Ulrike Heuer (UCL)

This week we have the pleasure of offering you Dr Ulrike Heuer’s replies to our questions. Dr Heuer is a member of faculty at the Department of Philosophy of University College London. Her work addresses several core topics in Philosophy of Action and Ethics, like intentional agency, responsibility, practical reasons, normativity, and obligations. She also co-edited Luck, Value, and Commitment: Themes from the Ethics of Bernard Williams with Dr Gerald Lang. Enjoy the material!

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

My work has been concerned mainly with understanding normativity, in particular understanding reasons for action. It was about ten years ago that it dawned on me that giving an account of what it is to respond to reasons (‘reason’ in the sense of a fact that makes an action appropriate or inappropriate being perhaps the most basic normative notion) crucially depends on answering questions in the philosophy of action, in particular on getting a clearer view of what intentional agency is. While I was visiting at Harvard in 2008-9, Christine Korsgaard ran a seminar on Action Theory which I attended, and which has had a lasting impact on my work.

2. What are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently writing a book, developing a capacity-based view of intentional agency and on its basis an account of acting for a reason and the limits of responsibility.

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

This is a difficult question to answer since what should count as an action might vary depending on the context. ‘Action’ can (and perhaps should) be understood as including omissions as well as the actions of non-human animals. It is then not the same as doing something for a reason, nor does it require a (goal-directed) movement of one’s body, the latter excluding omissions, the former actions of non-human animals. Perhaps the broad sense of action is best captured in Harry Frankfurt’s ‘The Problem of Action’ as behaviour that is under the agent’s control and (in some sense) guided by her.

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

I don’t have comprehensive knowledge of philosophy of action and can only comment on those aspects that affected my own work:

(1) the renewed interest in G.E. M. Anscombe’s seminal work;

(2) work that attempts to gain a better understanding of know-how and skills, and their role in an account of agency;

(3) a beginning interaction of work in ethics with the relevant parts of philosophy of action. Answering questions in normative ethics (e.g. concerning the relevance of intentions to assessing actions), or in metaethics (e.g. about explaining our ability to recognize and respond to reasons) can benefit from paying attention to work in the philosophy of action.

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

I would like to see a more thorough exploration of the ways in which our understanding of normativity depends on assumptions in the philosophy of action or the philosophy of mind more generally.

2018 August 18

Many thanks to Dr Heuer!

Come back next weekend for another set of interesting answers.