Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Tanney, J. (1995 / 2013) ‘De-individualising norms of rationality’

I’m reading Julia Tanney’s recent collection Rules, Reason and Self Knowledge. A preliminary skim read has given me a sense of the landscape and that familiar sense that when, for example, an author points in a particular direction and says “There’s a vicious regress here” it seems entirely plausible that there is, even though I could not teach it. So now I’m going back a little more carefully.

As a collection of papers, not all seem to me to be of equal importance or depth. (I should add that one is one of my all time favourite philosophy papers, so I am not being particularly rude.) But one of the key papers is the first: ‘De-individualising norms of rationality’. A key passage, part way through goes:

In ‘How is weakness of the will possible?’ Davidson suggests that the judgment that manifests the relative ranking of reasons — i.e., the result of deliberation — is an “all things considered judgment”. An all things considered judgment is “doubly relativized”. First it is relativized according to the way in which the desire would be satisfied in the commission of the action (say, as in the prima facie judgment: “Spending the weekend in Barcelona is desirable insofar as it is likely to yield adventure”). It is relativized also according to its place with respect to other desires and in light of the agent’s beliefs, principles, and values. This judgment might be something like: “In light of my ranking the opportunity for adventure over prudential concerns, and in light of my beliefs about what spending the weekend in Barcelona will involve, and so on, spending the weekend in Barcelona is desirable”. According to Davidson, this all things considered judgment is conditional in form and thus, like the singly relativized judgments that logically precede it, does not entail the kind of judgment which is a necessary concomitant to intentional action. Again, this latter judgment — which Davidson identifies as an intention — must be unconditional, or derelativized. So the logical gap that exists between the contents of prima facie evaluations, or sentences describing them, and the contents of intentions, or sentences describing them, is still preserved on the extended model between all things considered judgments and actions. The move from a doubly relativized judgment like “Assuming that I have considered all relevant things, I ought to spend the weekend in Barcelona” to an unconditional (derelativized) judgment like “I ought to spend the weekend in Barcelona” is not a move that is prescribed by first-order logic since, presumably, some piece of relevant information not considered might always defeat the claim that I ought to spend the weekend in Barcelona. Thus, the failure to make such a move in one’s thinking cannot (yet) be taken to exhibit a kind of logical inconsistency. [Tanney 2013: 27-8]

We get to this point via the fact that the elements in a standard Davidsonian account of action contain pro-attitudues and beliefs such as:
·         Any act of mine which is likely to yield adventure is desirable
·         Spending the weekend in Barcelona is likely to yield adventure
But these will generate conclusions to a practical syllogism of this form:
·         Any act of mine which is my spending the weekend in Barcelona is one I may judge to be desirable
which seems too strong because other factors might make some such acts undesirable. So Davidson changes the form in ‘How is weakness of the will possible?’ to make the premises and conclusion all expressions of merely prima facie desirability: Any action of mine is desirable insofar as it is likely to yield adventure thus permitting trumping by other factors.

But now the problem is that there is a gap between the outcome of the practical syllogism if, as Davidson thinks, the ‘action itself must correspond to something stronger than a ‘prima facie’ evaluation that the act is desirable in a certain respect; it must correspond to an unconditional or all-out, singular judgment expressing the desirability of a particular action’ [ibid: 25-6] So by what rational step does one get from a relativised prima facie judgement to an un-relativised all out judgement? One thing that is needed is a ranking of competing prima facie reasons. And this is the all things considered judgement (NB not an all out judgement, unconditional) of the passage with which I began. This judgement – which Tanney suggests might be ‘In light of my ranking the opportunity for adventure over prudential concerns, and in light of my beliefs about what spending the weekend in Barcelona will involve, and so on, spending the weekend in Barcelona is desirable’ – still does not imply an all out judgement and no such logical transition is available in standard logic.

So the patch Davidson adds is an extra principle: the principle of continence. This has the additional virtue that its violation promises an account of akrasia.

The principle says that I ought to act in  accordance with my all things considered judgment (and form derelativized judgments or  intentions consistently with it). Davidson calls this a second-order principle, presumably  because it speaks about the deliberation process itself, and does not necessarily get bandied around within it. Introducing the second-order principle allows Davidson to diagnose what  goes wrong in a case of akrasia by pinpointing the norm that has been flouted. [ibid: 30]

The akratic subject is guilty of irrationality, according to Davidson, because s/he violates this second order principle. Tanney cites this bit of Davidson to make plain the idea that the holding of this second order principle is necessary for the akratic to count as properly irrational.

If the agent does not have the principle that he ought to act on what he holds best, everything considered, then though his action may be irrational from our point of view, it need not be  irrational from his point of view — at least not in a way that poses a problem for explanation. For to explain his behaviour we need only say that his desire to do what  he held to be best, all things considered, was not as strong as his desire to do  something else. [Davidson 1982: 297]

So the akratic helps illustrate – through a kind of deficit study – the structure of the normal case. But that prompts the question of whether the ‘patch’ (in Tanney’s phrase) really helps. The key objection is that the principle is not sufficient without begging a question of its own application. The problem is: ‘if my implementation of the principle of continence, say, is needed to move me from an all things considered judgment to action, then why is not a higher-order principle of continence needed to tell me how I am to implement the principle of continence non-akratically, and so on?’ [ibid: 35]

At this point Tanney deploys the regress argument to this initial target.

Is my holding the principle of continence, for example, tantamount to my having a pro-attitude toward my acting in accordance with my all things considered judgment?...
Perhaps the principle of continence is the content of an all things considered judgment. Then I judge, all things considered, that I ought to act in accordance with my all things considered judgments. Now the internal regress is explicit. If holding the principle (judging that I ought to act in accordance with my all things considered judgment) were explanatory of my rational abilities at all, it would only be if the connection between my all things considered judgments and my actions were presupposed. But this was precisely the connection that the principle was invoked to explain.
[Ibid: 36]

But the problem doesn’t just lie with the norm expressed by the principle of continence. That is only one aspect of the ‘practical reasoning process or the logical structure of deliberation’. Others include the links between perception and judgement, conceptual links within judgement as well as judgement to action. But no patch – no higher principle grasped by the subject – will be able explain the subject’s ability to play what Tanney elsewhere calls the ‘rule following game’.

So the patch is not sufficient to explain the ability. But nor is it necessary.

Grasp of the principle of continence is supposed to dictate how the agent acts once he has weighed up his ‘all things considered’ judgement. It glues that judgement to a corresponding action. But in this case, that would be either a judgement that it is better to return to the park or a judgement that it is better to stay on the tram. The outcome depends on the relative strength of those desires. On Davidson’s account, the akratic is only irrational because, despite the fact that his all things considered desire is to stay on the tram, his desire to return to the park trumps the principle of continence which would make him act on the desire is to stay on the tram and thus he returns to the park. But, as Tanney argues, if his all things considered judgement is to stay on the tram, then merely by his status as ‘an agent, a deliberator, a practical reasoner’ he should correct his impulse to return to the park. ‘After all, what is the point of his deliberating if he is not going to act in accordance with his deliberations? Indeed, why would he get as far along in the deliberation process as to reach the all things considered judgment if he will not act in accordance with it?’ [ibid: 34]

So the higher order cannot play the explanatory role Davidson wants for it. That is not to say that it cannot play a diagnostic role in explaining what has gone wrong with someone’s thinking. But it cannot be an ‘object of cognition’ which explains normal success.

In filling out this latter point, Tanney goes, in section 5 of the paper, to reject the idea that tacit knowledge of the principle would be explanatory. The key objection is that this also begs the question of tacitly deploying the principle correctly. Going tacit doesn’t change things. A related alternative is to think of grasp of the principle as a kind of causal instantiation of it in such a way that causally yields correct moves. But this blurs normative rules and causal laws. Causal determinants of action cannot also prescriptively guide action. From this, she concludes that conformity with the norms of rationality is not a cognitive achievement.

There is a strong intuition that we need to make out an internal connection between norms and the individual who acts in accordance with them in order to make sense of the intuition that she acts because of the norms. A disposition to act in accordance with the norms does not seem to give us the right kind of non-contingent relation required for explanation. But, I argue, this relation cannot be made out as a cognitive one such that the norms themselves are objects of knowledge or desired ends and a person engages in reasoning to implement or satisfy them. This is because the “reasoning” here will presuppose the dispositions that attributing these very norms was meant to explain. [ibid: 42]

Now this denial turns on an explanatory connection and seems right to me. It’s a rejection of the ‘intellectualist’ legend. But I still want to hang onto the idea that following a rule correctly can be a case of my having gasped it. In fact, I think that this is a key distinction between rule following and rule accord. Section 6 is aimed against just this idea.

Perhaps attributing to me knowledge of a norm of rationality does not explain my rational abilities either directly, or via second-order explicational abilities, by the arguments above; but perhaps my having knowledge of the norms consists in my ability to justify my actions. And perhaps my having this second-order ability is necessary for me to be considered truly rational. If so, maybe we can make out the sought after “internal” connection after all. My following a rule or obeying a norm, as opposed to my merely acting in accordance with it, might consist in my ability to justify my actions in light of the principle prescribing it. [ibid: 42]

Here Tanny points out a distinction between justifying a move in chess by citing a rule and justifying a rational action by citing a rational norm. In the former case, the justificatory move is not a move within a chess game. But in the latter, the justificatory move is of just the same sort as the ground level move it was supposed to justify.

I am not sure that I follow this. It seems to be a justificatory analogue of the explanatory argument before. In the latter case, the charge is that one cannot deploy higher level principles to explain rule following behaviour because that explanation would beg the question. If rule following behaviour needed explaining, this would not explain it. So in this case, the analogue would be that rule following behaviour cannot be justified by appeal to rules because the justification would beg the question. If it needed justifying, this would not justify it. Such an argument has echoes of Carroll’s ‘Tortoise and Achilles’. But this seems to assume that the only successful justification of rule following behaviour would have to work from a perspective outside rule following. To justify the grasp of a particular rule, one would need to justify the very idea of rule following at all. But that seems an unreasonable demand. An intermediate position would connect an individual’s grasp of a rule with their ability to explain and to justify their behaviour in accord with their conception of the rule but only to those with ‘eyes to see’.

Tanney concludes:

But in what sense, then, do the norms of rationality govern thought and action if they are not properly construed as objects of cognition? The answer is that they set up the practice of ascribing thoughts and action. This is a point often made by Davidson in discussions about the principle of charity. The principles of rationality seem to play the same kind of role. They are not rules or norms that figure in our attributive practices. They are presupposed by it. But if they ground the practice of interpretation, it would be a category mistake to explain features of the practice by individualizing them. [ibid: 44-5]

There seem to me to be two senses of ‘individualise’. On one, rational demands result from a kind of personal bootstrapping of normative force from non-normative elements. But, like Wittgenstein’s regress of interpretations, such justification or explanation faces a regress. On the other, it means something like play a role in a subject’s mental life. But rejecting that, as Tanney seems to, makes the difference of rule following and rule accord merely in the eye of the interpreter. I don’t see why the former needs escalate into the latter.

Tanney, J. (1995 / 2013) ‘De-individualising norms of rationality’ in Rules, Reason and Self Knowledge Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press