Philosophy of Action


How to Perform a Nonbasic Action 

Noûs. Forthcoming.

Under Review

Anscombe's Knowledge Thesis and the Argument from Distinct Thresholds 

In her groundbreaking Intention, G.E.M. Anscombe defends the Knowledge Thesis: while intentionally Xing, one knows without observation that one is Xing. This thesis has proved deeply controversial, largely due to what looks like a wealth of counterexamples. Among those who follow Anscombe, some have defended weaker versions of the Knowledge Thesis. Some weaken the necessity of the connection between knowledge and action, usually by granting the proposed counterexamples. Others retain the necessary connection, but alter the features, content, or species of the knowledge necessary for action. In this paper, I present an argument to the effect that we have good reason to think that there is no necessary connection between intentional action and knowledge, no matter the assumed features, content, or species of the knowledge. Further, rather than argue by counterexample, I present an argument that explains why we continue to find counterexamples to claims of a necessary connection between action and knowledge. The explanation is in the spirit of Gilbert Harman's separation of intentional action and belief and Michael Bratman's separation of intentional action and intention in that it relies on the place of intentional action in ethical life.

A Control Theory of Action

One of the central problems in the philosophy of action is to spell out the distinction between action and what merely happens, e.g., a wink versus an eye twitch. This essay proposes a theory of action offering an account of this distinction. The central claim of the theory is that action is movement that is controlled by the mover, where movement is understood capaciously and control is characterized by a trio of conditions consisting of an aim condition, a modal condition, and an explanatory condition. Importantly, being controlled is shown to be a determinable property of movements, and its determination dimensions are isolated. Paired with the claim that action is movement that is controlled by the mover, this account of control as a determinable illuminates the diversity within the category of action.

In Preparation

The Ethical Function of Intentional Action

I argue that intentional action is, in a sense, intrinsically ethical. The central claim that I defend is the following two-part thesis spelling out the precise sense in which intentional action is intrinsically ethical. First, the concept of intentional action plays a functional role in our ethical conceptual scheme: it flags behaviors that are of priority for ethical evaluation broadly construed. Second, by way of fixing the degree of control required for intentional action, this ethical functional role partially determines the extension of the concept of intentional action. As we will see, the sense in which intentional action is intrinsically ethical is also, to a large degree, consistent with naturalistic theories of action and thus  should be appealing to the naturalist.

On the Incompatibility of Rational and Necessary Connections between Action and Knowledge

In this note, I show the incompatibility of rational and necessary connections between action and knowledge, assuming a plausible view on the relation between rationality and necessity. I then show, more generally, how insofar as normative requirements must be violable to be action guiding, metaphysical and normative investigations into the connections between philosophical concepts constrain one another.

Action in a Virtual World

Danny, a married man, has a virtual affair with his lifelong friend Karl while playing a virtual reality fighting game.  Each night over a number of weeks, Danny and Karl place small buttons on their temples, their physical forms go motionless, and they enter virtual reality, taking on the forms of their chosen characters Lance and Roxette. Danny and Karl (or Lance and Roxette?) start out fighting one another in the game but eventually turn to having sex. This story, drawn from an episode of Black Mirror, raises a number of interesting and difficult philosophical questions, and one is especially relevant for philosophers of action: can the doings of one's virtual counterpart in virtual reality be one's actions? In particular, does Danny have sex with Karl---or perform any action at all---while his physical body lay motionless on the couch in physical reality? In this essay, I try to isolate exactly what is interesting and difficult about these questions. I then offer some possible answers.

To act, must I aim?

A paper evaluating the view that action, in the broadest sense, requires an explanatorily relevant aim that belongs to the agent.