Human beings act together in characteristic ways. Forms of shared activity matter to us a great deal, both intrinsically – think of friendship and love, singing duets, and the joys of conversation – and instrumentally – think of how we frequently manage to work together to achieve complex goals. My focus will be on activities of small, adult groups in the absence of asymmetric authority relations within those groups. My approach begins with an underlying model of individual planning agency, and then seeks a conceptual and metaphysical bridge from such individual planning agency to modest forms of sociality.
Suppose you and I are painting a house together. What makes this a shared intentional activity? We could imagine a contrast case in which we each intentionally go through the same motions as we do when we paint the house together, and yet there is no shared intentional activity. Perhaps we are each set only on our individual painting project and respond to each other only with an eye to avoiding collisions. Echoing Wittgenstein's question about the difference, in the individual case, between my arm's rising and my raising it, we can ask: what is the difference between such a contrast case and shared intentional activity? In the case of individual human action we can see the difference as involving an explanatory role of relevant intentions of the individual agent.
TWO APPROACHES TO INSTRUMENTAL RATIONALITY
Suppose I intend end E, believe that a necessary means to E is M, and believe that M requires that I intend M. My attitudes concerning E and M engage a basic requirement of practical rationality, a requirement that, barring a change in my cited beliefs, I either intend M or give up intending E. Call this the Instrumental Rationality requirement – for short, the IR requirement.
Suppose now that I believe that E, and I also believe that E will only occur if M. My beliefs engage a basic demand of theoretical rationality, a demand that, roughly, either there be a change in at least one of these two beliefs or I believe M. Call this the Belief-Closure requirement – for short, the BC requirement. BC, note, is not a consistency demand on my beliefs: failure to add the further belief that M need not involve inconsistency in the way that adding a belief that not-M would. Nevertheless, something like BC seems a basic rationality constraint on belief.
Both IR and BC express constraints on the coherence of the agent's relevant attitudes; and these constraints are aspects of the normal rational functioning, in the psychic economy of believing-and-intending agents, of the cited attitudes. The intentions and beliefs of such agents will tend to be responsive to these constraints. But the requirements differ in important ways.
PLANNING AND CORE ELEMENTS OF AUTONOMY
Humans seem sometimes to be autonomous, self-governed agents: Their actions seem at times to be not merely the upshot of antecedent causes but, rather, under the direction of the agent herself in ways that qualify as a form of governance by that agent. What sense can we make of this apparent phenomenon of governance by the agent herself?
Well, we can take as given for present purposes that human agents have complex psychological economies and that we frequently can explain what they do by appeal to the functioning of these psychological economies. She raised her arm because she wanted to warn her friend; she worked on the chapter because of her plan to finish her book; she helped the stranger because she knew this was the right thing to do; he left the room because he did not want to show his anger. These are all common, everyday instances of explaining action by appeal to psychological functioning. In doing this, we appeal to attitudes of the agent: beliefs, intentions, desires, and so on. The agent herself is part of the story; it is, after all, her attitudes that we cite. These explanations do not, however, simply refer to the agent; they appeal to attitudes that are elements in her psychic economy. The attitudes they cite may include attitudes that are themselves about the agent and her attitudes – desires about desires, perhaps. But what does the explanatory work is, in the end, the functioning of (perhaps in some cases higher-order) attitudes. These explanations are, I will say, nonhomuncular.
THE AUTONOMY-HIERARCHY THESIS
In autonomous action the agent herself directs and governs the action. But what is it for the agent herself to direct and to govern? One theme in a series of articles by Harry G. Frankfurt is that we can make progress in answering this question by appeal to higher-order conative attitudes. Frankfurt's original version of this idea is that in acting of one's own free will, one is not acting simply because one desires so to act. Rather, it is also true that this desire motivates one's action because one desires that this desire motivate one's action. This latter desire about the motivational role of one's desire is a second-order desire. It is, in particular, what Frankfurt calls a second-order “volition.” And, according to Frankfurt's original proposal, acting of one's own free will involves in this way such second-order, and sometimes yet higher order, volitions.
Frankfurt's hierarchical proposal has met with a number of challenges and has been subject to clarification and emendation. I myself have elsewhere tried to map out some details of this debate. My concern here, however, is with the very idea that there is a close connection between autonomous agency and motivational hierarchy.
Of course, much depends on what kind of close connection one has in mind. Some might argue that all cases of human autonomous agency essentially involve motivational hierarchy. But I will focus on a somewhat weaker claim.
Our intentions are sometimes shared. You and I might intend to sing a duet together, to paint the house together, to play basketball together, to have a conversation together. Such shared intentions help to organize and to unify our intentional agency in important ways. Further, as Margaret Gilbert has emphasized, in many cases in which you and I have such a shared intention we see each other as in some ways obligated to each other to play our respective roles.
In “Shared Intention” I sketched an account of the nature of shared intentions of small groups, in the absence of authority relations. With respect to a group consisting of you and me, and concerning joint activity J, my proposal was as follows:
Shared Intention Thesis (SI thesis): We intend to J if and only if
(a) I intend that we J and (b) you intend that we J.
I intend that we J in accordance with and because of (1)(a), (1)(b), and meshing subplans of (1)(a) and (1)(b); you intend that we J in accordance with and because of (1)(a), (1)(b), and meshing subplans of (1)(a) and (1)(b).
(1) and (2) are common knowledge between us.
I argued that such a complex of interlocking intentions of the individuals would play the basic roles characteristic of shared intention, namely, coordinate the intentional conduct and planning of each of us, and structure relevant bargaining between us, in ways that track the goal of our J-ing. My argument for this claim made no explicit appeal to obligations and entitlements that may be generated by such an interlocking web of intentions.
In practical reasoning and action we seek to realize our intentions and satisfy our desires in the light of what we believe. Or so we are taught to say. In this essay I question the last clause and suggest that the cognitive attitudes guiding practical reasoning and action go beyond our beliefs. I begin by locating my problem within the planning conception of practical reasoning I have developed elsewhere (Bratman 1987).
PRIOR PLANS AND THE BACKGROUND OF DELIBERATION
As I see it, prior intentions and partial plans play central roles as inputs into the practical reasoning and action of intelligent agents like us: agents with serious resource limitations and with basic needs for coordination, both social and intrapersonal. In particular, prior plans structure and guide further practical reasoning in two major ways. First, one's plans are subject to demands for coherence, given one's beliefs. Prior plans are typically partial, but as time goes by they must be filled in in appropriate ways in order to avoid incoherence. Second, one's plans need to be consistent both internally and with one's beliefs. These consistency constraints create a filter on options to be considered in further deliberation as potential solutions to problems posed by threats of incoherence in one's partial plans.
This gives us a three-stage model of practical reasoning. First, one's prior partial plans generate problems, given threats of incoherence. Second, one tries to specify options that would be at least partial solutions to the problems posed and would satisfy the cited consistency constraints.
SHARED COOPERATIVE ACTIVITY: THREE FEATURES
We have a recognizable and important concept of a shared cooperative activity. This concept picks out a distinctive kind of interpersonal interaction, one that many of us see as important in our lives. You and I might sing a duet together, paint a house together, take a trip together, build something together, or run a give-and-go together in a basketball game. In many such cases ours will be a shared cooperative activity. Such shared cooperative activities can involve large numbers of participating agents and can take place within a complex institutional framework – consider the activities of a symphony orchestra following its conductor. But to keep things simple I will focus here on shared cooperative activities that involve only a pair of participating agents and are not the activities of complex institutions with structures of authority.
Shared cooperative activity (SCA) involves, of course, appropriate behaviors. If you and I successfully engage in the SCA of painting the house together then, of course, we paint the house together. But we might paint the house together without acting cooperatively. Perhaps neither of us even knows of the other's activities, or though we each know of the other's activities neither of us cares.
Given appropriate behaviors, what else is needed for ours to be a SCA? Suppose that you and I sing a duet together, and that this is a SCA. I will be trying to be responsive to your intentions and actions, knowing that you will be trying to be responsive to my intentions and actions.
In Choice: The Essential Element in Human Action Alan Donagan argued for the importance of “will” to our shared understanding of intelligent action. By “will” Donagan meant a complex of capacities for forming, changing, retaining, and sometimes abandoning our choices and intentions. (Choice is, for Donagan, a “determinate variety of intending.”) Our capacity to intend is to be distinguished both from our capacity to believe and from our capacity to be moved by desires. And Donagan thought that intentions involve what, following Austin, he called “ ‘as it were’ plans.”
I am broadly in agreement with these main themes in Donagan's book, and I will pretty much take them for granted in what follows. I will suppose that intention is a distinctive attitude, not to be reduced to ordinary desires and beliefs; that intentions are central to our shared understanding of ourselves as intelligent agents; and that “the study of intention” is in part the “study of planning.” My hope is that these common elements in our views about intention can serve as a basis for reflection on the phenomenon of shared intention.
That we do sometimes have intentions that are in an important sense shared seems clear. We commonly report or express such shared intentions by speaking of what we intend or of what we are going to do or are doing. Speaking for you and myself I might say that we intend to paint the house together, to sing a duet together; and I might say that we are going to New York together.
We are planning agents. Our purposive activity is typically embedded in multiple, interwoven quilts of partial, future-directed plans of action. We settle in advance on such plans of action, fill them in, adjust them, and follow through with them as time goes by. We thereby support complex forms of organization in our own, temporally extended lives and in our interactions with others; and we do this in ways that are sensitive to the limits on our cognitive resources. These facts are, I believe, an important key to an adequate philosophical treatment of (1) the very idea of intention, (2) basic features of our agency, (3) important forms of shared agency, and (4) important forms of responsible agency.
I discussed planning agency, and its significance to (1) and (2), in my 1987 book, Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason. Since then I have tried to elaborate and to deepen this approach, to extend it to (3) and to (4), and to explore its relations to the work of others. The present volume of previously published work includes eleven essays that were the result of this effort, as well as a pair of earlier critical studies that also seemed useful to include.
At the heart of my theory is a model of our planning agency and the attempt to use it to understand intention. I call this the planning theory of intention. The main idea is to see intentions as elements of stable, partial plans of action concerning present and future conduct.
INSTRUMENTALITY RATIONAL PLANNING AGENCY
We frequently settle in advance on prior, partial plans for future action, fill them in as time goes by, and execute them when the time comes. Such planning plays a basic role in our efforts to organize our own activities over time and to coordinate our own activities with those of others. These forms of organization are central to the lives we want to live.
Not all purposive agents are planning agents. Nonhuman animals who pursue their needs and desires in the light of their representations of their world may still not be planning agents. But it is important that we are planning agents. Our capacities for planning are an all purpose means, basic to our abilities to pursue complex projects, both individual and social.
Why do we need to settle on prior plans in the pursuit of organized activity? A first answer is that there are significant limits on the time and attention we have available for reasoning. Such resource limits argue against a strategy of constantly starting from scratch – they argue against a strategy of never treating prior plans as settling a practical question. A second answer is that our pursuit of organization and coordination depends on the predictability to us of our actions. Coordinated, organized activity requires that we be able reliably to predict what we will do; and we need to be able to predict this despite both the complexity of the mechanisms underlying our behavior and our cognitive limitations in understanding those mechanisms.
In an important and fascinating series of papers, spanning a decade and a half, Donald Davidson has sketched a general theory of intention, a theory that tries to explain what it is to do something intentionally, what it is to intend to do something later, and how these two phenomena are related. In this paper I say what this theory is, argue that it faces a pair of serious difficulties, and diagnose these difficulties as rooted in an overly limited conception of the role of intentions and plans in practical reasoning.
DAVIDSON'S THEORY: MAIN IDEAS
Davidson begins with intentional action. In his classic paper ‘Actions, Reasons and Causes’, he sketches the following general view. Intentional action is action that is explainable, in the appropriate way, by appeal to the agent's reasons for action. The reasons that explain intentional actions are appropriate pairs of the agent's desires (and other ‘pro-attitudes’) and beliefs. When one acts for a, certain reason an appropriate desire–belief pair causes one's action. Suppose, for example, that I intentionally go to Davies Hall because I want to hear Pavarotti sing and believe going to Davies Hall would be a way of doing this. Since I act for this reason, the pro-attitude and belief cause my action.
This conception of intentional action makes no essential appeal to any distinct state or event of intending to go to Davies Hall that intervenes between my desire–belief pair and my action.
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