Ezio Di Nucci (Copenhagen)

We publish this week Dr Ezio Di Nucci’s mini-interview answers. Dr Di Nucci works at the moment as Associate Professor in the Department of Public Health at the University of Copenhagen. He has published extensively on actions, double effect, and several topics in ethics and bioethics, including drones, questions connected to robots and AI, and the ethics of killing. He recently co-edited with Filippo Santoni Drones and Responsibility and published his monograph Ethics without Intention. Enjoy!

1. How did you become interested in Philosophy of Action?

I am not really sure, but I do remember that sometime during my undergrad in Rome I discovered Anscombe´s Intention – probably through Wittgenstein´s philosophy of psychology remarks in the second part of the Investigations. Anscombe got me interested in the concept of intentional action; and then when I got to Edinburgh for graduate school there were plenty of people working in or around the philosophy of action, starting from Rae Langton and Richard Holton, with whom I did my Masters Dissertation on questions of responsibility; and then Matt Nudds and Bill Pollard (who supervised my PhD), Andy Clark, Mike Ridge, Till Vierkant, etc. And also graduate students like Conor McHugh and Dave Ward - and Markus Schlosser at St. Andrews. Working in such a tiny field like action theory you are very often kind of on your own locally, but in Edinburgh in the ´00 there was more than enough support and feedback.

I ended up writing my PhD on whether so-called automatic actions qualify as intentional actions – arguing that they did. At the time philosophers mostly thought that was a non-problem – following Davidson – but I have the impression that now people are (finally?) starting to be increasingly interested in these questions, probably influenced by all the priming, bias and related research in behavioural psychology – however reliable that actually is.

2. What are you working on at the moment?

Well, I probably should not be saying this given the context, but I am not doing as much action theory these days as I used to: I guess I wanted my work to have more direct and obvious applications than the highly theoretical arguments within the philosophy of action, so I started doing more and more ethics and applied ethics, even though I continued approaching these new topics from an action-theoretical point of view, so for example I wrote a book on double effect, which enabled me to apply many insights from action theory to normative and even applied questions. Today most of my work is in ethics and applied ethics (and increasingly bioethics and ethics of technology). But let me give you an example of how action-theoretical concepts still play a big role, I hope: I am currently working on something I call the ´control paradox´; technology and innovation are supposed to give us more and better control over both ourselves and the environment; but, funnily enough, we mostly discuss technological innovation in terms of risks for loss of control – so the paradox is supposed to be this idea that we innovate in order to gain more control but by innovating we actually risk losing the very thing we are trying to improve on. I am thinking of so-called self-driving cars, drones and autonomous weapons, smart environments, but also simple things like passwords – and even Facebook, or so I am going to argue. Briefly, I think the practice of delegation is crucial to the control paradox, and delegating is an action-theoretical concept (and obviously control itself is too!).

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

Enough with the small talk, eh? My account of what an action is would probably be too traditional and conventional to be worth your time, but maybe I am less of a traditionalist - and also more inclusive - when it comes to intentional action – so that for example I believe that automatic actions are intentional actions and also that side-effects are intentional actions – even though the latter is something that Michael Bratman would probably endorse too, so not very original. I actually think that these two claims are somewhat related though: both automatic actions and side-effects have in common that, on some accounts, we intend neither – even though the reasons why we would not speak of intention are different in each case, so that in the former case that has to do with lack of deliberation and maybe even lack of awareness; while in the latter case the double effect debate is very clear about the fact that side-effects are just as foreseen as means or ends; still, they are supposed to be unintended (but, indeed, not necessarily unintentional). I don´t want to overdo my claim here but it is tempting to think of the connection between these two separate and very different debates as having to do with over-intellectualism about agency.

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

Having already confessed to being – at best – a former philosopher of action, you will forgive me if I am not so up-to-date with all recent developments in the field. If you are thinking of important in terms of influence within the field, then I guess we can´t not mention Joshua Knobe´s work, even though the initial excitement seems to have died down a bit or anyway have moved on to other fields. And the same I would probably say for joint agency, social ontology etc.

If instead you are thinking in terms of what I take to be important independently from its influence on the field, one thing I would mention is Carolina Sartorio´s work on omissions. And personally, I am also happy that the questions I have spent a lot of time on are starting to get a bit more traction: I am thinking for example of Barbara Montero´s recent monograph with OUP, Thought in Action.

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

Well, that´s easy: the direction that I am trying to take myself! No, honestly, I do think it is beneficial to use insights from action theory – and action-theoretical concepts – to deal with a lot of normative and even applied issues, like the examples I have given above. And I am not just talking about double effect, I also mean, say, questions relating to consent, or responsibility – and even, indeed, technological innovation.

Allow me again to use the practice of delegating a task as an example: we delegate tasks to colleagues, family members, fellow citizens, but also – increasingly – devices such as our mobile phones and above all software and algorithms. Who is in control once we have delegated? And who is responsible for the successful completion – or maybe failure – of the delegated task? Those are questions in the philosophy of action proper I believe; but their ramifications are so obvious and urgent that – even within a system of division of academic and scientific labour – it would be very useful if philosophers of action would investigate these questions themselves; in this respect, I must say that someone like John Searle – who gets a lot of bad press – is an example of having gradually moved on, during his career, to apply theoretical insights to practical questions.

2018 April 28

Many thanks to Dr Di Nucci for his answers!