Here are two things many people think about practical decisions (that is, decisions – or if you like, choices – about what to do).
1] Decisions are momentary and intentional mental actions that consist in the forming of an intention. (we might add that this mental action removes practical uncertainty about what to do)
2] Decisions are (at least typically) under the direct control of the agents who make them.
On one pretty standard story of what makes decisions *intentional* actions (Al Mele’s), decisions are intentional in virtue of the non-deviant causal work of an intention to decide what to do. When confronted with action-options, an agent is sometimes uncertain about what to do. This uncertainty prompts the acquisition of an intention to decide what to do, and the decision removes the uncertainty by settling matters.
Now, as Al and others have recognized, decisions are a bit odd. One way they are so is this: for most (every?) other intentional action, a relevant intention initiates, sustains, and GUIDES the action. I’m playing basketball with Anscombe. I get the ball in the post and Anscombe is guarding me. I intend to lay down a beautiful up-and-under – a move in which I show the ball, Anscombe goes flying in the air in an attempt to block the shot, and I step underneath her to draw the foul or get an easy shot. In this case, the content of my intention is a plan for action: turn thus-and-so, show the ball, wait for Anscombe to go flying, dip underneath, etc. So there is little question about HOW this intention should get executed.
The same is not true for decisions. The content of the intention in virtue of which the decisions is thought to be an intentional action is open-ended. It says nothing about which decision to make, about when I should end deliberation by making the decision, etc. Of course this open-ended character plausibly has something to do with the sense of freedom we have while deliberating (I just heard an interesting paper on this particular issue by Alison Fernandes). But it is difficult to understand how we can have the control we are often thought to have over our decisions, at the moment of deciding. After all, there would seem to be nothing in an agent’s intention that offers any guidance relevant to the decision.
In this connection, I like these lines from Jenann Ismael: ‘think of an attempt to follow the path in sand created by your own footsteps . . . you cannot follow a path created by your own footsteps. You have to chart your own course. There is no danger of straying from the path, but there is also nothing there to guide your footsteps.’ (this from her excellent 2012 paper ‘Decision and the open future’)
There is a lot more to say about this. Here I just want to motivate the problem. It seems a kind of cousin to worries about luck. But here I am focusing primarily on an action-theoretic issue. How can we be said to have direct control over our decisions at the moment of deciding?
P.S. something like this worry motivates some to give up on the thought that decisions are intentional actions (Brian O’Shaughnessy says some things to this effect). Wayne Wu, for example, has recently claimed that decisions are just automatic culminations of an extended action of deliberation. Maybe that’s right. What do people think? Do we need to think of decisions as intentional actions? Is the normal Melean story just fine, and we should just accept that decisions are a bit odd? Is the above control problem really a tough problem, and is it solvable?