PHILOSOPHY of Action
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András Szigeti (Linköping University)
1. How did you first become interested in Philosophy of Action?
My thinking about action and agency has been shaped by my interest in two related but nevertheless distinct research areas of mine. I have done some work on collectives of various kinds (e.g., formal organizations such as corporations, but also random groups such as bystanders happening to witness an accident). There are interesting questions to be asked in this area as to whether at least some of these groups can act. These questions then quickly lead to more general issues about the necessary and sufficient conditions for ascribing agency to various entities including non-human systems such as, arguably, robots or anthills. My other motivation for delving into the philosophy of action was my long-standing interest in moral responsibility. What is it about agency, or at least some manifestations of agency, that raises concerns about responsibility for these actions? Or are we perhaps concerned about agency in the first place because we feel the need to praise and blame someone or something for the good and bad things that happen in the world?
2. What are you working on at the moment?
More a would-be fox than a hedgehog by nature, I have several ongoing projects, some of which are collaborations. I will limit myself here to the ones which are in one way or another relevant to the philosophy of action. Firstly, I have been trying to poke holes in various collectivist arguments which purport to show that collectives as wholes can be agents and can be morally responsible in a non-distributive sense. For example, I have argued that the aggregation problem known as the discursive dilemma does not license such collectivist conclusions. It could be true that collectives can be ascribed views which no member group member supports but it does not follow that the collective as a whole can act on or is responsible qua collective for these views. While I am skeptical about certain forms of collectivism, I think philosophy of action must not ignore the very important conceptual and normative implications of the simple fact that people often do not act alone. In short, even if groups cannot act and be responsible as a group, people can act together and this has consequences for their accountability and blameworthiness as well.
This is why, secondly, I am particularly excited about research work I have been doing with Erik Malmqvist (University of Gothenburg) about cooperative forms of exploitation. Most exploitative transactions and relationships involve not just a single exploiter but there are several parties who take advantage of the exploitee. We think, and this is where action theory comes in, that these parties often act jointly which has important implications for how to allocate blame and remedial duties for the harm caused by exploitation.
Thirdly, I am involved in a project on affirmative action. My co-author György Barabás (Linköping University) and I have developed a formal model which shows that fair hiring will not necessarily ensure fair intragroup distributions. This would mean that justice sometimes has to be administered at the group level: we sometimes have to pay to the group what we owe to individuals. Fourthly and finally, I have an ongoing interest in a number of more “traditional” issues concerning free will and moral responsibility. Among others, I have worked on Strawsonian compatibilism critiquing some of its aspects such as its tacit reliance on a sentimentalist view of emotions and its hostility to certain kinds of metaphysical approaches to the problem of free will.
3. What is your 5-15 sentence account of what an action is?
Honestly? I wish I knew. The little I can adduce by way of reply is as follows: I think it could be fruitful to approach the question by first asking what agency is. And once we do that, we may find that while talk about action and agency has been central to many areas of philosophy, there have been few attempts at working out a coherent theory of what it is for something or somebody to be an agent. It seems to me that the only more or less developed contender on the market is functionalism. However, functionalism about agency is usually just assumed to be true and few people actually argue for it. One consideration that is often put forward in its favour is its catholicity regarding what kind of systems or entities can qualify as agents. But the “promiscuous” generalizability of functionalism to systems or entities other than adult human beings strikes me as a kind of reductio – my modus tollens to the functionalists’ modus ponens. Relatedly, I think we have dismissed too quickly the thought that action and agency may be inherently anthropomorphic concepts.
4. In your view, what were the three most important recent developments in philosophy of action?
Given my previous replies, it is not surprising that I would highlight as the most important development the debate about the agency of non-human and/or non-singular entities.
Somewhat paradoxically, I think another almost equally important contemporary development is the recognition (which of course not everyone shares) that we are unable to move the free will debate out of the stalemate it has been in for a long time (forever?). What is interesting about this situation is that we have recently seen truly novel contributions to this debate such as P.F. Strawson’s and Harry Frankfurt’s well-known works in the area. And yet disagreement about everything to do with free will and responsibility is as rampant as ever – surely, that fact is in itself of philosophical significance!
Finally, and somewhat more pragmatically, the rise of experimental philosophy has been important for the philosophy of action as well. My feeling is that it is in vain to expect experimental philosophy to resolve or explain away any philosophical issues, but the diversification of available philosophical methods x-phi has ushered in is certainly welcome. In fact, I have dabbled in it a little myself (cooperating with another wonderful colleague, John Michael at the University of Warwick) and got results showing that ordinary folk hold views (about group agency and responsibility) which I would reject. So much worse for the ordinary folk? Just kidding of course.
5. What direction would you like to see the field go in?
If “field” here is narrowly understood to mean my areas of specialization, then I would very much welcome the emergence of alternatives to functionalism as a theory of agency for reasons discussed above.
Another interesting niche is the morality of cooperation (and non-cooperation). While the action-theoretic aspects of joint agency have been elaborated at a high level of philosophical sophistication, there has been much less written about how cooperating (or refusing to do so) can affect our moral responsibility for joint actions and jointly brought about outcomes.
Finally, I would also be happy to see works exploring the connection between central problems of free will and moral responsibility to other philosophical areas such as political philosophy and the philosophy of history. Related to the latter point is a more general concern about the willful ignorance many philosophers proudly profess regarding the study of the history of Western and non-Western philosophy (I share the ignorance but I am ashamed of it), and the corresponding (and to be frank, almost wholly unrequited) admiration for everything that even remotely looks like science (but often isn’t). In my view, philosophy, including the philosophy of action, will always be a Janus-faced discipline looking towards both the sciences and the humanities. That is precisely one of the things which makes philosophy such an exciting field of study – why should we even try to change that?
Many thanks to Dr Szigeti for his answers!
We hope to welcome you back next weekend again!