Caring and the Boundary-Driven Structure of Practical Deliberation

By Seidman, Jeffrey | Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy, November 2008 | Go to article overview

Caring and the Boundary-Driven Structure of Practical Deliberation


Seidman, Jeffrey, Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy


1. Limited deliberative attention as a problem for the theory of practical reasoning

THE SORTS OF PRACTICAL QUESTIONS that agents seek to answer by deliberating are markedly diverse. An agent might deliberate in order to discover the best means to some already given, well-defined end. An agent might deliberate in order to "specify" a general or vague end--asking herself, for instance, "what would be the morally decent thing to do right now?" Or an agent might deliberate in order to answer questions as open-ended as "what shall I do today?" or "what shall I do with my life?" As different as these instrumental, specificatory and more open-ended practical questions are from one another, our deliberative attempts to answer them share a common feature--a feature which is so familiar and so evident to reflection that it is easy to fail to be puzzled by it. In each sort of case, the domain of potential answers to her question that an agent will typically entertain in deliberation is extremely limited. Indeed, if the "courses of action" between which a deliberating agent chooses are individuated so as to include complex, temporally extended plans, then, in most cases, there will be indefinitely many courses of action that a finite deliberating agent, with finite cognitive capacities, will never consider--potential answers to her question on which her deliberative attention will simply never alight. This fact raises a fundamental question for the theory of practical reasoning: what determines which options an agent will and will not consider in deliberation? Common sense suggests that the deliberation of an agent who was simply arbitrary in which possible answers to her practical question she ignored and which she considered would not count as reasonable. So, in order to make a place in the theory of practical reasoning for the fact of our limited deliberative attention, we need an account that at once explains the patterns of deliberative attention that reasonable agents typically display, and allows us to see why these patterns of deliberative attention are, in fact, reasonable. (2)

In this essay, I will present a somewhat idealized model of the path that a reasonable agent's deliberative attention will take during the course of temporally extended deliberation. This model, the Boundary-Driven Model of deliberative attention, borrows an idea that is central to Michael Bratman's "Planning Theory" of intention. (3) According to the Planning Theory, a reasonable agent brings to the deliberative questions she faces a framework of settled, relatively stable, prior intentions. These intentions often remain "in the background" of her deliberation, outside the scope of her deliberative attention; but from the background, they help to frame what appears in the foreground. Intentions can do this because they are subject to strong rational requirements of consistency with one another (relative to an agent's beliefs). Because I intend to teach tomorrow, for instance, and because nothing in my current situation gives me sufficient reason to reconsider that intention, I will not regard courses of action that I believe to be inconsistent with teaching tomorrow as admissible options. This makes my deliberative situation, today, much easier than it otherwise might be. Even as I ask myself the apparently wide-open question "what shall I do today?" for instance, there are indefinitely many courses of action, such as catching a flight to Rio de Janeiro, that I will not entertain. Typically, such inadmissible courses of action simply will not cross my mind--even as I search energetically and imaginatively for something new and exciting to do on this dull, grey Sunday. If I do think of such a course of action (perhaps in a daydream), or if someone proposes it to me, I will be disposed to exclude it from the set of possibilities I entertain, without pausing to consider its particular merits and disadvantages. As I shall put this point, an agent's prior intentions help to frame her deliberative problems by establishing deliberative boundaries--boundaries on the landscape of possibilities, beyond which she will not look for an answer to the question she faces. …

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