From the Archive: Behavior and Action, Part 1

Continuing my reflections on the role of the empirical sciences in understanding human moral experience, I’ve dug into the archives. As a down-payment on further exploration of the idea, I thought I would re-post an entry from my other blog, The Ethics of Metropolitan Growth, from April 10, 2010.

This is part one of two; I’ll re-post the second part on Monday.

* * *

Behavior and Action

I’ve been attending a conference in Atlanta called Emerging Issues Along Urban/Rural Interfaces 3.

Organized by the Auburn Center for Forest Sustainability with support from an office of the USDA Forest Service, among others, the conference brought together ecologists, foresters, social scientists, and others (including two philosophers) to explore various dimensions of environmental change at the advancing edges of metropolitan regions.

From the first day of the conference, I noted a curious duality in discussions of human conduct, both past and present conduct that has led to environmental change and future conduct many at the conference would like to see from people.  In short, conference participants would sometimes talk about action, sometimes about behavior,  and sometimes about both at the same time.

They are not at all the same thing.
Action, as I use the term, is what a person does by choice, on the basis of deliberation. The person is here understood as a moral agent, capable of reasoning about means and ends, capable of choosing freely among alternatives. If I disapprove of a particular action, then I might engage the agent or agents involved cognitively, using argument to open up a new deliberation about what is good and what is right, and about what responsible action looks like. Deliberation, in this sense, may be individual or it may be public.

Behavior, on the other hand, is an empirically observable event, a natural organism’s response to physical, biological, or social conditions (e.g., “stimuli”). An individual human being is here regarded mainly as a natural object, whose conduct may be observed and predicted according to one or another model from the social sciences.  If I disapprove of a particular behavior, then I will attempt to determine its causes before attempting to modify the physical or social setting that elicited the undesirable behavior. I may set up a new scheme of economic incentives, for example, or start an advertising campaign.

At the Interfaces conference, a number of participants were resolute in talking mainly about behavior, calling for one scheme or another for modifying the factors that elicit undesirable behaviors. Others were equally resolute in talking about action, calling for engagement and deliberation at one level or another of community life.  Many others, though, seemed to ride the fence, freely conflating action and behavior.

This came to light most often in the inconsistent use of terms. ‘Value’, for example, can be understood in a cognitive sense: it is a matter of principle about which we can deliberate; I can give reasons why something is more valuable than another, and my reasons may be more or less compelling.  ‘Value” can also be understood  in an empirical sense, related to psychological causation and observed behavior: it is a matter of extrinsic preference, an inclination an individual just happens to have, which may be used to explain or predict what that individual might do in certain circumstances.  Some presenters at the conference flip-flopped back and forth between these two senses of the term, ‘value’, apparently without having reflected on the distinction.

I do not intend this as a criticism of the conference or of any particular presenter. It is, rather, an observation about the operative assumptions behind many of the presentations, assumptions about the character of human conduct that have implications for making decisions and setting policy. It is also a call to be more clear and up-front about these assumptions, to open up a debate about the character of human conduct in order to better inform decision making.

Nor do I intend to imply that one or the other perspective on human conduct is invalid, although, as an ethicist, I usually lean more to action and moral agency, and I tend to hold the social sciences at arm’s length.  Really, though, I acknowledge that both perspectives on human conduct are of vital interest and importance, for both theoretical and practical purposes.  So, I keep pushing for greater engagement and more active deliberation on the part of moral agents, but I recognize to the extent to which we are stuck with persistent patterns of behavior conditioned by factors biological, cognitive, psychological, economic, and so on.

Instead, my main intention here is to indicate how a failure to recognize the action/behavior distinction can serve to distort consideration of the normative aspects of environmental change in metropolitan regions. In particular, I noted at the conference a pattern I have dubbed “self-concealing agency.”

The Interfaces conference was dominated by academic ecologists and practicing foresters, among whom there is a fair degree of agreement about what is good and, perhaps especially, what is not.  From the relatively safe standpoint of an assumed consensus, it is all too easy to slip into talk of how “we” can get “them” to help us preserve what is (obviously!) good and to prevent what is (obviously!) bad. Given the apparent explanatory and predictive power of the social sciences, especially economics, it is easy to slip from there into talk of how “we” can modify “their” behavior in order to achieve the desired end.

But what about “us”?  “We” are proposing to act in such a way as to modify others’ behavior, and we think we can give good reasons for doing so. In short, “we” cast ourselves in the role of agents making choices while “they” are mainly just the originators – or even just the loci – of behavior of which “we” may or may not approve, behavior that may be manipulated to the ends “we” have freely chosen.

However, at least in some presentations at the conference, there was little reflective awareness of the distinction, so the agency of the “we” effaces itself: our agency is assumed, it is indeed the condition on which such a conference can exist at all, but it is seldom acknowledged. Since “our” normative judgments are so obviously valid, and since very few participants are challenging them directly, why even bring them up?  We are just doing what the science reveals to us to be the best thing.

Again, I do not wish to exaggerate the scope of the problem as it played out at the Interfaces conference.  Many of the participants I spoke to were aware of the action/behavior distinction as I have drawn it here, and they were certainly open to a more robust and self-critical consideration of normative questions when I brought them up. Also, as noted, a number of presenters spoke directly about engaging with ordinary people as moral agents through one kind of deliberative processes or another.

I point all this out because I think it would be useful if natural scientists, social scientists, and professional practitioners were more consistently aware of the action/behavior distinction in their own thinking about normative issues, and if they were more reflective about the problem of self-concealing agency.  It would be useful because they would then have an opening for serious ethical deliberation at conferences, in academic departments and public agencies, in professional practice, and in communities.

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