Actions, Reason Explanations, and Values


There is a fundamental gap between things that merely occur or happen to us and actions we perform intentionally and for a reason. These kinds of behavior call for different explanations. According to the causalist theory of mind and action, both kinds of behavior are to be explained causally but they differ in their causal histories. Cautious causalists consider intentional action as a behavior caused in the right way (i) by the agent’s reasons, or (ii) by a set of appropriate mental states of the agent, or (iii) by their neural correlates, or (iv) by a fact about something the agent believed, desired, or intended (see Mele 2013, p. 168; 2003, pp. 39, 52; cf. Goldman 1970 and J. Hornsby 1980). Intentional action, then, is to be explained by invoking reasons, mental states, or facts which cause the action and do it in the right way. Starting from Donald Davidson’s Actions, Reasons, and Causes (1963/1980), the causal theory of action explanation has become the standard view. Nevertheless, it turned out to be utterly challenging to explicate the crucial normative expression “in the right way” in purely causal terms (see Davidson 1973/1980, pp. 78-79; 1976/1980, p. 267; 1978/1980, p. 87 including fn. 3; Mele 2003, p. 52). Thus, the causal theory of action explanation still faces serious objections.

On the one hand these objections draw on counterexamples citing so-called deviant causal chains which connect mental states with the caused behavior without providing a reason for the behavior in question. Here is a general pattern for the interesting part of these examples: An agent’s intention throws her into a nervous state, whereby she entirely loses control over her behavior. Even so, as it happens her intention is realized in a wayward way but just as it was intended. In cases of this kind, though the explanation is causal, it is no action explanation because it explains an event which is no action at all. On the other hand it has been disputed that a causal theory succeeds in ascertaining those mental states of an agent which actually have become causally effective. Even when the causal chain runs in the right way, the account does not quite achieve what we expect it to do.

The persistence of the problems faced by the orthodox view suggests that we need to look for alternative explanations. One of the alternatives that have been put forward is a teleological account. According to this view the best explanation of an action invokes the function or purpose of the behavior or the goal that the agent directed her behavior at, rather than its causal history.

I want to show, firstly, that the strongest of these explanations should be regarded as a value-based action explanation and, secondly, that a value-based explanation really achieves what a causal action explanation claims to accomplish but fails to do. In what follows I will (2.) give a sketch of the orthodox view and (3.) its main difficulties. Then, I will (4.) contrast this view with the teleological theory which is interpreted as a value-based account and finally (5.) confronted with three objections. Actions realize values and they unveil them. A reason explanation of a rational agent’s goal-directed behavior invokes the value which was supposed to be realized by the conduct in question.

Actions, Reason Explanations, and Values

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Numero 16 AGENCY febbraio, 2016 - Autore:  Condividi


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