The Intentionality of Human Action


The Intentionality of Animal Actions

In 1992, Kennedy argued against the rise of anthropomorphism, and arrived at the conclusion

that it is scientifically most likely that no non-human animals have minds at all. The book in which he 

argued this can be found at this link.

I will be objecting to his arguments in order to further my thesis that animals do in fact

possess minds. For the sake of this paper, I will be defining minds as the presence of

intentionality in the mental states of the relevant animals being talked about. Here,

intentionality refers to the ability of the mind to think of or about something, for the mind to

be able to be about or represent something or someone (Standard Encyclopedia).

Kennedy argues that anthropomorphism is on the rise in scientific experiments related to

animals, and he says that most people just take it for granted that animals think or feel or

explain the behaviour of animals by “merely pointing to the goal, end or purpose of it.”

(Kennedy 1992:9) He says that –

[T]he formation of a mental image of [a] goal, end or outcome of a

conscious action precedes the performance of that action and is the

prime cause of it. That is what we mean when we describe an action

as purposeful, intentional or goal-directed, and it is a human mental

experience which we cannot assume that animals have. (Kennedy

1992: 10)

Therefore, he says that simply assuming the intentionality in mental states of animals is a

result of “unwarranted anthropomorphism”.

Kennedy’s argument against this assumption is that most people who assume animals to have

intentionality ascribe consciousness to a large number of animal accomplishments and

capacities, in which he points out Griffin, in particular. Kennedy argues that a large amount

of our own unconscious activity would look very clever if it was conscious, but it is not, and

indeed that learning a social or practical skill means removing the procedures from

consciousness, that is knowing the process so well that one no longer needs to consciously

remember it to perform it. Therefore, Kennedy argues, if consciousness is not always

necessarily a part of human perception and behaviour, then “evidence that animals behave

adaptably and adaptively is not evidence that they think consciously.” (Kennedy 1992:12)

Putting this argument into the Standard premise-conclusion form,

Premise 1: Animals are ascribed states similar to humans, due to anthropomorphism.

Premise 2: Animals are assumed to have conscious states due to their achievements.

Premise 3: Humans also have similar achievements, but these achievements do not always

have intentionality or consciousness behind them.

Premise 4: If animals are ascribed states similar to humans, and animals are assumed to have

intentionality due to their accomplishments, and humans also have similar achievements but

their achievements do not always have intentionality or consciousness behind them, then their

accomplishments are not proof that animals have intentionality.

Conclusion: Animal accomplishments alone are not proof that animals have intentionality.

In this argument, Premise 1 restates Kennedy’s claim that human mental states are being

ascribed to animals due to the rise in anthropomorphism. Premise 2 states that the reason we

assume that animals have consciousness or intentionality is because they have certain

accomplishments. Premise 3 tells us that humans also have similar such accomplishments,

but these are not always intentional i.e. there isn’t always consciousness behind these actions.

Premise 4 connects all the above premises and states that since we are assuming that animals

have similar mental states to humans, then when we know that humans do not always have

intentionality when performing certain actions, then we should not consider the performance

of such actions to be proof of the existence of intentionality in animals. Hence, the logical

conclusion that is derived from these premises seems to be that intentionality in animals

cannot be proved by the performance of these accomplishments alone.

At first glance, this seems to be a quite logical argument, and well-thought out. But the

argument itself assumes too many things. I would first like to attack Premise 3. According to

Kennedy, since humans are not always conscious of their actions, their accomplishments at

that point of time also lack consciousness or intentionality. I disagree. Let us take for

example, any actions that a mother performs for her children. After a point, it becomes

second nature to her to protect her children, and often she is not even conscious of thinking

about doing so. But I would argue that this in no way means that she has no intentionality in

protecting them. Her mind and body are acting without a conscious thought, but this is

because it’s become a form of instinct. However, this instinct itself is not merely physical, it

is also a mental state – of the unconscious part of the mind – that carries an intentionality of

the own.

I would also like to take another look at Premise 4, which establishes a connection between

the earlier premises. Kennedy argues that since we ascribe human mental states to animals,

and humans are not always conscious of their actions; this rules out animal actions as a

source of proof for their having intentional mental states. This seems incorrect to me. I would

say that even if sometimes, humans do not have intentional mental states while performing

actions (just for argument’s sake), animals still might have intentional mental states while

performing certain actions. For example, even if we make the distinction that only when

animals seem to perform an action that is not meant to satisfy their immediate physiological

needs then they can be seen to have intentionality, even then we can find examples to satisfy

one’s curiosity. Mothers protecting their children is as common in other primates as humans.

How about pet dogs trying to comfort their owners, or even Kanzi asking his human trainers

to hide from and chase each other (Pinker 1994 pp. 341)? It seems clear to me that animal

actions can show that they do possess the ability to think about or of something.

In response to my objection to Premise 3, Kennedy would likely say that the mothers

protecting their children example comes down to a maternal instinct that is physiological in

origin, that we were not born completely “unprogrammed.” As a result, he would deny that

these instincts are in any way related to mental states and would rather say that they have

nothing at all to do with intentionality.

As a rejoinder to this possible reply, I would just like to say that a maternal instinct, while a

deeply-rooted idea in society, cannot seem to be merely physiological in nature to me. There

has to be a mental component to it, for the protection itself is not always just physical.

Mothers try their best to protect their children from any form of harm, including but not

limited to any mental harm. But even thing is always clear, in all this, they have at the back of

their minds the thought that they wish to protect their children i.e. they always have an

unconscious intention of thinking about their children, even in their most instinctive


In response to my objection to Premise 4, I suppose Kennedy’s most likely reply would be

that I myself have now resorted to ascribing mental states to animals. He would say that there

is no way for me to know that the pet dogs are really comforting their owners with the

intention of comforting them or whether that is simply a side-effect of their real actions

which might be asking for food or any such thing. He would say that Kanzi asking his

trainers to chase him, can also be seen as an instinct as he has been conditioned from an early

age to ask for the same.

As a rejoinder to this reply, I would like to say that all conditioning leads to actions that have

intentionality behind them. If an animal has been trained to expect to be hit at the sound of

keys clanging, then it will try to avoid the attack and will cringe out of habit. But does that

mean that this unconscious action lacks intent? I don’t think so. I think there is a pretty clear

intentionality here – the animal is thinking about how it can avoid being hurt. Therefore, in

this way, I would say that animal actions do have their own intentionality.

Kennedy’s arguments against anthropomorphism are certainly worth taking into account, and

they tell us that we should avoid such a troubling urge to ascribe human mental states to

animals. Both animals and humans seem to have their own types of mental states, and

comparing them is not always a good idea. However, I disagree with him on the question of

whether non-human animals have minds. I would say that they do indeed have minds i.e.

mental states with intentionality. And I believe that the existence of these states and their

intentionality can be easily proved by looking at animal actions themselves, if nothing else.

Therefore, I would like to conclude that since the intentionality behind animal actions is

inherent in the actions themselves, it is clear that animals do possess mental states with

intentionality, and as a result, non-human animals have minds.