What’s so bad about means-ends inconsistency?

I haven’t updated this blog for a bit so I thought I’d throw in a quick piece to keep my eye in (and a brief break from writing the thesis chapter from which the example is pulled).

I sometimes wonder when coming up with thought examples/intuition pumps, whether they really are convincing or whether I find them convincing only because of my prior theoretical convictions. Do you share the intuition that Jane is committing some normative error in the example bellow?

Imagine that Jane decides that she is going to go fishing. She now, according to Gilbert, has a personal commitment towards this activity. In particular she has an intention to do so.

Now suppose that she believes that it is necessary to for her to buy worms in order to go fishing. Further, suppose that she knows that she must catch the early bus if she is to get to town before the shop selling the worms shuts. Our imaginary Jane however has a worm phobia (Scoleciphobia?)  and in this case her disgust at the thought of the worms is so great, that she intentionally catches the late bus.

Here Jane is breaking what Bratman calls the principle of Means-ends Coherence; “The following is always pro-tanto irrational: intending E while believing that a necessary means to E is M and that M requires that one now intend M, and yet not intending M”

Whilst your average person (or probably anyone at all) doesn’t explicitly utilise Bratman’s principle as formalise it does seem to me to capture the way we naturally reason. If Jane’s had a fishing partner, Jim, I’m sure that we could agree that he would then be able to rightly criticise Jane.

However, what is to stop Jane from saying to Jim that, as a free agent, she should be free to engage in practical reasoning in whatever way she sees fit? If she is of a particularly politicly wilful character we might imagine that she could claim that Jim is some kind of ‘Normative imperialist’ trying to impose his value judgements upon her, while she is an ‘normative anarchist’ and thus should be free to govern herself as she sees fit.

It seems to me that Jane is mistaken because the problem with her practical reasoning is not a matter of it breaking some taboo value but rather (and this is roughly the argument found in Bratman) that doing so she undermines her ability to be an authentic agent because without the rule of means-end coherence her mental states are not united in the way.

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About Joseph Kisolo

Philosopher teaching Ethics & Epistemology @ NottsUni and interested in in Social Ontology. Outside academia interested in climbing, design, geekery and radical social justice.
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7 Responses to What’s so bad about means-ends inconsistency?

  1. Andy says:

    The problem is that Jane’s illogical and self defeating actions don’t just impact upon Jane herself. She said she wanted to go fishing and this meant that Jim had to help her find the fishing rod and tackle, because she complained about not being able to find it. Then she kept hanging around while Jim reminded her it was time to catch the bus. She even told him off for ‘nagging’ insisting she was quite capable of reading the clock and there was plenty of time for her to walk to the bus stop. It’s not just herself she’s fooling, she’s becoming wrapped up in a web of deceit that sucks in other people’s energies and causes a great deal of frustration all round. She probably understands well the illogicality of her position, but chooses to ignore it because at some point in her past, playing dangerously with the truth has paid off for her, at least temporarily, and now she is addicted to the tragic game.

    Jim cannot allow himself to condone without further jeopardising his own position and very sanity. So he has no choice but to criticise.

    Jane is a liar and a cheat.

  2. Heiner Koch says:

    Christine Korsgaard argued that in order to be a person you have to be consistent. “Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity”, Oxford University Press 2009. I disagree. Still i would say, Jane is bound by rationality to follow practical reason but she is not (in a strong sense) commited to practical reasoning. She can say: I like to be irrational and thats perfectly fine. We have to distinguish between different sources for commitments. At least that is what i was talking about at a conference in frankfurt last weekend.

  3. Andy – Ok, but suppose that she’s a hermit who likes fishing on her deserted desert island.

    Heiner – Bratman argues that someone like Jane is not committing any sin of theoretical irrationality because she need not have any inconstant beliefs. He then argues, in a way that seems to me very similar to Koorsgard, that the problem with practical inconstancy that it renders us unable to be agents.

    I’m just about to start reading the Koorsgard’s book I got it through the post a few days ago.

  4. Andy says:

    “suppose that she’s a hermit who likes fishing on her deserted desert island”

    but deliberately fails to use effective bait?

    Then she will starve.

    So in her own opinion she will be correct and everybody else’s theory is wrong, for a short while until death. It’s all very well to cling to irrationality while somebody else is providing the means to subsistence. But in the cold light of events, only those methods of thinking that survive the experiment will serve the purpose.

  5. Going down the route of making the example more specific:
    Suppose that the island has plentiful supply of fruits and veg, and the fish are poisonous at any rate, so failing to fulfil her intention actually keeps her alive?

    More generally, it seems to me that even where our intentions are bad one (either morally bad or bad for us in some non-subjective way, such as bad for our health) – there is still something ‘wrong’ with acting against the norms that govern them.

  6. Andy says:

    “failing to fulfil her intention actually keeps her alive” this would be the triumph of extraordinary good luck over the ability to act mindfully.

    I’m sure that happens sometimes for odd individuals, but in the longer run the advantage of consistent intentionality will tend to pull ahead. Well maybe in the medium run. In the very long run, intelligence may prove to be an evolutionary dead-end.

  7. The example seems to me to be all about “plausible deniability”. Jane doesn’t really (deep down) want to go fishing, as to do so she knows that she needs to buy worms, which she doesn’t want to do. However, on some level she still likes the idea of going fishing (when not having to think about the worms), and wants to give the outward appearance of wanting to go fishing (even if this ‘appearance’ desire isn’t acknowledged consciously), and so she sets out late to give herself (and others) a plausible excuse for why she didn’t go fishing (ie she can blame the bus, or circumstances, rather than her own phobia).

    This plausible deniability is a social strategy used for dealing with conflicts between the desires of oneself with the expectations of others – and as such isn’t always harmful (I think), though can lead to problems long-term.

    A second reading of the situation is that Jane wants to overcome her phobia, but that this conflicts with her immediate disgust at having to make the first step (similar to what smokers seem to go through when trying to quit, I imagine). So, by leaving late, she makes it likely that she won’t have to deal with the worms, but leaves open the possibility that the bus is super-quick and she gets to the shop in time, ‘forcing’ her to buy the worms.

    This kind of social strategy can be described as ‘leaving it to chance’ (or some might call it ‘fate’).

    Both of those are sociological readings of the situation though, which probably doesn’t help with your philosophical problems one little bit. (??)

    That’s philosophy for you though… 🙂

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