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Commitment in Shared Agency

Intentions are associated with commitments to yourself.

Intending to visit the book shop involves a kind of commitment to do so. This kind of commitment is part of what distinguishes desire from intention ...
‘Having a desire to walk together is compatible with having a desire not to do so ... whereas, in intending, one has gone beyond the point of weighing considerations for and against, and has committed to a course of action.’

Roth (2004, p. 361)

To put this another way: not acting on a desire is not generally a failure, whereas not acting on an intention is generally a failure of some kind. (This is consistent with saying that there can be overwhelmingly strong reasons not to act on a particular intention, of course.)

What kind of commitments?

Ethical commitments? No.

What is the source of the commitments associated with intentions? Could their source be some general ethical principles? This seems unlikely for two reasons. First, you might intend to do something utterly abhorrent. While I think such intentions are associated with commitments, I don’t think that the fact you have an intention contributes anything at all to a an ethical evaluation of such actions. (It’s not just that the intention is a very small consideration; it simply has no place in ethical discussion at all.)
What about the second reason? ...
Intentions are associated with commitments *to yourself*. (In Gilbert’s terms, the commitment is a source of directed obligations; it is you and no one else who is obligated to ensure you act to fulfil your intention.) Others are not generally entitled to criticise you for failing to fulfil intentions; or, if they are, it is usually because they have some legitimate interest in you. By contrast, ethical principles are not naturally thought of as specific to you in this way.
Gilbert calls them

‘Personal commitments’

and I will suppose that they are distinctive of intentions.
How is this relevant to our interest in shared agency? ...

Shared intentions are associated with commitments to each other.

To borrow an example from Abe Roth and Margaret Gilbert (Roth 2004, p. 363), consider two people who have a shared intention that they walk. Suppose one person walks too fast for the other to keep up. The other person has a special ground for criticising the first.

‘Sue is in a special position to criticize Jack when he walks too fast.’

Roth (2004, p. 364)

This is one of Gilbert’s great insights about commitment. I want to emphasise it because it’s so important.

‘the parties to a joint commitment are in an important sense obligated to conform to the commitment. Notably, the obligation in question is directed : … one is obligated to the other parties to conform to the commitment.’


Gilbert (2013, p. 367)

As I say, this is a great insight. It’s also a source of Gilbert’s eventual downfall, I think. But it will be useful to us.

What kind of commitments?

So shared intention is associated have a kind of commitment that is neither a personal commitment nor, apparently, one that has an ethical basis. But what is the nature of this commitment?

personal commitments?

A personal commitment is a commitment to oneself.

contralateral commitments between participants

ethical commitments?

Because ethical commitments are not directed.
So we have to be cautious here; we know that there is something associated with shared intention that is neither a personal commitment nor an ethical commitment, but we don’t yet want to commit to a theory of the nature of that thing.
Note that neither of these options obviously implies the other. (A contralateral commitment is one that is, in part, directed to another individual; it is not necessarily a ‘commitment by two or more people’ nor a ‘commitment of two or more people’.)

Is having a contralateral commitment just a matter of having conditional commitments?

  • ‘Bob is committed to walking, on the condition that Sue is (similarly) committed.’
  • ‘Sue is committed to walking, on the condition that Bob is (similarly) committed.’

‘Whether your partner has the relevant commitment is up to you.’

‘It's not even clear from the start that Bob has any commitment ... because his commitment is, in effect, conditioned on itself (by way of the conditioning on Sue's intention).’


Roth (2004, p. 378)

The quote continues: ‘But if Bob's intention is conditioned on itself, then (as we saw above in the discussion of (iii)) it is not really an intention, and, in any case, it lacks the commitment we need in order to account for shared agency.’

conclusion so far:

are associated with
commitments to oneself.

Shared intentions
are somehow associated with
contralateral commitments.

Anything unclear?