Action as Selection

Action as Selection

The causal theory of action maintains that reasons cause actions, reasons being combinations of beliefs and desires. This doctrine is supposed to provide a uniform account of the “because” relation: action is produced in the same way any event is produced—by means of causation. Cars cause bridges to collapse; reasons cause actions—it is all one. I think this misses an important distinction: actions are selections among alternatives, but regular causation is not. The agent envisages several possible courses of action and then selects one, e.g., he wonders what to have for dinner, reviews the possibilities, selects one of them, and acts on it. He choosesfrom among a set of options. But ordinary non-mental causation is not like that: there is no selection, no choice, no contemplation of alternatives. Causation is operative but it is not selective. When the agent chooses what to eat for dinner, he rejects all but one of the alternatives that occur to him: he chooses not to eat those things. So, his final desire has a negative component: in choosing to eat sushi, say, he chooses to reject pizza or curry or bananas. The intentionality of desire is complex: I want to do X and not Y or Z. It is this selective desire that causes the eventual action. Ordinary causes are not like that: they have no intentionality, let alone this kind of negative intentionality. But rational causes (reasons) have this kind of selectiveness built into them.

This has a bearing on the question of freedom. For an action to be free it must be the result of choice, but choice is only possible if there are alternatives to choose from, known to the agent. If reasons did not have the intentional structure I just specified, acting on them could not be considered free. The compatibilist says that an action is free if and only if it is caused by the agent’s desires, but that formulation doesn’t yet introduce the idea of alternatives. If the operative desire were not embedded in an array of alternatives, it could not count as generating a free action. But upon analysis we see that desire is always constituted by such an array, considered by the agent, so the compatibilist theory has what is needed to account for free action. It is in the nature of desire to be selective (accepting and rejecting); acting on a desire will thus always involve an array of alternatives. However, we need to make this explicit: free action is acting on one’s desires, viewed as selecting from among alternatives. It isn’t enough just to act so as to satisfy a desire for a certain thing; that thing has to be selected from an array of possible alternatives. Our agent selects sushi instead of pizza etc.: his desire includes rejecting the alternatives—he desires not to have those other things. Free action results only when this condition is satisfied. Reflex actions thus don’t count as free, since no alternative was considered and rejected. The causal theory of action thus needs to be supplemented and refined in order to make room for compatibilist freedom, but that seems perfectly feasible given the nature of desire. Desire is multi-pronged.[1]

[1] Is this a kind of holism? It does discern complex structure in human desire, but this is not a structure of separate desires. The desire for sushi for dinner is the desire not to have alternative things for dinner: the intentionality of the desire includes rejecting alternatives. This is not the same as having many desires operating together. That may or may not be true, but it is not the point I am making; I am making a point about the structure of each desire.

2 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Point well made. To “want it all”, to the extent that is possible, is not really an expression of one’s freedom.

    Does the temporal modality of “now” come into this? I want to do (or think about) X now, not at some other time. Is the “now” an expression of freedom in some sense?


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