Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Fat Men in Caves and Runaway Trams: Intention and Foresight

OBJECTORS TO THE PRINCIPLE OF DOUBLE EFFECT raise another argument against it in addition to those that we have addressed in prior postings. The opponents argue that there is not really a distinction between intention (or motive or end) and foreseen effects. Obviously, the principle of double effect distinguishes between those goods that are intended, and those evil consequences that are not intended, but are only foreseen. If this distinction, which is a fundamental part of the theory, is farcical, then the theory itself must be infirm. The argument essentially revolves around the claim that the line between intention and foresight is an arbitrary line, and, being arbitrary it is by definition unreasonable.

The Fat Man in a Cave

The sophists come up with a variety of "fiendishly difficult" situations intended to drive a wedge of difficult between distinguishing between intent and foresight. Such examples include the "fat man in the cave," or the "runaway tram."
A party of spelunkers are exploring in a cave, and the cave fills up with poison gas. They need to leave the cave or they will die, but the entrance is blocked by a fat man. One of the spelunkers sets off a bomb next to the fat man to gain access to the outside, and naturally the fat man dies. Was the fat man's death intended, or was it only a foreseeable effect of trying to widen the entrance?
A runaway tram is careening out of control on a track which splits into two. One one track stands one man, smoking a cigarette, unaware of the tram. On the other track there is a group of five men working on the track equally oblivious. The tram driver chooses to go down the track with the one man, killing him. Did he intend to kill the smoking man, or is the smoker's death merely foreseen?

The cases above, and the many varietals of them, present difficult questions; and they have drawn a number of solutions by the proponents of the principle of double effect, not all of them particularly adequate. Sometimes the problem of identifying the distinction between the two is made worse by vague concepts that are suggested as the proper vehicles of analysis such as "closeness" (a consequence is intended when "too close" to the act: is the bomb too close to the fat man?), or "invariable connection" between the act and the effect (is the bomb "invariably connected" to the death of the fat man? does invariable 100%, 90%, more than 50%?). Sometimes less vague terms are sought to overcome the problems associated with the vague terms. But these bring their own problems. For example, the notion of "logical entailment" (if the effect is "logically entailed" with the act it is intended: is the killing of the fat man logically entailed by the bombing of the cave entrance?) or "control" (the agent intends all acts that he "controls": can the spelunker control the death of the fat man?). Oderberg does not view these exercises as particularly fruitful:

One can play around with various concepts, seeing whether they capture our intuitive distinction between the intended and the foreseen, but the exercise appears fruitless.

Oderberg, 112-13.

Instead of narrowing, Orderberg suggests that the opposite approach may yield more satisfactory results: "It would be more useful," he suggests, "to begin with a broader brush in delineating the general way in which the distinction might be defended." Oderberg, 113. Oderberg begins by looking at the skeptics and the problems with their objections or their alternative proposals to the intention/foresight distinction of the proponents of the principle of double effect.

First of all, what may be said of "intention" can also be said of related concepts such as belief, knowledge, desire, of any sort of subjective component of man's psyche. Invariably, these are difficult to measure, but the difficulty in measuring them does not mean these realities do not exist.

Oderberg likewise rejects those who would maintain the intention/foresight distinction but use it sort of like lawyers and judges use the notion of "duty" in tort law. We make something intentional (as distinguished from just foreseeable) when "we want to hold the agent responsible for causing some serious harm." Oderberg 113-14. But this is to put the cart before the horse, "it reverses the proper order of explanation, because it seeks to explain intention in terms of action for which we want to hold responsible, rather than saying that our judgments of responsibility should be assessed in terms of what a person intends." Oderberg, 114. It also seems to put the judgment into the realm of intuition, which is a frustratingly amorphous concept, and, when used as the ultimate grounds for morality, conducive to skepticism because of the subjectivity inherent in it.

Oderberg insists that the distinction between intention and foresight is real, and the proponent of traditional morality ought not to act otherwise. He should back off from the difficult situations--the fat man in the cave, the runaway tram, etc.--to straightforward, paradigmatic cases of intention/foresight. Just like hard cases make bad law, so do hard situations make bad moral principles. Sometimes when we get too close to something we cannot recognize the greater reality.

A hemlock leaf seen too close up stops looking like a hemlock leaf

For every difficult situation where intention and foresight seem to blend, there are myriad situations where intention and foresight are clearly distinct. If I drink a glass of claret, for example, I intend to lift the glass to my lips, smell its bouquet, admire its clarity, and taste and swallow the fructus benedictus. There is more here than merely foreseeing. I aim, I focus, I plan, to wit, I intend. I am in control here. Another example. I am stuck in traffic. I foresee that I will be late for work, that I will miss an appointment, that it will wreak havoc with my schedule. While I foresee all of this, I do not intend any of it. So backing off from the difficult situations, it seems unquestionable that the distinction between intention and foresight is legitimate, is real.

Why does it get difficult to distinguish between intention and foresight in those less-than-paradigmatic-situations? Oderberg suggests that the problem comes from our failure to see intention as a mental state or concept, but one that is not necessarily verbalizable or at least not equivalent to its verbal formulation. "[I]ntention cannot be a matter of mere linguistic formulation." It is more primal a mental state. "Concepts . . . go deeper than language," though there may be "some deep connection between language mastery and the possession of concepts." Oderberg, 115, 116. One's description of that mental state is not that mental state. One's description of it is simply "one piece of defeasible evidence for intention." Oderberg, 115. The envelope in which we put a letter is not the letter, but it is evidence that that there is a letter. And if it is difficult for an individual to fathom his intention at times, it is doubly difficult for us to fathom the intention of others. And yet we do so all the time, from day-to-day transactions ("What one earth is that driver intending to do?") to more formal situations (a jury is charged by the court to try to determine what was the intent of the defendant when he entered someone's habitation).

Intention can be inferred by evidence, all of the evidence, because of the nature of things, defeasible. We rely upon what people say their intent is, but people can lie about their intent. We rely upon how they act to interpret their intent as most people act in a manner consistent with what they intend, but this is not infallible. We look at how they behave after the act, since they often express satisfaction or remorse depending upon what their intent was, but these can be feigned. We look at circumstances around the act to try to surmise the intent of the actor. The problem of intent is thus penetrable, but even the simplest act can be exceedingly intricate. And the problem with the difficult cases--the fat man in the cave, the runaway tram--is that they are "underdescribed." Oderberg, 117. They present situations that are so stark, that suffer from such a lack of intricacy, they are like what abstract bulls are to real bulls. Perhaps the difficult situations are rendered difficult because they are no longer concrete enough, but abstracted to unreality.

Picasso's Bulls: When is there too much abstraction from reality?

The final conclusion is therefore that there is a real distinction between intention and foresight, though many times in practice the practical ability to distinguish between the two is frightfully difficult and fraught with complexity and probability. In many cases, we may never quite know what a person's intent was, and the external evidence we use to infer whether an actor intended something or merely foresaw it but did not intend it as a consequence of his act is incomplete or misconstrued. "A comprehensive solution to the problem of distinguishing intention from foresight would require an exploration of technical issues in the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of action." Oderberg, 126. Yet a distinction exists, and ought not be despaired of. The literature is full of general principles and guidelines that are sufficient "to show that such a distinction can be made, and hence that PDE [principle of double effect" can be defended on that score." Oderberg, 126.

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