Tuesday, June 10, 2008

theory of action 2

In part 1 of this theory of action it was claimed that while the valuations derived from one's theory of ones self and ones actions was a fragile thing, the value of the actions themselves can be secure - actions are substantive and incompressible, real things in time and space. If true this seems (albeit probably in a sense that would be fairly cryptic to many people !) very liberating...it is legitimate, good, essential even, to be and act and do, even when one's confidence in the whole enterprise of ones' self and ones actions is lacking - when one lacks an adequate theory of action and self.

Or the argument can be put more simply like this : it is common to infer the fitness and goodness of our actions, from our estimation of the fitness and goodness of ourselves : we are good so the things we do are good ; yet even if the inference can't be made, we are not to be deterred - we can still act and our actions can still be good.

Which raises the question - how can we know our actions are fit and good when we do not currently have a theory that asserts our own goodness and fitness ? Clearly this requires some external arbiter of the moral value of our actions - we need to be able to know a priori that it is good to help an old lady across the street, for the injunctions of theory of action 1 to hold.

Yet if we do have such an external arbiter, surely this would induce a very simple theory of ourselves and our actions - which is that, we ourselves are fit and good, if our actions are fit and good.

But if this robust theory is available, why then did we get into trouble in the first place - what sort of theory did we originally have that failed, and why did it fail ?

There are two possible answers. The first is that our theory was , indeed, that we ourselves are fit and good, simply if our actions are fit and good ; but that our actions have not recently been fit and good, so that our theory has failed. In this case to continue to act we need a special act of will and steadfastness - and / or perhaps some forgiveness from the external arbiter. (Many religious theories of self and action are of this type - we are valued as the sum of our actions, and there is some process of forgiveness or other remedy available when the theory fails). I will deal with this special act of will and steadfastness, in a future part of the theory of action, since it has a very interesting structure.

The other possible answer is that our original theory was not one that judged us as the sum of our actions. Perhaps , for example , it was a theory derived from our pedigree - that we were fit and good because of high birth.....and perhaps it failed because we have just found out our birth (or that of one of our ancestors) was illegitimate ! Or perhaps it was a theory based on some other intrinsic measure - say, exceptional ability in some specific domain, such as mathematics, music, art, athletics, intelligence tests, and we have come to doubt the measure in some way.

My guess is that the theories of self and action that fail and leave us stranded and stalled are often of this second sort - based on some intrinsic metric of self.

These types of theories are not robust for several reasons. Firstly, the intrinsic metric itself is likely to be error prone - it will be difficult to be certain about the nobility of our birth, the degree of our talent in our chosen domain. Secondly the metric is relative - there is no absolute level of nobility of birth or talent in some domain : there are only relative measures - we are more or less noble or talented than somebody else. This means that the intrinsic metric can change abruptly - for example when we meet for the first time people who are vastly more nobly born or talented than we are. Thirdly, even if we could achieve some robust intrinsic metric of our own worth, the inference that if we are fit and good we will do fit and good things, is not certain.

It is tempting to speculate that theories of self and action that are based on intrinsic metrics, rather than being extensionally based - "we are what we do" - are a feature of modern times and the modern psyche and likely to become more so - for example, the progressive educational strategy of attempting to inculcate intrinsic self-esteem is a possible example ; intrinsic genetic merit will be a possible metric in the future. On the other hand, the English and other class systems are a historical counter example, which show that these theories are nothing new.

(I should confess that I have recently read Richard Reeves very enjoyable biography of John Stuart Mill so am maybe "under the influence". Not that I started these theories of action consciously thinking about Mill, but I seemed to have ended up in his vicinity. Reeves describes Mill's life-long intense hostility to "intuitionist" philosophy. I am not sure I completely understand the meaning of "intuitionist" - but I suspect that those theories of self and action that are based on intrinsic metrics, rather than extrinsic canons of deeds done, are in some sense "intuitionist" theories. And a distinctive thing about Mill was his activism - as a journalist, politician, champion of womens' suffrage and many other causes - so that I am describing a theory of action and self which might be something like the one Mill himself lived by)

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