Manuel Vargas (California, San Diego)

Prof Manuel Vargas kindly answered our questions for this week. He is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. Professor Vargas is recognised for his insightful contributions to the free will debates, moral psychology, Latin American philosophy and philosophy of law. His website also offers plenty of useful information for students interested in majoring in Philosophy, and he is also active in supporting and promoting the development of Latin American Philosophy. His works include his book Building Better Beings: A Theory of Moral Responsibility and he edited with Gideon Yaffe the volume Rational and Social Agency: The Philosophy of Michael Bratman. Enjoy.

1. What are you working on at the moment?

At the moment, I’m trying to think about the plausibility, power, and problems with theories of moral responsibility that treat individual moral blameworthiness as in some way a partial function of stuff outside an agent’s head. Roughly, that means I’m thinking about the social, structural, and cultural conditions that affect an agent’s blameworthiness.

I’ve also been starting to think a bit about ways in which other kinds of agency are affected by social context, partly in light of reading figures like Uranga, Lugones, Schutte, and others.

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

I suppose my default view of action involves something along Davidsonian-Bratmanian lines, with paradigmatic cases of action involving beliefs, desires, and intentions. In general, my disposition here is one of mostly minimal metaphysics—we start with relatively simple, naturalistically plausible elements that are in any plausible story of our psychology. Then, we build up from there with the thought that further postulates have to earn their keep.

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

In “foundational” philosophy of action, the detailed efforts to explain shared/joint agency seem to me to be particularly important. In those areas less concerned with saying what action, as such, turns out to be, I’d say the development of work in philosophy of law that draws from the philosophy of action is important, and so is the “social turn” in work on responsible agency. But these assessments surely reflect my own biases more than any independent assessment of what is important for the field more generally.

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

I’m inclined to think that at this point the field is not just one field, but really several fields with tenuous links of variable significance. There are folks worried about the nature of action as such, and relatedly, about core cases of ordinary human action. There is a somewhat different group of people who are worried trying to understand whether there is something metaphysically distinct about human action, distinct from other kinds of agency out in the world. Many of those folks approach issues through the lens of reflections about free will. Finally, there are folks who are reflecting on relatively sophisticated forms of agency that are not about free will, but that various “special” cases of agency—autonomy, responsibility, aesthetic agency, and so on. The fields of philosophy of action are not done growing. Philosophical reflections on non-human agency and what’s distinctive about it, for example, strikes me as a promising growth area for philosophers of action. I love this explosion of work and am happy to see the field explore these diverse topics. I will pass over in silence the developments in the field that strike me as ill-conceived.

2018 February 3

Many thanks to Prof Vargas!