Accidentally On Purpose

The message sounded loud and clear through the train’s PA system. The voice sounded like that of a fairly young man. The text went like this:

We have reached
Washington, D.C.
The nation’s capital!
Capital of the free world!
Mind the gap.

I thought it was great. Which gap should we pay attention to? Rich and poor? Free and unfree? Propaganda and reality? And what happens if we fail to heed the ominous warning? The ambiguity was delicious.

Except to this day I have no idea whether I witnessed poetry in motion or only ran into found poetry, so called. The train conductor (or whatever exactly his job was) could have pulled off a subtle piece of performance art or he could have simply prefaced a rushed repetition of the routine warning about the gap between the train and the platform with some random clichés, or with clichés expressing real awe at Washington. In order to create a poem (or a piece of performance art) you need to think of yourself as creating one. You need to “know what you’re doing”. While in the field of poetry there might be varieties and degrees of such “knowledge” – poems can come to people in dreams, for example – it seems clear that if the guy had no idea, conscious or otherwise, that his text was to have an ironic touch he does not get any credit for producing that ironic touch. Why? Because he produced it accidentally.

If you don’t, at some level, think of yourself as φ-ing, you are φ-ing accidentally, says Zoe Johnson King. If, for example, you have never thought of yourself as writing a poem, nor have you tried to write a poem, you don’t get credit for having written a poem. Therefore, if you do the right thing without, at some level, thinking of yourself as doing the right thing, you have done the right thing accidentally and you get no credit for doing the right thing.

Sounds very plausible, but here is a twist. Perhaps thinking of yourself as φ-ing is often a necessary condition for non-accidentally φ-ing, but thinking of yourself as φ-ing well is not a necessary condition for non-accidentally φ-ing well. Many a poet believed, in the midst of writing good poetry, that he was writing bad poetry, but we do not let that low self-esteem deprive the poet of credit for his good writing. Similarly, there are many good mothers, but sadly, in a society where women’s parenting is constantly criticized, only few of them think of themselves as engaged in good mothering. The fact that they do not think of themselves as parenting well does not reduce the credit they deserve for parenting well.

What’s true for “well” is also true for thicker normative concepts which can be used to compliment a person. Jamal might act generously and not think of himself as acting generously. There can be many reasons for it. Perhaps he is insecure due to unkind things his family told him. Perhaps he thinks that to be truly generous you need to give money, of which he does not have much, and so he underestimates the equal significance of giving people your time and attention. Perhaps he mistakenly believes that everyone acts similarly to him and so there’s nothing particularly generous about him (virtue, on my view, is often about Value Over Replacement Moral Agent). Similarly, (h/t Zach Barnett here) Yasmine might act courageously when she defends an unpopular view in an intolerant society, but never think of herself as acting courageously, because she is used to thinking of courage as associated with people, mostly men, who risk physical harm while she is a woman who risks ostracism. One day perhaps someone might ask her whether that is always less bad than physical harm and she might see her error, but we do not wait until Yasmine has a better view of courage before we credit her with it.

OK, so you don’t have to see yourself as φ-ing well, or as acting generously or bravely, but don’t you at least have to try to φ well, or try to act generously or bravely, to get credit for these things? No. Conan-Doyle did not try to write good detective stories but rather wrote mysteries of which he didn’t think highly so as to get some money while waiting for his unreadable “serious” work to be acknowledged as great. Hans Christian Andersen exhibited a very similar attitude towards his children’s stories. The fact that the Holmes mysteries and The Ugly Duckling are so much better than the novels these authors were anxious to give to the ages does not make us think of the goodness of the former as “accidental” or deprive their authors of credit, but rather serves as a reminder that sometimes we achieve the most when we quit swinging for the fences (and so, in a sense, try less). To be a good mother it’s not necessary to try to be a good mother, though it probably is necessary to try to bring about good things for your children. Jamal need not try to act generously to act generously (he is just trying to help his friends) and Yasmine need not try act courageously to act courageously, and both are the real thing, not some accidental simulacra of their virtues.

I have written elsewhere that one can act rationally without seeing oneself as acting rationally. The main case I used, that of Sam, involves a person who is not aware of all of the considerations that lead him to his action, and that’s one way it can happen. Even if Suzanne is aware of all her reasons for action, though, she might still act rationally without dreaming of seeing herself as attempting to do so, because, for example, she believes, like many people, that acting rationally necessarily involve ignoring input from emotion and intuition, or because her upbringing has made it impossible for her to think of intentionally accepting a loss of income as anything other than throwing rationality to the wind, and so on (Brian Weatherson has a similar point about prudence).

There might be some things that you can’t do well unless you pretty much know you are doing them and some norms that you can’t non-accidentally satisfy without having tried to satisfy them. Johnson King gives the example of reproducing a work of art that you have never seen or heard of. Works of art and fictional objects, I think (as do Timothy Schroeder and Anthony Everett), are a lot like proper individuals. For anything to be a performance or an edition or an adaptation or a parody of Hamlet it needs to have a certain type of causal relationship with the original. If someone who hasn’t heard of Hamlet writes an identical text, writing every line for the very aesthetic reasons for which Shakespeare wrote the identical line, he basically is, to that extent, a “swamp-Shakespeare” writing a “swamp-Hamlet”, with all the weirdness that comes with swamp-people. If, however, you do everything the generous person would do for the reasons that she would do them for, you are not swamp-generous – you are just generous.

If one can get credit – a credit incompatible with accidentality, whatever exactly that is – for doing something well or for doing the generous, courageous, or rational thing without seeing oneself as aiming at any of these things, it is not as easy as it first seemed to show that one cannot get credit for doing the right thing without seeing oneself as doing the right thing, or even trying to do it. It might be that as soon as a normative property, like aesthetic goodness or generosity or courage or rationality or prudence – or rightness – comes in, the rules for accidentality are different, in which case we should – now I get to say it – mind the gap.



8 thoughts on “Accidentally On Purpose

  1. Some things we say turn out to be funny, even when we were not trying to be funny or thinking of what we were doing as funny, yet we are generally credited with having said the funny thing.


    1. Thanks! Right, funny is an interesting case. On the other hand, being told you are “unintentionally funny” or “funniest when you don’t mean to be” can be quite embarrassing.


  2. In the case of doing the right thing the de dicto/de re distinction seems useful. I believe one clearly can get credit for doing the right thing without seeing oneself as doing the right thing de dicto – famously, Huck Finn gets credit for helping a fleeing slave, even though he does not see himself as doing the right thing (and even sees himself as doing the wrong thing). Moreover, it is plausible that he gets more credit for his “heart being in the right place” even though his beliefs aren’t. I don’t think this works in the case of someone doing the right thing without seeing oneself as doing the right thing de re. If Huck didn’t realize that he was helping a fleeing slave, he really does get no credit for it.


      1. Oops – I ended up referencing your own ideas to you…
        I actually read some of those texts while writing my M.A. thesis, which is obviously where i got this idea, but this was some time ago and I haven’t done philosophy in a while.


  3. Thanks for sharing this! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. But I’ve got a worry.
    You argue that to get credit for writing well, you need not try to write well. And on the basis of that argument you generalize and thereby extend the argument to being a good mother, acting courageously, acting generously, and so on. However, I worry that the argument doesn’t work.
    The argument relies on cases of writing well in which, you suggest, certain authors get credit despite not trying to write well. But these authors certainly tried to write thus and so. And their writing thus and so was enough for writing well. So, my worry is that, in trying to write thus and so, they did try to write well.
    What do you think?


    1. Thanks. This is exactly what the disagreement between me and ZJK is about, at least in the paper I’m responding to. ZJK seems to think that to get credit, you need to aim at doing the right thing de dicto (i.e think of what you are doing under the description “right thing”) and not merely de re (as in, aiming at what is in fact the right thing). So for example, if utilitarianism is true, she says you don’t get credit simply for aiming at increasing utility: you get it for aiming at doing the right, even though, as a matter of fact, increasing utility and doing the right is the same thing. The equivalent in aesthetics, I suspect, would be: even if writing well is writing in an X way, and Conan-Doyle aims to write in an X way, he would still count as accidentally writing well if he didn’t think of what he was doing as writing well. I disagree with her, and basically take the view you propose.


      1. Thanks for the response. Given your response, it seems to me that the disagreement between you and ZJK is, at bottom, one concerning how to understand aims. ZJK understands aiming to do A in terms of a de dicto criterion of thinking of A as the right, but you don’t. You understand it in terms of acting in response to reasons for doing A, even when those reasons (according to the agent) are not reasons for doing the right thing. If this is correct, I’m sympathetic to your view.


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