Blushing, Sneezing, Coughing, and Spitting
Blushing is involuntary: you can’t blush intentionally or intentionally suppress a blush (though you can of course undertake a course of action that will have such results). Blushing is not an action, as philosophers say; it is not “subject to the will”. Sneezing is similar in that you can’t sneeze voluntarily: you can’t decide to sneeze and do it as a result. No amount of effort of will can produce a sneeze (a real sneeze not a counterfeit sneeze). However, you can suppress a sneeze—you can stop yourself from sneezing. You can try not to sneeze when you feel a sneeze coming on, and sometimes you succeed (compare hiccupping). So sneezing is partly voluntary and partly not. Coughing is yet more voluntary, though not completely so. There are coughs you can’t suppress and coughs you can suppress, and you can cough intentionally. Coughing runs from the reflexive to the calculated: from the coughing fit to the polite ahem. Coughing is rather like laughing: they can both be involuntary or voluntary, uncontrollable or controllable. Spitting is fully intentional: all spitting is voluntary and can be suppressed if an urge to spit comes on (unlike salivating, which is like blushing). You can always hold a person responsible for spitting, but not for blushing, sneezing, and coughing. Spitting is like stealing or slapping—entirely subject to the will.
What, then, of the sharp dichotomies that prevail in the philosophy of action? We are invited to determine whether an act (token or type) is voluntary or involuntary, intentional or unintentional, an action or a happening, willed or unwilled. To be sure, there are cases where the dichotomy works—say, blushing and spitting; but there are also cases where it doesn’t—say, sneezing and coughing. Even a particular cough or sneeze may not easily fall into one category or the other: could that sneeze have been prevented, was that cough partly intentional? There is a whole range of intermediate cases here: in addition to the intentional (and sub-intentional) we have the semi-intentional, the partially intentional, the somewhat intentional. We have the amplified spraying sneeze as well as the stifled minimal sneeze, as we have the loud ostentatious cough as well as the barely audible demur cough. Philosophers adore dichotomies, but here is a field in which they oversimplify considerably. The question should not be, “Was that intentional?” but “How intentional was that?” And the same point applies to the concept of intention itself: you can’t intend to blush or sneeze and you can intend to cough or spit, but you can also intend not to sneeze loudly (though not to blush deeply). You can intend to cough when you have a cough and the cough comes out more forcefully than you intend: how intentional was that cough? The idea of a sharp boundary between “actions” and “happenings” looks misguided in the light of the full range of cases.