Action and Intent

Why should one be generous?

That was the question we started with today. One of us had run across an argument that ran something like this: one should be generous because it gives you a self-satisfaction that nothing else can give you. But then, the question is, isn’t that then not really generosity but selfishness? And what happens after an act of generosity that is ineffective or poorly received? (“They totally didn’t appreciate what I did for them–my generous effort was wasted!”)

So, if the reason behind being generous can’t be only because it makes you feel good (although, happily, that is often a side-effect), why be generous? Why is generosity good?

As is the case with all of the ethical questions we discuss, we reached an impasse, but having discussed ethics so much, we reached it rather quickly. Either generosity is, of itself, inherently good (and there is no way to prove that), or it is good because it is dependent upon something else–a chain of reasoning, or a dictum from God.

We discussed the problems with morality from “God says so.” While this is actually a way to solve the ethics problem, people bristle at it. It’s a conversation-stopper, and it seems overly simple. Shouldn’t there be a chain of apparent reasoning in addition, if in fact morality comes from God?

There’s much to say on this issue, but our conversation instead turned to the analysis of moral actions themselves: specifically centering around the question of action vs. intent. Can someone commit an evil action with a good intent?

For the sake of argument, we all agreed that Hitler’s actions of genocide were evil. But his intent was to promote human flourishing. At first, it appears that it is possible to have a good intention but to go about it in an evil way that actually prevents it from being achieved.

But, I argued, Hitler’s vision of human flourishing is quite different from ours–one that involves racial purity. So, it’s not enough to say that Hitler’s goal was “human flourishing” and dismiss it at that. We have a different conception of human flourishing that does not involve racial purity, therefore we would never have need of genocide in going about achieving it. The goal, at least in part, dictates the action.

Thus, it may be that since the action is dependent in no small way on the intent, the separation of the two is artificial. The intent is embedded in the action. Again: is it possible to commit an evil act with a good intention, or does the evil present in the act indicate evil intent?

We explored this a little bit with the example of Robin Hood. Robin Hood’s crime of robbery might be evil, committed for the greater good of redistributing wealth and caring for the poor. But, would it not be possible to say that Robin Hood’s act of robbery, while a crime under law, was actually the breaking of an unjust law (which stipulated that the wealthy should maintain their wealth while the poor should suffer), and therefore actually a just/good action?

What if Robin Hood killed someone during his act of robbery? Would that still be achieving a good end through evil means? Well, partly this depends on the circumstances of the killing, but we concluded that the act of killing is separate from the act of robbery, and therefore its intent could (should?) be considered separately. If Robin Hood kills someone out of fear of being killed himself–a preemptive, defensive killing–then he is doing so with the intent of preserving his mission, supported by an unjustifiable prediction of the future: how does he know that no one will continue his mission if he is killed? However, if his intention is different–to commit a virtuous robbery without harming anyone unless necessary (whatever that might mean)–the killing will not happen. The intent dictates the action.

Even in the case of the US capture of Osama Bin Laden, the civilian casualties indicate something about the goal. The vision included the potential for civilian casualties. If the intent were for a more righteous capture of Osama Bin Laden, the actions would not have been the same–we might have waited for a more opportune time, or gone about it in a less destructive (although perhaps potentially less effective) manner.

We concluded that actions, being highly dependent upon intent, actually include intent as an embedded aspect. The two are inseparable.

Our conversation drifted to various topics: transgenderism, feminism, gender, the idea of rights in general. An interesting question was, if gender is only a societal construct, can there be any justification for gender reassignment surgery on the basis of someone “knowing” they are a certain way?

The arguments for certain of these positions seemed pretty poor, and it appears that many people choose their positions based on their feelings rather than any sort of rational or critical thought process. I recalled a passage from Alasdair MacIntyre about how the shrill “protest” that we see in marches and rallies comes from the subconscious knowledge of the protesters that they can’t actually win their case in rational argument, so they must put on a display of emotion as a means of persuasion instead.
After having discussed many hot-button issues calmly and in the space of about ten minutes, we lamented how easily people are swept up emotionally and hang on to certain positions even though they are clearly not tenable. An acquaintance of mine told me recently that he decides his beliefs based on interpreting the facts of his life objectively–but what manner of interpretation is objective? (Doesn’t objectivity rule out any sort of interpretation by definition?) And what constitutes “facts,” especially when it comes to one’s own life or experience? After a certain point, knowing about philosophy is, in a way, like knowing that the emperor has no clothes. We get in arguments with people forgetting that they still think the emperor has clothes on. It’s no wonder these arguments are frustrating and go nowhere–many people are not aware of the philosophical assumptions they hold, or if they are, they take them as “givens.”

Hegel and History

What does philosophy have to do with history? Well, one might argue philosophy is necessary for any interpretation of history to be possible. How can we interpret the raw data of history without a framework for the interpretation of data? How are we to discern what constitutes data in the first place? Is history merely a succession of events, “one thing after another,” or is it a progression? If it is a progression, is it one of peoples, thoughts, ideas, or…?

Hegel argued, rather weirdly, that World History was a progression of the Idea of the World Spirit, the process of God coming to know himself via his expression of himself through the development of history.

Regardless of what one believes about Hegel’s ideas, he had some interesting things to say about the field of history itself. Difficulties arise when we attempt to “learn” form history–to learn moral lessons, or to discern patterns. This is the realm of history, but it is also the realm of philosophy. The very transmission of history involves narration, selection, rationality.

When we have to deal with the Past, and occupy ourselves with a remote world, a Present rises into being for the mind – produced by its own activity, as the reward of its labor. The occurrences are, indeed, various; but the idea which pervades them – their deeper import and connection – is one. This takes the occurrence out of the category of the Past and makes it virtually Present. Pragmatical (didactic) reflections, though in their nature decidedly abstract, are truly and indefeasibly of the Present, and quicken the annals of the dead Past with the life of to-day. Whether, indeed, such reflections are truly interesting and enlivening, depends on the writer’s own spirit. Moral reflections must here be specially noticed – the moral teaching expected from history; which latter has not infrequently been treated with a direct view to the former. It may be allowed that examples of virtue elevate the soul, and are applicable in the moral instruction of children for impressing excellence upon their minds. But the destinies of peoples and states, their interests, relations, and the complicated tissue of their affairs, present quite another field. Rulers, Statesmen, Nations, are wont to be emphatically commended to the teaching which experience offers in history. But what experience and history teach is this – that peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it. Each period is involved in such peculiar circumstances, exhibits a condition of things so strictly idiosyncratic, that its conduct must be regulated by considerations connected with itself, and itself alone. Amid the pressure of great events, a general principle gives no help. It is useless to revert to similar circumstances in the Past. The pallid shades of memory struggle in vain with the life and freedom of the Present. Looked at in this light, nothing can be shallower than the oft-repeated appeal to Greek and Roman examples during the French Revolution. Nothing is more diverse than the genius of those nations and that of our times.

Among us, the so-called “higher criticism,” which reigns supreme in the domain of philology, has also taken possession of our historical literature. This “higher criticism” has been the pretext for introducing all the anti-historical monstrosities that a vain imagination could suggest. Here we have the other method of making the past a living reality; putting subjective fancies in the place of historical data; fancies whose merit is measured by their boldness, that is, the scantiness of the particulars on which they are based, and the peremptoriness with which they contravene the best established facts of history. The last species of Reflective History announces its fragmentary character on the very face of it. It adopts an abstract position; yet, since it takes general points of view (e.g., as the History of Art, of Law, of Religion), it forms a transition to the Philosophical History of the World. In our time this form of the history of ideas has been more developed and brought into notice. Such branches of national life stand in close relation to the entire complex of a people’s annals; and the question of chief importance in relation to our subject is, whether the connection of the whole is exhibited in its truth and reality, or referred to merely external relations. In the latter case, these important phenomena (Art, Law, Religion, etc.) appear as purely accidental national peculiarities. It must be remarked that, when Reflective History has advanced to the adoption of general points of view, if the position taken is a true one, these are found to constitute – not a merely external thread, a superficial series – but are the inward guiding soul of the occurrences and actions that occupy a nation’s annals.

Even the ordinary, the “impartial” historiographer, who believes and professes that he maintains a simply receptive attitude; surrendering himself only to the data supplied him – is by no means passive as regards the exercise of his thinking powers. He brings his categories with him, and sees the phenomena presented to his mental vision, exclusively through these media. And, especially in all that pretends to the name of science, it is indispensable that Reason should not sleep – that reflection should be in full play. To him who looks upon the world rationally, the world in its turn presents a rational aspect. The relation is mutual.

From the introduction to Hegel’s Philosophy of History

What is it like to be a bat?

Thomas Nagel’s now-famous article about the impossibility of using a reductionist approach to understanding human consciousness.

We appear to be faced with a general difficulty about psychophysical reduction. In other areas the process of reduction is a move in the direction of greater objectivity, toward a more, accurate view of the real nature of things. This is accomplished by reducing our dependence on individual or species-specific points of view toward the object of investigation. We describe it not in terms of the impressions it makes on our senses, but in terms of its more general effects and of properties detectable by means other than the human senses. The less it depends on a specifically human viewpoint, the more objective is our description. It is possible to follow this path because although the concepts and ideas we employ in thinking about the external world are initially applied from a point of view that involves our perceptual apparatus, they are used by us to refer to things beyond themselves—toward which we have the phenomenal point of view. Therefore we can abandon it in favor of another, and still be thinking about the same things.

Experience itself however, does not seem to fit the pattern. The idea of moving from appearance to reality seems to make no sense here. What is the analogue in this case to pursuing a more objective understanding of the same phenomena by abandoning the initial subjective viewpoint toward them in favour of another that is more objective but concerns the same thing? Certainly it appears unlikely that we will get closer to the real nature of human experience by leaving behind the particularity of our human point of view and striving for a description in terms accessible to beings that could not imagine what it was like to be us. If the subjective character of experience is fully comprehensible only from one point of view, then any shift to greater objectivity—that is, less attachment to a specific viewpoint—does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it takes us farther away from it.