Philosophical Theories of Action
Much philosophy of action starts with The Problem of Action: What distinguishes your actions from things that merely happen to you (Davidson, 1971)? According to a standard, widely-accepted solution, actions are those events which stand in an appropriate causal relation to an intention. This is an instance of the Causal Theory of Action, according to which an event is action ‘just in case it has a certain sort of psychological cause’ (Bach, 1978, p. 361).
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The Problem of Action
You trip and fall down a flight of stairs. Falling is something that happens to you, not an action of yours. But watching the sympathetic attention you gain, Buster expertly throws himself down the stairs. Although it looks like another accident, this event is an action.
As Frankfurt (1978, p. 157) put it:
‘The problem of action is to explicate the contrast between what an agent does and what merely happens to him.’
But is this really a problem? It may be tempting, initially, to suppose that we can answer this question by invoking kinematic features. Perhaps—so the idea—actions are those events which involve some or other patterns in the joint displacements and bodily configurations? Alternatively, it might be tempting to think that we can answer the question by appeal to coordination. Perhaps—so the thought—actions are those events which involve a particular coordination of body parts? If either possibility obtained, the ‘problem of action’ would not be a problem at all. But reflection on the variety of things that count as actions indicates that neither of these initially tempting possibilities is at all likely to obtain. Or so I argue in Recap: Action from the lectures on Mind and Reality.
The absence of straightforward answers to the question about what distinguishes actions from things that merely happen to you indicates that it is a genuine problem.
Why It Matters
Our overall concern on this course is to understand why people act, individually and jointly.
To see why the The Problem of Action matters, suppose we just replace ‘act’ with ‘move’.
So many things move for so many different reasons—rocks, people, plants, continental plates and bacteria—that it makes no sense to look for a general theory about why things move.
If we are to have a coherent research project, we need a principled way of limiting our enquiry to actions as opposed to movements more generally.
Bacteria turn out to behave in suprisingly sophisticated way, as do plants and, of course, all kinds of machines.
The Problem of Action matters because a solution to it will be a principled way of delimiting the things we are asking about so that we are not thinking above movement generally.
A Standard Solution
According to a standard, widely-accepted view, actions are those events which stand in an appropriate causal relation to an intention. What distinguishes your falling from Buster’s is that his, but not yours, was appropriately related to an intention.
This is an instance of the Causal Theory of Action. According to this view, an event is action ‘just in case it has a certain sort of psychological cause’ (Bach, 1978, p. 361). Proponents of this view may disagree about which states cause actions (Bach is an example of this), or about how to characterise the causal relation (for example, Frankfurt (1978) is concerned, in part, with whether the causes are antecedent to the action or provide ongoing guidance). But they agree that the relation between actions and their psychological causes is what distinguishes your actions from things that merely happen to you.
Appendix: Davidson on Agency
This is an optional extra section. It is not part of the lecture.
How does Davidson arrive at the view that actions are those events which stand in an appropriate causal relation to an intention?
As background, Davidson notes that the same action can be described in multiple ways. You move your finger, flicking a switch which causes the lights to come on and alerts a prowler (Davidson, 1971, p. 53). We have four ways of describing one and the same action: as moving your finger, as flicking a switch, and so on.
Davidson further notes that actions can typically be described both in ways that relate to what you intended (turning the lights on, say) and in ways which do not relate to your intentions (alerting a prowler, perhaps).
This background allows Davidson to distinguish three situations involving someone spilling coffee:
‘If [...] I intentionally spill the contents of my cup, mistakenly thinking it is tea when it is coffee, then spilling the coffee is something I do, it is an action of mine, though I do not do it intentionally. On the other hand, if I spill the coffee because you jiggle my hand, I cannot be called the agent. Yet while I may hasten to add my excuse, it is not incorrect, even in this case, to say I spilled the coffee. Thus we must distinguish three situations in which it is correct to say I spilled the coffee: in the first, I do it intentionally; in the second I do not do it intentionally but it is my action (I thought it was tea); in the third it is not my action at all (you jiggle my hand).’ (Davidson, 1971, p. 45)
In short my spilling the coffee can be caused in three ways:
by an intention of mine to spill the coffee;
by an intention of mine to spill the tea (where I mistakenly take the coffee to be tea and do not intend to spill coffee); or
by you jiggling my hand (where no intention of mine is directly involved at all).
My spilling the coffee is an action of mine in (1) and (2), but not in (3).
Reflection on (1) and (2) rules out the view that my spilling the coffee is an action of mine only if I intend to spill the coffee.
The contrast between (2) and (3) is what leads Davidson to his view about agency:
‘What is the difference [between (2) and (3)]? The difference seems to lie in the fact that in one case, but not in the other, I am intentionally doing something. My spilling the contents of my cup was intentional; as it happens, this very same act can be redescribed as my spilling the coffee. Of course, thus redescribed the action is no longer intentional; but this fact is apparently irrelevant to the question of agency.
‘And so I think we have one correct answer to our problem: a man is the agent of an act if what he does can be described under an aspect that makes it intentional.’ (Davidson, 1971, p. 46)
Suppose we assume, further, that an act can be described under an aspect that makes it intentional only if it stands in an appropriate causal relation to an intention of the agent’s. Then the Standard Solution mentioned above follows:
Your actions are those events which stand in an appropriate causal relation to an intention of yours.
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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’.
See Shepherd (2021, p. 1): ‘The history of philosophical reflection on action gives the distinction between activity and passivity different names, and attempts to explain the distinction in different ways. But philosophers circle the distinction repeatedly [...]’ Shepherd goes on to mention several famous historical sources for The Problem of Action. ↩︎
I dislike this way of stating things. Good philosophers come up with lots of questions. There is insufficient reason to single one of them out as the problem. ↩︎
I’ve heard people who should know say that Davidson does not explicitly commit to this view. But Davidson writes, ‘we have discovered no analysis of this relation that does not appeal to the concept of intention’ (Davidson, 1971, p. 61). And nowhere does he explicitly reject the view that actions are those events which stand in an appropriate causal relation to an intention. ↩︎
Is this assumption true? Bratman allows that actions can be intentional ‘even though [the agent] has no distinctive attitude of intending’ (Bratman, 1987, p. 132), and even though the agent lacks the capacity to form intentions altogether (Bratman, 2000, p. 51). This view follows from two claims: first, intentions are distinct from any combination of beliefs and desires; and second, beliefs and desires alone may, in certain cases, determine what an agent intentionally does. ↩︎