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State-given reasons for and against intending

In my previous post, I argued that there are state-given reasons not to believe certain propositions. In this post, I shall argue that there are also state-given reasons both for and against intending.

Suppose that you are in a situation in which (a) it is possible for you to φ, and (b) if you were to φ, that would be a really wonderful thing. Indeed, let us suppose that on every major conception of reasons for action, there are compelling reasons for you to φ: your φ-ing would exemplify important values to a higher degree than any alternative; it would satisfy your most deeply-held desires; it would give you great pleasure; and so on. However, although it is possible for you to φ in this case, it is not possible for you to φ as a result of intending to φ. In fact, you will almost certainly φ if you do not intend to; but if you intended to φ, your intention would prevent you from φ-ing.

Suppose that you are perfectly well aware about how counter-productive it will be to have an intention to φ. In this case, it seems clear that it would be irrational for you to intend to φ. What explains why it is irrational for you to φ in this case?

The reason for this, it seems, is not because of the intrinsic character of φ-ing itself: after all, this is a case in which there are compelling reasons for you to φ. The problem is not with φ-ing, but with intending to φ. The trouble is that if you did intend to φ, your intention would prevent you from φ-ing as you intend. So the reason against intending to φ depends not on the nature of φ-ing itself, but on what things would be like if you intended to φ.

So here we have a reason against intending to φ, which seems to be a reason of the “right kind”, but which (according to the definition that I gave in my last post) counts as a “state-given” reason.

Moreover, it now seems plausible that for every time t, if there are compelling reasons for you to intend at t to φ, at least part of what makes it the case that there are such compelling reasons for this intention is the fact that if you at t intended to φ, then there is at least a good chance of your φ-ing as you intend to.

In short, there are not just reasons against having an intention that will frustrate its own realization; there are compelling reasons for having an intention only if having that intention will facilitate its own realization. So, whenever there are compelling reasons for you to have an intention, these reasons include a state-given reason.

The conclusion that we should draw is that Mark Schroeder was right to claim (in “The Ubiquity of State-Given Reasons”) that state-given reasons for (and against) intending are indeed ubiquitous. The dogma that state-given reasons are invariably reasons of the “wrong kind” seems to be profoundly mistaken.

24 Responses to State-given reasons for and against intending

  1. Jussi Suikkanen says:

    Here’s just something you might say in order to defend the earlier view. You might think that all the ultimate reasons in the situation are provided by whether or not the important values are being exemplified. You might also think that whether or not you can phi if you so intend is one of the disabling/enabling conditions for these reasons to count in favour of your intending to phi.
    So, assume that you can phi if you intend to phi. In this case, this enables the fact that the important values will be exemplified to count in favour of your intending to phi.
    In contrast, assume that you cannot phi if you intend to phi. In this case, this prevents the fact that the important values will be exemplified from counting in favour of your intending to phi. Furthermore, it enables the fact that the important values will not be exemplified to count in favour of your not intending to phi.
    I don’t have strong intuitions about which of the descriptions of the reasons in case are more plausible, but if you are fully convinced of equating right kind of reasons with object-given reasons I think you might carve the joints in this way. Also, the disabling/enabling conditions seems to fit with the general intuitions that what you can do itself isn’t a reason even if it can influence what reasons you have.

  2. Thanks again, Jussi!
    You say that you “don’t have strong intuitions about which of the descriptions of the reasons in [this] case are more plausible”. But I’m not really convinced that there is any substantive difference between the two descriptions.
    According to the alternative description that you propose, the fact that you won’t φ if you intend to is labelled a “disabling condition”, which “disables” anything from acting as a reason to intend to φ, but somehow doesn’t itself count as a “reason not to intend to φ”. But I confess that I don’t really know what is meant by this label in this context.
    You would concede, I take it, that the fact that you won’t φ if you intend to is part of a true explanation of why you shouldn’t intend to φ (and if you know this fact, this knowledge could be part of a true explanation of why it is irrational for you to intend to φ). So, I’d like to know, what extra mysterious something is added by saying that this fact isn’t itself a “reason” but a mere “disabling condition”?
    Moreover, are we really sure that when writers like Parfit and Schroeder and Shah and Hieronymi (et al.) draw a distinction between reasons of “the right kind” and reasons of “the wrong kind”, they are using the term ‘reason’ in this stricter sense that excludes so-called “disabling” and “enabling” conditions? (I’m not saying that you can’t explain what significance these labels have in this context, but I’m just not sure what it is…)

  3. Jussi Suikkanen says:

    Hi Ralph,
    I was basically assuming what Jonathan Dancy says about reasons and disabling conditions/enabling conditions, for example, in his Ethics Without Principles. Is what Jonathan says so mysterious that we don’t know what he means? This sounds surprising to me – I thought the distinction was pretty much taken for granted nowadays even if I know that there are people like Joseph Raz and Brad Hooker who do argue that anything that is part of the explanation of an ought is part of the reason.
    I take it that it is an essential part of Jonathan’s view that, given holism, we’ll need all kinds of considerations as a part of the explanation of why you shouldn’t do something in a given context when you should do that same act in a context that is similar otherwise but there’s an enabler/absence of disabler present. But, it doesn’t seem intuitive to think that all these considerations are what count against doing the action – or otherwise the reasons would be descriptions of whole worlds. This argument is pretty well made in the chapter 3 of the book mentioned above.
    I’m not sure whether Parfit et al use the right kind of reasons in the stricter sense here. I would assume so, but even if they didn’t it seems like this is an open alternative for them to defend their view against at least this objection.

  4. Jussi —
    Yes, I confess I’ve never understood Dancy’s terminology; so I’m on the side of Joseph Raz and Brad Hooker here.
    Moreover, suppose — just for the sake of argument — that Dancy’s argument from chap. 3 of Ethics without Principles is sound. (I don’t believe that it is sound, but that’s a question for another occasion, and so let’s assume for the sake of argument that it is.) Then the full explanation of why you should do act A in a given situation S will always in effect be a “description of a whole world”.
    So I’m not sure why it should not “seem intuitive” to say that every salient part of this explanation is a reason. (I would agree with most linguists and semanticists that the word ‘reason’ always functions as a nominalization of an explanation of some kind. So the word ‘reason’ can take on a normative meaning only when either (a) the relevant explanandum is itself a normative fact, or (b) the relevant explanation is of an ideal case, like an ideal motivational process.)

  5. Actually, even if we bracket my worries about the intelligibility of Dancy’s distinctions, there’s a simpler argument for the conclusion that the fact that you won’t φ if you intend to is a reason not to intend to φ.
    It seems that in this case, you shouldn’t intend to φ (of course, you should φ, but you should do so without intending to). So surely there must be a reason for you not to have this intention. But what could this reason be? Since there’s nothing bad about φ-ing itself, the reason must be some feature of intending to φ — and what feature of intending to φ could it be, if not the feature that your intending to φ will not in fact help you to φ?

  6. Jussi Suikkanen says:

    Hi Ralph
    thanks. That’s interesting. Personally I do find the talk about favouring illuminating. And, the reason I find it difficult to think that all salient parts of the explanation are reasons is that it doesn’t seem that these bits do much favouring. But, I accept that this terminology might not be as clear as I think it is. I should add that Raz and Hooker do seem to grant that they understand Dancy’s distinction. They just argue against it (and Dancy has tried to defend his view against the objections – 6.2 in the book, for example). I’ve yet to come across the idea that the distinction doesn’t even make sense. I’d love to hear more about this.
    With the last question, I tried to briefly address that in the original comment but I admit that was pretty opaque. I thought that the consideration that counts against intending to phi (the reason why you shouldn’t intend to phi) is just the fact that , full stop. The conditional fact that is then a consideration that enables this fact to be a reason not to intend to phi. This means that if we allow ourselves to Dancy’s set-up the simple argument doesn’t seem to work either. But, I do admit that this relies heavily on Dancy’s distinction.

  7. Jamie Dreier says:

    Jussi, did some characters disappear from your comment? I would like to understand it but the last paragraph clearly has some stuff missing.

  8. Brad Cokelet says:

    Hi Jussi and Ralph,
    I can see how the Dancy-based response works (given his assumptions) for reasons in favor of intending, but I am not sure how to apply it to reasons against intending. Granting Dancy’s assumptions I take it that Ralph holds the following: the fact that {your intending to phi will impede your phi-ing} may well disable the ordinary facts about phi-ing that would otherwise be reasons to intend to phi, but the fact is also itself a reason against intending.
    On the Dancy disabling story it seems that some person who knows they are in the relevant fix has no reason for or against intending to phi, while Ralph thinks the person has a reason against (namely the fact that if they intend that will impede their acting as they intend).
    Maybe the key here is Ralph’s initial assumption that to intend in such cases is irrational? It looks like your Dancy-based response commits us to rejecting this assumption. On the Dancy-based view, some man who intends to phi, knowing that so intending will prevent him from phi-ing, intends without reason but not against reason.
    Perhaps the Fan of Dancy should maintain that it is absurd but not irrational for the man to intend to phi?

  9. Brad Cokelet says:

    [Clarified re-post — sorry]
    Hi Jussi and Ralph,
    I can see how the Dancy-based response works (given his assumptions) for reasons in favor of intending, but I am not sure how to apply it to reasons against intending.
    Granting Dancy’s assumptions I take it that Ralph holds the following: the fact that {your intending to phi will impede your phi-ing} may well disable the ordinary facts about phi-ing that would otherwise be reasons to intend to phi, but the fact is also itself a reason against intending.
    On Jussi’s proposed view it seems that some person who knows they are in the relevant fix has no reason for or against intending to phi, while Ralph thinks the person has a reason against (namely the fact that if they intend that will impede their acting as they intend).
    Maybe the key here is Ralph’s initial assumption that to intend in such cases is irrational? It looks like your Dancy-based response commits us to rejecting this assumption. On the Dancy-based view, some man who intends to phi, knowing that so intending will prevent him from phi-ing, intends without reason but not against reason. This would also, presumably, entail rejecting Ralph’s claim that we should not so intend.
    Perhaps the Fan of Dancy should maintain that it is absurd but not irrational for the man to intend to phi?
    This makes it look to me like the proposed response is pretty counter-intuitive..

  10. James Dreier says:

    Clearer, albeit slantier.

  11. Brad Cokelet says:

    Arg! For some reason now all my posts are coming up slanty!? From the office and now from home?!

  12. James Dreier says:

    Don’t worry, Brad. They now have meds that will enable you to live an almost normal life.

  13. Daniel Muñoz says:

    Thanks for the truly excellent post, Ralph! This is one of the best threads I’ve ever seen on PEA Soup—and I’m a big PEA Soup fan.
    I’m not sure that your case is in fact going to trouble the friend of object-given reasons, since a similar case can be generated using state-given reasons.
    Imagine there’s an evil, nearly omniscient, nearly omnipotent demon, whom we know all about, and who does only one thing: he tortures millions of people whenever someone responds to state-given reason. (A less unpleasant idea for a case: he does all he can to falsify the beliefs that we form for state-given reasons.)
    Beverly is a human rights activist whose main aim is to reduce the amount of torture going on. One day, she finds evidence that Blowtorch Bob is torturing several people every night. On any plausible view, she has object-given reasons to present this evidence to the police and thwart Blowtorch Bob. But she also knows that, among her reasons to do so, there is a state-given reason. (Because “whenever there are compelling reasons for you to have an intention, these reasons include a state-given reason.”) Thus, if she incriminates Bob, she will provoke the demon and vastly increase the amount of torture going on, subverting her aims. She thereby reasons that the intention to incriminate Bob in order to reduce the amount of global torture is self-defeating, and that she has a state-given reason not to form that intention.
    But wait! If she doesn’t form the intention to incriminate Bob, then she has thereby responded to a state-given reason, provoking the demon and again subverting her aims.
    In this case, I don’t think there’s any rational way for Beverly to respond to her situation. She’d achieve her aims best if she just sat around never intending anything, but she can’t respond to her reasons to do this without provoking the demon. Every rationally sanctioned path from Beverly to her aims is beset with demonic vengeance. This is an unfortunate situation, but there’s nothing incoherent about it, so as far as philosophical theorizing goes, it’s harmless.
    But if we can live with this case, why not live with the similar cases involving object-given reasons? Sure, it’s irrational for me to intend to φ, knowing that this intention will cause me not to φ. But the game is rigged. Every rationally acceptable path from me to my aim of φ-ing is blocked. The only way for me to φ is for me not to intend to do it. But just as the friend of state-given reasons has to admit that Beverly is rationally impotent in the demon world, the friend of object-given reasons should admit that in this case I’m rationally impotent. For me to φ for object-given reasons would require that I reason as follows: “Well, all of these considerations count in favor of φ-ing, and not intending to φ is a means to φ-ing, so I’ll just go ahead and not form the intention to φ.” Of course, that last inference constitutes my forming the intention to φ.
    The point is that, on either view of state-given reasons, it’s possible that someone be rationally blocked from achieving his or her aims. So the fact that we get these cases when we have only object-given reasons isn’t itself grounds for accepting state-given reasons. For even if we do, we’ll face a similar set of cases.
    Parthian shot. You contend that the irrationality of intending to φ can’t be explained by object-given reasons. I think Jussi is right on the money here: ought implies can, but can φ is not part of the ground of ought to φ. The ability to φ is, as Dancy puts it, a general enabler.* So, the object-given reasons theorist should say that your case is incoherent. If I have compelling reason to φ, then there is a rationally sanctioned route from where I am to my φ-ing. In your case, I don’t have such a route. So I can’t have such reasons. This explains why nothing counts in favor of my forming the intention to φ.
    *If you’re wary of the ground/enabler distinction, consider “o exists” and “o has f,” where o is a thing an f a property. That o exists is necessary for it to have any property, but o’s existence isn’t the ground. Nor is it even a partial ground—for what would be the rest? That o has f may be a fundamental fact, but even then, it depends on—but isn’t grounded in—o’s existence. This is a controversial example, so you might not agree with the claims I just made, but I hope it’s clear what I mean by them!

  14. Jussi Suikkanen says:

    Jamie
    that’s strange. You are right – for some reasons Typepad has removed all the words that were within brackets. Here’s another go:
    “With the last question, I tried to briefly address that in the original comment but I admit that was pretty opaque. I thought that the consideration that counts against intending to phi (the reason why you shouldn’t intend to phi) is just the fact that [the outcome will not exemplify the important values], full stop. The conditional fact that [I will not phi and the values will not be exemplified, if I intend to phi] is then a consideration that enables this fact [the outcome will not exemplify the important values] to be a reason not to intend to phi (and why you shouldn’t phi). However, it’s not itself a reason. This means that if we allow ourselves to Dancy’s set-up the simple argument doesn’t seem to work either.
    I hope this comes out right now. I hope this addresses Brad’s concern too. Also, sorry about the italics…

  15. James Dreier says:

    Okay, I see.
    It doesn’t seem right to me, though. My intuitions are getting distracted by three features, though: the variable, the oddness of the example (that is, that intending prevents me from doing), and the idea that one of the facts is a ‘conditional fact’ (which I don’t believe in). Can we try an example with none of those features, just to get clearer on the reason vs. enabler distinction?
    Lloyd is in the tunnel and it’s dark, so he lights a candle. His reason for lighting a candle is: it’s dark. An enabling condition is: there is oxygen in the tunnel.
    It would sound funny if we answered the question, “Why did Lloyd light the candle?”, by saying, “There was oxygen in the tunnel.” It would also seem wrong as an answer to answer the normative question, “Why should Lloyd light a candle?”
    It seems like reasons must be facts that play a particular sort of role in explanation, rather than just explanation components.

  16. James Dreier says:

    By the way, I’m pretty sure Brad simply failed to close the italics tag in his first comment yesterday. Maybe one of the Davids in charge can take care of it.

  17. Jussi Suikkanen says:

    I hope that tag solves the italics issue.
    That seems to be an intuitive example of the reason/favourer and enabler distinction. Dancy also says just that about explanations. Dancy’s own example is the following practical reasoning:
    1. I promised to do it
    2. My promise was not given under duress.
    3. I am able to do it.
    4. There is no greater reason not to do it.
    5. So: I do it.
    Here (1) is supposed to be the favourer/reason and (2)-(4) considerations that enable (1)’s favouring. Likewise (1) is supposed to be the explanation of why it is right to keep the promise (or why you ought to) and (2)-(4) are supposed to enable this explanation.
    Now, I admit that when I use this terminology to Ralph’s case we don’t have as clear intuitions about what the favourers and enablers are, but my point was that if this terminology is available then there is also a response to his argument available.
    Here’s one case. I’m shooting hoops. For some reason, if I intend to score I never will whereas if I just throw the ball at the general direction I always do. The idea would be that here the fact that you will not score is the reason not to intend to score and what enables this fact to be a reason not to intend to score is that if you intend you will not score. This doesn’t sound too bad of a description to me.

  18. James Dreier says:

    No, that hoops example doesn’t sound right to me.
    Suppose R is a reason to Φ. Then for E to be an enabler of R, I think what’s supposed to happen is that R, even if it obtained, would not be a reason to Φ in the absence of E. But that’s not what happens in the hoops example.
    Since I don’t like conditional facts, let me rephrase yours just a little. I think the fact that intending to score will prevent me from scoring is a reason not to intend to score. (Because in general for any good outcome G the fact that intending to do something will prevent G is a reason not to intend to do that thing.)
    Having said that, I should add that it is not entirely clear to me that this is a right kind of reason. If I were a staunch defender of the object/state distinction as the underwriter of the Right Kind/Wrong Kind distinction, I think I’d just bite the bullet and say that in Ralph’s examples the reasons are indeed the Wrong Kind.
    So, what tag did you use to rectify the font? I tried 〈/i〉 but that didn’t work.

  19. Jussi Suikkanen says:

    I used that same tag but it only takes effect after the pre-view.
    I can also see that biting the bullet is an option. The description you give of the description sounds pretty natural to me too. I just wanted to propose that there might be (almost?) as natural description of the case using Dancy’s terminology that doesn’t lead to a state-given reason.
    I wonder about that condition for enablers. It seems to me that there can be many enablers for a reason that overdetermine its favouring. There might also be cases where in the absence of an enabler another enabler takes its place.
    I should also say that if the enabler isn’t present (if it’s not the case that [intending to score prevents me from scoring]) then the relevant consideration [I will not score] will not be a reason for me not to intend to score. Of course, here the absence of the enabler doesn’t merely affect the favouring relation but also the fact that does favouring. But this seems fine to me otherwise.

  20. James Dreier says:

    Okay, that’s right, there can be overdetermining enablers, so my counterfactual test doesn’t work.
    But I don’t understand your last point. Suppose my intending to score no longer prevents me from scoring. Something else does, so I will not score. That I will not score is surely still a reason not to intend to score, isn’t it? Maybe not, but if it isn’t I don’t see why it would turn into one when things change and my intending to score would prevent me from scoring.

  21. Daniel Muñoz says:

    Jamie, I don’t think that the fact that intending to score will prevent me from scoring is a *reason* not to intend to score–as if it overwhelms the reasons I have to (intend to) score.
    Let scoring* be an action that would be far better than scoring, and suppose that intending to score* will prevent me from scoring*. It would be just as irrational for me to intend to score* as it would to intend to score. But I have more object-given reasons to intend to score*, so I must also have (equally) stronger state-given reasons to overwhelm them. But that’s implausible: why should my reasons not to have a self-defeating intention be any stronger in the case of scoring*? Aren’t all self-defeating intentions equally irrational?
    The appeal to enablers explains why all self-defeating intentions are equally irrational: there are no enablers for the (would-be) reasons to form them. To explain this on your view-the view that state-given reasons not to intend explain the irrationality–we must suppose that the state-given reasons vary in strength according to the object-given reasons to achieve what the intention aims at.

  22. Daniel Muñoz says:

    A snappier objection: someone who intends to score, knowing that intending will prevent scoring, can’t appeal to *anything* to justify what she’s up to. But on your view, there are still object-given reasons floating around for her to appeal to! (They’re not the biggest baddest reasons in the area, but unless you believe that they’ve been disabled, you have to admit that they’re still there.)

  23. James Dreier says:

    Daniel, maybe the fact that intending to score will prevent me from scoring is both a reason and a disabler of other reasons. Do you think this is impossible?
    Q. “Why shouldn’t Jussi intend to score?”
    A. “Because intending to score will prevent him from scoring.”
    A seems like a perfectly natural answer to Q, and I’m inclined to think that shows the fact A cites is a reason Jussi shouldn’t intend to score.
    Furthermore, as I said, it seems to me that in general the fact that doing something will prevent a certain good result is a reason not to do it. Do you disagree?
    I’m also inclined to think that the irrationality involved in self-defeating intentions (as you call them) is the irrationality of intending to do something you know you won’t do. I’m not even sure this is possible, let alone rational. Do you think there is some further irrationality involved? The situation is a bit strange, because we don’t ordinarily decide to intend to do something, like shoot a basket. Ordinarily we decide to shoot, and then we intend to shoot without having decided to intend it. So in the self-defeating intention examples, we have to decide not to do something, just so as to prevent ourselves from intending to do it. I admit this seems quite possible, but it’s odd.

  24. Daniel Muñoz says:

    That sounds reasonable to me, Jamie! One worry is that the holist might say that A gives a disabling explanation. But I think you’re right that there needs to be a reason not to have self-defeating intentions. (I was wrong earlier.) Consider the reading of Q where the negation takes small scope: why is it obligatory that I not intend to score? A disabling answer can’t help here, since it can at best explain why it’s not obligatory to intend to score. Only the reasons answer you’re suggesting would explain why there’s an obligation not to intend to score. (I’m using “obligation” loosely.)
    I also agree that there’s something impossible sounding about self-defeating intentions. Hume thought something like this, too. From T 2.3.3.7: “Since a passion can never, in any sense, be call’d unreasonable, but when founded on a false supposition, or when it chuses means insufficient for the design’d end, ’tis impossible, that reason and passion can ever oppose each other, or dispute for the government of the will and actions. The moment we perceive the falshood of any supposition, or the insufficiency of any means our passions yield to our reason without any opposition.”
    In response to your last question: I think there’s one further kind of irrationality that *might* be at play with some of these self-defeating intentions. Suppose I reason as follows:
    (1) My φ-ing will fulfill my rational aims.
    (2) If I don’t intend to φ, I will φ.
    (3) So, I won’t intend to φ.
    What’s weird about this is that it’s an instance of means-end reasoning, because it takes the following form:
    (4) My φ-ing will fulfill my rational aims.
    (5) If I ψ (or don’t ψ), I will φ.
    (6) So, I will ψ (or won’t ψ).
    So in (1)-(3), what happens is that I don’t intend to φ—but only as a means to φ-ing! My decision not to intend to φ, then, constitutes my forming the intention to φ. When I decide not to sleep in, as a means to the end of getting my sleep schedule on track, my decision *constitutes* my forming the intention to get my sleep schedule on track. Plug in “intend to φ” for “sleep in” and “φ-ing” for “getting my sleep schedule on track,” and it’s easy to see where the paradox comes in.
    Of course, my reasoning doesn’t have to take the form of (4)-(6). You’ve suggested that the proper course of reasoning is in fact:
    (7) Forming the intention to φ would prevent me from φ-ing.
    (8) So, I won’t form the intention to φ.
    The reason given by (7) to do (8) is of the kind you mentioned: “in general the fact that doing something will prevent a certain good result is a reason not to do it.” My reasoning in (7)-(8) is thus independent of the value of what it is I’m intending—of φ-ing, in this case. It’s just the fact that the intention is self-defeating that gives reason here, not the fact that good things will happen if I don’t form the intention. The reason in (7) is blind to the consequences of φ-ing or not φ-ing. In contrast, Ralph’s original example suggests that there is some reason given by the good things that happen when I don’t form the intention to φ.