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Philosophy of Action

Outlines of the Theory of Choice: Attitude, Desire, Attention, Will

Alexander J. Ovsich
Boston College

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ABSTRACT: There are two distinctions of orientation or of intention of a subject toward any phenomenon: "to" or "from" it, attraction or repulsion, acceptance or rejection. The +/- acceptability or pleasantness/unpleasantness of a phenomenon to a subject is the term indicating his or her +/- orientation to the perceived phenomenon. There are six components of the stream of human consciousness: contact senses (smell, taste, tactile senses), distant senses (auditory, visual) and emotions. Only four of them (the three contact senses and emotions) possess their own acceptability or pleasantness. Pleasantness of Condition of a Subject (PCS) is a sum or an integral of acceptabilities of these four components. "Happiness" is the upper limit of the maximization of PCS; a subject is constantly striving to maximize PCS or to reach for happiness. An attitude of a subject to a phenomenon in the center of his or her attention is determined by the synchronous PCS. Belief/disbelief is a verbalized positive/negative attitude. Desire of a phenomenon x is a change of PCS (PCSx) created by the act of perceiving/imagining the phenomenon; the strength of desire is the magnitude of this change. Desire of a phenomenon characterizes power of the PCS maximization possessed by this phenomenon. Need is a periodic desire; the desire correspondent to need is a concrete form of existence of this need. Choice is determined by comparative strength of the desirabilities of the competing elements of choice; it includes choice of the phenomena to perceive or attend. The attention of a subject toward a perceived phenomenon x is proportional to the strength of its desirability: ATTx=kPCSx; the distribution of attention is a function of the desirabilities of phenomena perceived at that time. Will is an ability of the subject to influence the balance of desirabilities of elements of the subject's choice in the predetermined way. The nature of the will's effort is a self-inducement of suitable emotions through activation of memories by the concentration of the subject's attention to them.

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I. The Universal Intentional or Orientational Quality of "Acceptibility"

Process of choice is vitally important for animals including humans because they are open, active, and limited systems. The term orientation is used in this work in two meanings corresponding to two main aspects of choice—an appraisal of the elements of choice one by one, and their comparison resulting in the choice being made. An appraisal of a singled out element of choice is also an act of orientation of a subject to it that can be 'positive' or 'negative', 'toward' or 'away' from it. Comparison of elements of choice is also an act of orientation, this time between the objects of choice. The terms 'orientation' and 'choice' are often used in this work interchangeably. The word 'orientation', however, being a choice of direction in the broad sense of it, carries an intentional, directional or vectorial connotation that is valuable for the objectives of this work.

Any choice is made by comparison. A comparison can be made only between compatible entities. But in reality there is an endless variety of different types of incompatible objects, all kinds of 'apples' and 'oranges.' A subject, however, must be able to choose from a variety of perceived things, regardless of their nature. This means that a subject ought to be able somehow to compare any object against anything else. I believe that this is made possible by the existence of the universal intentional quality ascribed to all the perceived phenomena. This quality serves as the universal criterion for comparison.

"Intentionality is that property of many mental states and events by which they are directed at or about or of objects and states of affairs in the world". (1) "Intentionality is directedness;...". (2) There are two directions of intention, orientation, and action of a subject toward any phenomenon—'to' or 'from' it, 'inclination and disinclination' , (3) acceptance and rejection, (4) approach or aversion, an aspiration to continue, to maximize the perception of a phenomenon or to minimize and stop it. These two types of orientation or intention will be referred to as a 'positive' and 'negative'. Orientation possesses both quantity and direction. It qualifies the orientation of a subject 'to' a phenomenon or 'away' from it to be considered as a vectorial variable or a vector. The best physical analogy of the vector of orientation is a force applied to a subject and directed along the 'line' between the subject and the object of orientation.

Pleasure and pain are considered to be 'intentional concepts' . (5) Pleasantness/unpleasantness (P/U) are considered in this work as the most common terms used to describe the universal intentional or orientational quality of positive and negative acceptability, attractiveness/repulsivness, or two existing types of orientation that is the meaning of P/U. Almost anything can be called pleasant or unpleasant—taste, view, smell, sound, thought, another person, activity, memory, feeling. A rare exception is the case of orientation to thoughts or formation of their acceptability. As Aristotle said, "What affirmation and negation are in the realm of thought, pursuit and avoidance are in the realm of desire" . (6) Terms right/wrong, belief/disbelief are usually used in this instance in order to label thoughts as being accepted/rejected by a subject though, sometimes thoughts are also described as pleasant and unpleasant. In most cases, however, speaking about thoughts as pleasant and unpleasant rather then right and wrong is not customary. Therefore, in order to describe orientational quality that would be applicable in all cases, including thoughts, one needs more general term. My choice for this term is an 'acceptability.' It is the most general term used in this work in order to describe universal orientational quality of attraction/repulsion that is possessed by all phenomena including thoughts, as it was rediscovered by Brentano. One of the close predecessors of 'acceptability' was the term 'utility,' widely used by the Utilitarians. Other feasible terms would be 'agreeableness' (7) or "agreability", (8) because the meaning of P/U of x is positive/negative acceptability, agreeableness, or agreability of x. I believe that 'acceptability' is a better term, more self-explanatory, more down to the business of acceptance and rejection, of orientation and choice. The magnitude of acceptability or P/U describes the degree or 'strength' of orientation. Their positive or negative sign describes one of two directions of orientation pointing toward or away from the object of orientation. Being characterized both by their intensity or strength and direction they are vectorial variables or vectors.

II. Hedonic Memory and Hedonic Integration

The memory of any animal, including humans, saves and retrieves not only the modality-specific components (visual, acoustic, etc.) of the images of the phenomena perceived, but also their 'intentional/orientational images'—their acceptability or P/U . (9,10) This kind of memory is characterized by an automatic, immediate and effortless action. (11) Magda Arnold called it an 'affective memory'. (12) Let us refer to it as a Hedonic Memory.

Pleasantness of the Emotional Condition (PEC) is close to what is called 'mood'. By its level, PEC (or mood) reflects all current influences on a subject through all of his senses. PEC also reflects on past experiences stored in Hedonic Memory and associated with the current experience; PEC is a predominant form of the P/U recollection. Therefore, PEC is a function of a multiple variables:


All of these factors simultaneously influencing PEC are boiled down or summarized to the one and only level of PEC existing at any given moment. Each factor only changes PEC in a positive or negative direction, PEC is not recreated every time from the zero level, from scratch. This means that PEC possess an integrative, generalizing quality. (13,14) PEC integrates by a single level of its P all current influences received by a subject through all senses; this process of "Hedonic Integration" (15) also includes hedonic memories recalled by the current perception. PEC goes up and down, constantly changes with time. It can be described mathematically by the formula PEC = F(t), where PEC is some function of time. PEC at the end of any time period is equal to a total of the initial level (at the beginning of the period) and the sum or integral of all changes occurred during it:

PEC(t) = PEC(t0) +

PEC is a common (reflecting all current influences on the subject, as well as associated past ones), integrating measure of acceptability/P. This quality of PEC, describing a very important function of emotion, can serve as a basis for its definition: emotion is a component of the stream of human consciousness, which orientational quality or pleasantness plays the role of a common and integrating orientational measure.

III. Pleasantness of the Condition of the Subject (PCS in Short), Hedonistic Principle

There are six components of stream of consciousness, only four of them act like forces 'moving' a subject, those four possess their own orientational or vectorial quality of directedness, acceptability or P/U. They are contact senses (smell, taste and tactile senses) and emotions; these four are vectors. Distant senses of a subject (sight and hearing) do not possess their own P/U; they are scalars. Acceptability of senses and emotions is usually called P/U.

There are two types of orientation or intention and four carriers of the orientational forces or basic types of acceptability or P/U in the human consciousness. These pleasantnesses and unpleasantnesses can, however, be experienced at the same time and, therefore, create different aggregates of P/U. An aggregate of all four acceptabilities or P/U of components of the stream of consciousness at any moment represents a current acceptability or Pleasantness of the Condition of a Subject (PCS in short) as a whole at this moment (t). PCS is a sum of all vectorial or P components of the stream of consciousness.

PCSt = PECt + Pcontact senses (t)

By definition, PCS combines all four acceptabilities, P/U, orientational or vectorial components of the stream of consciousness. Therefore, any influence on the orientation of a subject must work through his PCS. PCS is the Integrative Intentional state, it is analogous to the Husserl's noema. PCS is the variable that is an argument for the formulas of attitude, desire, need, and attention discussed later in this paper.

Principle of hedonism can be easily formulated utilizing PCS as follows: a subject is constantly striving to maximize PCS. Happiness is the upper limit of the maximization of PCS or the highest possible PCS, therefore, a subject is constantly striving to reach for happiness or to maximize PCS.

IV. Application of the Orientational Forces, Attitude

The orientational forces would orient a subject experiencing them only if they were in some way connected with the object of orientation. The question is how a perceived phenomenon becomes an object of intention or orientation, "What is the relationship between the Intentional state and the object of the state of affairs that it is in some sense directed at?". (16) I believe that orientation of a subject toward perceived or imagined phenomena is determined by the combined orientational components (acceptabilities or P/U of four orientational components) of the stream of consciousness. How these orientational forces get connected with an object? The answer to this question is in the analysis of the structure consisting of a phenomenon in the center of the attention of a subject and his/her PCS experienced at that time; this structure will be referred to as an 'attitude'. (17) The 'subject' of an attitude is an individual experiencing an attitude. The phenomenon in the center of subject's attention will be referred to as the 'object' of the attitude. A 'character' of the attitude (or, simply, an attitude) is an acceptability/P of the object of an attitude for the subject or, in other words, the orientation of the subject toward the attitude's object. The formulation of the Principle of Synchronicity is as follows: the character of the subject's attitude (ATTIT) to its object X at the moment t (ATTITx,t) is determined by the synchronous PCS: ATTITx,t = PCSt. This means that a character of the attitude can be positive or negative and its magnitude or 'strength' can be bigger or smaller depending upon the sign and magnitude of the PCS accompanying the object of the attitude. There are seven basic qualities of an attitude, its bipolarity, integrativity, universality, subjectivity, flexibility, correspondence/inductivity, rationality/intuitivity.

The 'good' or positive (for the process of orientation or choice) effect of Hedonic Integration is that a subject can instantaneously and without any conscious effort summarize acceptability/P of everything associated with the phenomenon in the center of his attention. This includes P/U of all associated experiences accumulated by a subject during his lifetime and stored in his/her Hedonic Memory as well as correspondent 'instinctive' P/U passed to a subject by predecessors. This makes subject's reactions correspondent to his previous experiences, 'logical', even without logical thinking. More than that, the result of this integration is represented in the form of the current P/U being an immediate orientational force directing and moving a subject toward/away from the phenomenon in the center of attention. The 'bad' or negative effect of Hedonic Integration is such that P/U ingredients are mixed together and to a great extent are inseparable, indistinguishable, and untraceable because of the integrative character of PCS, especially because of PEC. All ingredients of PCS influence acceptability/P of the phenomenon in the center of subject's attention even if this phenomenon is not a cause of the current values of these ingredients. This is the root of the so-called 'projection'. There are attitudes whose character has very little or nothing to do with their object; this occurs when the object of an attitude doesn't influence the character (PCSt) of this attitude at all or influences it very little or not at all. Strictly speaking, the object and the character of an attitude never correspond to each other completely.

V. Belief/Disbelief as a Positive/Negative (Verbalized) Attitude

The above general theory of attitude includes thoughts as a specific type of the attitude's objects of the universal mechanism of orientation rather than to consider them to be objects of the altogether different mechanism of orientation to them only. The fact of orientation to thoughts is such that a subject experiences the same positive, negative, or neutral orientation or attitude to the elements and products of the process of thinking—thoughts, ideas, beliefs, premises, conclusions, etc., like to anything else. Some of thoughts are accepted, some are rejected, and others are ignored. Positive/negative orientation or an attitude to a thought is called belief/disbelief and a thought that is accepted/rejected is labeled as a right/wrong or a true/false. The mere fact of the existence of intuition shows that the orientation or formation of a +/- attitude to a thought as to a right/wrong one (that is belief/disbelief) does not have to involve discursive reasoning at all, can be pure emotional.

I do not think that there is a clear border between the common usage of words 'attitude' and 'belief'. One tends to use terms positive/negative attitude more while speaking about an act of acceptance/rejection that is not verbalized, and to use terms belief/disbelief more while speaking about an act of acceptance/rejection that is verbalized, about an attitude that is spelled out. Usage of these terms as they are defined in this work is a little bit different story. From this point of view, belief and attitude are both attitudes by their nature, belief is just one specific type of an attitude with a thought as an object; therefore, all beliefs are attitudes but not all attitudes are beliefs. In this sense, belief is a verbalized attitude; positive/negative verbalized attitude is called belief/disbelief. There can be an attitude without verbalization, an attitude that is not a belief. Animals and human infants can only have attitudes but not beliefs—they experience attitudes but they do not have beliefs because they are not capable of their attitude's verbalization. On a contrary, there can be no belief that is not an attitude; one truly believes in his/her heart and, sometimes, one can not believe his own eyes if it is emotionally unacceptable.

VI. Desire and Need

Attention of a subject moves from one phenomenon to another and the next attitude is formed. Every movement of the center of attention from one (central) phenomenon to another is accompanied by a smaller (down to zero) or larger change or a 'jump' in PCS. PCS goes up or down from the PCS level corresponding to the former central phenomenon to the PCS level of the latter one. In other words, any change of the central phenomenon affects the process of maximization of PCS in a positive or negative way. The new central phenomenon acts as a positive or negative factor of PCS maximization, which brings a subject either closer or further away from PCS maximum or from the subject's happiness.

The words 'desire', 'want', 'wish', their cognates, and other expressions using these words, are employed to describe alterations of PCS mentioned above. Desire is a change in PCS associated with the perception of the object of desire or with the movement of the center of the attention of a subject from one phenomenon to another. Desire can be expressed through an attitude as a difference in the P/Uf levels of two consecutively experienced attitudes where the object of the second one is the object of desire:


A sign of PCS change (DPCS) determines a 'sign' of desire itself, whether the object of it is called 'desirable' or 'undesirable'. What is usually called 'strength of desire' represents the magnitude of PCS change regardless of the carried sign. A phenomenon can be strongly desirable as well as strongly undesirable. The strength of desire of X is a magnitude or an absolute value (||) of the PCS change (DPCSx): STRENGTH OF DESIREx = |DPCSx|

Desire characterizes the comparative, current P of the object of desire for a subject or the PCS difference that this object creates. This is in contrast with an attitude being an absolute characteristic of P of the attitude's object, isolated by attention. Desire characterizes the ability or power of the object of desire for the PCS change, for PCS maximization/minimization. An object of desire is a factor of PCS maximization, desirability of a phenomenon is characteristic of its power of PCS maximization. need is considered to be a repetitious or periodic desire. The expression a 'need of X' characterizes X as a periodic desire i.e. as a periodic factor of PCS maximization.

VII. Principle of Choice

Homo Hedonicus driven by the strive for happiness or PCS maximization gives priority to whatever influences process of PCS maximization the most. The subject concentrates on the dominant factor of PCS maximization/minimization, makes it a priority number one, chooses it. It is not important whether this influence is a positive or a negative one, either maximizing or minimizing PCS. This takes place due to the integrative nature of PCS, making the elimination of unpleasantness (factor of PCS minimization) doing the same for the PCS level as acquiring the equal size pleasantness (factor of the PCS maximization). The negative action toward the negative factor pursuits the same hedonistic result as the positive action to the positive factor of the same 'size'. The choice of a subject as an active hedonistic system whether to concentrate and act upon the negative influence (in order to get rid of it) or on the positive one (in order to acquire it) is determined only by magnitudes of these influences on PCS maximization and not by positivity or negativity of these influences. Choice is independent of the sign of the PCS change that is associated with or is caused by the element of choice. This positivity/negativity, however, plays an important role in determining the type of orientation and action: + or -, acceptance or rejection.

What is chosen by a subject to be acted upon first of all? It is not necessarily the most pleasant but the strongest factor influencing PCS; it is not necessarily the most pleasant phenomenon available but one with the largest comparative P or U, with the strongest desirability or undesirability. The bottom line is that appraisal and choice are ruled by the orientational forces. The strongest force, regardless of its + or - sign, takes over and dictates the final choice. In the simplest case of choice between only two phenomena A and B with corresponding desires DESa and DESb. A is chosen if |DESa| > |DESb| and A is not chosen if |DESa| < |DESb|.

It is better to formulate choice in the probabilistic terms because of the unpredictable character of change of the content of perception and its scanning feature. Out of n competing choices or n elements of choice with Des1, ... , Desn the highest priority of action or probability of choice belongs to the element with the largest + or - desirability, with the largest comparative acceptability or P. The probability of choice of an element (n) is proportional to the level of its influence on PCS maximization i.e. size or strength of it desirability: Probn = k |DPCSn| = k|DESn|.

VIII. Attention

Attention is both an instrument of choice and a process of the specific choice making in itself. Attention acts as an instrument of choice, isolating each phenomenon for the purpose of its appraisal. This process enables a subject to form attitudes to phenomena one by one. Attention is also a never-ending process of the distribution of activity of the perception of a subject between simultaneously perceived phenomena. Such distribution is, in a sense, a continuous choice on how much attention should be allocated by the subject to each phenomenon perceived.

The distribution of attention can be described as a function of absolute values of the power of PCS maximization or the desirabilities of each element of distribution. The largest portion of attention is usually paid to the strongest desirable or undesirable phenomenon currently perceived. Such phenomenon has the highest probability to be in the center of attention of a subject and to be acted upon. Attention is paid to the positive factors of PCS maximization, as well as to the negative ones because it is equally important for a subject to act upon either one in order to maintain the highest level of PCS/happiness possible.

There are two qualities of attention that are used in combination with the hedonistic principle in order to build a system of equations describing attention: the additive and the limited character of attention. The additive character of attention presents itself in quality, reflecting the fact that at any given moment, attention is distributed by a subject among the multitude of simultaneously perceived phenomena. Therefore, the total volume of attention ATTtott of a subject perceiving n phenomena at the moment t can be described as a sum of attention paid to each of the phenomenon:

ATTtott = ATT1t + ATT2t + ... + ATTnt (1)

The limited character of attention means that at any moment (t) there is an upper limit (ATTmaxt) to the activity of a subject's perception or to the volume of his attention, ATTmaxt >= ATTtott (2)

An important consequence of these qualities of attention is that attention is a non-negative variable.

An application of the hedonistic principle adds the third basic equation of attention. Attention of a subject toward a perceived phenomenon X is proportional to the magnitude of the PCS change (|D PCSx|) caused by or associated with the phenomenon:

ATTx = k|D PCSx| (3)

It was already established before that D PCSx is a desire DESx of the phenomenon X by a subject and

|D PCSx| represents the strength of that desire |DESx|, therefore formula (3) can be rewritten as follows:

ATTx = k|D PCSx| = k|DESx| (3a)

Three basic equations above can be combined together as follows:

ATTmaxt>=ATTtott=k|DES1t|+k|DES2t|+...+|DESnt| (4)

This formula shows that the attention of a subject and its distribution at a moment t is a function of the desirabilities of phenomena perceived at that time. This means that in order to affect the attention of a subject the involved desire(s) have to be influenced. It can be done: 1) by nature adjusting the strength of needs and desires correspondent to them to direct and redirect attention of a subject and his activity as a whole; 2) by implanting attitudes through education, associating P/U with correspondent events and activities to influence their comparative pleasantness or desirability to a subject; 3) by the exercise of a subject's own will, purposefully supporting pre-chosen desires and/or suppressing desires competing with them.

The number and desirability of phenomena perceived by a subject are constantly changing as well as the phenomena themselves. This process, especially a subject's perception of new phenomena is quite unpredictable and therefore requires the use of a language of theory of probability for its description.

Equations describing in the first approximation the probability and the length of time of the presence of a phenomenon in the center of attention (c.att.) are results of application of the theory of probability to the basic equations of attention. They are as follows:

Pxc.att. = k|D PCSx| = k|DESx|

Txc.att. = k|D PCSx| = k|DESx|

ATTxc.att.= k|D PCSx| = k|DESx|

Pxc.att. is the probability of presence of a phenomenon X in the center of attention of a subject. Txc.att. is the length of a period of time phenomenon X occupies the center of attention. ATTc.att. represents the level of attention to the phenomenon X in the center of attention.

IX. Will

Locke asserted that, "... yet the will in truth signifies nothing but a power, or ability, to prefer or choose...". (18) Will is an ability of the subject to voluntarily influence his choice by the will effort adjusting P, attitude, or desirability of elements of choice in a way allowing the will's end to prevail in choice. Will effort directs attention of a subject toward those aspects of elements of choice that change the balance of their desirabilities in the advantageous of the will's goal way. Attention directed by will activates hedonic/emotional memories of a subject by insistently reminding a subject about certain features or consequences of this or that choice and/or making a subject imagine these consequences.

Let us consider the simplest case of choice between only two phenomena A and B with corresponding desires DESa and DESb.

A is chosen if |DESa|>|DESb| (1)

A is not chosen if |DESa| < |DESb| (2)

If A is NOT chosen at the moment, but the subject has made a conscious decision to choose A over B, then, to accomplish that he has to apply will effort (WE in short) strong enough to change from balance (2) to (1). Mathematically speaking it means that: |DESa + WE| > |DESb| (3)

William James (1927) offers a very similar formula to equations (2) and (3) while speaking about a subject conquering and overcoming his impulses and temptations in the chapter 'Will' of his Psychology . (19) "The facts can be most briefly symbolized thus, P standing for propensity, I for ideal impulse, and E for the effort: I per se < P. I + E > P. In other words, if E adds itself to I, P immediately offers the least resistance, and motion occurs in spite of it."

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(1) Searle, John R. (1983). "Intentionality, an essay in the philosophy of mind," Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]; New York: Cambridge University Press, p.1.

(2) Ibid., p.3.

(3) Brentano, F. (1889). "The Origin of our Knowledge of Right and Wrong," London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969, p.17.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Edwards, Rem B. (1979). "Pleasures and Pains," Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, p.87.

(6) Aristotle. "Nicomachean Ethics," (M. Ostwald, Trans.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993, pp. 147-148.

(7) Kant, Immanuel (1798). "Anthropology from a pragmatic point of view," (Mary J. Gregor, Trans.). The Hague, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974, p.99.

(8) Edwards, Rem B. (1979). "Pleasures and Pains," p.43.

(9) Troland, Leonard T. (1926). "The mystery of mind," New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, p.139.

(10) Arnold, M. B. (1970). "Perennial Problems in the Field of Emotion," In M. B. Arnold (Ed.), Feelings and Emotions: the Loyola Symposium (pp. 169-185). New York and London: Academic Press.

(11) LeDoux, Joseph E. (1996). "The emotional brain : the mysterious underpinnings of emotional life," New York : Simon & Schuster, p.182.

(12) Arnold, M. B. (1970). "Perennial Problems in the Field of Emotion."

(13) Young, Paul Thomas. (1959). "The Role Of Affective Processes In Learning And Motivation," Psychological Review, Vol. 66, No. 2, p.124.

(14) Beebe-Center J. G. (1932). "The psychology of pleasantness and Unpleasantness," New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., p. 115.

(15) Klitzner Michael D., Anderson Norman H. (1977). Motivation * Expectancy * Value: A Functional Measurement Approach. "Motivation and Emotion," Vol. 1, #4, 347-365.

(16) Searle, John R. (1983). "Intentionality," p. 4.

(17) Greenwald, A. G. (1968). "On Defining Attitude and Attitude Theory," In Greenwald, A. G., Brock, T. C., & Ostrom, T. M. (Eds.), "Psychological Foundations of Attitudes," New York: Academic Press, p.362.

(18) Locke, John. (1690). "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding," Edit 12, vol. 1. London: c. Baldwin, Printer, 1824. (p. 229, Book 2, § 17).

(19) James, W. (1927). "Psychology," New York: Henry Holt and Company, p. 444.

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