Action and Acting



Action and Acting


Jack gets up, goes to the kitchen, opens the fridge, takes out a beer, pops the cap, and drinks it. Why did he do that? Because he wanted a beer and thought there was one in the fridge. The philosopher says that Jack’s action is explained by his having a desire for a beer and a belief that this course of action will bring about the satisfaction of that desire. The action fits the desire via an instrumental belief. The belief-desire pair constitutes the agent’s reason for acting; some say it causes the action (others deny this but still hold that the action is explained by a belief-desire pair). Isn’t this plain common sense? You want something, you figure out a way to get it, and you act based on those two factors. That all sounds very reasonable and convincing: actions are explained by the agent’s having desires and beliefs that lead to the action in question. This is what folk psychology is all about.

But consider an actor’s actions. John is sitting on a sofa on a stage with an audience in front of him. He gets up, walks across the stage, opens a fridge, takes out a beer, uncaps it, and drinks the contents. Why did he do that? Was it because he fancied a beer and figured the fridge would contain one?  No: he had no desire for a beer, and did not form an instrumental belief about how to satisfy such a desire. So John appears to be a counterexample to the classic story: his action, though just like Jack’s, has no such explanation. Yet it was intentional, intelligent, and motivated. John might even hate the taste of beer; he was merely pretending to desire a beer and acting so as to satisfy that non-existent desire. Pretending to want a beer does not entail wanting a beer (maybe the opposite), so John’s action cannot be explained in the way Jack’s was. Can it be explained by any belief-desire pair? Maybe this one: he desired to give the impression that he desired a beer and he reasoned that by acting as he did he would give that impression. This cannot be quite right, however, because then he wouldn’t be surprised if a member of the audience handed him a beer—after all, he contrived to give them the impression that he wanted one. He pretended to want a beer in a setting in which such a response is contraindicated. We needn’t go further into the precise nature of John’s psychology, noting simply that he was engaged in an act of pretense in which he desired to give a certain impression. The point is that the impression he desired to give is a false impression: he had no desire for a beer. His action is explained (according to the belief-desire model) by another desire—the desire to be perceived in a certain way. Thespian action, then, is different from ordinary action, requiring a wrinkle in the explanatory apparatus. It is governed by a special sort of desire—the desire to be seen in a certain way, as an actor portraying a character. The belief-desire theorist thus breathes a sigh of relief that his preferred model covers the case of the actor’s actions (though there may be a lingering disquiet). The actor just has a funny sort of desire.

Theatrical action is not confined to the conventional setting of the stage. People often contrive to give the impression that they have desires they don’t have (or don’t have desires they do have) for motives both innocent and nefarious, thus inviting an explanation that gets things wrong. I may want you to think that I like you and wish to spend time with you, while all along hating your guts: in such a case my actions are explained by my wishing to give you a false impression of my true feelings. I don’t spend time with you because I desire to but because I want you to think that I desire to. This kind of point has prompted some theorists of human psychology to propound a theatrical view of human behavior in a social context. We all know Shakespeare’s line about the world being a stage and we being merely players on it, and Erving Goffman did much to entrench this view of social interactions. I won’t go into the reasons for holding this view, merely observing that if it is true then a great many of our actions are like an actor’s actions. We perform roles designed to convey a certain impression—dutiful husband, kindly professor, tough guy—without actually having the desires we project. Our actions are a front we offer to the world in order to present ourselves in a certain light, and they may not correspond to our actual desires.[1] Goffman spoke of the “theatrical self”; we may equally speak of the “theatrical agent” performing “theatrical acts”—acts of pretense, simulation, deception. Moreover, the roles we play can become internalized, so that we don’t shed them even when unobserved: your entire personality can be the result of habitual role-playing reinforced by social pressures. Maybe we rarely act according to our true desires (whatever that might mean) but rather act in such a way as to project a desired impression—even to ourselves. Suppose that were so; suppose indeed that there are people who never act on their actual desires in the manner of Jack but always act on theatrical desires in the manner of John. Everything they do is impression management guided by the desire to appear a certain way, never by what they really want. For example, someone might have a longing for beer but live in a social world in which that desire is frowned upon, so they always act so as to give the impression that they hate the taste of beer (sexual desires might provide a more obvious example). The point I am making is that the standard story of human action assumes that it is not thus theatrical, but this is an empirical and contested question. In fact, ordinary action is shot through with such histrionic elements—acts of theatrical pretense. This type of action needs to be included in any general theory of the nature of human action (animals are not similarly histrionic).

Once this point is acknowledged doubts arise about the standard scheme. Is it really true that the average human desires to give certain impressions to others? Maybe the professional actor does, but what about someone who acts so as to cover up perfectly acceptable desires that other people happen to disapprove of? In the bad old days, did homosexuals really want to act like heterosexuals? Did they have a yearning to present themselves as other than there are? Did they come home after a long day of acting straight and feel happy about their day, feeling that their desires had been satisfactorily met? The truth is that they judged their actions to be in their best interests all things considered–their true desires notwithstanding. It is simply a misuse of language to say that they desired to act straight. They desired to act according to their own sexual preferences, not according to how they were expected to act. Pretending may sometimes be socially necessary, but it is not always enjoyable. The case of Jack gives a quite misleading impression of the general nature of human action, as if we always act so as to satisfy our real desires; but often we have to dissimulate, suppressing what we really desire in order to manage social interactions. We do what we think will serve us best (though with understandable lapses) not according to what we really want. This gives a very different picture of human agency from what the standard model implies. It is not so much desire that prompts our actions as social necessity (often internalized). Action is all about maintaining self-image not the free flow of appetite. The standard model forgets that we are social beings whose actions must be tailored to fit with the demands of others.[2] That can be a strain not a release—the denial of desire, not its free expression. We often act contrary to our desires, not from them

It is fair to say that this perspective represents human motivation as more cognitive than appetitive. We must think about how we are perceived and act accordingly, not just go with the flow of internal desire. The actor is always thinking, calculating, reflecting. Hamlet is nothing if not a thinker: not for him the spontaneous expression of desire. The gay man must be constantly vigilant, constantly monitoring his behavior, for fear of exposure (in the bad old days). Our lives are burdened with such thoughts: we can’t act without thinking about appearances most of the time. Intelligent social judgment is required of us (perhaps this is why people often need to “let their hair down”). So the correct model is not unmediated desire spilling out into action but tightly controlled judgment about what is best socially. This makes a cognitivist view of moral motivation less exceptional—more the standard case. True, moral action is not like going for a beer when you feel like one; it is more like judging what would be best for you from a social point of view. Genuine desire can be the cause of action, but very often the cause is something more cognitive and ratiocinative. Value-directed reasoning is the normal case. Self-control is the rule, given that we are actors on a stage, not giving vent to what we happen to be feeling (the professional actor must often suppress his actual feelings on the night in order to turn in a decent performance). Action is rarely desire made visible, but more desire filtered and disguised. Even Jack as he heads for the fridge is wondering what his mother would think of all his drinking, resolving to put on a good show of sobriety when next they meet; perhaps he even pictures seeing her in his mind’s eye and stays where he is on the sofa (he’s already had a few). He must play the part of a responsible drinker not someone who simply can’t resist the booze (alcoholics are notoriously fine actors). Even Jack is a skilled thespian, the rival of John (“No thanks, Mum, I’ve had two already”). Do we everact on a desire and not wonder what people might think of us? Our social role is always part of our practical reasoning, even when acting alone. That was the insight of Shakespeare and Goffman: we are inescapably social beings assiduously managing our image. We are not solitary creatures free to act on whatever we feel like without considering the opinions of others. The standard belief-desire model is unrealistically utopian, picturing us as isolated beings free to express whatever desires we may have. In reality our actions are always socially mediated, even if only notionally. It’s always: how would this look?

There is another respect in which the standard model is unrealistic. When Jack goes to get his beer he performs a large number of actions: his action of getting a beer consists of a series of sub-actions, such as putting his hand on the fridge door. How far down this subdivision can go is an interesting question, but let’s stop at the relatively molar level. Now does Jack have sub-desires corresponding to these sub-actions—did he desire to put his hand on the fridge door? Well, this is an action that could have occurred outside of the sequence of actions Jack performed in obtaining his beer, so presumably there is a desire that corresponds to it. That is the standard model: for each action there is a desire-belief combination corresponding to that action. But did Jack really desire to put his hand on the fridge door? He might have been indifferent to it, or he might have been actively opposed to it—perhaps he is abnormally sensitive to cold. In general friend Jack doesn’t like making an effort at anything, including getting a beer inside him. It is true that he judges that it is necessary to achieving his goal that he should put his hand on the fridge, but it is a stretch to say that he desires to do this. In general it is not plausible to suggest that we desire to do every part of the means we employ to obtain a given end. Means are just undesired necessities. People don’t generally want to study; they do it because it is a necessary means to obtaining an end that they do want. But then it is not true that every action is explained by a corresponding desire. These sub-actions are explained by a cognitive state to the effect that this is a necessary part of the means to a desired end; they are not themselves desired. You might try saying that Jack’s action of clutching the fridge door is explained by his desire for a beer, but that doesn’t explain the specific character of the sub-action in question. Desire may initiate the process and explain its whole existence, but it doesn’t explain the details of the process—belief does (or something like it). But then there are actions that are not explained by a desire, since the overall desire can’t explain them. We simply don’t always desire what we intentionally do, though we may judge that the action is necessary in the circumstances. Don’t we often desire not to do what we do, though deeming it necessary given our other goals? If you ask a person digging a hole whether he wants to dig a hole, he will likely say no, but then point out that it is necessary if he is to reach the water hidden underground. He wants to get the water but not to the dig the hole that exposes it. Jack may in fact think it’s a pain in the butt to go to the fridge, but how else is the poor man to get a beer? Indeed, Jack may not really want a beer at all (!) but rather thinks it is a necessary means for relieving his indigestion (my own mother used to drink Guinness in order to put on weight not because she liked Guinness). Lots of the time we act so as to achieve distant goals without desiring to perform the actions necessary to achieve them. Shall we say that we desire to stay alive (or experience pleasure) and this explains all our actions when combined with suitable instrumental beliefs? That would be a reductio of the standard model not a vindication of it. The attraction of the theory is that it offers to explain each action by means of a distinctive belief-desire pair, but this breaks down for complex actions. We don’t desire to do an awful lot of what we in fact do.

The picture that emerges is that judgment plays a far greater role in human action than has often been supposed. It is not that existing desires trigger actions with a little help from beliefs; rather, judgments about what is best are the main determinants of action. This is true for actions geared to social relations as well as for actions that make up sequences of actions aimed at achieving certain ends (the ends might not be desires either but value judgments). Desires can play a role but they are generally mediated and filtered, suppressed and dissembled, not given free rein (or reign). As agents we are much more cognitive creatures than appetitive ones (though these categories are themselves rather too simple); thought is the main engine of action. We think about how our actions will be perceived by others, and we think about what we must do in order to achieve our aims—neither of which has much to do with our actual desires. Action is more embodied thought than embodied desire (in humans anyway[3]).



[1] Even when we are acting on our actual desires, say when eating lunch, we are conscious of the impression we make on others (though they might not be present), so there is always the influence of an accompanying higher-order desire to create a good or passable impression. You desire that your desires not be expressed repulsively or awkwardly or embarrassingly. You monitor your desire-satisfying actions for their social impact. Hell, as Sartre remarked, is other people. Or, as Freud observed, all our actions are subject to criticism from an internalized parent: we are acting a part to gain parental approval. We must always please a demanding audience.

[2] Can we imagine creatures that literally never act on their desires but always shape their behavior to fit social expectations—pure politicians, as it were? They are always insincere, dissembling, repressing their real desires. So do they never eat or relieve themselves? Suppose this is done for them so that no action on their part is necessary: then it seems that their behavior could be entirely governed by other-regarding desires to the effect that they create a good impression. It’s wall-to-wall theater from morning till night, pure pretense. This is a far cry from the standard model. These creatures have desires, perhaps very much like ours, but they never ever act on them. Their actions are never explained by their desires (save the desire to create a good impression in others—which may not be a real desire anyway but simply arise from fear). It is logically possible never to do what you want but to act nonetheless.

[3] My pet African lizard, Ramon, agrees, seeing a stark contrast between his reasons for action and those of his keeper. He just bites at his lettuce whenever he feels like it without regard for what anyone else might think of him, whereas his keeper has to consider how his actions will be perceived by others. Ramon is no actor; I perforce am. Do I wish I had his freedom of action? You bet I do.

4 replies
  1. jeffrey g kessen
    jeffrey g kessen says:

    I think this Post pretty much nails it. For my part, however, and just to personalize it a bit— I never play-act when I want a beer, no matter whom the company.

  2. Joseph K.
    Joseph K. says:

    I am sympathetic to the argument that you make here – forcefully. I do wonder how you would answer the following question: Though thoughts rather than desires are what immediately determine some actions, what if the thoughts themselves always embody calculations, sometimes quite subtle and complex, as to what will best minister to some or other desire(s) of ours?


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