What does “active” mean if not “preferred”?

“You are under coercion if and only if you have two or more incompatible wants and are acting on one of them (e.g. currently eating health food and not junk food) while another is active (there is a wanting-junk-food process currently under way in your brain).”
– David Deutsch


From the archives: Posted on 8th December 2000

Active (Was: conflict or coercion)

“Perhaps this part of the definition needs to be teased out a bit more. I am in a state of coercion if I am acting out theory A while theory B is active in my mind. This is only coercive if I prefer theory B at the time. It does not mean that I am merely thinking about theory B. So ‘active’ must refer to a preference (?).”

I don’t think that can be quite right. If you act out A when you were physically capable of acting out B, then you must have preferred A to B. This is essentially the definition of “prefer”.

The important thing for Taking Children Seriously (and beyond) is that choosing A over B can happen in a coercive or a non-coercive way, and the criterion is, as you say, whether B is active. What does “active” mean, then, if not “preferred”?

Here’s my take on this.

Tap someone on the shoulder and ask them if they’re pleased with—say—the result of an election. Suppose they say yes. There are two different things they might mean by this. One is that at this very moment, somewhere inside their skull, there is a mental process under way that one would describe as pleasure or “being pleased”: it dwells on certain attributes of the election; it involves certain emotions and perhaps the secretion of certain chemicals into the bloodstream, and so on, and it affects how they would currently choose if offered certain options, including the option of whether to say that they are pleased or not. The other meaning is that somewhere in their brain there is a record of a decision that they have come to—for instance, that the election produced an extremely good result—and this, too, may affect choices that they may now make, including, again, the choice of how to reply when you ask them whether they are pleased.

In the latter case, even though the person reports “being pleased” with the result, they do not literally mean that there is a “being pleased” process currently under way. Nor does such a process necessarily start up when the person reports that they are “pleased”, or engages in actions that are determined by being pleased in this sense. The first sense of being pleased refers to an active mental process and the second does not. They are related, but they are distinct.

It’s hard work making these distinctions. Perhaps part of the problem here is that there are very few situations in which conventional wisdom cares about which of these meanings is the actual one, and therefore everyday language does not have well-defined separate terms for pairs of things that are in reality different, and sometimes about as different as can be (e.g. preferring something under coercion and otherwise). But I think that’s not the whole story: I think that there is a systematic, purposeful confusion built into the standard terminology that describes decision-making and thinking—not built in by some wicked conspiracy of course, but built in because of the circumstances under which the language for expressing these concepts evolved. But I digress.

Suppose that A is “have junk food (and not health food) for lunch” and B is “have health food (and not junk food) for lunch”. The phrase “I want to do A” can have two different meanings, depending on whether “I want” refers to an active mental process or not. Similarly with B. Also, the phrase “I want to do A and I want to do B” Can have four different meanings, depending on whether each of the two incompatible wants are active or not.

You are under coercion if and only if you have two or more incompatible wants and are acting on one of them (e.g. currently eating health food and not junk food) while another is active (there is a wanting-junk-food process currently under way in your brain).

When I go into the shop and buy an item for $10, it is because I prefer the item to the $10. Throughout this process, I also have an incompatible want, namely to keep the $10 and get the item (and behave morally and so on, but let’s keep it simple). But this want is not active. It exists in the sense that if someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I would prefer to keep the $10 as well as the item (if I could do so morally and so on) I would reply yes. But even if they did, no process of “wanting to keep both things” would actually be under way in my mind at any time. Sometimes there is. If I am regretting my decision, say, or feel guilty about buying the item or whatever, in the sense that there is an actual process of regretting, or feeling guilty, under way at the time when I hand over the money, then I am in a state of coercion.

Some people believe, as a matter of philosophical conviction, that there is no difference between the first and second of these possibilities. One way in which this arises is when they are committed to the proposition that the benefit or harm done to the parties by the transaction can be completely characterised by considering the various preferences that were involved and whether they were satisfied. The persistent error that I call “Libertarian Blindness”, which often comes up in discussion of Taking Children Seriously, is one of the milder disasters caused by this confusion. We most often see the confusion here, of course, when people are trying to justify coercion in education: “sure they have a choice; they can do their chores or go without dinner, just like the choices that everyone makes every minute of their lives”.

Whew! BTW, the reason why I often call active wants “impulses” is that, despite the unwanted connotations of that word, such as casualness or transience, of all the many words used to describe mental states or processes, I find it the least easy to construe as referring to a state or process that isn’t active.

See also:

David Deutsch, 2000, ‘What does “active” mean if not “preferred”?’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/what-does-active-mean-if-not-preferred

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