Smith on Sympathy for the Deceased: Feeling for the Departed

This is the third and final post in my series on Smith on Sympathy for the Deceased (previous posts are here and here).

It is easy to come away from the first chapter of Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments” feeling like the account of sympathy for the deceased is intended to be one of the central upshots of his view. The materials in this post and the previous posts are all from that first chapter (“Of Sympathy”), and the final paragraph (TMS of that chapter is entirely about our sympathy for the deceased. That paragraph begins:

We sympathize even with the dead, and overlooking what is of real importance in their situation, that awful futurity which awaits them, we are chiefly affected by those circumstances which strike on our senses, but can have no influence upon their happiness. It is miserable, we think, to be deprived of the light of the sun; to be shut out from life and conversation; to be laid in the cold grave; to be prey to corruption and the reptiles of the earth; to be no more thought of in this world, but to be obliterated, in a little time, from the affections, and almost from the memory, of their dearest friends and relations.

First, note that Smith appears to simply be applying the theory already laid out to the case of the deceased. We know that they are buried in cold ground, excluded from conversation and society, and thus, on his account, we are prompted to imagine ourselves being buried in the cold ground, excluded from conversation and society, which generates the emotional response of misery/sadness, and thus, according to Smith, we feel sympathy for the deceased.

Second, because this is an account of sympathy for the deceased, we need to distinguish this from another emotional response we have to the death of another; ordinary sadness at our loss. When someone close to us dies, there is emotional pain and anguish which Smith’s account is not intended to address: the pain we feel for the loss we have endured. Of course, Smith’s account of sympathy is not intended to address such an original emotion, and so it is no problem that such an emotion is absent from this story.

Smith’s discussion continues:

Surely, we imagine, we can never feel too much for those who have suffered so dreadful a calamity. The tribute of our fellow-feeling seems doubly due to them now, when they are in danger of being forgot by every body; and, by the vain honours which we pay to their memory, we endeavour, for our own misery, artificially to keep alive the melancholy remembrance of their misfortune. That our sympathy can afford them no consolation seems to be an addition to their calamity; and to think that all we can do is unavailing, and that, what alleviates all other distress, the regret, the love, and the lamentations of their friends, can yield no comfort to them, serves only to exasperate our sense of their misery. The happiness of the dead, however, most assuredly, is affected by none of these circumstances; nor is it the thought of these things which can ever disturb the profound security of their repose.

Here Smith alludes to the role of sympathy in consolation, something that he will return to in the next chapter (“Of the pleasure of mutual Sympathy”), and so I won’t say much about it here. The last sentence in that passage, however, is worth commenting on. This is where we can see relatively clearly, that sympathy for the deceased is a case of imagination-reality mismatch for Smith. As we saw in the previous discussion, it is not clear that there really is anything going wrong with feeling sympathy in such cases, though it is worth noting that this case differs from that of, say, sympathetic embarrassment for someone who is oblivious, because, plausibly, we cannot regard the target of sympathy in this case as committing an error of any sort (whereas the target of sympathetic embarrassment can easily be thought of as failing to have an emotional reaction that they should have). One thought that might help to unify both cases is to observe that both the oblivious individual and the deceased individual are not properly aware of being in the situation that prompts the sympathetic reaction. This could account for the mismatch in both cases, without presuming that anyone’s emotional reactions are improper, so long as emotional reactions occur in response to knowledge/belief/awareness, which seems plausible.

Smith concludes:

The idea of that dreary and endless melancholy, which the fancy naturally ascribes to their condition, arises altogether from our joining to the change which has been produced upon them, our own consciousness of that change, from our putting ourselves in their situation, and from our lodging, if I may be allowed to say so, our own living souls in their inanimated bodies, and then conceiving what would be our emotions in this case. It is from this very illusion of the imagination, that the foresight of our own dissolution is so terrible to us, and that the idea of those circumstances, which undoubtedly can give us no pain when we are dead, makes us miserable while we are alive. And from thence arises one of the most important principles in human nature, the dread of death, the great poison to the happiness, but the great restraint upon the injustice of mankind, which, while it affects and mortifies the individual, guards and protects the society.

In light of the imagination-reality mismatch in sympathy for the deceased, we have to wonder if sympathy for the deceased is a problematic aspect of the way sympathetic emotions are generated in us, or, if instead, there is something good about sympathy for the deceased coming about in this mismatch-y way. Smith seems to be concluding, here, that there is something good to be said for our sympathy for the dead in this regard. Specifically, it generates in us a fear of death, which he then claims is integral to the preservation of society. Obviously, to see why Smith thinks that fear of death is so integral to the preservation of society, we would need to look to material from later in Theory of Moral Sentiments, something I’ll have to take up another time.

Now, I’ve been excited about Smith’s account of sympathy for the deceased since I started reading TMS, but most people seem to be extremely skeptical when I tell them about it. For me, though, Smith’s account was “confirmed” in a fairly visceral way. When I imagine the things he describes in the opening of this paragraph, I react, and my reaction does seem to be triggered by imagining myself inhabiting the circumstances so-described. I’m not so overconfident in my introspective powers that I think this clinches the case for Smith, but it doesn’t strike me as straightforwardly wrong the way it seems to strike the people I’ve been telling about it (though perhaps the problem is in my telling of it, and not the theory itself).

The last thing I want to observe about this account is that it seems to address something of a puzzle for believers in the afterlife. Suppose one believes in an afterlife, and is reasonably confident that they will be spending it in heaven rather than hell. It seems difficult to say why such a person should fear death. Smith’s account of sympathy purports to account for the fear of death even in such persons, because even knowing that the deceased’s state is unaffected by the corruption of their body doesn’t interrupt the generation of sympathetic misery for the deceased (and this is what generates fear of death, for Smith).

Since I started reading Theory of Moral Sentiments, I’ve become increasingly of the opinion that it is one of the most under-rated works in the history of philosophy. I hope that these posts on Smith’s account of sympathy for the deceased, if nothing else, have conveyed the incredible richness of material in that work, given how much there is going on in just the first chapter.

Smith on Sympathy for the Deceased: Cases of Imagination-Reality Mis-Match

In the previous post in this series, I was concerned with presenting the basic mechanisms of sympathy on Smith’s view. I stressed that Smith offers a general three-part account of sympathy: (i) perception of another’s (external) situation, prompting (ii) imagination of oneself experiencing that situation, which in turn produces (iii) a similar (but less lively) emotional reaction as would be produced by actually experiencing that situation. The links from (i) to (ii) and from (ii) to (iii) are causal. I also noted that the account concerns emotion in general (rather than limiting itself to some subset of sympathetic emotion) as well as that the account is indirect (in that it takes the aforementioned detour through the imagination, rather than regarding, for example, sympathetic sadness as an immediate reaction to the perception of another’s sorrowful countenance).

I have found the pair of emotions anger and sadness helpful for summarizing where Smith’s view is particularly successful vs. where it faces some challenges: Because of its indirectness, Smith’s view is especially well suited to explain sympathetic anger. Merely seeing an angry person does not provoke sympathetic anger in us. On Smith’s view, this is because we are not responding to the display of emotion in sympathy as much as we are to an act of imagining the source of that emotion. When someone tells us how they have been slighted, we are then likely to join them in their anger. Sadness, on the other hand, is a challenge for Smith. If we see someone crying, we usually feel for them, (i.e. sympathize with them) before learning the source of their sorrow. Conversely, and account that has an easy time with sadness is likely to be hard pressed to account for the absence of sympathy at displays of anger.

In a later post, I want to discuss two worries that I’ve heard from people when describing Smith’s account. The first is what I’ll call the “objection from babies”, i.e. the worry that Smith’s account over-intellectualizes sympathy (and thereby predicts that babies don’t do sympathy). The second is the “sympathy/empathy worry” which is that there is a distinction between sympathizing and empathizing which Smith’s account (as I have so far presented it) misses out on this distinction. I’ll discuss those in a separate post or two after this series on sympathy for the deceased.

This post, however, is going to focus on Smith’s discussion of cases that I’m labeling “imagination-reality mis-match”. Immediately after defending the indirectness of sympathy (by appeal to sympathetic anger), Smith introduces a range of cases that he takes to be fodder for his view (TMS

Sympathy, therefore, does not arise so much from the view of the passion, as from that of the situation which excites it. We sometimes feel for another, a passion of which he himself is incapable; because, when we put ourselves in his case, that passion arises in our breast from the imagination, though it does not in his from the reality. We blush for the impudence and rudeness of another, though he himself appears to have no sense of the impropriety of his own behaviour; because we cannot help feeling with what confusion we ourselves should be covered, had we behaved in so absurd a manner.

Contrast Smith’s view here with an expression-responsive view of sympathy (i.e. a view on which we perceive the emotions of another by way of expressions of those emotions, and experience sympathetic emotions as a result. The expression-responsive view, unlike Smith’s, cannot explain sympathetic embarrassment when the person behaving in an embarrassing fashion fails to experience and express said embarrassment. This is not to say that the proponent of such views is unable to offer some explanation of the case, only to note that such cases are covered by Smith’s view in precisely the same fashion as other sympathetic emotions. This, I think, is another virtue of his approach.

It will be useful to raise the issue of whether Smith’s view should be considered, then, an error theory, given the preponderance of imagination-reality mis-match cases. Standardly, an error theory about X is the view that that our ordinary judgments about X go wrong, at least, in some reasonably large proportion of cases.

Does Smith’s story about mis-match cases of sympathetic embarrassment include some sort of error-theory? I think not. Recall that the general account of sympathy involves (i) an act of perception, (ii) an act of imagination, and (iii) an emotional response. The thing perceived, here, is the external circumstances of another person. For instance, if an individual is horribly overdressed for a casual party, but blithely unaware, the contents of our perception are things like that the individual is over-dressed, that everyone is staring at them, etc. In normal cases, we are correctly perceiving the external circumstances of this individual. So we have no false judgment there.

Second, there is an act of imagination. Now, here, the sympathizer imagines him or herself having the features the individual in question was observed to have. Here we have a false content to the act (the sympathizer is not overdressed, but imagines him or herself to be overdressed), but we also have no judgment in this act, and so, no false judgment.

Third is the emotional reaction to the act of imagining. Again, there is no judgment in this emotional reaction, and so, there can be no false judgment.

The mismatch in question is not a mismatch between the content of a judgment made by the sympathizer and the way the world is. At the same time, there is something, in this case of sympathetic embarrassment, that is properly called a mismatch: the sympathizer’s emotional reaction doesn’t match the emotional reaction of the person being sympathized with. And it does seem that the very notion of sympathy (which Smith treats as interchangeable with “fellow-feeling”) presupposes that there is an accord between the emotion felt by the target and the emotion felt by the sympathizer.

I am not sure what to make of the mismatch in light of this, but it seems that Smith can, at the least, claim that something goes awry in such cases (by the lights of the sympathizer): If sympathy presupposes a match in emotions between the sympathizer and target, this does not mean that any case of mismatch places the error with the sympathizer. In the cases Smith has in mind, it seems to be clear that the mismatch results from something going wrong with the target, and not with a mistake (of any sort) on the part of the sympathizer (TMS

Of all teh calamities to which the condition of mortality exposes mankind, the loss of reason appears, to those who have the least spark of humanity, by far the most dreadful, and they behold that last stage of human wretchedness with deeper commiseration than any other. But the poor wretch who is in it, laughs and sings, perhaps, and is altogether insensible of his own misery. The anguish which humanity feels, therefore, at the sight of such an object, cannot be the reflection of any sentiment in the sufferer. The compassion of the spectator must arise altogether from the consideration of what he himself would feel if he was reduced to the same unhappy situation, and what perhaps is impossible, was at the same time able to regard it with his present reason and judgment.

I want to stress that Smith is not offering a special view of these mismatch cases as an amendment to his theory. Smith’s stance here is straightforwardly the consequence of his general view, and he regards it as a virtue that his view can explain sympathetic embarrassment or pity in cases where the targets do not, themselves, feel embarrassed or sad.

We’ve got enough of the view on the table now that I can turn, in my next post, to Smith’s account of sympathy for the deceased (and, relatedly, Smith’s account of our fear of death).

Nitpick: Schaffer on Contextualism

Sometimes, there is a completely minor point that I want to make about a talk/paper/argument/etc., and it occurred to me that such minor points are well suited to being blogged. When I consider something this sort of minor point, I’m going to try and label the post as a “nitpick”, so that it is clear how minor I take the point to be. In this case, the point concerns one of Jonathan Schaffer’s arguments against contextualism (about “knows”) in “From Contextualism to Contrastivism”:

The second argument for the preferability of ternicity is the argument from scoring inquiry: ternicity better suits ‘knows’ to its role in keeping score of the overall progress of inquiry.

Ternicity is the view that knowing is a three-place relation between a subject, a proposition, and a contrast class. Contextualism is the view that “knows” is a context-sensitive term, which designates different relations (presumably two-place) in different contexts of utterance/evaluation. Here’s the argument Schaffer offers on the basis of scoring inquiry:

(10) One of the roles of ‘knows’ is to keep score of the overall
progress of inquiry;

(11) Indexicality precludes ‘knows’ from scoring the overall progress of inquiry, because indexicals cannot keep a consistent score across contexts; and

(12) Ternicity allows ‘knows’ to score the overall progress of inquiry, because the various stages of inquiry may be consistently logged under various values of q.

The nitpicky point concerns the second premise. Schaffer defends the premise by saying:

indexicality precludes ‘knows’ from keeping score of the overall progress of inquiry. This is because, with indexicality, the denotation of ‘knows’ is always warped to the
current context. As such ‘knows’ cannot keep consistent score across contexts. But scoring inquiry requires evaluating how a subject performs through a sequence of questions, and this requires a consistent score across contexts. (Imagine trying to score a baseball game if the denotation of ‘run’ changed with every inning!)

My nitpick is that, while Schaffer is right that baseball would be difficult to score if the denotation of “run” changed with every inning, I think he overstates the case here. It seems that we could devise a game which would be relatively simple to score, but where the denotation of key scoring terms shifted about throughout the game (at least, in the same sense as relevant for his argument). Here’s such a game: there are six numbered buckets in a row. Players stand at one end of the row and take turns tossing differently colored ping pong balls into the buckets. To begin, getting a ball in any bucket is worth one point. After each round of play, a die is rolled. If the die comes up 6, only the points in the furthest bucket count (even from previous rounds). If the die comes up 5, only the points from the furthest two buckets count. And so on. In other words, points in the sixth bucket are “safer” points than points in the first bucket, because each round, the buckets that actually count for points can change, but the higher the bucket number, the less likely it is that those points are excluded. So, if I toss all my ping pong balls in the first bucket, I may end the first round in the lead, but enter the second round with no points.

Ok, so, you might be thinking this fictional bucket-toss game is too minor of a point to raise, even for a nitpick post. At the same time, this isn’t entirely unrelated to Schaffer’s point: If we think of the shifting standards for which buckets count as analogizing changes in the contextually set standards for knowledge, and the ping pong balls as beliefs, we can see how the contextualist might conceive of scoring inquiry for “knows”-ascriptions. Your score fluctuates from context to context, but some of your points are safer than others. Perhaps a better analogy would allow the players to attempt to influence the bucket-boundary for points (to better analogize the popular contextualist view that knowledge claims can be used to attempt to shift the standards for knowledge-ascriptions).

So, I think Schaffer overstates the case against the indexicalist when it comes to the claim above labeled (11). Of course this is just one small part of Schaffer’s case, and I don’t think anything crucial for Schaffer’s larger project turns on it (hence the status as a nitpick).

Smith on Sympathy for the Deceased: The Mechanism of Sympathy

I’ve recently been reading Adam Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments”, and already I think it is clear that this is one of the most underrated works of philosophy from the early modern era.

I’ve been yapping at people a lot about Smith’s account of our Sympathy for the deceased, so I wanted to write up some of my thoughts on it, but I’m going to try and do this in a multi-part post, rather than one giant one.

In this first post First, though I need to present my understanding of the basics of Smith’s account of sympathy. We’ll start with Smith’s own statement of the core of the account (TMS

As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. Neither can that faculty help us to this any other way, than by representing to us what would be our own, if we were in his case. It is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy. By the imagination, we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enuring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them. His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels. For as to be in pain or disress of any kind excites the most excessive sorrow, so to conceive or imagine that we are in it, excites some degree of the same emotion, in proportion to the vivacity or dulness of the conception.

Smith’s account, I take it, is this: I see someone else in circumstance C. I don’t perceive what it is like for them to be in C, but instead, I imagine what it would be like for me to be in C. Imagining myself in C produces a weaker version of the emotional reaction that would be produced if I were in C. This is the mechanism, on Smith’s view, whereby I can have sympathy (aka “fellow-feeling”) with that person.

There are a few interesting aspects of this account that I want to flag. First, the account can be thought of as having three components: 1) perceiving someone else’s circumstances, 2) imagining oneself in those circumstances, and 3) reacting emotionally to the act of imagination. This is interesting because it has specific psychological predictions about instances of sympathetic emotional reaction.

Second, the principal place that judgment or belief enters the picture is in the first component: there, we have a perceptual judgment that so-and-so is in such-and-such circumstances. The subsequent elements of the account involve an act of imagination as well as an emotional reaction to the imagining. And though this judgment is a component of cases of sympathetic emotion, it is non-essential to the machinery of the other components (at least, for all that has been said). The emotional reaction is consequent on the act of imagining, but we can and do imagine ourselves in circumstances that we do not perceive others to be in. This opens room for a puzzle about why I am saddened much more when the act of imagining is prompted by perceiving someone in those circumstances, than when I just imagine myself in such circumstances. I suspect that the strength of the imagining would be a natural thing to appeal to in response to this puzzle, and my guess is that the best response to this puzzle is that we imagine more strongly with perceptual prompting then if we just idly imagine ourselves in some circumstances.

Third, the account is general for various emotions. Smith’s opening example is one of sympathetic sorrow, but he intends it to apply to cases of joy, anger, etc. There are some interesting remarks on which emotions are more or less prone to produce sympathy (and the degrees of sympathy they are prone to produce), but I won’t go into that here.

Finally, the account is indirect in a way that may be troublesome to some: It is natural to think that I can sympathetically become sad simply by seeing the sadness in someone’s face. Smith’s account does not, as it stands, permit this. Smith actually discusses this worry though (TMS

Upon some occasions sympathy may seem to arise merely from the view of a certain emotion in another person. The passions, upon some occasions, may seem to be transfused from one man to another, instantaneously, and antecedent to any knowledge of what excited them in the person pricipally concerned. Grief and joy, for example, strongly expressed in the look and gestures of any one, at once affect the spectator with some degree of a like painful or agreeable emotion. A smiling face is, to every body that sees it, a cheerful object; as a sorrowful countenance, on the other hand, is a melancholy one.

This, however, does not hold universally, or with regard to every passion. There are some passions of which the expressions excite no sort of sympathy, but, before we are acquainted with what gave occasion to them, serve rather to disgust and provoke us against them. The furious behavior of an angry man is more likely to exasperate us against himself than against his enemies. As we are unacquainted with his provocation, we cannot bring his case home to ourselves, nor conceive any thing like passions which it excites. But we plainly see what is the situation of those with whom he is angry, and to what violence they may be exposed from so enraged an adversary. We readily, therefore sympathize with their fear or resentment, and are immediately disposed to take part against the man from whom they appear to be in so much danger.

It may seem that here, Smith is conceding that his account does not apply to grief and joy, but does apply to sympathetic fear and anger. Rather, though, Smith is using this case to point out that a general account of sympathy has to be indirect, in order to capture anger. He then goes on to present an account of how we can view sympathetic grief and joy under this indirect account. Roughly, the account is that grief and joy are known to be reactions to bad and good fortune (respectively), so seeing a sad face suggests to us the general idea of ill fortune, and this is what prompts our sympathetic sadness. While seeing an angry person suggests the general idea of provocation, for Smith, this general idea alone does not trigger sympathetic anger. Smith’s remarks suggest that the key difference is that anger is directed at another individual, whose interests oppose the angry party’s, whereas good fortune or ill fortune (as such) do not go beyond the individual experiencing them.

The only amendment I want to propose to Smith’s account here is to allow for habituated emotional reactions to the sight of a sad or joyful face, where sufficient repetition of sympathetic joy and grief allows us to acquire immediate emotional reactions to seeing a sorrowful or joyful face, rather than always requiring the involvement of imagined (general) good or ill fortune. I don’t know enough of Smith’s views on the human mind to determine whether this would be taken as a friendly amendment, or whether such an account would do violence to other views of his.

Big Updates!

Last Tuesday (March 1st), I successfully defended my dissertation. Also last week, I accepted a tenure-track position in the philosophy department at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI. I am, obviously, extremely excited about both of these facts, and, while I still have to format the dissertation and fill out some paperwork, this also means that I am pretty much finished with grad school.

This past Saturday, I gave a talk at the Early Modern Circle (an early modern philosophy workshop here in Southern California). The discussion during the Q&A session was very fruitful for me, so that was excellent.

Oh, also, I will be commenting on a paper at the upcoming Hume conference in Edinburgh, which is awesome because this year is Hume’s 300th birthday, so this should be a pretty exciting conference.

I think that’s all my major news at the moment. Soon, I will be back to philosophical posts.

Actions: Intentional Under Some Description? Redux

In “Intention”, Elizabeth Anscombe introduces the verbiage of an action being intentional under a description in the following way:

Since a single action can have many different descriptions, e.g. ‘sawing a plank’, ‘sawing oak’, ‘sawing one of Smith’s planks’, ‘making a squeaky noise with the saw’, ‘making a great deal of sawdust’, and so on and so on, it is important to notice that a man may know that he is doing a thing under one description and not another. Not every case of this is a case of his knowing that he is doing one part of what he is doing and not another (e.g. he knows that he is sawing, but not that he is making a squeaky noise with the saw). He may know that he is sawing a plank, but not that he is sawing an oak plank, or Smith’s plank; but sawing an oak plank or Smith’s plank is not something else he is doing besides just sawing the plank that he is sawing. For this reason, the statement that a man knows he is doing X does not imply the statement that, concerning anything which is also his doing X, he knows that he is doing that thing. So to say a man knows he is doing X is to give a description of what he is doing under which he knows it. Thus, when a man says ‘I was not aware that I was doing X’, and so claims that the question ‘Why?’ has no application, he cannot always be confuted by the fact that he was attentive to those of his own proceedings in which doing X consisted. (Intention Sec. 6, p. 11-12, emphasis in the original)

This, at any rate, is the citation offered by Anscombe in her later “Under a Description” in which she endeavors to clear up a large number of confusions that people had surrounding the notion of an action’s being intentional under a description.

In my previous post on these issues I claimed that this “action under a description” business was in tension with Leibniz law. My argument was basically this:
1) If my flipping the light switch and my alerting the burglar are the same action, then for any property P, my flipping the light switch instantiates P if and only if my alerting the burglar instantiates P.
2) Suppose that my flipping the light switch was intentional, but that my alerting the burglar was not intentional, and that my flipping the light switch is the same action as my alerting the burglar.
3) Then, there is a property — the property of being intentional — instantiated by my flipping the light switch, but not by my alerting the burglar.
4) So, my flipping the light switch is not the same action as my alerting the burglar.
5) But, (from 2) they are the same action.

So, we have a contradiction following from the supposition in (2) and Leibniz Law. And for what it is worth, I think the argument is right: one should not have a view which commits them to all the elements of (2), unless one wishes to abandon Leibniz Law.

My mistake was in thinking that (2) correctly encapsulates the business about actions being “intentional under a description”. As Anscombe makes very clear in the paper “Under a Description”, the point of this under-a-description business was not to posit some weird entities, actions-under-descriptions and then take the stance that a-under-description-D1 and a-under-description-D2 (1) are the same thing, and (2) possess different properties. Rather, Anscombe points out that this “under-a-description” business is qua “in modern dress”, and takes it to attach to the predicate, rather than the subject. So, it is not that A-under-description-D1 is intentional, and A-under-description-D2 is not intentional; rather, A is intentional-under-D1, but not intentional-under-D2.

It is clear that this is the way to structure the view, if one wants to say that the flipping of the switch is the same action as the alerting of the burglar. It is perfectly fine for there to be one action which has the feature of being (for lack of better phrasing) purposefully-switch-flippy while lacking the feature of being purposefully-burglar-alerty.

This Leibniz-law concern is just one of the issues that Anscombe discusses in “Under a Description”. As I begin gearing up for the Intention reading group I’m organizing, I’ll definitely be going carefully through that article as well, since it did a really nice job, I think, of clarifying this talk of actions being “intentional under a description”.

Actions: Intentional Under Some Description? [Correction]

In an earlier post on this topic, I mis-attributed the origin of “intentional under a description” talk to Davidson’s 1963 paper, rather than Anscombe’s 1957 book Intention. More importantly, I wrote the post without having read Anscombe’s excellent 1979 paper “Under a Description”, which clears up a number of things about what is supposed to be going on with the view. In the next few days, I hope to have a post up detailing my new and improved understanding of this “under a description” talk. I know see ways in which my presentation of the view in the previous post were missing what is, essentially, the key element of the view (hint: my statement of component (B) of Davidson’s view in the earlier post is thoroughly incorrect).

Talk: Early Modern Circle (March 5th @ CalTech)

On March 5th, I will be presenting my paper, “How To Avoid Mis-Reiding Hume’s Maxim of Conceivability” at the Early Modern Circle. The meeting will be at CalTech, in Pasadena.

In the paper, I defend David Hume’s endorsement of the principle that conceivability implies possibility from two of the four criticisms offered by Thomas Reid. While I have been spending most of my time recently arguing that Reid’s complaints about Hume are wrong, I should note that Reid has a tremendous talent for finding challenges that Hume needs to address, even if I am much more optimistic than Reid is about Hume’s prospects for addressing those challenges.

It strikes me that Hume and Reid were, to an important extent, on the same page about what sort of project they were up to, and Reid was amazingly sharp, so that all adds up to a recipe for some really interesting and important challenges to look at in connection with Hume’s account.

Gift-giving and Economics

One of the podcasts I listen to during my commute is NPR’s Planet Money podcast.

I fell behind over break, and was catching up today, so I just heard the December 27th edition on why some economists don’t like gift-giving.

This isn’t the first time I’ve come across the anti-gift giving sentiment of economists, either. I was sincerely puzzled when I first came across the sentiment, and I continue to be perplexed. I keep coming across economists advocating a theory of gift-giving on which instead of exchanging sweaters, DVDs, and the like, we should be giving each other cash.

Now, I should preface this post by acknowledging that I am not an economist, and I have not had any real exposure to economic theory (though Mankiw’s “Principles of Economics” is sitting on my bookshelf next to Spivak’s “Calculus” and Abelman and Sussman’s “Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs” in the space reserved for non-philosophy textbooks I intend to work through when I am able to find/make the time.

It seems to me that any theory of gift-giving which recommends that all gift-giving take the form of cash transfers is a pretty bad theory of gift-giving. As I understand it, the thought behind migrating to cash-gifts is something like this: If Jones spends $30 on a Christmas sweater for Smith, and Smith has no desire or use for that sweater (i.e. the sweater produces no utility for Smith), we have missed out on the chance for that $30 to increase the utility in the world, and instead we wasted that money and used up some resources (e.g. yarn and time). Better to have given that Smith that DVD Smith has been wanting, or, better yet, give Smith the power to choose the purchase(s) that maximize utility; the gift of cash.

A clear way to see the problem with this system is that, if Smith and Jones are good friends, they probably exchange gifts during the holidays. It is safe to say that it would be pretty ridiculous for them to each put $30 in an envelope and swap envelopes. So, if the best account of gift-giving is one that recommends cash exchanges, I’d take that to be, roughly, a condemnation of gift-giving.

It seems to me that there are a few ways to resist this conclusion, which is fortunate for those of us who like the practice of gift giving.

Way 1: The efficiency argument against gift-giving requires the assumption that Smith is better informed than Jones about Jones’s preference ordering, and this assumption can be challenged. One of the best gifts I have ever received was a personalized book embosser that was given to me by family friends at my high school graduation. I did not know about customized book embossers prior to receiving one. Had someone told me about them, there is a decently high chance that I would not have placed a high priority on acquiring one. However, now, almost 10 years later, I still use it, and still think it was a great gift, and there is no way I would have been happier with whatever it is that I might have spend the equivalent amount of money on for myself.

This seems to me to bring out one of the distinctive values of gift-giving; the opportunity to enrich a friend’s life or have a friend enrich your life by giving you something that you didn’t even know you wanted. Note that, for someone who is good at picking out such gifts, the dead-weight loss would occur (I think) if they failed to give a gift, and instead just handed over some cash.

Way 2: Many gifts have sentimental value, but sentimental value can’t attach to cash (at least, not without interfering with its role as currency. For instance, if you save the first bill you earned at a childhood lemonade stand, because of its sentimental value, you aren’t able to spend that money while treating it as a keepsake. So, while the books my brother has given me as gifts can remain function both as literature and as store-houses of sentimental value, money really can’t play that role.

This is, I imagine, one of the most common thoughts about what is missing from the picture advocated by the sorts of economists I’ve linked above. The sentimental element of gift-giving is a pretty glaring omission in the utility-exchange story (at least, it seems to be — if anyone knows otherwise, please let me know).

Way 3: It may be impermissible for someone to spend their own money to acquire certain types of items (frivolous/fun/luxury items), but not impermissible for them to receive those items as a gift. A lot of people in grad school, for instance, would have to be irresponsible to spend a sizable chunk of money getting themselves an ipod or a videogame or what have you. If they have the money to spend on that sort of thing, they really should put some of it into savings, or the like. But it is not irresponsible for them to accept an ipod or a videogame as a gift. The fact that it would be irresponsible for the person to splurge on something unnecessary/impractical for themselves does not mean that it would be bad or wrong for them to possess it. Gift-giving provides a way for people who couldn’t responsibly treat themselves to occasionally get those sorts of treats.

One thing that is important to note is that both the NPR podcast and the article I linked indicate the enormous amounts of money that get sunk into our ritualized gift-giving. And nothing I’ve indicated here really defends the scale of our gift-giving practices or the huge numbers of gifts that don’t fall under the category of preferred-but-unknown, sentimentally-valuable, or fun-enabling-without-being-irresponsible. For all I have said, it may be the case that we ought to tone down the practice a fair amount and focus on increasing the relative frequency of the particularly valuable modes of gift giving. But that conclusion is a far cry from the view that the real values of gift-giving are best promoted by handing over cold hard cash.