Acting under the "Guise of the Good". A critical analysis of the evaluation requirement for intentional agency

Essay, 2019

12 Pages, Grade: 1,00



In this paper, I argue for the claim that an agent always perceives at least some good in his1 intentional action - often called the “guise of the good“ (GG) thesis (Tenenbaum 2012: 1 f.). In the philosophical debate, this goodness requirement has often been rejected by pointing to its problematic consequences. However, I will clarify that the source of such objections lies in the ambiguity and the imprecise use of the term “good“ and I will show how the presumed problems can be tackled.

In section II, I will specify what an intentional action is. In section III, I will provide a distinction of two interpretations of the term “good“ which are relevant not only for the purpose of this paper, but also for gaining a clear view on the debate about the goodness requirement for intentional agency. In section IV, I will present and justify my main argument in detail, explaining for which understanding of “good“ it is correct and for which it can obviously be deemed false. In section V, I will reconstruct Kieran Setiya’s objection to the GG thesis and show in which way the problems highlighted can be handled by applying my argument. Finally, section VI consists of a brief overview of the results, their practical implications and a demand for further interdisciplinary investigation.


As the term already indicates, intentional actions involve (an) intention(s) (Mayr 2017: 56) of an agent A2. Unlike mere movements, habits, responsive behavior, reflexes or compulsive actions, an intentional action is an action which is done for reasons3 (Setiya 2008: 5). Acting for reasons

means that A is at least theoretically able (disposed) to give an explanation for his reasons when asked afterwards (Setiya 2008: 11). This explanation can be given by citing A’s motivating reasons for his action (Mayr 2017: 57), which does not mean that A necessarily has to be aware of, or reflect upon his reasons before or during his intentional action (Butterfill 2001: 141). According to

Butterfill, intentional agency belongs to purposive behavior, i.e an agent A is trying to fulfill a certain purpose with his action (Butterfill 2001: 141). Some philosophers have stated a further, more ambiguous condition for an action to be intentional: The reasons-explanation should show why it is rational particularly for A to act as he has done and so make the action at least to some extent intelligible for others. The scope between an action being rational for A and intelligible for others is unclear, but this condition still seems important to some extent, since otherwise A could give any kind of reasons in order to explain his action. Setiya points to the example of A drinking coffee because he loves Sophocles, which definitely exceeds the limits of an action being intelligible. (Mayr 2017: 57 f.)


Within the debate about the goodness requirement for a theory of intentional agency, philosophers have used the term “good“ in diverse ways, without explicitly stating which meaning they are referring to. Here, a huge range of synonyms can be found, resulting in the danger that arguments using the term „good" can be misinterpreted or even mistakenly deemed (un)sound. In general, two meanings are relevant in this context: the moral good and the non-moral good, implying different consequences for the goodness requirement. Considering the above definition of intentional agency connected with goodness, one should ask whether A perceives some good in his intentional action, or whether A had good reasons to do X.

On the one hand, there is the moral good, which can be evaluated not only by the agent himself, but also objectively by others (Setiya 2008: 9). Harming someone innocent, for instance, is a morally bad action, while helping someone in need is morally good. Important to mention is that different cultures have diverging morality principles, which implies that an action which is seen as morally objectionable in Europe may pertain even to holy practices in Asia, as for instance cannibalism which is known to be practiced in Papua New Guinea (Thiessen 2001: 141 f.).

Unlike moral goodness, the non-moral good is to be understood in terms of subjective perception. In this context, we should simply think of what the agent takes the action to be good for, instead of judging about its normative appropriateness. An agent who intentionally seriously harms someone may still see some good in his morally bad action, because he is amused by seeing others suffering. This kind of goodness does not entail any objective component of what is in fact good, or what is morally perceived as good by others. So, one and the same reasons for an action may be good for A, but bad for B.


The purpose of this section is to justify the following argument which is defended in this paper:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten


(P1) has already be explained in section II. So let’s turn to (P2). This premise is obviously not true in regard to moral goodness. If all humans did only things they regard as morally good (right), there would be no violence, abuse, harming or war on our planet. But such things do exist and probably every human has done at least one thing he regrets or is ashamed of, because he regards it as morally bad (wrong) in retrospect. Opponents of the GG thesis who use cases of bad agency as counterexamples are in fact pointing to reasons which are regarded as morally bad, based on which norms are taught in a certain society (Tenenbaum 2013: 1).

However, (P2) is correct in regard to non-moral goodness. When A has a certain intention to do X, there are reasons which motivate him to do X. Having motivating reasons (no matter if being conscious of them or not) for doing X implies that they have a positive value for A. So, the intention to do X generates positive emotions which in turn function as the trigger for motivating A to actually execute X. One can imagine these feelings as an urge for making progress, which implies that A perceives the execution of the act as the right thing to do and a better option than not executing it instead. Therefore, A necessarily perceives his reasons for an intentional act as good, on a non-moral scale, independently of whether he sees those reasons as morally good or bad.

If A does not consciously reflect on his reasons before or during the act, at least he will see some good in its outcome which is in fact the content of the intention. Certainly, humans often change their mind after having done something they would not perceive as having had good reasons for it anymore, but this does not change the fact that the act was intended and has been regarded as good before or during its execution. Here is an example:

ex. 1 Gil intentionally makes her friend have a bad conscience, because she forgot his birthday.

Gil’s motivating reasons for the action could be that he did not feel appreciated enough, had expected to get a present and consequently wanted to make his friend feel guilty, so that she will never forget Gil’s birthday again. These are reasons which such an action is good for, which definitely makes it intentional and even rational.

We are facing a case where the action indeed was intentional, although Gil may (probably insincerely) claim that it was not in retrospect. It is common that people deny their intentions in retrospect in order to justify their actions. So, Gil may claim that it was not his intention to make his friend feel guilty, but indeed it was during the execution. What he in fact may mean is that he regrets his egoistic behavior. Anyway, it does not matter whether Gil feels bad about it afterwards. The example shows that it is important to focus on the point before or during the action in order to say whether an action was intentional or not.

Certainly, non-moral goodness is based on the subjective experience of A and need not be experienced in the same way by another agent. Humans weigh reasons in different ways and ascribe divergent values to them, which can significantly affect which reasons one regards as good and which one does not. The following example is an instance of an action which would be objectively deemed morally bad, but can subjectively be evaluated as good as well as bad:

ex. 2 Bob ingeniously plans to burgle a house, because he has huge amounts of debts and perceives this reason as sufficiently good to actually execute the action, so he does. By contrast, Tom, who would have the same reason for burgling a house is not motivated by that reason, because he would never be able to cause other people suffering a financial damage due to his action, so he does not burgle a house.


1 The male form should be understood as gender neutral throughout the paper

2 “A“ stands for any human actor throughout the paper

3 “reasons“ is meant as a single reason as well as more than one reason throughout the paper

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Acting under the "Guise of the Good". A critical analysis of the evaluation requirement for intentional agency
University of Salzburg
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act, action, agency, intentional, intentionality, intentional agency, action theory, theory of action, evaluation, requirement, guise of the good, good, bad, moral good, moral, morally good, morally bad, agent, perception, goodness requirement, evaluation requirement, goodness, badness, meaning of good, interpretation, interpretation of good, debate, philosophy, theoretical philosophy, psychology, argument, Kieran Setiya, Setiya, intention, movement, habit, reflex, compulsion, reason, reasons, action done for reasons, disposition, explanation, reasons-explanation, reasons explanation, motivating reasons, awareness, reflect, reflection, Butterfill, purposive action, purpose, on purpose, rational, rationality, intelligible, intelligibility, Sophocles, non-moral good, good reason, good reasons, evaluate, objective, subjective
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Andjelika Eissing-Patenova (Author), 2019, Acting under the "Guise of the Good". A critical analysis of the evaluation requirement for intentional agency, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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