An instrumental action is an action that happens in order to bring about an outcome. When you press a lever in order to retrieve a snack, or when you board a bus in order to travel home, you are performing an instrumental action. What grounds the relation between an instrumental action and the outcome it occurs in order to bring about?
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An instrumental action is an action that happens in order to bring about an outcome. We will say that the outcome is a goal of the action, and that the action is directed to the outcome.
What is the relation between an instrumental action and the outcome or outcomes to which it is directed?
A Standard Answer
One standard answer to this question involves intention. An intention specifies an outcome, coordinates your actions, and coordinates your actions in a way that would normally increase the probability of the specified outcome ocurring. So if an intention causes you to act, it follows that your action happens in order to bring about the outcome intended. And this implies that your action is instrumental.
What is an intention? Although there is much debate about this (Setiya, 2014), for our purposes only a widely agreed characteristic is necessary. Intentions are the upshot of beliefs and desires (or are identical to one or both of these). To illustrate:
desire: I fill Zak’s glass.
belief: If I pour, I will fill Zak’s glass.
intention: I pour to fill Zak’s glass.
This simplistic example captures a key idea. Behind an intention lie two things. There is a desire to bring an outcome about, and there is a belief about which action will bring the action about.
If you would like more background on action and intention, see Lecture 10 of Mind and Reality.
Our Main Question is about the relation between an instrumental action and the outcome or outcomes to which it is directed. According to the Standard Answer, the relation involves belief, desire and intention:
Background Assumption: Instrumental actions are caused by intentions to bring outcomes about, which are the upshot of desires to bring outcomes about and beliefs that certain actions will bring them about.
Standard Answer: The outcome (or outcomes) to which an instrumental action is directed is that outcome (or outcomes) specified by the intention (or intentions) which caused it.
Does the Standard Answer involving intention provide a full answer to that question? Or are there things other than intentions which might link an instrumental action to an outcome? The next section provides a reason for thinking that there are.
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You may encounter variations on this definition of instrumental in the literature. For instance, Dickinson (2016, p. 177) characterises instrumental actions differently: in place of the teleological ‘in order to bring about an outcome’, he stipulates that an instrumental action is one that is ‘controlled by the contingency between’ the action and an outcome. And de Wit & Dickinson (2009, p. 464) stipulate that ‘instrumental actions are learned’.
Be careful not to confuse a goal with a goal-state, which is an intention or other state of an agent linking an action to a particular goal to which it is directed. (Some authors use the term ‘goal’ for goal-states rather than outcomes.) A goal is a possible or actual outcome (such as filling a glass with prosecco). A goal-state is a psychological attribute of an agent (such as an intention to fill a glass with prosecco). ↩︎
We will see the same structure when we come to decision theory (in Expected Utility). Preferences correspond to desires and expected utilities to beliefs. ↩︎