In the recent debate on the concept of theft, Ron in Houston made a couple of common claims about the relationship between belief and intention on the one hand, and morality on the other.
There is a vast difference between holding a belief and acting upon that belief. Honestly, who has the right to tell people what they must believe? Sounds like a 1984 style mind control to me.
In this post, I want to take a closer look at the relationships between belief, desire, intention, action, and morality.
In this blog, I follow the theory of intentional action known as “BDI Theory” – Belief, Desire, Intention theory. It says that all intentional actions can be explained using the following formula:
(Belief + Desire) -> Intention -> Intentional Action
Why did the chicken cross the road? Whatever answer you give to this question will be a hypothesis about what beliefs and desires the chicken had.
Desires select the ends of intentional action – they select our goals. Beliefs select the means of intentional action – they tell us how to get to our goals and whether our goals have actually been met. Intentions are how beliefs and desires are translated into actions – the movement of muscles – or, in some cases, into inaction.
Now, let us look at an action A, where A = going 90kph through a school zone. We make this action illegal. In doing so, we make it illegal for agents to have whatever combinations of beliefs and desires that would then result in the intentional action of going 90kph through a school zone.
Does a person who is going 90kph through a school zone have a right to believe that he was only going 30kph? The law has hereby demanded that people have true beliefs as to how fast they are going, and will arrest and imprison people who happen to do a poor job of acquiring true beliefs about how the fast they are going.
We can imagine somebody saying, “You clocked me at 90kph, but I believe that I was only going 30kph. I have a right to believe whatever I want to believe. You cannot arrest me for going 90kph when I believe that I was only going 30kph because that does not respect my beliefs.”
Or, imagine somebody saying, “I believe that there is no law against traveling 90kph – and I have a right to that belief.”
Every criminal law ever written is a prohibition on having certain (sets of) beliefs. Every time we make a particular intentional action illegal, we have said, “Here is a group of belief-desire sets that you are not permitted to have. If we discover that you have them (because you have performed this illegal act), then you will be arrested and punished.”
A belief is a disposition to act. The idea that you can have a belief without acting on it is as absurd as the idea that an object can be under the influence of a force of nature without being affected by it.
Return to the formula above governing intentional action. That formula is governed by the principle that an agent acts to fulfill the most and strongest of his desires, given his beliefs. If you wish to alter the intentional actions that an agent will perform, then you do so by altering his beliefs and desires.
Think of these beliefs and desires to be like the forces on a body going through space. If you want to alter the course of a body going through space, then you must alter the forces acting on it – adding a new force, or changing the magnitude and/or direction of the forces that are already present. At the same time, it is not causally possible to add a new force that does not alter the motion of the object through space (unless you add two new forces that completely cancel each other out).
If you want to alter the movement of an intentional action – another human being – through life, then you do so by altering the beliefs and desires that are forming his intentions. It is as impossible to alter the intentional actions of an individual without altering his beliefs and desires as it is to alter the movement of an object through space without altering the forces acting upon it.
Similarly, it is impossible to add a belief to an agent’s set of beliefs and desires without affecting his intentional actions – as it is to add a force to an object without altering its movement through space (unless one also introduces another force that is precisely the opposite of the first).
In other words, there is no difference between holding a belief and acting on it. Beliefs will be acted on in the same way that forces of nature will influence objects.
How does this relate to “1984 style mind control?”
It is easy to understand the fear. “If people believe that it is permissible to regulate thoughts, then this is going to open up all sorts of room for abuse. People will be fighting with each other over what we are and are not permitted to think. This will lead to tyranny.”
But, the same argument applies to all law. “If people believe that it is permissible to regulate action, then this is going to open up all sorts of room for abuse. People will be fighting with each other over what actions we are and are not permitted to perform. This will lead to tyranny.”
In fact, it’s the same argument, given that every regulation we have ever passed on intentional actions is a regulation passed against belief-desire sets.
Think about any trial. A person is on trial for murder. Did he believe that the gun was loaded? Did he believe that firing a bullet at the victim might kill him? Did he believe that the victim was an immediate threat to somebody else?
The jury at any trial is going to be asked to judge not only what the accused did, but what the accused believed. In fact, there is an intimate connection between what the accused did and what the accused believed, since his actions are defined by what he believed. Did he believe that the gun was not loaded? If he did, then he could not possibly have performed the act of intentional homicide.
The statement that we may regulate thought is not a statement that says we may start to do something new – something that people have thought in the past was prohibited. It is a statement that says that we should be honest about what we have been doing all along – what we have done since the day that the first law was passed.