Michael Smith (Princeton)

Our first set of answers comes from Michael Smith who is McCosh Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University. Professor Smith has been working on actions, reasons and motivation, among other things. His book The Moral Problem is a classic in the field. Enjoy reading.

1. What are you working on at the moment?

In 2017 I gave the John Locke Lectures at Oxford University, so right at the moment—this is being written at the very beginning of 2018—I am revising those lectures for publication. The basic aim of the lectures was to derive facts about what we ought to do from facts about the kind of thing that we are, facts that we know a priori. More specifically, I argue that substantive conclusions about what we have reasons to do follow from the mere fact that we are essentially 'Cartesian Agents', that is, beings who have the dual capacities to know what the world in which we live is like and realize our desires in that world. These reasons in turn provide us with all we need to understand the moral reasons we have for acting in certain ways; they tell us why we have non-moral reasons for action like those associated with love and friendship, the production of works of art, and engagement with works of art; they enable us to see why such non-moral reasons may conflict with, and even outweigh, moral reasons in certain circumstances; and they can therefore be pressed into service in giving an account what we are morally obliged to do, permitted to do, and forbidden from doing. The provisional title of the book is A Standard of Judgement.

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

In my view, actions are a sub-class of events, namely, those events that are caused in the right way by certain psychological states. Think of all the various things that happen in the world. Some of these are things that we know how to make happen, where our knowledge of how to make them happen isn't explained by our knowledge of how to make other things happen. These are the events that are candidates for being actions. Consider an example like the movement of my finger. This is something that I know how to make happen, and my knowledge of how to make it happen isn't explained by my knowledge of how to make something else happen. In this way, my knowledge of how to make my finger move contrasts with my knowledge of how to, say, flip a switch, or set a roller coaster in motion. It is therefore a candidate for being an action. What makes any particular movement of my finger an action is its causal history. If the finger movement is caused by some desire I have that the world be a certain way, and by my belief that making my finger move would make the world that way, then if that belief is in turn part of my know-how, and if it causes the finger movement in combination with my desire via an exercise of my capacity to be locally instrumentally rational, then the resulting movement of my finger is an action. Note that all actions, so understood, are caused by agents' exercises of their rational capacities. These exercises, though action-like, are clearly not actions in the sense just explained, or a regress would loom. Their nature must therefore be understood differently—see my answer to the next question.

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

The single most important recent development in philosophy of action is the intense focus on the active-passive distinction, and the different things that might be meant when we invoke this distinction. The difference between a needle someone is holding being caused to enter their body as a result of their being pushed by someone else, on the one hand, and their injecting themselves with the needle in the ordinary way, on the other, is a distinction of one kind that we can make between someone's having something happen to them with respect to which they are active (the latter) or passive (the former). But if we focus just on the former, and now imagine two different people who inject themselves, one of whom is addicted to the drug they inject and the other not, then there is plainly another sense in which only one of the agents who injects themselves is active with respect to their injecting themselves (the latter). The other (the former) is passive.

In my view, these different versions of the active-passive distinction can all be explained in terms of which rational capacities are being exercised in the performance of the action. They might be exercises of a capacity to be merely locally instrumentally rational, or they might be exercises of additional capacities to be globally instrumentally rational, or exercises of additional capacities to be more globally coherent in the formation of beliefs and desires, or exercises of additional capacities to respond to the normative reasons that there are for them to act in one way rather than another. Accordingly, there are many different active-passive distinctions, and these can be ordered along a spectrum.

The second important development in philosophy of action is the widespread recognition of the need to admit the existence of rational capacities, and the role that their exercise plays, in an understanding of actions, something that in turn requires us to give accounts of the nature of both.

The third important development in philosophy of action—and it is at this point that philosophy of action bleeds into metaethics—is a robust debate about how these rational capacities are to be understood, and whether an understanding of them requires us to admit the existence of an irreducible reason relation.

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

With academic disciplines becoming more and more specialized, and advances in academic fields leading to ever more rapid technological change, technological change that has a profound affect on the weal and woe of people all over the world, it seems to me more important than ever that we encourage large scale theorizing. I would therefore like to see more integration of cognitive science, philosophy of action, metaethics, social and political philosophy, sociology, and political science. Just as philosophers mustn't poach on empirical preserves, but must leave space in their theories for details to be filled in by empirical scientists, so empirical scientists must begin their investigations with a robust sense of what the most reasonable frameworks are within which such investigations can take place. If I am right that certain normative claims can be defended a priori—see again my answer to the first question—then the most reasonable frameworks will themselves embrace these normative claims. The hope is that this would lead to better policy outcomes when it comes to the regulation of technological change.

2018 January 13

Many thanks to Prof Smith for his answers!