I have been discussing a planning agent’s self-governance, both at a time and over time. To begin this third and final post (though of course I’d be pleased to respond to further queries/challenges) I’d like to back up a bit. The planning theory behind these models of self-governance supposes that a planning agent’s practical thinking is guided by norms of synchronic plan consistency and means-end coherence, as well as by a diachronic norm of stability of intention. And it sees these as norms of practical rationality. But this can seem puzzling. First, we don’t think ordinary desires need to be consistent or means-end coherent. What is special about intentions and plans? Second, these norms may seem simply to favor forms of, in the words of Niko Kolodny, psychic tidiness. But why think such tidiness is a big deal?
It seems plausible that a general disposition to conform to these norms as an aspect of one’s planning agency will have significant benefits, especially given the important coordinating roles of our plans. But what we have learned from J.J.C. Smart is that an inference from a pragmatic defense of a general disposition of thought to a claim of irrationality in the particular case is fraught. So we need at least to supplement such a two-tier pragmatic strategy.
These questions in normative philosophy have implications for descriptive/explanatory philosophy of action. The thought (championed by Joseph Raz and Niko Kolodny, and anticipated by Hugh McCann in the 1980s) that these norms are a “myth” would tend to undermine our confidence that structures of planning – as understood within the planning theory – are basic for our descriptive/explanatory philosophy of action.
My response begins with two ideas: (i) Intentions and plans have distinctive coordinating, organizing roles in our individual and social lives. In part because of these roles, they help constitute where the agent stands, and so play an important role in self-governance (as discussed in my first post). (ii) The rationality norms at issue track conditions of a planning agent’s self-governance: plan inconsistency or means-end incoherence normally baffle a planning agent’s synchronic self-governance; and certain kinds of plan instability normally baffle a planning agent’s self-governance over time.
I argued for this claim about the synchronic norms in a 2009 essay. The idea that a diachronic norm of intention stability tracks conditions of diachronic self-governance is more difficult. Here I think we need to be prepared to adjust our formulation of the norm in the light of our account of a planning agent’s diachronic self-governance. Nevertheless, one idea that will emerge, given our approach to diachronic self-governance, is that the shuffling between non-comparable options discussed in the first post will be in violation of a diachronic norm that tracks conditions of diachronic self-governance.
But now we need to ask: How does the claim that these norms track conditions of self-governance – call this the tracking thesis -- show that they are norms of practical rationality?
Here again some might be tempted by talk of the constitutive aim of agency and try to argue that this aim is self-governance and that this explains why norms that track self-governance are norms of practical rationality. However, as I said earlier, this seems to overburden our descriptive and explanatory understanding of our agency. But then how does the tracking thesis explain why these are norms of plan rationality?
My tentative answer (sketched in a forthcoming paper and a forth-existing essay) is that it does this as part of an overall and reflectively stable understanding of these norms, an understanding that is available to a reflective planning agent. A planning agent who reflects on the basic norms that guide her plan-infused practical thinking would see the tracking thesis as part of the best explanation of those norms.
This explanation would involve the following ideas: (1) The tracking thesis shows that these norms do not merely track mere mental tidiness. (2) The tracking thesis articulates an overarching commonality across these norms, a commonality in light of which they make more sense. (3) The tracking thesis shows that if (a) one has a normative reason in favor of governing one’s own life, then (b) if one has the capacity for relevant self-governance, this reason transfers to a reason in favor of conformity to the norms in the particular case. (4) A conclusion I reached in my second post is that the end of diachronic self-governance is essential to the general exercise of a planning agent’s capacity for diachronic self-governance. So, suitably generalized, the tracking thesis supports the claim that the presence of the end of diachronic self-governance is itself enjoined by diachronic plan rationality. (5) Given this end, and the plausible assumption that diachronic self-governance is a good thing, a planning agent with the capacity for diachronic self-governance will have a normative reason in favor of diachronic self-governance, and so in favor of the involved synchronic self-governance. (Here I assume that the idea of a normative reason that is germane to these reflections of a planning agent will involve both a connection to her ends and the desirability of those ends.) (6) So given this end, (3)(a) is true. (7) In this way the tracking thesis supports (3)(b), and thereby the claim of a reason of self-governance to conform to the cited norms. (This is a response to John Broome’s and Niko Kolodny's question about whether there is reason to be rational.)
My idea, then, is that a planning agent who reflects on the basic norms that guide her plan-infused practical thinking would see the tracking thesis, together with (1)-(7), as part of the best explanation of these norms. It remains possible for her to reject this entire package. But then she would not be in a position to defend in this way central modes of practical thinking characteristic of her planning agency. In the absence of some other defense, she would then be under pressure to give up these modes of thinking -- though this is something she has pragmatic reasons not to do, and is also unlikely to be something she can do simply at will. Short of this, however, she is in a position to see that her plan-infused practical thinking can be embedded within a framework that is available to her and that provides support for the application of the cited norms to particular cases, support that is over and above (but compatible with) pragmatic support for relevant general modes of thinking. So it will be reasonable – even if not strictly inescapable -- for her to retain her plan-infused practical thinking and its associated norms as part of this framework. So we need not worry that these norms are reflectively unstable in a way that would challenge the planning theory.
And – in closing – let me again thank Thomas Nadelhoffer for making it possible for me to try out these ideas on this blog.