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Understanding PeopleReview - Understanding People
Normativity and Rationalizing Explanation
by Alan Millar
Oxford University Press, 2004
Review by Matthew Pianalto
May 30th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 22)

Suppose I make a promise to meet a friend for lunch on Friday. By promising, I incur an obligation to meet my friend for lunch. One explanation of why I incur this obligation is that the concept of promising (as well as the action of promising) possesses an essentially normative element. If I make a promise to do such and such, then I have a normative reason to do such and such. If I do not intend to perform a particular action, then I ought not promise to do it -- that is, given that I understand what is involved in promising, I have a normative reason not to promise anything that I do not intend to carry out. If I do keep my promise to meet my friend, the reason for my action can be explained in terms of my having promised to do so. (There is a distinction here between the reason why the two of us are meeting -- to catch up with each other, say goodbye, talk shop, etc. -- and the reason why I carry through with my promise.) My keeping the promise to my friend is guided by the grasp I have of the concept of promising and my understanding of the normative commitment making a promise incurs -- to do what is necessary to keep the promise, barring extenuating circumstances.

Promising is a familiar case of an activity by which a person incurs normative commitments. In Understanding People, Alan Millar seeks to extend this kind of analysis to propositional attitudes, particularly belief and intention, and to argue that these propositional attitudes possess essentially normative features. When we explain a person's actions (or beliefs) in terms of intentional psychology, we offer a rationalizing explanation of the person's action. That is, we explain what the person does in terms that make the performance of the action make sense (seem rational) from that person's point of view (i.e. given that person's beliefs, desires, intentions, etc.). We offer reasons for the person's acting as she does which make sense of the person's action. Millar calls this kind of explanation and the insight gained by it personal understanding. Insofar as states like believing and intending are states of a whole person, these explanations make sense of action at the personal level at which we interact with each other in our everyday affairs (rather than sub-personal explanations that divide the individual into various cognitive mechanisms). Millar argues that these personal level explanations are explanatorily potent and that the reasons employed in rationalizing explanations are constituted by normative commitments that agents incur by having the beliefs and intentions they do. The upshot of this argument is that normativity is built in to our language and concepts, many of our propositional attitudes, and our practices, and it is on the basis of the normative commitments we incur that a personal understanding of human behavior is possible.

Consider the following two cases, one concerning belief, and the other intention. Suppose I believe that (a) either Jim or Mary stole my cookies and (b) Mary didn't steal my cookies. Given (a) and (b), I should also believe that (c) Jim stole my cookies. Millar would say that my believing (a) and (b) commits me either to believing (c) or to revising one of my other beliefs (a) or (b). Now suppose (d) I intend to replenish my cookie jar. To do so, (e) I must go to the grocery store and buy more cookies. Here my intention (d) commits me either to doing (e) or to giving up my intention (d).

Millar argues that the above commitments are constituted by general ideals of reason (p. 76). Intentions are guided by the Means-End Ideal:

For any φ, avoid intending to φ while never getting around to doing what is necessary if you are to φ.

Beliefs are guided by the Implication Ideal:

For any π, θ, if θ is implied by π, then avoid believing π while giving a verdict on θ other than belief.

Millar then proposes that there are "requirements of rationality" that correspond to each of these ideals, which claim that an agent "should do justice to the reason there is" to avoid having intentions that are not carried out and to avoid particular inconsistencies in one's beliefs (p. 77). The reason there is for doing justice to these ideals is that failure to conform to these ideals constitutes a failure of rationality.

The conception of rationality with which Millar operates, as well as the accompanying ideals of reason, comprise a "high" conception of rationality, in which rationality requires a significant level of self-awareness, knowledge about the world (so that one has true beliefs and knows what means to pursue in order to achieve intended ends), and knowledge of oneself (of one's beliefs, intentions, etc.). This conception of rationality does not entail that all false moves and false beliefs lead one into irrationality; some forms of ignorance, oversight, or other kinds of error are not necessarily irrational. But Millar's view of rationality does require that the agent possess reflective capacities. Millar argues that intentions and beliefs are reflexive in the sense that for these attitudes to contribute to our performing reasoned actions, we must have conscious access to our own intentions and beliefs (Chapter 5). (His view is compatible with our having dispositional, or unconscious, beliefs as long as those beliefs could be brought into the light.)

This view generates a recurring problem concerning the rationality of non-human animals, which presumably lack the right kinds of reflective capacities, but to which we seem licensed to ascribe intentions and beliefs in order to explain their behavior. Millar tries to avoid this problem by arguing that we can grant non-human animals an intentional psychology while also holding that our intentional psychology is different in that the capacity for reflective thought figures into the nature of human intention and belief (see 134-136). The difference is that ascriptions of intentions and beliefs to rational agents have normative import -- having particular intentions or beliefs, for beings with reflective capacities, gives rise to normative reasons to act or think in other particular ways (137). Because we, as rational agents, are able to reflect upon the reasons we have for acting and thinking, we are normatively committed both to managing our beliefs and intentions and to believing or doing the things that these attitudes require of us (as set out by ideals of rationality).

The normative commitments we incur by having the beliefs and intentions we do figure into rationalizing explanations by constituting the reasons by which we explain why agents go on to act and believe in the ways that they do. If I return a book to the library on its due date, my action can be explained in terms of the commitment I incurred by checking out the book two weeks ago. In order to check out a book, I know I must go to the library to get the book and that I must return it when the check-out time is up. Here my obligation to return the book is generated by my participating in the practice of being a library patron. I return the books I check out because I know that this is part of what it is to check out books from the library. The commitment I incur is in this case linked to my original intention to check out the book. Why do I return the book? Because I am committed to doing so.

In the above case, the normative commitments I have are purely conventional, linked to a particular practice. Millar argues that the normative commitments linked to believing and intending in general are similar, albeit stronger, because the background against which these commitments arise is simply one's being a speaker of a language, or of being a rational agent (see Chapter 3, Section 4 and Chapter 6).

Thus, what it is to be a rational agent is to be surrounded in one's beliefs and actions by a normative order which explains how our behaviors come out to be rational: they do so by conforming to the normative commitments we have based on our other beliefs and intentions. Not everyone will be happy with such a conception of human rationality. Millar addresses the issue of eliminativism regarding propositional attitudes, and argues that even if the scope of personal understanding and commonsense (or folk) psychology is limited (in ways pointed out by, e.g., Churchland's "Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes"), such limitations do not entail that folk psychology is false. The problem Millar must face is that there has been and will be resistance to the idea that normativity is built in to propositional attitudes and language in a way that transcends mere convention. Millar may be able to deflect such objections by pointing out that the normative commitments incurred are conventional, but that the conventional nature spreads over and applies to all rational agents (so that the objection doesn't amount to anything other than a general form of skepticism), and that this normativity neither does nor needs to make it impossible for agents to act or think otherwise. If they do act otherwise, they will simply be subject to criticism, and if they stray too far from rational requirements it may become impossible to understand them at all qua rational agents. And that -- understanding people as rational agents -- is a kind of understanding about humans which is of great interest to us, and differs, for example, from the understanding of humans we gain from disciplines such as neuroscience.

Millar's book will be of interest primarily to those working in the philosophy of mind, epistemology, and practical reason.

 

© 2005 Matthew Pianalto

Matthew Pianalto is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Arkansas, where he has also taught logic and introduction to philosophy. He holds a B.A. in English, and an M.A. in Philosophy. His master's thesis, "Suicide & The Self," attempts to reinvest in the philosophical nature of the problem of suicide. More info at his website: http://comp.uark.edu/~mpianal. (See "Suicide & Philosophy" link for resources on suicide.)


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ISSN 1931-5716