Thursday, August 11, 2016

Do we have Vague Projects?

Tenenbaum and Raffman (2012) claim that "most of our projects and ends are vague." (p.99)  But I'm not convinced that any plausibly are.  I've already discussed the self-torturer case, and how our interest in avoiding pain is not vague but merely graded.  I think similar things can be said of other putative "vague" projects.

T&R's central example of a vague project is writing a book:
Suppose you are writing a book. The success of your project is vague along many dimensions. What counts as a sufficiently good book is vague, what counts as an acceptable length of time to complete it is vague, and so on.

But it strikes me as strange for one's goal to be to reach some vague level of sufficiency.  When I imagine writing a book, my preferences here are graded: each incremental improvement in quality is pro tanto desirable; each reduction in time spent is also pro tanto desirable.  These two goals seem like they should be able to be traded off against each other -- perhaps precisely, or (if they are not perfectly commensurable goods) then perhaps not, but this sort of rough incomparability between two goods is (I take it) not the same as either good itself being vague.

I could imagine a cynical person who really doesn't care to improve the quality of their book above a sufficient level.  Perhaps they just want it to be of sufficient quality to earn a promotion, or some other positive social appraisal.  But these desired consequences are even more clearly not vague.

Similar things can be said of the standard example of baldness.  I trust that nobody (sane) actually has a fundamental desire not to fall under the extension of the English-language predicate 'bald'.  What they more plausibly have is a graded desire that roughly maps onto what is socially recognized as baldness.  For example, perhaps they desire not to have their appearance negatively appraised on the basis of hair loss.  (Or perhaps even just not to have other people think of them as bald.)  But of course there's nothing vague about that: people either appraise you negatively or they do not.  Such appraisals are graded, however: the first noticeable signs of a receding hairline may be expected to elicit a less severe appraisal than a large bald patch. (Or so we might imagine the vain man to assume.)

Or consider a case from Elson's (2015) reply:
You may wish for a restful night’s sleep, but to stay up as late as possible as is consistent with that. Since restful is vague, one minute of sleep apparently couldn’t make the difference between a restful and a nonrestful night, and you ought to stay up for another minute. But foreseeably, if you keep thinking that way, you will stay up all night. (p.474)

As with the book case, this strikes me as simply involving a trade-off between two graded (non-vague) ends.  To speak of a "wish for a restful night's sleep" is surely just a rough shorthand for what is really a graded desire, for a night's sleep that is more restful rather than less so.  Perhaps there are some threshold effects in there, insofar as some lost minutes may have more noticeable effects than others on your state of mind the next day (and you can't know in advance exactly which minutes these are).  But it's clearly just false to assume that a minute's less sleep will always make no difference to what it is that you really want here (regardless of whether the term 'restful' still applies to your night's sleep -- there's clearly more to your interest in a restful night's sleep than just the binary question of whether it was restful or not).

Elson later cites Tuck's example of "a shepherd who wishes to build a cairn of stones [...] to guide him in the hills" (478).  And again, while it may be vague whether a certain collection of stones is enough to qualify as a 'cairn' or a 'heap', it's hard to make sense of anyone actually caring about this as such.  Insofar as the cairn serves some purpose -- to "guide him in the hills" -- a certain collection of stones will either be sufficient to the task or not (e.g. if so small that it is subsequently overlooked).

This all suggests a general strategy for dissolving apparent vagueness in our projects: Whenever one is inclined to use a vague predicate in describing a project, check whether this is truly the canonical or fundamental description of the desire in question, or just a convenient way of talking about a desire that is really graded in nature, and directed at the real world phenomenon (taking the form of a spectrum) that underlies the vague predicate.  I find it difficult to imagine a case where the latter interpretation is not clearly superior.

One possible exception (which I owe to Helen) involves whimsical desires.  A child, about to embark on their first airplane flight, might really want to be inside a cloud.  They care fundamentally about the higher-level predicate cloud rather than the underlying phenomena.  It just seems really cool and awesome to them to be fully inside of one of the big fluffy white things in the sky that they've so long admired from the ground.  But it might turn out to be vague whether they (or their plane) was ever fully inside a cloud.

Such whimsies aside, though, do you think there are any plausible examples of genuinely vague projects?  (And if not, why have so many philosophers thought that there were?)

[Cross-posted to PEA Soup, where comments are open.]