We’ve been having a reading group on Gibbard’s Thinking How
to Live. It’s been really interesting to go back to it after there having been
so much discussion about it recently. At the heart of Gibbard’s expressivist
semantics lie ‘the hyperplans’. This is a technical notion that is supposed to
be helpful in elucidating the content of our normative judgments. I’ve started
to become worried about whether there are or could be any hyperplans as Gibbard
understands them. I’m uncertain about how big of a worry this would be for him.
So, after quickly explaining my worry, I’ll leave you with some options
about how he might proceed.
According to Gibbard, hyperplans have two central features.
They can be understood as the following two claims:
are maximal contingency plans (54).
must be couched in recognitional concepts (104).
First, a couple of words about what these claims mean and
what motivates them. 1. says that hyperplans are fully decided and complete
states. A planner (a hyperplanner) who accepts just one hyperplan has decided
which one action to do in every conceivable situation he could be in. He has
thus ruled out all other options in every possible situation of acting.
Gibbard is trying to give an
account of the content of normative utterances in terms of the
mental states they would conventionally express. These expressed attitudes
would thus have to have the kind of logical qualities (of conflicting with and
entailing one another) that would explain the ordinary logical features of indicative
sentences. So, he tries to give an account of the content of normative
utterances in terms of the attitudes of allowing some hyperplans and ruling out
(or disagreeing with) other hyperplans. For instance, roughly, to say that Ben
ought to phi is to rule out all the hyperplans in which one does not phi in
The hope is that, in virtue of
this, he can provide a semantics of normative claims such that it resembles
possible world semantics so closely that the logical features of the claims are
preserved. Of course, James Dreier and Mark Schroeder have written much on this
suggesting that Gibbard’s account does not work in the end. It seems like for
being able to account for negation, Gibbard must allow that hyperplanners could
have distinct attitudes of indifference towards plans. And, it’s not clear
whether even that solves the problem. This is not my worry though. I'm worried whether he can even have the tools required for this theory.
What about 2.? Gibbard makes this
claim as a part of the argument that planners are committed to thinking that
natural properties constitute being okay to do even if there is a difference
between normative and naturalistic concepts. I think the motivation for saying
this is the following. Plans are mental states which we form for a purpose, and
not wordly entities like possible worlds. This means firstly that they must be
couched in terms of concepts (and not in terms of properties).
Plans are also something the
planner forms for herself to follow. A plan that was couched in terms of non-recognitional
concepts is not anything that one could follow. Following requires being able
to recognize what the given plan says about the situation in which one believes
to be in and the alternatives one has in it. So, to follow a plan, one must be
able to match one’s conception of the circumstances to the descriptions of the
circumstances in the plan. This is why the concepts of the plan cannot outstrip
one’s recognitional capacities. As Gibbard puts this, we form thought of what
to do with concepts we can use in recognising our circumstances and
Gibbard is explicit that this
goes for the hyperplans too: ‘only recognitional concepts figure in plans fully
So, here’s the obvious worry. All
recognitional concepts there are and there could be are and must be vague
concepts. For any concept such that it allows us to recognise in some cases
that it applies and in others that it doesn’t, there are going to be cases in
which we fail to recognise either that it applies or that it doesn’t apply. I
take it that this is a basic fact of our concepts and recognitional abilities. And,
it goes all the way to scientific concepts too. True, they are also
recognitional concepts as Gibbard says, but they too are also vague concepts.
This means that, if a hyperplan
is couched in recognitional concepts (as 2. requires), then it will have
situations in which some options are neither an action which is planned to do
nor an option planned not to done. As a result, the hyperplan won’t be fully
decided (contra 1.) – and thus not a hyperplan after all. In contrast, if
hyperplan is a fully decided, complete state (as 1. requires), then it cannot
be couched in recognitional terms (contra 2.) which create undecidedness via
the unavoidable vagueness. So, there won’t be any plans that satisfy both 1.
To illustrate this, imagine that
I am decided on going to the beach if it is warm and to the cinema if it is not
warm. Well, there’s still going to be cases in which, as far as what I am able
to recognise, the circumstances are inbetween – when it’s neither warm nor not
warm. For these cases, my plan won’t tell me what to do. And, no matter how I
try to sharpen my plan, it’s not clear whether I could ever get rid of this
sort of cases and still be using concepts that I could use to recognise other
cases. Assuming that there’s higher-order vagueness, even making a contingency
plan for the cases when it’s neither warm nor not warm will not help.
So, what could Gibbard do?
could give up the idea that hyperplans are fully decided. So they could as
decided states as possible for us but still they would not say what to do in
each case. Maybe even such almost fully decided states could help him to give
an account of the content of our normative judgments. Our judgments would be either
allowing or ruling out these almost-hyperplans. Maybe this would fit the
vagueness of our judgments too.
could give up the requirement that hyperplans are couched in recognitional
terms and thus the idea that they are plans proper. They could still play the
right theoretical role in his theory (perhaps – not sure what would happen to
the natural constitution argument in this case).
I’m not always sure how much he needs the hyperplans in the first place. A lot
of the stuff he can do with the smaller contingency plans. So, maybe it
wouldn’t matter for him that there are no hyperplans.
have special concepts and recognitional skills such that they get rid of
all the vagueness. But, would this be conceivable? How could we then disagree with them with our concepts?