it's a way of organizing our thoughts about certain kinds of phenomena (certain kinds of entities' behaviors) in the world. It's not that there is, in such entities, some unique feature we can call an "intention," or even the general feature of "intentionality" understood as the condition of "aboutness" (as in thinking about, speaking about, directing another's attention to, etc., particular things in the world). Intentionality is best seen, on the Dennettian view, as the state which we attribute to certain entities when their behaviors occur in a certain way, i.e., a way that implies a subject with self-initiating capacities underlying the behaviors in question. Thus intentionality is an imputed feature not an actual one. But does that mean it's not really there?

Although introspective considerations are often taken to be out of fashion these days and it's hard to argue with the point that introspection doesn't yield us knowable objects of reference in the way observations of the world in which we find ourselves do, or that introspection doesn't imply or lead to incorrigible knowledge on the part of the introspector, it's also self-evident that we have mental lives. However much some thinkers may want to explain the phenomena of our personal subjectivity as behaviorally-based without genuine mental elements qua features in the world (Behaviorism?), who would actually deny that we have perceptions, dreams, awarenesses, etc.? Not only do we routinely speak about and understand references to these things, they are integrally connected to our day to day behaviors, the explanations and reasons we give ourselves and others for the things we do. In fact, we can't speak about anything at all without assuming a mental dimension in the minimal sense of acknowledging the awarenesses we have of this or that, i.e., our being intentional. We can close our eyes and think and dream but even here there are objects of our thoughts, if only as other thoughts, e.g., recollections, images, feelings, sensations, beliefs, narratives we may tell ourselves.

Our awareness is not solely dependent on external stimuli although, admittedly, it's hard to insulate ourselves from all external stimuli, especially if broadly construed. Indeed, in an important sense, even the somatic feelings of our bodies, which are generally (but not always) relegated to the background of our thoughts and our awareness, are a kind of external stimuli. And, while it may be arguable that there is no such thing as a pure consciousness, extracted from all objects of awareness (even the reduced consciousness of sleep evidences some awareness on the part of the sleeper), it's hard to argue against the existence of a dimension of existence in creatures like ourselves which qualifies as subjective, i.e., which is "mental" in nature. Whatever else we want to say about the "mental" (what it really is, amounts to, where it comes from) it's certainly indisputable that we have this dimension to our existence. We are not just rocks or automatons even if we want to say (as some do -- and I include myself among them!) that at bottom it is a mechanistic account that explains the occurrence of our subjectivity.

Just to be aware of something is not only to recognize that something in some fashion but also to have recognition, itself, which, when thought about, becomes an object of our awareness, too. But awareness of being aware is not qualitatively the same as awareness of what seem to be the ordinary objects of our awareness, the external stimuli that define the phenomena of our experience in the world. Not only is there no object of which we are aware, when we speak of being aware of being aware, except in a certain abstract sense, there is also no easy way of speaking about this. Language isn't constructed for such references though the referential capacity language provides us with has some room for this kind of referencing, too.

The point is that, when we want to speak about actions in a moral sense, in the sense in which it is the act, itself, that counts for valuation and not whatever the act can procure for us, either in terms of the act's effectiveness in securing its objective(s) or the presumed desirability of the objective(s) towards which the act is directed, we have to speak about the act's intent, too. A complete action is seen in its entirety only when it is considered from its effects on the world to the objective the agent had, or has, in bringing those effects about. Objectives are the intentions which the actions express for every intention will, if the opportunity occurs and the circumstances are right, lead to an act. A thought in the head that does not so prompt action, under the appropriate circumstances, cannot be an intention at all. Thus, to give a complete moral account we must have a robust account of the mental lives of agents, as well. That is, we must have an account which allows for, and makes sense of, the occurrence of the mental features which constitute intentions in a way that does not dismiss such phenomena or simply relegate them to the zone of unintelligibility (to a claim that nothing can be said about them). For moral judgment is precisely the activity in which we want to say something about intentions because it is along this trajectory that we want to judge the agent, i.e., through his or her actions. An account of the mental is therefore implied by the very existence of moral valuing as an activity in which we can effectively engage and this needs to be understood if a suitable moral account is to be offered.

We can start to look at this, of course, by considering valuing as an activity in general terms for this activity implies an entity for which something has value which, at the most basic level, can be understood as attraction. That is, the entity must first have an inclination for the thing in question, manifested in the entity as a desire or wish or need for that thing. The entity must have, first of all, a motivating state (whether consciously or only unconsciously recognized) that prompts it to relate to the given object in a way that places the object on a scale of desirability, i.e., as something to be sought, to be acquired. And this implies a subjective dimension in the agent.

In its most primitive form what we mean by valuing doesn't stand apart from desiring, wanting, etc., of course. At this stage of development, in fact, it makes little sense to even speak of valuing rather than of wanting, needing, etc. Valuing, as a distinct concept, only happens when the entity in question rises to a certain level in terms of mental capacities, a level at which it can differentiate its wants and needs and arrange them, mentally, in an order which places one or more above others. At this stage of rationality, it makes sense to speak of valuing as a phenomenon distinct from the more basic cravings and needs of the entity. But this stage also implies a subject with a mental life of a certain level. It implies an entity that has subjectivity and a certain degree of rational capacity.

So valuing from the start, even at its most basic level (where differentiation between wants and values does not yet occur), implies subjectness. More importantly, when the requisite differentiation does kick in, it's only because the mental life of the subject is sufficiently complex so that it consists in its make-up of more features than we find in entities where this sort of differentiation has not yet occurred. This level of differentiation is rational in the small "r" sense of that word and is markedly different than the differentiation some entities are capable of insofar as they can tell food from non-food, prey from predator, inanimate from animate things and danger from its absence.

The special problem with moral valuing, though, once it kicks in (when a sufficient level of differentation capacity has been added to the entity in question), lies in its role as a method for valuing not just objects that are external to the subject but subjects themselves. Many creatures can differentiate along a broad array of factors but it takes a reasoning entity, with the capacity to envision different scenarios in a conceptual way, to begin to look at the value (or lack of it) which may belong to acts as intentional events.

And here the greater complexity of the mental life of the valuing subject matters for we don't morally evaluate entities which lack the capacity to make their own moral judgments. Moral evaluation is directed only towards those actions in which agential decision is characterized by the capacity to reason evaluatively, too. We don't morally value a dog, for instance, for its behaviors (even if we may express approval or disapproval of these to the dog in the course of interacting with it -- for dogs, unlike many other entities in our experience, can recognize and react to such expressiveness). Moral judgments are judgments we make of the acts of morally capable entities like ourselves once we begin to be able to think in terms of the intentional capacities of others. And then the extent of our moral approval or disapproval of others will generally match the extent to which we believe the agent in question has the capacity for moral assessment of its own acts.

Moral valuation kicks in when a certain level of mental capacity, in the form of the ability to differentiate between competing needs and inclinations, does. When an agent's mental capacities reach a level that enables it to see acts (either its own or the acts of others) as intentional, and assess them in those terms, then and only then does moral valuation become possible. And when it does it will be in terms of addressing the quality of an act in terms of the state of its underlying intention(s).

But intentions, as we've seen, are not particular things but just a way of speaking about an array of mental features which, themselves, are not distinct (as in discernible) things. Therefore, assessing intentions cannot be about merely discovering and considering some particular phenomena in a mental world, on a par with the way we discover and assess phenomena in the physical. And yet this activity must stand on an account which provides a robust picture of the "mental," one which enables us to talk about and evaluate whatever it is that prompts the actions under consideration.

To understand the workings and dynamics of moral assessments, we must first have an account of those mental features which are the objects, the raw material, of our judgments.

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