Welcome to our fifth Ergo symposium. This week we are showcasing Joshua Shepherd’s paper “Halfhearted Action and Control”, with commentaries by Andreas Elpidorou (Louisville), Nora Heinzelmann (Munich), and Zachary Irving (Virginia). Let me begin by thanking all the participants for their great work!
Shepherd introduces his topic with a possibly familiar scenario: “It is 3 p.m. You are grading papers, as you must. But you don’t really want to. It is sunny, and you want to be in the park. Your legs hurt, and you want to take a walk. You await an important e-mail, and you want to check for it. You both want to do something else, and you do not want to do the thing you are doing. You grade the papers intentionally. But you also grade them halfheartedly” (259). What is it, though, for you to act halfheartedly? Shepherd claims that it is for you to act with weak overall motivation.
Shepherd begins in §1 by explaining what it is for an agent to possess some overall level of motivation to act in a certain way and what it is for an agent’s overall level of motivation to be weak or strong. According to Shepherd, an agent’s overall level of motivation with respect to some action, A, consists in a complex set of dispositions, including especially dispositions to initiate, sustain, and guide A-ing (262, 264-5). And, on his view, to say an agent’s overall motivational level with respect to A-ing is weak (or strong) is to apply a gradable predicate mapping the agent’s overall level of motivation to A onto a scale, where location on the scale is determined relative to a specific class and standard of comparison (263). As Shepherd explains, differences in the class and standard of comparison can yield different theoretically illuminating measures of strength or weakness of an agent’s overall motivation with respect to an action (264). For example, one’s comparison class could be the agent’s overall motivational level for a certain type of action across a wide range of different physical conditions. This would provide a measure of how strongly motivated an agent is during a particular performance as compared to her other performances of the same act-type. Alternatively, one’s comparison class might be an agent’s typical overall motivational level for all of the act-types of which she is capable, yielding a measure of how strongly motivated the agent typically is to perform a certain type of action (e.g., grading) compared to other act-types (e.g., playing with one’s dog). Similar flexibility is permitted for one’s standard of comparison—e.g., one might focus on how overall motivation modulates an action’s initiation, sustenance, or guidance (265). For the remainder of the paper, Shepherd focuses on the relation between the agent’s overall motivational level to A and A’s guidance as his standard of comparison.
Next, in §2 Shepherd argues that a central manifestation of being weakly motivated to A is that an agent possesses less control when intentionally A-ing than she would possess were she more motivated to A. Appealing to his earlier work on agential control, Shepherd suggests that an agent possesses control over an action, A, to the degree to which the agent can repeatedly and flexibly bring about a match between her intention to A and her A-ing, where repeatability makes one’s success reliable rather than merely lucky or one-off, and flexibility makes one’s success not merely situation-dependent and rote, but robust in the face of environmental variance. With this as his model of control, Shepherd marshals empirical evidence suggesting that that being weakly motivated to perform a task reliably impairs agents’ control over task execution—specifically, by increasing proneness to distraction (268).
In the third and last part, Shepherd identifies a puzzle about intentional agency during knowingly halfhearted action. To illustrate, consider the dancer, Arezoo. At the end of a long day of practise, Arezoo attempts a routine she knows to include a concentration-demanding maneuver. She also knows that she is weakly motivated and won’t execute the maneuver successfully unless she effortfully increases her concentration. She performs the routine but, because she is weakly motivated, she poorly executes the concentration-demanding maneuver. Shepherd proposes that, at least on the face of it, a knowingly halfhearted action like Arezoo’s implies rational incoherence on the part of the agent. Specifically, it seems to require that the agent simultaneously commit to a certain action-plan (e.g., embodied in Arezoo’s intention to perform the dance routine) and knowingly accept deviating from that action-plan (e.g., embodied in Arezoo’s awareness of her own halfheartedness prior to executing the routine). While Shepherd acknowledges that there are various strategies one might pursue in order to explain away the appearance of rational incoherence, he points out that such strategies have yet to be explored systematically.
You can find the target article, commentaries, and Shepherd’s response below.
Joshua Shepherd: Halfhearted action and control
Andreas Elpidorou: The costs and benefits of doing something halfheartedly
Nora Heinzelmann: Motivation and control
Zachary Irving: Halfhearted creative action: A puzzle about control
Joshua Shepherd: Replies for Brains Symposium on ‘Halfhearted action and control’