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Reasons, intentions, and actions

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Several theorists maintain that a consideration is a reason to ϕ (where ϕ-ing is an act-type) if and only if that consideration is a reason to intend to ϕ, and some hold as well that a consideration is a reason not to ϕ if and only if that consideration is a reason to intend not to ϕ. The claims often stem from views about what it is to be a practical reason. Here it is argued that both equivalence claims are false. Although no view of practical reasons is advanced, views that imply either equivalence claim are shown to be mistaken.

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  1. McHugh and Way (2022: 156, n. 12) note that this claim might need qualification if “reason to ϕ” implies “can ϕ” but “reason to intend to ϕ” does not. None of my objections to the equivalence claims concern ability.

  2. Goetz focuses on deciding (forming an intention) at some time to act (or not act) at some later time, and reasons that one has at the earlier time for each of these.

  3. Goetz and Enç both take reasons to be psychological states. Nevertheless, they are concerned with justifying reasons, not motivating reasons.

  4. Although decisions are commonly preceded by deliberation, they can be made without deliberation. And deliberation can culminate in the acquisition of an intention without decision, when it has brought to mind considerations that eliminate uncertainty about what to do.

  5. The resolution can be short-lived. But if after deciding to ϕ one becomes again uncertain about whether to ϕ, one is no longer settled on ϕ-ing; one no longer intends to ϕ.

  6. I borrow the example from Mele (2017: 11).

  7. Some recent examples: “Someone who makes a decision thereby performs an action” (Frankfurt, 1987: 44). Kane takes choices and decisions to be “acts (or actions) of will”; the action, he says, is one of bringing about an intention (1996: 22–23). Searle states, of a decision of his, “the decision was something I made, an action on my part” (2001: 94). Pink writes: “It appears…that, besides our voluntary actions, the actions that we perform because we wanted to or decided to perform them, there is also a prior category of action. This category is made up of actions of the will itself, actions of deciding to perform this voluntary action or that—such as the action, say, of taking a decision to go to the bank” (2004: 28–29). And Mele holds that “deciding is a momentary mental action of intention formation [that] resolves uncertainty about what to do” (2006: 15).

    Note that what is in question here are what are sometimes called practical decisions. In making such a decision, one makes up one’s mind whether to perform an action of a certain kind. Practical decision can be distinguished from making up one’s mind whether something is so (e.g., whether the price of oil is likely to rise next week), which is sometimes called cognitive (or doxastic) decision. Cognitive decisions are not acts of will. On the distinction between practical and cognitive (doxastic) decisions, see Clarke (2010).

  8. For evaluation of several views of decision, and argument that (practical) decisions are actions, see Mele (2017: ch. 2; and 2021).

  9. McHugh and Way (2022: 154, n. 7) take this position.

  10. Writers who hold (specifically) that when one decides to ϕ, one intentionally decides to ϕ include McCann (1986: 265), Pink (1996: 218), and Mele (2017: 17).

  11. A variety of arguments have been advanced for this view. See, e.g., Harman (1976: 433 − 34), Bratman (1987: 113 − 16), and Ginet (1990: 75–78). McHugh and Way (2022: 154) agree with the view.

  12. I discuss a case of this kind in Clarke (2007, 2008).

  13. Portmore (2011: 64) takes a position that implies this kind of response.

  14. Discussing a structurally similar case, Hieronymi (2008: 368) takes a position of this kind.

  15. McHugh and Way state their preference for a view on which a consideration that cannot serve as one’s basis for a given attitude is not a reason to have that attitude, but they note that if the alternative view is preferred, their position can be put: “reasons to act are fundamentally right-kind reasons to intend” (2022: 155).

  16. Heuer (2018: 886 − 87) presents a case meant to undermine the view that only reasons to act are “standard” reasons to intend, reasons that “can be followed directly” (886) in forming an intention. I think her case succeeds. However, at one point in describing it, she says that the benefit provided by forming the intention provides a reason to form the intention and to carry it out. If that is so, then the case does not undermine Intend-Act.

  17. “One does not feel easy with the man who in the course of a discussion of how to deal with political or business rivals says, ‘Of course, we could have them killed, but we should lay that aside right from the beginning.’ It should never have come into his hands to be laid aside” (Williams, 1985: 185).

    Arguing that a reason not to ϕ need not be a reason to intend not to ϕ, Heuer remarks that there need be nothing amiss with the attitudes of a person who does not intend not to kill (2018: 876). I agree and suggest, further, that there might be something amiss with the attitudes of one who does so intend.

  18. It is not that a reason you have to intend not to kill faces weighty opposition, whereas your reason not to kill does not. As noted, your reason not to so intend is not particularly weighty.

  19. McHugh and Way (2022: 162 − 64), responding to Heuer (2018), discuss a case of this sort and make this point.

  20. I discuss some aspects of the question in Clarke (2008). Heuer (2018) discusses the question at length.


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For comments on earlier versions of this paper, I am grateful to Conor McHugh, Al Mele, Jonathan Way, and three anonymous referees for this journal.

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Correspondence to Randolph Clarke.

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Clarke, R. Reasons, intentions, and actions. Philos Stud 181, 1589–1598 (2024).

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