Intentional Action in Ordinary Language: Core Concept or Pragmatic Understanding?

Fred Adams & Annie Steadman

Intentional action in ordinary language: core concept or pragmatic understanding?

En: Analysis, No. 64, 2004, pp. 173-181.


“Among philosophers, there are at least two prevalent views about the core concept of intentional action. View I (Adams 1986, 1997; McCann 1986) holds that an agent S intentionally does an action A only if S intends to do A. View II (Bratman 1987; Harman 1976; and Mele 1992) holds that there are cases where S intentionally does A without intending to do A, as long as doing A is foreseen and S is willing to accept A as a consequence of S’s action. Joshua Knobe (2003a) presents intriguing data that may be taken to support the second view. Knobe’s data show an asymmetry in folk judgements. People are more inclined to judge that S did A intentionally, even when not intended, if A was perceived as causing a harm (e.g. harming the environment). There is an asymmetry because people are not inclined to see S’s action as intentional, when not intended, if A is perceived as causing a benefit (e.g. helping the environment).

In this paper we will discuss Knobe’s results in detail. We will raise the question of whether his ordinary language surveys of folk judgments have accessed core concepts of intentional action. We suspect that instead Knobe’s surveys are tapping into pragmatic aspects of intentional language and its role in moral praise and blame. We will suggest alternative surveys that we plan to conduct to get at this difference, and we will attempt to explain the pragmatic usage of intentional language.

We suspect that folk notions of intentional action are not clearly articulated. There are many factors required for an action to be performed intentionally. One of them involves the causal relation between an intention and the intended action. Not many folk would have very clear notions of counterfactual causal dependency of action upon intention necessary for intentional action on either view above. If an intention is connected by causal deviance to its conditions of satisfaction, the action is not done intentionally. Few folk would have clear notions of the exact relations of dependency between action and intention to block such causal deviance. Indeed, the exact relation of dependency is still in dispute among philosophers and cognitive scientists. However, almost everyone knows clearly that bad acts done intentionally are morally worse than bad acts done unintentionally. And almost everyone knows that saying ‘you did that on purpose’ is a social way to assign blame and of discouraging actions that one disapproves of. Hence, it is very likely that folk concepts of the pragmatic dimension of intentional talk are more richly understood than the core notions of the cognitive machinery that underlies intentional action.”




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