PHILOSOPHY of Action
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Philosophy of Action
Alfred R. Mele (Florida State University)
This Saturday we are publishing Prof Al Mele’s answers to our questions. He is currently the William H. and Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University, and he was the Director of the Philosophy and Science of Self-Control Project, and Director of the Big Questions in Free Will Project. He has published on several issues connected to actions including free will and responsibility, the relation of free will and science, irrationality, agency, self-deception, luck, motivation and autonomy. His most recent monographs are Aspects of Agency: Decisions, Abilities, Explanations and Free Will, and Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will. He also edited Surrounding Free Will: Philosophy, Psychology, Neuroscience.
1. What are you working on at the moment?
Just this week, I completed a book manuscript entitled Manipulated Agents: A Window to Moral Responsibility. The main question addressed is this: What can we learn about moral responsibility from thought experiments about manipulated agents? I have spent a lot of time in the past fifteen years or so on connections between science (especially neuroscience) and such things as free will and moral responsibility. This book – like my 2017 book, Aspects of Agency – is almost exclusively theoretical. Next on the agenda is completing some articles I have agreed to write; the topics are self-deception, reasons explanation, decision making, and more on the neuroscientific skepticism about free will. And then, I believe, I will critically explore the scientific case for the thesis that we have a very poor understanding of why we do the things we do.
2. What is your 5-15 sentence account of what an action is?
I’ve never taken a stand on exactly what it is for something to be an action. I have taken a stand on what it is for an action to be intentional (for example, in a 1994 article coauthored with Paul Moser). Broadly speaking, I take actions to be events with a causal history of the right sort. Spelling out what the right sort is isn’t something I’ll try to do here.
3. In your view, what were the three most important recent developments in philosophy of action?
Given that the philosophy of action dates back to Plato, I have elected to interpret “recent” as “since 1950 or so.”
a. Donald Davidson’s revival of causal theories of action explanation in his 1963 article, “Actions, Reasons, and Causes.”
b. Harry Frankfurt’s reshaping of the moral responsibility and free will landscape in his 1969 article, “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility.”
c. Intention’s becoming a central topic in the philosophy of action. Elizabeth Anscombe and Michael Bratman deserve considerable credit for this.
4. What direction would you like to see the field go in?
The philosophy of action is going in several directions at once and probably will continue to do so. That is a good thing in my opinion. There is traditional theoretical work, scientifically informed work on a wide range topics in the field (intentions, intentional action, conscious control, self-control, weakness of will, moral responsibility, the sense of agency, and free will, for example), and survey-style experimental philosophy on such concepts as intentional action, moral responsibility, weakness of will, and free will. The philosophy of action is a good home for all of this.
2018 March 10
Many thanks to Prof Mele for his answers!