Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Needles and pins

Visibly agitated, Adam is sticking pins into a cushion. Are we really going to say that he acts rightly if he's doing so in order to put away all the pins that had fallen on the floor but impermissibly if he's doing so in the hopes of putting a hex on someone?

I've seen a test for determining whether motives and intentions contribute to the rightness or wrongness of an action. The thought is that if certain intentions or motives can constitute a kind of wrong (e.g., the motive of malice), when present and there are no overriding reasons to perform X, it is impermissible to X and this is chalked up to the deontic significance of the motive that would lead to X-ing. I can't help but think that this can't be the right test. It seems that someone who puts pins in a cushion might act from the motive from malice, there might be no further reasons that bear on whether to place the pins there, but I just can't accept that they've acted impermissibly in putting the pins to the doll and ought to have acted otherwise.

I'd like to think a slightly more promising test that would also support the idea that motives and intentions can contribute to the wrongness of an action is this. We do not ask whether the agent ought to act otherwise or acts impermissibly in acting from a certain motive or on a certain intention, but ask instead whether they will thereby generate further duties that they ought not feel free creating. I'm not sure how well this proposal stands up to the example. I guess we could say that someone who acts from the motive of hexing another thereby has a duty to work on his self-control? Maybe they have a duty to seek forgiveness from their intended victim? I sort of like this account, but I have to confess I'd not want to have to respond to the argument from silly malicious attempts if I ever were to defend the view that motives and intentions can have deontic significance.


John Turri said...

Do you think that acting from malice, in the case you describe, makes the action bad, or at least worse than it otherwise would have been?

Clayton said...

That's just it, I don't have the strong intuition that it makes this action bad, wrong, etc... But, I can't quite see saying that _and_ saying that it generates duties you oughtn't feel free to generate as that would seem to be a feature that contributes to the badness/wrongness of the action. So, I'm at a bit of a loss.

Anyway, if I had more intuitions to consult beyond my own I'd have a better sense of what to say.

John Turri said...

Hmm. I don't know about duties and wrongness and whatnot. But I do find it obvious that, if we compare the action you describe to one that is motivated by kind consideration, and ask which is better, then the one motivated by kind consideration wins hands down.

Brandon said...

It seems to me that the line of argument in the post treats motive as if it were simply separate from the actions: instead of, e.g., an action being understood as drawing water from a well in order to poison someone, it's treated as if it were really just drawing water from a well; and then there's a separate sort of pre-action that's having the motive of poisoning someone. Or, to use the example, instead of the action being trying to hex someone by putting pins in a cushion it's just putting pins in a cushion and happens, in Adam's case, to get paired with the completely separate issue, hoping to put a hex on someone. A sort of dualism of action, so to speak: the motive is a sort of ghost on top of the machinery of the action. That would seem a bit odd. But perhaps you have something else in view?

Clayton said...

I don't think it's that odd. Think about an example of Thomson's. A man tries to poison his wife but it turns out that what he puts in her soup is the very thing that will cure her disease. (He doesn't know she has a disease much less that the stuff he's putting in her soup would cure someone with that disease.)

We can ask 'Was it wrong for him to put the stuff in her soup?', and it might at first seem not since the stuff cured what ailed her. We can then ask whether it was wrong to do it from the motive that led him to put the stuff in the soup and ask whether that leads to a different answer.

Some say that he acted permissibly, but I think even if that is so, there's the further question as to whether the action was wrong. (I think an action can be wrong without being all-things considered wrong.) Others say that this is to confuse judgments about the man's character with deontic judgments. I'm sort of inclined to say that this is too simple.

Even if we focused on his trying to poison her, some will say that this was permissible since it was the very thing that would cure her. I don't think it's committing us to think that the motive is a 'ghost' as you put it. It's a feature of the story and we can ask whether it is a wrong making feature and what actions it makes wrongful.

Hey John,
I'd agree about the badness, but it's hard to know what deontic significance this evaluative judgment has.

Brandon said...

Again, that seems odd to me. The situation doesn't divide into two parts, the motive part and the actual action, which just happen to occur in succession; his action is the attempt to poison his wife -- incompetently, as it happens, but incompetent attempts are attempts, and what makes an action an attempt is motive, intention, etc.

Consider the following cases:

The man, intending to poison his wife, puts something in her soup that by sheer accident cures her.

The man, intending to poison his wife, by sheer accident (in doing something else) puts something in her soup, and it cures her.

The man, intending to cure his wife, by sheer accident (in doing something else) puts something in her soup, and it cures her.

The man, intending to cure his wife, puts something in her soup, and by sheer accident it cures her.

The only things these have in common are the man, the wife, the soup, and the fact that they happen to share at some level an element of description, "puts something in her soup". But the mere fact that their descriptions have the same element of description doesn't entail that the actions have the same sub-action. It just entails that they are similar enough to be partially described by the same words.

What makes the 'motive' a ghost is that it becomes, as it were, disembodied. The whole series is regarded not as an action involving motive, means, opportunity, success, etc. but as a little train of actions,


as if motive were a pre-action action and perhaps even as if consequence were a post-action action, and each of them were evaluated as different actions, which just happen to be linked with the others. So we can mix and match motive and action, without affecting evaluation.

Compare: We can ask whether writing on the board is a mental action and it seems it is not, because it involves a body; and we can then ask whether it's a mental action if caused by a mind, and wonder whether that leads to a different answer. But that's just to say that we can be dualists, and put the mind over here in its causal realm and the body over there in its causal realm and arbitrarily link the two. But that seems to be what's going on here. I have motive (mental intent, desire, whatever, like wanting to kill someone) and I have action (bodily behavior, like putting something in their soup), and the two are linked arbitrarily so that the one can be analyzed and therefore evaluated independently of the other.

So are we all supposed to become Cartesians, or is there a non-dualist way to make sense of this that doesn't assume that parts of descriptions of actions correspond to independent parts of actions?

Dru said...

This might be simply stating your position in a different way, but I tend to approach this issue in this manner. To me deontological questions of ethics point toward the ethical standing of a person, with the end argument being in the form "Jim has a positive/negative trait which causes him to do this positive/negative act." In looking at the action however, you never get to a statement about the character of the person. You will always reduce the situation to the sum of the related causes and effects.

Additionally, it doesn't appear to me that either of these methods are incompatible. It depends on what sort of ethical question you ask. To find out the conditions under which sticking pins in a pincushion would be right or wrong, deontic approaches are useless. You will only find out if the person doing the pinning has something in their intent which both leads them to the action and is a desirable or undesirable trait for an ethical person. You will never get to an ethical statement which is explicitly ABOUT the pins and their being stuck through some felt. That is the realm of a more utilitarian approach.

It seems that what you're saying isn't remarkably similar, though I'm not quite sure I understand this argument modeled on creation of duty.

anon said...

It seems to me like the issue in the pincushion case is with beliefs rather than motives. When we care about the wrongness of actions, there are times when we care about each of the following things:

- whether the action actually turns out bad
- whether the agent believed that the action would turn out bad
- whether it would have been reasonable to believe that the action would turn out bad

(And we might be able to break the third one down further.)

One way to deal with this is to say that there are multiple senses of wrongness. There's a sense in which Adam acted wrongly, since he believed pin-sticking could cause hexes, and hexing is wrong. But the weirdness of his beliefs, and their differentness from real causal processes, makes us not especially concerned about that sense of wrong. But in other cases we might care more about that sense of wrongness, like if someone thought a toy gun was real & loaded, pointed it at someone else, and pulled the trigger (or if a would-be terrorist stuck a bunch of silly putty to the underside of a bridge and lit a fuse).

Another way to put it is that it's impermissible to hex, and Adam has committed an attempted hexing, but he was lucky to have chosen an ineffective means of hexing. (In fact, there are no effective means of hexing, but I'm not sure if that matters.)

Clayton said...


Let me try this approach. Suppose I'm mixing up some soup and while I don't know this, it's poisonous. I feed it to my guests. Have I done something I (morally) shouldn't have?

I'd say yes, but if my ignorance is non-culpable it is an instance of excusable wrongdoing.

Next door, someone who knows more about mushrooms follows the same recipe knowingly putting poisonous mushrooms into the soup. I'd say he's also done something he shouldn't. We might say, as JT does, that this is in some sense _worse_, but the question is whether this person's knowingly contravening the norm I've unwittingly contravened is the ground of an additional sort of wrong? Last, we might add that he did this _not_ because, say, he thought the taste was so important that he thought a bit of food poisoning would be worth it. We might say that he did it simply because he despised his guests.

I'd say in these three cases there is a common element of wrongdoing. Getting a look at the explanatory reasons that distinguish these cases, do we see additional wrong-making features?

In the original case, I just don't have the intuition that trying to put the hex on someone is itself impermissible. I'd agree with those who think this makes the putting of the pins into the stuffed pin holder worse, but I'm just not sure that this evaluative judgment is grounds for any judgment about wrongness.

Dru said...

the important distinction to my mind, is that it is a separate wrong, not a case of more or less wrong. let me explain using your soup example...

in the case of the innocent soup chef: poisoning dinner guests is wrong, though naively doing so makes a positive comment on the chef's character (esp. if he/she is contrite).

in the case of the malicious soup chef: poisoning dinner guests is wrong, though purposefully doing so points to a separate problem, namely a maliciousness in the chef.

now this second wrong, in my mind, cannot make the poisoned soup more or less wrong.

as a counterexample, take this. person A shoots and kills another person. person B shoots and kills 5. we could easily say that person A is less wrong than person B, as they killed 4 less people.

this analysis however does not hold in the soup example. the malicious chef has committed an offense which is not present in the case of the innocent chef (his maliciousness). therefore, while the malicious chef may be more morally objectionable, it would be because of a multitude of offenses, not a single offense which is intelligibly more wrong.

John Turri said...


You said, "I'd agree about the badness, but it's hard to know what deontic significance this evaluative judgment has."

I don't know if it automatically has deontic significance. However, if one thought that an action's wrongness is a function of its badness (at least, its badness relative to other alternatives available to the agent at the time), then one might think it possible for the badness added by the malevolent motive to tip the scales in favor of the prospective action being wrong.

Brandon said...

I don't see any common element of wrongdoing for all of the three cases (the first seems significantly different to me). But if I were to take as a supposition that there is, in fact, such a common element, I think I would say this: 'should' (like 'moral wrongdoing', etc.) can actually mean slightly different things, and what makes the puzzle is that the successive case adds 'wrongdoing' in a slightly different sense from the sense in which the previous one involved wrongdoing. This can be seen if we put matters in terms of moral responsibility for an action that deviates from the good. In one sense of moral responsibility, you are responsible for the negative effects of actions you had no power to prevent or foresee, simply because, in fact, they were the effects of your actions. In another, you are responsible for them in the sense that the causal explanation of that particular action involves your deliberately intending to do something that had that bad feature (in this case, the poisoning of people). In another, you are responsible for them in the sense that you not only intended to do it, but the causal explanation for your intending to do it involves some badness for which you are (in some way) responsible. And so on. And so what we need to do to determine the deontic significance of the evaluative judgment is to figure out what in the world the evaluative judgment really is in the first place.

Udoka said...

I am just a student(yah, I'm Udoka in your 11am class), but I enjoy reading your blog. This is a subject I have been thinking about all last semester because we had an Rhetoric assignment about it. I was very frustrated because we never went into as much detail as this.

In class, I played the devil's advocate saying that actions are seperate from intentions because intentions and consequences of actions do not necesarily match. At the time, all I cared about was the consequences. I guess now I know that that's some sort of pragmatism, right?

But then today in class we talked about dualism and how silly it is. To seperate intention from action reminds me too much of dualism because the intention occurs in the mind and the action occurs in the body. I think in class you were implying that you are anti-dualist and you believe there is a connection between body and mind and so there is a connection between intention and action.

I feel that in a matter like this, we shouldn't seperate intention and action and consequence. If you wanted to poison your wife but instead accidentally cured her, it doesn't remove the fact that you are dangerous and if you had the proper means would have created terrible consequences. Even though they haven't happened, you are willing it to happen. For some reason I think that is almost as bad as it actually happening.

I don't really know how to explain my ideas as well as these other people here. Maybe I am misusing terms. I didn't even know what deontic meant before reading this. I guess I'm just babbling naively. But maybe it makes you feel better that a student is trying? :)