Via Reuters Kiyomura K.K., a Tokyo-based sushi chain, paid a record 155.4 million yen ($1.76 million), almost triple last year’s amount, to outbid an affiliate...
Intentions and Commitments
Analyzing the statement “I intend to do X, although it is a mistake from every point of view” we can establish the relationship between reasons and intentions and reveal the absurdity of the statement. If we make the claim in the third person, or in the past tense (i.e. separate the speaker from the statement) the absurdity disappears making clear the different assumptions and requirements of these different positions. The nature of these distinctions is examined by Hampshire as he tackles this question of intentions and the nature of reasons is illuminated by Collins.
by Phin Upham
One of the essential characteristics of intentions must be direct of indirect claims about the future. One may take this future claim from different perspectives, but the content of the claim must apply to a time ahead of the claim itself. So one might sensibly say “I intended to do X fifty years ago,” but one may not sensibly say “I intend to do X yesterday.” Thus, as Hampshire explains, a statement of intention is a statement about the future. The belief in free will and in inductively predictable effects of actions are indispensable to intention. It is nonsensical to say “I intend it to rain tomorrow” unless you believe your actions can be causally related in a meaningful way to rain (i.e. you own a cloud-seeding airplane). Similarly, it is nonsensical to speak of “intending to grow older” if you know that aging is independent of your will. Lastly, an intention must imply a desire, preference or goal. As Collins points out “I will take a ferry because the bridge is closed” implies that you desire to cross the river and have the goal of getting to work. Thus intentions are resolves to future action based on the ability to be self-controlling and on belief in the possibility of the chosen effect of your actions.
With this in mind, is the statement: “I intend to do X, although it is a mistake from every point of view,” absurd? Yes, to deny the absurdity would be to separate reasons and intentions. Reasons and intentions as Hampshire points out, though not causally related are nevertheless connected. Reasons are the ground upon which intentions are based. Hampshire explains the fine points of this connection by differentiating reasons needed for an intention to make sense in a 1st person account and a 3rd person account. He claims that reasons given for an intention in a 3rd person account are more akin to justifications and are meant primarily to defend against the claim of carelessness. If asked why I intent to do X, I might give a string of reasons, but while this may explain why it is not a downright mistake to do X to others, it does not show me why I ought to do X. Hampshire says that “[if challenged] I would give you grounds for believing my statement, although I would not give you my grounds, or evidence, or source, since I do not have, or require, any grounds, or evidence, or source (69).” Instead, Hampshire claims, my internal method for coming to an intention “typically would include thought of my objectives, of what I want to happen, and of the likely-hood of these desirable things happening if I am present at the meeting (68).” Hampshire continues his discussion by analyzing the very question we are addressing. He skillfully concludes that the statement is absurd and insincere because to claim that doing X is an unqualified mistake implies that one does not intend to do it. After all, “one is sincere insofar as there is a normal and regular correspondence, or matching, between what one thinks and feels and what one overtly says and does (72).”
Hampshire claims that to make a statement such as “I intend to do X, although it is a mistake from every point of view” is to imply that I am forced, or have no choice but to do X. It is here that Hampshire is most convincing. If I make a statement about the future involving an intention I am implicitly making a judgment about how the future will be “I am in a position to pronounce on the merits, the truth or credibility, or the proposition about the future; if this connection is broken, the notion of my being free to [do the action] becomes unintelligible (71).” Hampshire establishes that an intention implies inductive guesses about the future. The reasons for an action consists of these inductive guesses in combination with certain preferences. I intend to do X in order to affect something in a certain preferable way. One cannot sensibly make a choice between future states (make an intention) without implicitly expressing a preference. Collins argues that in expressing a reason for doing something one is implying an assertion that the reason is valid. One might apply Collin’s logic to Hampshire’s analysis and conclude that a statement about the future necessarily implies a assertion of preference among possible future states. In order to choose one state over another (which is a necessary criterion of this free, meaningful choice) one necessarily expresses a preference. And is it not nonsensical to have a preference for something one knows to be a miss-take? The very idea of mistake implies a preference for a different outcome or choice. Since a preference is an assertion, a mistake must be unintentional The absurdity becomes clear.
What if I were to change the statement into the 3rd person or into a statement about the past? Then “he intended to do X, although it is a mistake from every point of view” and “I intended to do X, although it was a mistake from every point of view” are intelligible. What changed? Collins might claim that the position of the speaker has been separated from the intention. Thus the speaker no longer asserts the intention to be valid. Therefor the speaker’s knowledge that the intention was a mistake does not effect the intention itself. It is not enough for the intention to be wrong or mistaken for the statement that it is an intention to be absurd – the person who is making the decision must (at that time) believe that it is an error. It is a very different thing to say that an intention is absurd and to say that an intention is mistaken. Moreover, the absurdity of the intention can be restored if you replace the knowledge of the error back onto the person making the decision while he is making it. “He intended to do X, although he knew it was a mistake from every point of view” makes the statement of intention absurd again. The change in distance from the first to the third person does not change the nature of the statement more or less. Instead the statement becomes a horse of a different color. The 1st person speaker is making an assertion that his intention represents a choice that is preferable while the 3rd person speaker makes no such claim at all.
The nature of intentions and commitments has now been at least partially illuminated. They express implicit assertions of preference about the future. The existence of these preferences rest on the ability to be self-controlling (free will), on a belief in the knowable effect of your actions (induction), and on a goal. The shift from 1st to 3rd person removes the knowledge of outcome from the person making the intention and thus releases him from the absurd claim that he prefers a mistake. But is the idea of preferring a mistake necessarily absurd? If it is, then we are satisfied in our conclusion, but if it is not, then we must conclude that the claim is not absurd. At first it may seem that it is possible to prefer a mistake, but on closer examination it seems clear that it is not. If we think of mistakes as absolute then our argument falls. For example, if “cutting off a healthy hand” were in principle an absolute mistake from every point of view, even if it were necessary to save one’s life, as in Borges’ tale, “The Challenge,” then the argument would fail. In Dostoyevsky’s tale Notes From Underground the Underground Man wishes to exercise his free will by making an irrational decision. He allows himself to die slowly and painfully without medical treatment. His act was not absurd. But was it a mistake from every point of view? No, it is a question of discerning the goal. The Underground Man’s goal was to express true free will, undetermined even by self-interest, so he preferred to act as he did. His intention to act as he did was necessarily not a mistake as taken from his own point of view. Therefore the idea of mistake, at least from a 1st person perspective is relative to one’s particular goals and desires. We are now satisfied that preferring a mistake from every point of view is non-sensical and that an intention implicitly asserts a preference. We can only conclude that therefore it is absurd to intend to do something that is a mistake from every point of view.
About the Author
Phin Upham is an investor who lives in NYC and San Francisco. He has studied at Harvard University and Wharton Business School (UPenn) and is a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.