Action and Causality

Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI, volume 170)

“What made him insult her?” we ask. “What caused him to leave the country?” These are familiar locutions that invite — or appear to invite — causal explanations of human actions. The ease with which such questions arise and are answered suggests the ubiquity of causal explanation regarding the familiar range of human agency. They are not, in any obvious way, restricted to certain defective or deficient or metaphorically or legally extended forms of agency; they are normally entertained wherever we suppose human beings to be capable of the fullest freedom, liberty, choice, deliberate commitment in what they do. Still, there is a nagging and prolonged dispute among philosophers as to whether in principle human action — or at any rate, the actions of a so-called free agent, free actions, actions freely performed — may be explained in causal terms or must be explained in one or another contra-causal way.

We must suppose that the usual arguments pro and con are, by now, quite familiar to the disputants themselves. Certain well-known elementary errors, we may safely assume, need not be forever repeated. For example, we need not suppose that free action (if it is alleged not to be open to causal explanation) entails an actual breach of any causal law; if free acts are contra-causal, they are not contra-causal in that respect — very probably, on pain of ontic dualism.1 Similarly, we cannot hope to maintain that free acts are contra-causal and, at the same time, identical with physical events that are open to causal explanation.2 In a certain sense, it may even be a little naive to speak of settling the question whether human action is caused or not caused. For, to maintain that it is caused may very well entail that the notion of causality is extremely elastic, perhaps rather different at times from what it might be taken to signify in other contexts (say, where only the action of waves or falling stones is involved); and to maintain that it is not caused may very well entail that there is something peculiar about the notion of a human action, so that an action may be taken to be related in some special way to physical events that are caused. Both maneuvers are instructive. First of all, they suggest that there may be a conceptual linkage between what we are prepared to mean by a cause and whether or not we invoke causes in the context of human actions. Secondly, they draw attention to the curious fact that the nature of causes and actions is often left unspecified in affirming or denying that human actions are caused. This will become clearer as we proceed. At any rate, it seems quite reasonable to hold that we cannot say with confidence whether human actions are caused or not until we decide what an action is; and knowing what an action is, we cannot say with confidence whether things of that kind are caused until we decide what we mean in claiming that a causal relationship obtains.


Causal Relation Causal Explanation Free Action Human Freedom Primitive Action 
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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2009

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