Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Davidson on Pro-Attitudes: Evaluative and Dispositional

As is well known, Davidson sees actions as events caused by reasons, which themselves involve a combination of a belief and a pro-attitude. Davidson, and many others, often use “desire” in place of “pro-attitude”, though we do best to keep in mind that this use of desire is meant to be very broad. These pro-attitudes are supposed to be mental states, capable of both playing a causal role (when re-described appropriately as physical states) and a rationalizing role (that involves making the action they cause intelligible, both to observers and the agent). I’ve started to get concerned, though, about whether Davidson’s accounts of what pro-attitudes are can be sufficient.

First, we can start out with Davidson’s earliest account of pro-attitudes, given in “Actions, Reasons, and Causes”. Here, under the category of pro-attitudes

are to be included desires, wantings, urges, promptings, and a great variety of moral views, aesthetic principles, economic prejudices, social conventions, and public and private goals and values in so far as these can be interpreted as attitudes of an agent directed toward actions of a certain kind. The word ‘attitude’ does yeoman service here, for it must cover not only permanent character traits that show themselves in a lifetime of behaviour, like love of children or a taste for loud company, but also the most passing fancy that prompts a unique action, like a sudden desire to touch a woman’s elbow (A&E, 4)
There is already, I think, something a bit off here. Keep in mind that the point of introducing pro-attitudes as essential to the action-producing causal sequence is that they are supposed to rationalize an action, i.e., to make it intelligible. But the introduction of passing fancies into the mix seems to undermine that. There is no doubt that at least some actions do arise as the result of passing fancies. But it is not clear how such fancies can help make actions intelligible: that is, the action may well be intelligible in light of the fancy, but the fancy itself is not intelligible. If the entire point of introducing pro-attitudes is to ensure that it is possible to make sense of actions, then pro-attitudes that seemingly spring out of nowhere don’t help; if we’ve identified the proximal cause of an event but not the cause of that cause, we haven’t really given a causal explanation of the event at all; we’ve only pushed that explanation back a step, resting satisfied with having done very little. The passing fancy does not, by itself, serve to make sense of the action: something else is needed to make the fancy itself meaningful. This suggests to me a tension in two ways in which pro-attitudes play explanatory roles: their explanatory role as making an action rational, and their explanatory role as making the action intelligible. For Davidson, these are the same thing—intelligibility implies rationality—but the above considerations suggest to me that the connection is not so direct.

Let’s move on to an account of what pro-attitudes must be like if they are to have a role in making an action rational. For a mental state to rationalize something is for that state to be capable of playing a role as a premise in a practical syllogism. The state’s contribution to rationalizing an action, then, is provided by its content, which Davidson characterizes in “Intending” as follows:

The agent’s pro attitude is perhaps a desire or a want; let us suppose he wants to improve the taste of the stew. But what is the corresponding premise?... we do not want a description of his desire, but an expression of it in a form in which he might use it to arrive at an action. The natural expression of his desire is, it seems to me, evaluate in form; for example, ‘It is desirable to improve the taste of the stew,’ or, ‘I ought to improve the taste of the stew.’ We may suppose different pro attitudes are expressed with other evaluative words in place of ‘desirable’. (A&E, 86)

Davidson is completely right, I think, in pointing out that the propositional content of a desire cannot be something like “to improve the taste of the stew”, or “the taste of the stew is improved.” That content could play no role in a practical syllogism, because it is missing the crucial element needed at this point in the practical syllogism, namely, the evaluation.

Davidson sometimes suggests that the propositional content of mental states is all that we need to know about them in order to understand how they function as mental states. For example, in “Problems in the Explanation of Action,” he tells us that,

beliefs, desires, intentions, and intentional actions must, as we have seen, be identified by their semantic contents in reason-explanations. The semantic contents of attitudes and beliefs determine their relations to one another and to the world in ways that meet at least rough standards of consistency and correctness. (PR, 114)
Now this is partly right: to understand an agent’s action, we need to know why she thought the action worth performing, and the evaluative claim tells us this. But we should also note that the content so given does not exhaust what there is to be said about the mental state. This is fairly obvious from the fact that the judgment is carried out in evaluative terms such as “it is desirable” or “I ought to”, etc. Such evaluative terms as “ought” and “desirable”, if we are to make sense of them and not simply of their place in a practical syllogism, require a further account in terms of the non-propositional features of states such as desire or obligation. So an account of pro-attitudes in terms of evaluations is not exhaustive; something needs to be added. But what?

Davidson seems to suggest an answer to this while explaining why we need reference to pro-attitudes in action explanation:

To deny the need for a pro-attitude in the etiology of action is to lose an important explanatory aid. If a person is constituted in such a way that if he believes that by acting in a certain way he will crush a snail he has a tendency to act in that way, then in this respect he differs from most other people, and this difference will help explain why he acts as he does. The special fact about how he is constituted is one of his causal powers, a disposition to act under specified conditions in specific ways. Such a disposition is what I mean by a pro-attitude. (PR, 108)
On this account, pro-attitudes are dispositions to behave in a certain way. But this account is clearly insufficient to explain what pro-attitudes or mental states in general are, since dispositions to behave in certain ways might not be mental, intentional, or propositional at all. So Davidson’s claim that a disposition to act in specific ways under specified conditions is “what I mean by a pro-attitude” is confusing: such dispositions are not at all what Davidson means by a pro-attitude, unless those dispositions include an evaluative content. Moreover, there are—as Davidson recognizes—plenty of pro-attitudes that never issue in action at all, and so there are pro-attitudes that do not yield themselves to a dispositional account except counterfactually. Understanding pro-attitudes as dispositions helps us to make actions intelligible, but not necessarily rational, in the way that understanding the molecular structure of salt and water makes the solubility of salt intelligible without rationalizing it.

The difficulty, then, is that Davidson seems to have several different accounts of pro-attitudes, none of which are sufficient to explain what pro-attitudes are. What does seem necessary for a pro-attitude to play the role Davidson needs it to play is its evaluative content. But this evaluative content requires a further, non-evaluative element, in order to explain its evaluative meaning; at the same time, we need a further element in order to explain how pro-attitudes as such can be meaningful for an agent, a point brought out by cases of “passing fancy” problem. But this further element, in turn, cannot be provided by a dispositional account, since the dispositional account only provides an account of pro-attitudes if we already assume the evaluative account. The evaluative account explains the action as rational, but does not explain why the agent performs the action, only how her performing it might make sense in rational terms; it neither makes sense of the motivating force of particular pro-attitudes, nor does it explain how the attitudes themselves are meaningful for the agent. The force of the evaluation remains unclear. But that force cannot be provided by the dispositional account, since that account already assumes the evaluative account; otherwise it would not be an account of pro-attitudes at all. My suggestion, then, is that both accounts of pro-attitudes given by Davidson require a phenomenological account as a foundation in order to make sense of the motivational and meaning-bestowing power of pro-attitudes.

A&E=Donald Davidson, Essays on Actions and Events. Clarendon, 1980.
PR=Donald Davidson, Problems of Rationality. Clarendon, 2004.

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