Saturday, 1 June 2013

Garrath Williams on the claims that actions make

I will try to summarise Garrath Williams’ stimulating presentation at the UCLan philosophy research seminar this week and then frame my lingering doubts as to whether I really understood the main idea. (The bitty style is the result of taking notes, not the presentation.)

The main claim seemed to be that actions enact normative claims and thus, through actions, normativity is introduced into the world. That slogan was meant to diverge from a conventional view in which actions are distinguished from mere movements by a machinery of mental states (eg the beliefs and desires which cause it, on the familiar Davidsonian view). On Williams’ view, the action itself and the claim it makes are closer. It was also supposed to fit better a view of the moral significance of action (and that seems to be the species of normativity in the idea that an action enacts a normative claim). If someone has moral authority, then she exercises this in all she does and says.

The presentation had three sections.
One, on the Kantian heritage of the claim and some potential objections to it.
Two, two motivations and two arguments for thesis.
Three how objections can be accommodated. I will try to summarise these in turn.

Section 1: The Kantian background. 

Viewing actions as normative claims is a Kantian idea. It recalls the idea that connects what is good with enacting a maxim. On Williams’ view, each action advocates a piece of advice but this idea can be separated from the more inflationary metaphysical baggage of the traditional Kantian picture. Being a responsible person involves making normative claims and counter claims. Being a responsible person is a non-natural fact: a matter of mutual recognition. (I wasn’t sure whether this made it a purely attributive notion or whether the attribution was correct in virtue of something independent of it. There is a similar issue, though not about norms, in Dennett and Davidson. But he did say that he wished to play up inter subjective factors and be less psychologistic than conventional accounts.)

Four objections:
1: we don’t have a maxim in mind, so the account is psychologically implausible.
2: many actions dont seem to follow maxims or make claims. So it is normatively extravagant.
3: effects may go missing by contrast with maxims, ie not material enough.
4: even when action does raise issues, it is often hard to work out what the claim is. Diverse possibility of interpretation of action.

Section 2: Two motivations and two arguments.

The two motivations ran as follows:
1: if actions make or enact a norm claim then there is a quick link to why they call out for moral assessment. Cf the connection between beliefs and truth.
2: if an action counts as a false claim then it calls for rebuttal. Hence we have a reason to ask whether it contributes to the framework of norms we share and to people responsible in order to rebut wrong claims. 

The two arguments ran:
1: What matters is not the psychology of the doer but the relation to audience. Normally an action enacts a normative claim because it is the way others learn where we stand as agents.

2: Consider the example of walking down the pavement without looking where one is going. This suggests that one thinks that others have a duty to get out of the way. Even the solitary act of buttering toast in one’s kitchen is a claim that one is allowed to use one’s possessons and hence that others have a duty not to interfere. Even innocent actions implicate others. (But, Williams conceded, it would go beyond the data to say that the agent is committed to property rights. ) Psychologically, agents may not want to make claims about others. But no responsible person is entitled to make that refusal. They have no choice but to create a normative framework. So each agent is duty bound to contribute to upholding norms. So if their actions rely on various conditions, then they may be understood as claiming that.

Section 3: The four objections again.

1: the account isnt meant to be psychological. We take for granted that people reveal their commitments. That actions set precedents.

2: what of trivial actions? Not as trivial as they seem. There’s a wider normative context. But the normative claims of trivial actions is not relevant to others. It is not other people’s business to ask what the actions mean.

3: take the example of common assault. The agent of an assault has made an extraordinary claim about the victim. Intuitively, the agent has to retract the claim by acknowledging effects. So effects do not go missing on the account.

4: problems of interpretation. But that is true of any account. It is a basic fact of social life. The meaning of action is often hard to make out. Normative claims of private actions whatever norm they do express are not challenging others.

In a final comment, I think I heard Williams to say that the central claim is also a kind of normative injunction: not just that actions do enact claims but we should treat actions as enacting norms.

All this left me with the following worry. If I heard the claim correctly, the thesis was about the meaning or content of actions, their intentionality. In other words, whilst Williams rejected the mechanics of inner states that is often taken to explain the content or the intentionality of actions, he was in the same general area of the ‘phenomenology’ of distinguishing or articulating just what an action is (for example, a flicking of a switch and also - because in order to achieve - a turning on of a light but not, qua intentional action, an alerting of an unknown prowler; the agent will not say that that is what she was doing). But if so, first, why take the claim to be making a normative claim as opposed to a descriptive one? Here are two ways to make that vivid, though I suspect Williams will not be happy with either set up.

On the Davidsonian picture, the intention of an action derives from two aspects: a belief and a normative pro-attitude. Now even if we think that there need not be two inner mental elements corresponding to this, the face validity of the picture is that, often at least, two such dimensions can be articulated in the reasons for an action. So why insist that the claim which an action makes is just the normative side?

I can imagine that Williams might respond to this thought like this. Even on this standard Davidsonian picture, there is an all out judgement that such and such an act is desirable enough to be done, or, just, is to be done. That stems from the beliefs and desires of the agent but is itself a judgement with normative force. Hence the normativity of the claims that actions make. However, Williams stressed the generality of the claims that actions make in saying that they give advice and in connecting them to a Kantian background. By contrast, the all out judgement is particular (tied to this action), not general, so it cannot be the normative claim Williams was talking about. And if, instead, the claim an action makes is one of the potentially general elements that motivate that particular normative judgement, my question remains: why pick the normative rather than the descriptive element?

Second, take the example of a species of action: an act aimed at communicating something such as the whereabouts if a hidden cat either by pointing at the bookshelves or by saying “the cat is on the shelves”. What claim does such an action make? What is the content of the action? Williams would point out that to make the claim is to take oneself to be justified so to do and a host of other connections (that others should attend, that their prior questioning commits them to listening to the answer etc). But surely the obvious candidate for the claim made is none of those but rather that that is where the cat is?

The further advantage of this more traditional view is that it helps sidestep the question of just which of the eternally ramifying network of norms that make a claim possible should a particular act be thought of as making. That entire network may be necessary for the content of a particular act, but why think that the act claims it to be so?