Sunday, September 27, 2015

Deliberative Openness and the Actualism-Possibilism Dispute

There's been some interesting discussion at PEA Soup recently about the Actualism-Possibilism dispute. A key issue here concerns when agents are allowed to treat their own dispositions as "fixed" for the purposes of deliberation.  As Sergio Tenenbaum puts it, after noting that he would want and advise the deliberating agent to do other than what possibilism obliges him to do, "I can take the facts about what he’ll do as settled while giving advice, in a way that he can’t while deliberating."

While there is a truth in this vicinity -- we certainly can't take as settled the outcome of our present deliberation -- I think Tenenbaum's extension of this principle to future behaviour is importantly mistaken.  What we should hold fixed during deliberation depends not on the identities of anyone involved (e.g. treating my own behaviour as open but others as fixed), but just on what results are actually "open" possibilities depending on the outcome of my present deliberation.  If the outcome of my present deliberation will affect whether or not you φ, then I should not treat your φ-ing as fixed. And if my present deliberation cannot affect whether I will later ψ, then I should treat my later ψ-ing as fixed (for the purposes of my present deliberation).  Basically, I should consider all of the options currently available to me -- all of the effective intentions I can now form -- and pick the one that will actually lead to the best outcomes.

Why do possibilists deny this?  One possibility is that they are misunderstanding the relevant cases.  The cases where possibilism and actualism diverge in their recommendations are ones where the agent has no present deliberative control over their future behaviour.  And this is really weird.  I can't realistically imagine being so completely unable to affect my future behaviour.  Realistically, if I (now) really want to do something in future, I'll form an intention to do it, and then when the time comes I'll follow through on that intention. (Insofar as I'm weak-willed, I just can't bring myself to actually form a committed intention to do the difficult thing in the first place.  But if I formed the intention, I'm very confident that I would subsequently follow through.)  To be unable to do this, no matter how strongly you presently wish to, you must be lacking a very basic agential capacity.  Your future self is, in this respect, like a different person -- someone whose decisions you (your momentary self) have no direct control over.

Given how weird this is, it's natural to initially interpret the relevant thought experiments as ones where the present self just doesn't care enough to form an effective intention.  If lives are at stake (as in some of these cases), then of course such an agent acts wrongly.  But the actualist can agree here: If the agent could now form an effective intention to help later, then of course that's what they should do!  That's an option presently available to them, and it's the best option, so they should do it.  No disagreement here.

The only disagreement arises if we imagine a bizarro case where no matter how strongly the agent presently tries to commit themselves, their future behaviour is unaffected.  If this is a fact, and the agent knows it, then how is it not simply delusional to ask them to treat as "open" in their present deliberation something that is actually fixed independently of their deliberation?  (Especially if this will predictably lead to disaster...)

Agents must, while deliberating, treat the outcome of their present deliberation as open.  That much is common ground.  The question is how they should (presently) treat outcomes of their future deliberations, when those future deliberations (and subsequent behaviours) are in no way causally responsive to their present deliberation.  Actualism is grounded in reality: it tells us to treat as deliberatively open just those things that really are open (depending on the outcome of our present deliberation).  Possibilism tells us to engage in magical thinking -- to treat as open in our present deliberations even things that are not, so long as they will, later, be open possibilities for the purposes of some future deliberation.  That is not a sensible view.

For more posts on the Actualism-Possibilism dispute, see:
- Ignoring Reality Ain't So Ideal Either (introductory)
- The Stakes of the Actualism-Possibilism Dispute (why Wedgwood's putative objection to "Actualism" is actually just an objection to an unimportant side-issue in Jackson & Pargetter's paper, not to their actualism per se)
- Portmore on Possibilism (and why actualism doesn't allow agents to "pander to their own vices")
- Actualism and Complex Actions (in which I convince Doug Portmore to reject possibilism, based on the argument that agents objectively ought not to have intentions that will prove ineffective)


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