Thursday, April 17, 2008
Agency and deliberation
People act as a result of a great variety of mental influences: instincts, emotions, impulses, loyalties, norms, as well as reasons, intentions, and plans. A subset of this cacaphony is "rational-intentional action": actions that are the result of deliberation about ends and means, and choice among the set of available options for action. How does this sub-system of action fit into the larger swirl of psychological causes within the actor's mental system? The photo to the right is relevant; it is an image of a demonstration at Berkeley in the 1960s, in which the motives of the participants were surely a mix of rational, ethical, emotional, and collective impulses.
One picture that philosophers of action have used is the idea of "higher" and "lower" faculties of motivation and choice. This is an Aristotelian model of practical reason. The higher system is the rational process of deliberation; the lower system is the range of emotions and impulses; and the point of the picture is that the rational component should govern the workings of the lower faculties.
How does this construction work as an empirical theory of human behavior (even if an idealized and simplified one)? It could prove faulty in several different ways: The emotions could turn out to be the more important cause, with rational deliberation a weak and tardy late arrival. Or it could turn out that the system of action is a more integrated process in which "emotion" and "deliberation" play a more equal and interactive role. Or it could turn out that these two realms really can't be separated at all, and reason and emotion are comingled. We might find that it is possible to deliberate and reason about emotions, and it is possible for some emotions to push the deliberative process one way rather than another. And, most radically, it could be argued that these categories of introspection and folk psychology don't explain behavior at all; instead, we need a more scientific and non-mentalistic foundation for explanation of behavior.
There are a few basic facts about action that constrain any proposed theory:
(a) actions are influenced by the goals that people have, so deliberation must be a part of the story. Whatever else we observe, it is certainly true that people are sometimes goal-directed and calculating.
(b) We can provide clear and important examples of actions provoked by emotion or passion, so means-end rationality isn't the whole story.
(c) People often give reasons for actions that do serve to motivate their actions, but that are not framed as "means-end" reasoning. (For example, acting out of fairness.) So there are instances of action that are reasoned but not utility-maximizing.
What these points seem to demonstrate is that the mental system underlying behavior and choice is complex. No simple theory -- Markov mechanisms, operant conditioning, maximization, or rule-following--captures the full range of behavior.
These questions are important for several reasons. First, we need some indication of an answer to the question if we are to have confidence in rational choice theory at any level. Second, our ability to explain a wide range of human behavior depends on our having better ideas about how reasons, emotions, and norms play out to create behaviors such as extreme altruism, hate crimes, suicide attacks, or indifference to the suffering of others. So social science needs to have a credible theory of human agency and choice.
Who has the right kind of expertise to attempt to theorize in this area? Philosophers, to start; this discipline has devoted a lot of rigorous effort towards creating a framework for talking about the mind, intentionality, and action. Second, psychologists have some powerful theoretical tools for conceptualizing and investigating behavior. Here I think of the example of cognitive psychology and its paradigm of trying to devise theories that would represent a psychological process that possesses a given set of cognitive capacities (memory, pattern recognition, speech). And, conceivably, it might be that the discipline and methods of neurophysiology and brain science can shed light on action and mentation as well.