Saturday, April 21, 2007

Davidson and the Causes of Action: A Problem of Permission

Philosophy of action has for decades focused on reasons; since Davidson, a good deal of debate has centered on the question of whether reasons are causes, whether those causes are occurrent or agential, and whether we can use reasons-explanations to replace causal explanations altogether in discussions of agency. My suspicion is that something is missing from the discussion. The focus on reasons comes from the conviction, first, that they provide us with the best way of explaining an action as something other than simply an event and, second, that it is by focusing on reasons (or, in a related branch of investigations, on endorsements of desires) that we bring out the role of the agent as deliberator. But is this dual approach sufficient to capture the notion of an agent? I suspect that it is not, and what is misleading in the standard account is that, by taking explanation and rational deliberation as its starting points, it fails to give adequate attention to the most basic aspect of action: it is often irrational and involves little or no deliberation.

Of course problems of irrationality—self-deception, akrasia, addiction—have taken a central place in analysis; but they are generally viewed as problematic in a secondary way: a theory of rational action is expected to account for them, but only against the backdrop of a pre-existing theory of rationality. The typical approach comes from the methodology of the sciences: first one formulates laws, then one goes on to explain away exceptions. Similarly, one first tries to come up with a generally rational explanation of action, then one attempts to explain away deviations from that rationality. But does this take matters in the order appropriate to a subject matter like action?

In his Dialectic of Duration, Gaston Bachelard takes on the orthodox view of Bergson, according to which time is fundamentally a continuity, which the intellect then breaks up artificially into a series of instants. Instead, Bachelard posits that in every field—action, psychology, science, poetry—it is the instant that is primary, with continuity being constructed in a secondary manner by the intellect. Thus, for example, memory involves particular moments that stand out—I remember waking up early, then a diploma being placed in my hand, meeting my roommate’s parents, and only then do I fill in the gaps between these events to evoke in memory a continuous commencement ceremony. Similarly in the domain of action: every action, for Bachelard, has at its central core the instant of permission. To act, I must give permission to do something. Whatever deliberation precedes the act, it is moot until I permit the performance of its dictates. Whatever consequences follow from my action—and whatever purposes are intended in it—are dependent ultimately on that instant. Thus, Bachelard opposes a phenomenology of the instant to that of duration, so that the continuity of action—its precursors and products—are dependent on the permission to act.

Davidson, I think, presents us with a similar scheme. In fact, it is the priority of the instant—or, in his case, the causal relation between reason and action—that allows explanation of action to be an explanation at all. But at the same time, Davidson conceals the cause by explaining the action as a bodily moment that is rationalized by a primary reason (a combination of a desire and a belief). The concealment is this: while the causation of an action by its corresponding reason explains the action, it explains it only because the action itself (along with its consequences) is explained by reference to its causal precursors. The emphasis on causality, so central to Davidson’s account, is only an explanatory feature that allows the past and future of the instant to be neatly brought together into a single whole. This creates a difficulty, and I think it is a difficulty that is internal to Davidson’s account: he cannot explain the very thing he is trying to explain.

To see this, let us take a look at Davidson’s view of freedom. His goal is not to reconcile freedom with determinism, but to show that freedom is a causal power. The central problem is that if the causal precursors of an action are themselves seen as actions—as something an agent does—then we are caught in an infinite regress because we must now account for the freedom of those prior actions. The way to resolve the problem is to posit precursors to the action that are not themselves something an agent does; they must be states or events that are not done in any sense, so that it makes no sense to even ask whether or not they are free. The solution, of course, is that an action is caused by reasons. The desires and beliefs that make up those reasons are states or events, but they are certainly not actions. Insofar as these reasons cause an agent to act, his action is intentional and free. And freedom, here, is a causal power because what makes the action free is precisely that it is caused by an agent’s reasons.

But I think Davidson cannot explain freedom as a causal power because he cannot explain the causality of reasons. He admits, essentially, that his account can only explain the causal precursors of an action provided that the action has already been carried out. Prior to this, there is no way to predict an action—that is, there is no way to derive the necessity of an action from its causal precursors (although statistical analysis can get us pretty close to this). Davidson’s major concern, then, is to show that something can be called a cause even in the absence of strict laws relating the cause to the effect. But what is lacking is any account of the agent’s role in this relation. If I act on my reasons, this involves an instant of permission—I do not just give myself a reason to act (as, say, Robert Kane’s analysis suggests), nor do I put an end to deliberation and let the final step in the deliberative process carry me to action (this is the overlooked Hobbesian account of action). Rather, I actively permit myself to act. It has seemed to many philosophers of action that if we start from this instantaneous act, we are stuck in an irrational and inexplicable kind of agent-causation. But I think that only holds so long as we emphasize the causality of the instant of “permission.” Instead, I am suggesting, the causal aspect does not underlie the instant of permission; rather, without the permission, we cannot explain causality at all.

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