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Suppose a master baker gives me a cake recipe of which the instructions must be followed in a specific order, and they are:

  1. Mix wet ingredients
  2. Mix dry ingredients
  3. Add dry mixture to wet
  4. Bake

Suppose I now state I wish to bake the cake.

Which of the following, if any, are true:

My motive for mixing wet ingredients is so that I may bake the cake.

Or

My motive for mixing wet ingredients is so that I may mix dry ingredients.

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In his 1963 "Actions, Reasons and Causes", Donald Davidson makes the suggestion that motives/reasons for acting are case instances of the wider phenomenon of Causation. As such, we might think that there is an important relation of actions being causally related to their reasons or motives that seems present in your first case and missing in your second. Consider these paraphrases:

"Why are you intentionally mixing wet ingredients together? Because you want to bake a cake."

This has a certain explanatory power, which is tied to the relationship between what it means to bake a cake and the causal role that mixing wet ingredients together plays in that intended action.

"Why are you intentionally mixing wet ingredients together? Because you want to mix dry ingredients together."

As an explanation of what you're doing this seems incomplete - how do mixing dry and mixing wet ingredients together relate to one another causally? If mixing dry ingredients together is your intended action, why start with wet ingredients?

When you make assertions about your motives or intentions for acting, Davidson thinks that what is going on in practice is you make a description of your action that identifies a primary reason, which may in some way relate to the object that your action is intended to relate to. This primary reason (suitably identified in the terms of some well grounded psychological science) functions as the cause of your action, and so the rules of causality should be taken to apply.

In that sense then, your first assertion would appear True and your second would not, because while your intent to mix ingredients would seem to have been caused by your desire to bake a cake, you could quite easily have wanted to mixed dry ingredients together without thereby gaining the motive to mix wet ingredients together. (case: a bowl of mixed fruits and nuts?)

Buuuut... Causation itself, especially in the world of psychology, can be difficult to pin down metaphysically. Davidson's wider project (see the comprehensive Stanford Encyclopedia Article for more) aims at finding a framework for modelling an effective and predictive science of human action, and does this by looking at the metaphysics of rational actions and their logical descriptions.

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Look at this starting upside down.

Q: Why do I wish to bake?
A: I wish to bake so that I will have a cake.

But... uh-oh, I cannot bake! I first need to add dry mixture to wet!

Q: Why do I wish to add dry mixture to wet?
A: I wish to add dry mixture to wet so that I may bake so that I may have a cake.

But... uh-oh, I cannot add dry mixture to wet! I first need to mix dry ingredients!

Q: Why do I wish to mix dry ingredients?
A: I wish to mix dry ingredients so that I may add dry mixture to wet so that I may bake so that I may have a cake.

But... uh-oh, I cannot mix dry ingredients! I first need to mix wet ingredients!

Q: Why do I wish to mix wet ingredients?
A: I wish to mix wet ingredients so that I may mix dry ingredients so that I may add dry mixture to wet so that I may bake so that I may have a cake.

Ahhh, now I know why I want to mix wet ingredients: I wish to mix wet ingredients so that I may mix dry ingredients so that I may add dry mixture to wet so that I may bake so that I may have a cake. But... I forgot why I wanted to have a cake.

What I'm trying to point out is that an action rarely has one sole goal. Often it's much more complicated. There may be different (possibly conflicting) main and subgoals. You can argue any of these:

  • I wish to mix wet ingredients so that I may mix dry ingredients
  • I wish to mix wet ingredients so that I may bake the cake
  • I wish to mix wet ingredients so that I may have a cake
  • I wish to mix wet ingredients so that I will not be hungry
  • I wish to mix wet ingredients so that I will have a longer life
  • I wish to mix wet ingredients so that I will have something to give to my guests
  • I wish to mix wet ingredients so that my guests will like me
  • ... etc.
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