Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Brief Interjection on History and Sin

A brief worry here: Michael will have to be disappointed. Thompson's naïve action theory may seem to go a step in the direction of providing historical explanation, but ultimately it cannot do that. It remains to be seen whether this step is, in fact, a step, and moreover what the step would have to imply; i.e., whether we should take it. Michael is interested in an action theory that can explain historical actions: Caesar ended the Republic. He did so by crossing the Rubicon. Now, the question is whether Caesar's ending of the Republic was an action of Caesars's. One way to approach this is through standard issues in action individuation, playing around with the accordion effect, and so on: are the consequences of our actions parts of the action? (Or—on Goldman's view—is the bringing about of consequences itself a different action from the means, i.e., is crossing the Rubicon a different action from ending the Republic, even if it should turn out that Caesar did both by performing the same basic action?) Naïve action theory might help us make sense of what Caesar did in crossing the Rubicon by seeing that crossing as part of a larger action: ending the Republic. But does it help?

Here is a worry: Consider non-Augustinian accounts of sin. Aristotle had already noted that we are blameworthy only for actions of which we are the principle, and in such a way that we do not perform them through ignorance. In Augustine, there is an even further internalization: the will is a power to desire ends, and we sin insofar as the ends we desire are wrong in a specific sense. This internalization is continued and radicalized in Anselm and Abelard. It is a distinctive feature of this view that sin—that for which we are blameworthy, in fact simply that which counts as evildoing (since acting without inordinate desire—libido—simply doesn't count as evildoing; libido just is the mark of evildoing)—depends on the internal state of the agent who does it. Now consider a non-Augustinian view, such as that developed in the Jewish tradition by Bahya or Maimonides. On this view, good and evil are fixed not by our mental dispositions, but instead by the 513 commandments handed down by Moses. The Jewish view here is fully externalist: an action counts as sin if it violates a commandment, so that the agent's internal disposition is irrelevant. If you sin by accident, you must still (in the days of the Temple) make sacrifice, or (post-Temple) perform the other rules of repentance. Bahya, in fact, notes that it is extremely likely that all are sinners, because we begin to use our bodies long before we begin to use our reason, and it is highly likely that our bodies will sin before we have a chance to exercise rational control over our limbs. That is: whether or not one sins depends entirely on external features. In fact, one can continue to sin against one's will: if I spread false rumors about my neighbor, then I continue to sin as long as others continue to spread the rumor, even if I have long stopped and seen the error of my ways.

The non-Augustinian view of sin seems to have one thing common with historical explanation: actions are explained (and/or evaluated) by reference to criteria outside the agent. Caesar's motives are irrelevant to understanding what he did in crossing the Rubicon, just as the sinner's internal state is irrelevant to determining whether or not she has sinned. An action is not the exclusive property of the agent; instead, the action is explicable in terms that do not depend on any specifically agential powers or states, and the agent is then merely the one through whom this action was performed, or a particular on whom the action depends, though not a particular that plays a role in explaining the action (so redness might be attributed to a ball, but we can explain the redness without reference to the ball, although of course every occurrence of red will depend on a ball or, at least, some item that bears the color). For a theory of action to do what Michael wants it to do, it would need to have this form.

Thompson's theory does not have this form. As he stresses on p. 86n.3, and especially p. 93, the real reason for an action is a thought, or consideration on the part of the agent: the belief component of the belief-desire complex found in Davidson. Thompson stresses that his aim is not to abandon this complex, but only to replace the desire component with an action component. And, again, the considerations or beliefs are "reasons in the strict sense" (p. 96n. 14). Thompson's specific aim is to explain the dependence of action on thought, and specifically what sort of consideration makes the thought of the "right kind" (p. 94) to serve as a reason for action. If action A is to be explained by action B through its dependence on the agent's thought, or if action A is to be explained through the agent's possession of a virtue, then the dependence of the action on thought is crucial.

We may wonder whether we might not be better off dropping this requirement. Perhaps we can best explain historical actions by reference to wider actions that the agent clearly did not consider, just as we may make more sense of sin—perhaps as violation of taboo rather than as evildoing—if we think of it merely as the lack of conformity of an action with a norm that has no essential relation to an agent. But this takes us very far out of the domain of making sense of reasons for action, whether instrumental or moral ones. Historical explanation may require an action theory that has nothing to do with explaining actions by rationalizing them. But if so, then naïve action theory will not ground historical explanation. At best, it will provide one side of a platform on which two very different kinds of action explanation (internal and external) can enter into a relation with each other. But then we may wonder whether plenty of other, non-naïve, action theories may not do this just as well.

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