Monday, June 08, 2020

Shared intentions

Musica Temprana in Vredenburg/Tivoli, 15 December 2019

Now that the lockdown gradually is lifted in many countries, maybe it is time to write in my blogs about something else than about themes related to the corona pandemic, as I have done during the past weeks. Nevertheless, it is difficult to ignore it so long as the world hasn’t returned to normality, or maybe to a “new normality”, as some say, thinking that the world will never be again as it was before. Therefore I want to talk about a phenomenon that is wider, although it has made all these measures against the coronavirus possible: shared intentionality.
As Michael Tomasello upholds in his Origins of Human Communication and in other works, the main behavioural characteristic that makes men different from all other living beings on earth, including their nearest relatives the apes, is the phenomenon of shared intentionality. As such the idea of shared intentionality is not thought out by Tomasello, but it has already been used by philosophers before him, albeit often in different wordings, like David Hume, or recently Raimo Tuomela, Margaret Gilbert and Michael E. Bratman. The latter says about it, for instance: “a shared intention is not an attitude in the mind of some superagent consisting literally of some fusion of … two agents. There is no single mind which is the fusion of your mind and mine. … [N]or should we assume that shared intentions are always grounded in prior promises. My conjecture is that we should, instead, understand shared intention … as a state of affairs consisting primarily of appropriate attitudes of each individual participant and their interrelations.” (p. 111) In this way, it “helps coordinate our planning; and it can structure relevant bargaining. And it does all this in ways to track [our common goal]. Thus does our shared intention help to organize and to unify our intentional agency in ways to some extent analogous to the ways in which the intentions of an individual organize and unify her individual agency over time.” (p. 112).
The end of this quotation is a bit confusing, for shared intention is not combined individual intentions but it is a phenomenon of its own, which Bratman certainly will endorse. In order to explain the difference between a combination of purely individual intentions and a shared intention, I’ll use an example discussed by Tomasello somewhere in his book, which I have adapted and extended.
Apes, like chimpanzees, don’t have shared intentions but they can combine individual intentions, so Tomasello. Let’s assume that a group of chimpanzees is hungry and goes out hunting. They see a prey and one chimp, the leader, starts to pursue the prey. When the prey flees to the right, one or a few chimps go to the right in order to stop it. When then it flees to the left, another chimp goes to the left, and in order to prevent that the prey may escape in a forward direction, a few chimps try to close this escape route. But each chimp basically reacts as the situation is. Once the prey has been caught, each chimpanzee takes as much of it as it can get, and if some chimps come too late, then sorry for them. If a chimp gives a part to such a latecomer, it is only in order to prevent that this latecomer will rob his piece of the meal from his hands.
How differently a hunting party is organized by men. Before the hunt begins, there is a meeting and the hunters agree who will be the drivers and who will shoot. Among the drivers it is determined who will go to the right and who will go to the left and who will close the front escape route. And so they act when a prey is discovered. After the hunt the preys are brought together and divided, each participant getting a fair share. A part of it is kept apart for those who’ll come later and maybe also a piece for John who couldn’t participate because he was ill.
These two cases clearly show what the difference is between combined individual intentions and a shared intention. The chimps know what the other chimps will do, they understand their intentions and in this way they cooperate with others and perform their actions in order to fulfil their individual wishes to get a piece of meat. But in the end everybody decides for and cares for him or herself. How different it is with man. Of course, man often behaves individualistically and egoistically but fundamentally they can share their intentions and take care of others, also if the others are not present, but do belong to the group.
Now that I have come so far, I cannot help to return to the problem of the corona crisis that determines so much our intentions these days. My blog last week started with the question “Should we sacrifice individual freedom for the benefit of the population health?”. My answer to this question was “yes”. However, I can give this answer only, if I know what a shared intention is and if I can have shared intentions. Even more, I can ask this question only if I can have shared intentions. But to quote Tomasello, although apes “have human-like skills for understanding individual intentionality, they do not have human-like skills and motivations of shared intentionality.” (p. 181) The upshot is, while men can organize a lockdown, apes cannot.

- Michael Tomasello, Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2008
- Michael E. Bratman, “Shared Intention”, in Faces of Intention. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999; pp. 109-129.

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