Monday, March 16, 2009

Intentionality and the Object of Moral Perception: Ricoeur's Challenge

Ricoeur tantalizingly challenges the Husserlian (and common sense) notion that the intentional object remains the same throughout various intentional acts. Consider, for example, the following: “that person with the heavy bags needs a seat” vs. “that person is standing with heavy bags.” On the common view, the intentional object, “the person standing with heavy bags,” is the same in both cases. This view, that the intentional object is given an identity through an act of understanding, is central to standard accounts of moral perception and is an important point for philosophy of mind and agency.

To work out the common view, let me take a version of the standard account from Angela Smith, who takes moral perception to be a case of “seeing under an aspect” (I do not mean to imply that this is Smith's own view; she suggests that it may be mistaken in the paragraph that follows):
A morally insensitive person may, in a literal perceptual sense, “see” exactly the same thing as a morally sensitive person—for example, that a person is standing on a crowded subway with two very full grocery bags. What differs is that the morally sensitive person sees this person as uncomfortable and in need of a place to sit down, while the morally insensitive person does not. (1, 259)

This point is taken to be independent of the further point about moral perception that a morally sensitive agent is more likely to notice features of her surroundings that call for a moral response (perceptual salience). Here, the issue is rather of how, or under what aspect, the morally sensitive or insensitive person perceives a situation provided that both have already noticed it. And this view—that intentional objects are somehow basic particular units of meaning that, already constituted, can enter into various intentional acts—has some obvious support: If, for example, I am to want to have chicken soup for dinner, then “having chicken soup for dinner” or something of the sort must have a meaning independently of my particular act of wanting it; after all, the very same object must be able to play a role in my epistemic judgments, or else I would never know how to satisfy my desires.

This is the sort of view Ricoeur has in mind. He calls on us to consider the following infinitive proposition: “I am to go on a trip.” This grammatical form

Is a neutral signification which could be incorporated in acts of different quality. It will occur some day that “I shall go on a trip”: here the meaning is at the same time called and held in suspension by its hypothetical modifier. In a decision the meaning is inserted into a positing of existence which is not stated but is affirmed as depending on me… (2, 43)

So what is the common meaning in these intentional acts? Ricoeur rejects the idea that the common meaning is given by a founding act of understanding, which allows it to enter into other intentional acts such as willing, hoping, predicting, etc. Nor “is it a primitive judgment of existence modified afterwards as a wish or a decision” (44).

Ricoeur's own view is that,
this meaning is distinguished only by abstraction from the concrete act of stating, wishing, ordering, or deciding… This proposition is not a judgment about that which I state, hope, command, or will, but a convergent product of abstraction, formed in the context of a reflection on acts and their objects (43-44)
Thus, the intentional object of a wish is not identical to the intentional object of the understanding; the identity of the two objects is not primary, but is established through a later act of abstraction. Similarly, the perception of a person standing with heavy bags will not be identical to the perception of a person with heavy bags in need of a seat: these intentional acts have a different quality, and are filled by different objects. (Ricoeur makes a similar point in “Methods and Tasks of a Phenomenology of the Will,” published in (3), though in similarly vague terms and also without any clear analysis of the implications. If anyone is familiar with further sources, please let me know.)

One way of bringing this out is by going back to the distinction I mentioned above, between seeing something under an aspect and noticing it at all. We can, of course, make this distinction in abstraction, but it is not at all clear that we can draw any fine line. For one thing, to take the example Smith uses, it seems a fact about the situation that the person with heavy bags needs a seat. So the morally sensitive observer is not adding something of his own to the situation; rather, he is simply seeing the situation for what it is. That the person with heavy bags needs a seat is part and parcel of the perceived situation, and it is a feature of the situation that the morally insensitive person simply does not notice. Similarly, an even less sensitive person might fail to notice that the bags are heavy, or might fail to notice a person standing with them at all. “Seeing under an aspect” is easily distinguishable from perceptual salience only if we assume that the “aspect” under which a perception might be seen is something added by the agent’s subjective attitudes, in opposition to what is objectively there to be perceived. But if we accept a moral realist picture, the “aspect” is really there, to be noticed by any sensitive observer in the way that the person with bags is really there.

So why does this matter? For one, if Ricoeur is right, we have to reexamine the standard classification of cognitive and conative acts in terms of directions of fit. For another, it suggests that valuation is integral to perception rather than projected on it, perhaps as some secondary quality. Of course the account would—to pose any serious challenge—still require a serious work-up of how a secondary act of abstraction, through which sameness of meaning is determined, could serve to unite our various judgments (say, judgments about what we want and judgments about how to get it; or judgments about moral responsibility and judgments about moral desirability). In any case, I suspect there is a way to pull off such an analysis by working out exactly how second-order acts govern first-order acts.

PS. What looks like a blue jay just pooped on my copy of Smith's paper. A spirited philosophical debate at last!


(1) Angela Smith, “Responsibility for Attitudes,” Ethics 115 (January 2005): 236-271

(2) Paul Ricoeur, Freedom and Nature. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1966.

(3) Paul Ricoeur, Husserl: An Analysis of His Phenomenology. Chicago: Northwestern, 2007.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Dreyfus and McDowell, Concepts and Coping

I have finally gotten around to reading the Dreyfus-McDowell exchange in Inquiry. It’s fun and quite clear, and I recommend it to everyone. No doubt I will be scribbling more about it in the future, but at this point I want to raise a point about Dreyfus’s odd insistence that expertise is somehow non-conceptual. Not only does McDowell throw clear doubt on the need for such a view of expertise, but Dreyfus’s own examples seem to undermine his point. Sorry about the length of this; I had to write it out to get clearer on it. If I come back to it, I'll keep my points tighter.

McDowell repeatedly makes it clear that, in saying that our experience is permeated by rationality, he does not mean that reflection is constantly operative, nor does he mean that there are general principles in the background of everything we do. Conceptual action and perception are situational, and conceptualization need not be explicit. Thus, McDowell distinguishes between experience that “is embraced by conceptual capacities… that we already had before we enjoyed the experience,” other experience can be isolated and articulated by “annexing bits of language to” it, and “some of the content of a typically rich world-disclosing experience never makes its way into constituting part of the content of our repertoire of conceptual capacities” (347). So while obviously not all of our experience—not even most of it—is articulated in the perception itself, “all its content is present in a form in which… it is suitable to constitute contents of conceptual capacities” (idem).

Dreyfus finally seems to pick up on what McDowell means, and responds with a rather feeble call for proof: “This conclusion [that our coping is permeated with rationality] is supposed to follow from the fact that if one has a capacity—in this case the capacity to use situation-specific concepts—this capacity must be “operative”, as McDowell puts it, in all situations whether or not I am aware of exercising it.” And this, we discover, is a “category mistake”: “Capacities are exercised on occasion, but that does not allow one to conclude that, even when they are not exercised, they are, nonetheless, “operative” and thus pervade all our activities” (372). This is quite weak: Dreyfus is no longer insisting, as he did in earlier parts of the debate, that conceptual capacities cannot be operative in our coping. McDowell’s account has dealt with all the objections to that effect (i.e., the generality objection and the reflection objection I mention above). [There is a pretty amusing bit, where Dreyfus tries to use Aristotle, via Heidegger, against McDowell, pointing out that general principles are not guiding phronesis and thus it cannot be permeated by rationality. Someone whose knowledge of Aristotle seems to be on a par with mine shouldn’t be challenging McDowell on that point, and McDowell immediately points out that obviously neither Aristotle—nor Heidegger—ever suggests that phronesis acts outside the domain of logos.]

Now Dreyfus’s argument is weak in that it is no longer a positive claim about what role conceptual capacities can play in coping. Rather, he is making the point that McDowell’s claim is unproven. Of course he tries to strengthen this appeal to ignorance as refutation, as the above quote suggests: (1) The fact that human beings have a conceptual capacity does not mean that it is always operative. And (2) McDowell has no grounds for claiming that it is always operative, since we cannot find conceptual capacities within the phenomenology of our absorbed coping! Two points strike me as particularly odd. First off, McDowell is clearly not insisting that any capacity that we have must always be operative—that would, indeed, be a lousy ground for the conclusion that a capacity is always operative (I have the capacity to urinate but it is, thankfully, not always operational as such). Second, Dreyfus has apparently reverted to the flaccid, though currently popular, view of phenomenology as description of surface-level phenomena as they are experienced at the time they occur.

It strikes me that McDowell has already answered these objections in the passages cited above; and this exchange makes me wonder how much clearer he would need to be for Dreyfus to admit that he’s picked the wrong fight. Perhaps the problem is that McDowell hasn’t phrased his response in phenomenological terms. So here is a brief attempt: It is true that, when we are engaged in absorbed coping, we are not explicitly aware of any conceptualization occurring. But it makes no sense to take an experience out of context: something happens after my absorbed coping as well: I reflect on it. And something happens before: I am aware, generally, of what I will be doing (though of course I need not have it planned out) and, in the past, have performed similar tasks with explicit conceptual guidance in play. Dreyfus admits this point, but he thinks that after one has gone through the learning phase, where one is guided by concepts, one transcends that stage, becomes and expert, and no longer needs concepts at all. But this is quite odd: if I needed concepts to play chess in the past, is it not reasonable to think that, as I’ve gotten better, I have lost the need to rely on keeping those concepts explicit? But how can this be evidence that they are not present? Dreyfus’s model has the Grand Master playing chess with his body alone but, as McDowell notes, this only makes sense metaphorically.

Moreover, a phenomenological account should recognize that, after my absorbed coping, I know what happened during that time. If asked why I made a certain move, I can give a reason, although I may have to think about it in order to make it explicit. No doubt I cannot explain every feature of my actions, but so what? The fact that I cannot describe every feature of a blade of grass I saw does not mean that I did not see something that fits under the concept “grass.” A correct description of coping experience is going to be misleading, precisely because it involves an attempt to describe an experience that, by definition, was not explicitly thematized at the time it occurred. But a retrospective look can bring out the conceptual features. Why, then, should we focus on the unthematized experience as authoritative, rather than the thematized reappropriation of that experience?

In fact, for someone who supposedly puts a great deal of faith in phenomenology, Dreyfus regularly makes arguments that are underdetermined by the phenomenology. He brings up the example of Chuck Knoblauch who, after thinking too much about what he was doing, lost the ability to throw the ball effortlessly. Dreyfus insists that this supports his view: that conceptualization cannot be behind the throwing, and if it is, then it can only interfere with the absorbed coping. But of course it doesn’t mean that at all. Knoblauch’s inability to throw the ball does not show that the ability relies on a lack of conceptualization, but only that it depends on a lack of explicit conceptualization. As McDowell points out: Knoblauch is now thinking about how to perform a basic action instead of simply performing it. But that does not show that performing the action correctly involves no conceptualization. Dreyfus argues that Knoblauch cannot be using the same conceptual capacities when pitching expertly and when screwing it up, because the content of his intentional states must change: “if it was the same sort of content as before reflection, there would be no way to explain why Knoblauch performs so well under one condition and so poorly in the other” (360). But isn’t it obvious that Knoblauch’s problem is not with the content, but with how he makes use of that content? The entire line of though appears misguided.

Here is the basic issue, then. Dreyfus keeps missing McDowell’s insistence that our experience must have a form that makes it suitable for conceptualization. It is in this sense that experience is permeated by rationality. And—as McDowell keeps stressing here and in Mind and World—without this suitability, it is unclear how we could articulate our experience at all, or how we could explain what we were doing when we were absorbed.

What drives the point home for me, however, is Dreyfus’s list of absorbed coping activities. Aside from Grand Master chess playing, “something similar happens to each of us when any activity from taking a walk, to being absorbed in a conversation, to giving a lecture is going really well” (373). And this looks bizarre from the start: perhaps I can take a walk without conceptual guidance (at least, this is plausible on its face), but giving a non-conceptual lecture is something only a true Master—like Avital Ronell—can pull off. (Yes, I just saw “The Examined Life”… No, I can’t get over her claim that “meaning is fascist” or whatever.)

Here is the clearest example Dreyfus gives to explain how he thinks we monitor our absorbed coping without being guided by concepts: An airport radio beacon signals a pilot if his plane is off course; but if everything is going well, if the plane is on course, the beacon is silent. But the beacon is doing something, since “the silence that accompanies being on course doesn’t mean the beacon isn’t continuing to guide the plane. Likewise, in the case of perception, the absence of tension doesn’t mean the body isn’t being constantly guided by the solicitations” (358). In other words: the body guides itself, based on past experience. Conceptualization is needed only in case something goes wrong. But this cannot be right. Consider: When I am lecturing, no matter how absorbed, I never swear, although I swear habitually over beer with friends. I do not swear during a lecture and suddenly, realizing something is wrong, snap out of my absorption. So at the very least my lecturing is conceptually guided: I am speaking in lecture mode, not in arguing with friends over beer mode. And while I need not be explicitly aware that I am lecturing in order to lecture well—while that awareness would obviously detract from my absorption, since it would involve one thought too many—it must be guiding my activity. Perhaps my body knows how to tell lecturing apart from heatedly defending a point to a friend, but if my body is so smart, what does it need me for? Our concepts become explicit during a breakdown, when things go wrong. But—and this is the key question McDowell must pose to Dreyfus—those concepts could not become explicit in a breakdown unless our experience was of the form to be conceptualized in the first place.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Embryonic Souls and Moral Standing

You gotta love the religious argument pretending not to be a religious argument.
Princeton University politics professor Robert George, a Catholic and another member of the Bush-era Council on Bioethics, said the moral argument over embryonic stem cell research is not rooted in religion but in ethics and equality. He said research shows that an embryo is a human being in its earliest form of development, so we have to ask ourselves whether all human life should be treated equally, with dignity and respect.
Wait, what? How do we read the claim that "research shows that an embryo is a human being in its earliest form of development"? Let's look at the claim: "embryo"="human being in its earliest form of development." Well, uhm, duh. If we're talking about human embryos, and we agree with the (to my knowledge uncontested) research that humans develop from human embryos, I suppose this is mostly right. Of course it is also ambiguous and clearly unfit--at least as it stands--as a premise in a moral argument for the moral considerability of embryos.

1: The statement might be claiming that an embryo is the earliest form of development of a human being. This may, however, be viewed as arbitrary: Why is the embryo the earliest form? Why not sperm and ova?

2: If we take the statement literally, however, it is claiming that a human embryo is a human being, though one in its earliest stage of development, just as infants are human beings in an earlier stage of development than tenured professors. This reading seems to me to resolve the arbitrariness problem above. But it obviously fails as a premise for any moral argument:

(a) If "human being" is meant simply in some biological sense of having the right sort of genetic make-up, no moral conclusions can follow from the true premise that a human embryo has human genes. (Unless having human genes guarantees possession of a soul, but George rules out this reading.)

(b) If the claim is one of potentiality, that a human embryo can, under appropriate conditions, develop into a human to whom we have moral obligations, then it gives in itself no reason why embryos should have the same moral status as the humans into which they will develop--if anything, it seems to support the opposite conclusion.

(c) If, finally, the claim is that human embryos are human beings in the sense of having the moral standing properly accorded to, say, adult human beings, it is obviously question-begging as a premise in the argument that embryos have the same moral standing as adult human beings.
"I don't think the question has anything to do with religion or pulling out our microscope and trying to find souls," George said. "We live in a pluralistic society where some people believe there are no such things as souls. Does that mean we should not have moral objections to killing 17-year-old adolescents?"
I can't imagine how this is relevant. Obviously if the only reason human beings have moral standing is that they have souls, it will follow that anyone who does not believe in souls has no reason not to kill 17-year-olds. Fortunately, soul-ownership is not the reason why killing people is wrong. (I am still not entirely sure how it could be any kind of moral reason in the first place.) The question, then, is whether our moral reasons for not harming other human beings can be extended without degradation of meaning or moral force to embryos. But that question obviously cannot be resolved by simply stipulating that embryos are human beings in the relevant sense, in the way that 17-year-olds clearly are human beings in the relevant sense. So if you don't assume from the outset that moral considerability depends on having a soul and that, furthermore, embryos have souls, the supposedly research-based claim that "an embryo is a human being in its earliest form of development" is hardly helpful.

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