Kieran Setiya (MIT)

This week we present you with the answers of Prof Kieran Setiya from MIT. Professor Setiya has published significant original work on the philosophy of action - including reasons and reasoning -, virtue ethics, and the epistemology of self-knowledge and moral values. A collection of his essays under the title Practical Knowledge has been published in 2016 and his latest work out there is aimed at both philosophers and the wider public dealing with midlife crises. Enjoy.


1. What are you working on at the moment?


Lately, I have been thinking about the way in which love and moral concern are directed at particular individuals. I think there are deep puzzles about this and that we need to address them in order to come to grips with the nature of beneficence and rights. I explore these puzzles in part through recent work by Caspar Hare on the trolley problem, in part through the writings of Emmanuel Levinas. I have also been thinking about humanism and the distinctive worth of human beings. My broader interests include the ethics of climate change and the theory and practice of public philosophy. My most recent book was a mash-up of philosophy and self-help, Midlife: A Philosophical Guide.


2. What is your 5-15 sentence account of what an action is?


Before giving a one-sentence answer, here are 14 sentences about the question.


As Jennifer Hornsby has observed, ‘action’ is ambiguous between actions as events and things done. Actions as events are picked out by noun phrases such as ‘Kieran’s walk home on Tuesday’ or ‘the drawing of a distinction in 1997.’ Things done are picked out by verb phrases such as ‘walked home’ or ‘is drawing a distinction.’ Things done are predicated of agents in two ways, which correspond to the linguistic distinction between progressive and perfective aspect: the distinction between ‘Kieran was walking home’ and ‘Kieran walked home.’


As I understand it, action theory is interested primarily in things done, predicated of agents, not in actions as events. But the topic of things done is much broader than that of action theory proper. Things done include the doings of inanimate objects, as when a storm kills the crops. Wittgenstein’s question, ‘What is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?’ can be generalized: ‘What is left over if I subtract the fact that the crops die from the fact that the storm kills them?’

Philosophers sometimes try to bring the distinctive topic of action theory into focus by emphasizing the word ‘action’ or by asking what counts as something ‘I do.’ But this is unhelpful. When the doctor taps my knee, I kick my leg. That is an action I perform, and it is something I do. But it is not what action theorists hope to understand. Their questions are not captured by Wittgenstein’s arithmetic, or by emphasizing words, but by asking what it is to act intentionally, or for reasons.


To act intentionally is to manifest one’s capacity for guiding knowledge of what one is doing and why, a manifestation that may be imperfect, so that one is not sure one is acting as one intends.


3. In your view, what were the three most important recent developments in philosophy of action?


1.) Not so recent, but recently revived: the idea of practical knowledge as described in Elizabeth Anscombe’s Intention and Stuart Hampshire’s Thought and Action. However hard it is to formulate or understand, I think there is something right in the idea that acting intentionally, or for reasons, has to do with a distinctive kind of knowledge of what one is doing. The republication of Intention in 2000 was a real step forward for action theory. Someone should republish Thought and Action.


2.) The idea that standards of practical reason can be derived from, and are explained by, the nature of intentional action, otherwise known as ‘constitutivism about practical reason.’ I learned about this approach, which I call ‘ethical rationalism,’ from a book that shares my conviction that acting intentionally is a function of knowing what one is doing: David Velleman’s Practical Reflection. I became obsessed with it in reading Christine Korsgaard’s Sources of Normativity. And I argued against it in Reasons without Rationalism and some of the essays in Practical Knowledge. Although I am sceptical of rationalism or constitutivism, I think it is immensely important as an approach to the nature of practical reason that promises to be neither mysterious nor subjective or relativistic.


3.) The idea that action theory should pay attention to the metaphysics of progressive and perfective aspect, to the nature of event- or process-forms, and to the Aristotelian machinery of capacities and actualizations. There is inspiration to be found in Michael Thompson’s ‘Naïve Action Theory’ (Part Two of Life and Action) and in recent work by Helen Steward.


4. What direction would you like to see the field go in?


Despite thinking that the revival of Anscombe in action theory has been a good thing, I would like to see less partisan work on the ideas that come out of Intention. There has been a tendency to bifurcation between ‘Anscombeans’ who think she must be right about almost everything and those who think Anscombe is utterly wrong. I would be surprised if either prediction is true. I also think that certain readings of Anscombe have become gospel even though their basis is very unclear. An example is the claim that practical knowledge is the cause of what it understands, taken by many to be a universal truth, but which Anscombe apparently states in a carefully qualified form. I discuss this, along with the allegation that practical knowledge is only of the progressive, in ‘Anscombe on Practical Knowledge.’


I would like to see more work at the intersection of action theory and normative ethics. Anscombe wrote Intention, apparently, to defend the doctrine of double effect. But there is surprisingly little interaction between action theorists and moral philosophers who work on related topics.


Finally, I think action theory should engage more with disciplines outside philosophy. This has happened to some extent with work in psychology, such as Wegner on the illusion of conscious will or Nisbett and Ross on ignorance of why we act as we do. But the morals drawn from the relevant studies strike me as largely unwarranted: the philosophical work here is to explain why the studies are less troubling than they are taken to be. I would be more excited to see philosophers engage with treatments of action in anthropology and sociology. The social character of intentional action has been neglected in the focus on raising one’s arm or pushing a button. I suspect that there is a lot to be learned by building bridges.


2018 February 10

Many thanks to Prof Setiya!