Written on November 10, 2015 by Susana Torres Prieto in Arts & Cultures & Societies

susanaBy Susana Torres Prieto, Professor of Humanities at IE University and IE Business School.

Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes’ were, according to Virgil, almost the last words of the ill-fated Trojan priest Laocoon. He did not have time to say much more before he and his two sons were brutally slain by serpents sent by enraged Minerva, adamant in seeing her protégé Ulysses victorious in the war against the unfortunate Trojans. That line, which together with the famous opening  ‘Arma virumque cano’ used to be the only two that most university students remembered (alas! not any more) of the total of  9,896 lines in dactylic hexameter composed by Virgil in his Aeneid, expresses the usual feeling of distrust at actions made by others that we cannot fully understand. Poor Laocoon clearly distrusted the Greeks, even when they made presents. The story – or history, who knows – proved him right, and Troy was ambushed and destroyed by the Greek sprouting from the horse. His unexpected epitaph, which will be overlooked today as a chauvinistic prejudice, is, without a doubt, one of the classical formulations of what we call today a ‘basic judgement’ or a ‘judgement heuristic’, a simplifying procedure that enables us to take quick and straightforward decisions before difficult problems with the intervention of something very similar to what we could call instinct. Some sort of capacity that allows us to keep safe in this world by, for example, helping us to differentiate friend from foe[1].

One of the main reasons why we have to use our instinct is because we do not know the intentions of others, like Laocoon did not know the intentions of the Greeks. He feared them, but he couldn’t explain why. Exactly like when we instinctively like or dislike something, someone or somewhere, but we can’t really explain why. If very often we are unaware of the consequences of our own actions, least are we aware of the intentions of other people’s actions. In a delicious little treaty first published in 1957, Gertrude Elisabeth Margaret (G.E.M.) Anscombe, a philosopher as brilliant as unjustly forgotten, elaborated a penetrating analysis of what was exactly the intention behind an action, and how could the latter be subsequently judged[2].

The first thing Anscombe did was separating any given act from its consequences and analyzing how intentions, in either case, play a different role. She considered that regarding intention as the simple answer to the question ‘why’ was not satisfactory, because it could be misleading, since people would confuse cause with reason. For example, it is not the same saying “I called you because you had called me before” than “I called you because I wanted to speak to you”, although they both answer the question “Why did you call?” Further into the discussion, she tries to define what an intentional action is and how this differs from a voluntary one, and concludes that the difference between both is whether one knows in advance the consequences of one’s actions or not, which would establish a difference between voluntary and involuntary actions because, for Anscombe, all actions are intentional[3].

Anscombe leaves very little room for excuses, ‘I’m sorry’s and ‘I didn’t mean to’s, and instead proposes something highly unfashionable nowadays, which is to think twice before acting and speaking without deluding ourselves in a fantasy of irresponsibility.

Laocoon could not foresee that his warning was going to bring death upon him and his sons. He was not forced into warning his fellow citizens, he could have opted out, remain silent, wait until something happened and then say the proverbial “I knew this was going to happen”. And yet, he chose to speak: what Anscombe would call an intentional involuntary action, because its consequences were unknown to him. What Virgil never told us is whether he would have spoken if he had known he would subsequently die. The difference between the former and the latter is what sometimes is understood as a hero, which is basically what differentiates Laocoon from Hector, in spite of the fact that they both died for the sake of Troy.

[1] See Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow (2011), pp. 89-99 for a longer and more accurate explanation.

[2] G.E.M. Anscombe, Intentions (1957)

[3] Ibid, p. 90.


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