Schlosser, M. E. (2011): Agency, ownership, and the standard theory

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Nice presentation of the components of the causal theory of action with an emphasis on the event-causal version of the theory and the comfortable fit of the event-causal theory with a specific kind of naturalism:

all particular occurrences, processes, and changes are to be understood and explained in terms of event-causation. In particular, any appeal to substance-causation, irreducible teleology or sui generis acts would constitute a violation of naturalism. (16)

The Event-Causal Theory of Action

Schlosser articulates two components to the overall theory, which he sees as standing or falling together.

Causal theory of the nature of action (CTA):
An agent-involving event is an action just in case it is caused by the right agent-involving mental states and events in the right way.
Causal theory of reason explanation (CTR):
Reason explanations of actions are explanations in terms of the agent’s mental states and events that rationalize and causally explain their performance. In particular, a reason explanation of an action in terms of the agent’s mental states and events is true only if those states and events causally explain the action.

Davidson’s Challenge

Schlosser then presents the support for the event-causal theory through the frame of “Davidson’s Challenge”, which asks

what is the “mysterious connection” between reasons and actions? Davidson suggested that this can only be a causal connection. What else could it be? This, in short, is Davidson’s challenge. (Davidson 1980, especially pp. 8–11. Compare also Ginet 2001.) (16)

Answering Davidson’s Challenge requires that we give a metaphysical account of agents and agency—what is wanted is a metaphysical explanation of the putative connection between an agent’s “reason-states” and their actions.

Opponents of the event-causal theory worry that it at best is supported only by a very weak negative argument, on the assumption that there are no other viable options for meeting Davidson’s Challenge. It is also objected that the argument is indirect in the sense of providing no direct support to CTA. It provides negative support to CTR, and gives indirect support to CTA only insofar as CTA and CTR stand or fall together (16).

Schlosser argues that

There is reason to endorse the metaphysical framework of the event-causal theory, because it is the only theory that can explain how human agency can be minimally part of the event-causal order. (21)

Schlosser argues in part by eliminating other options. I think he is right to reject the dual-standpoint view for failing to meet Davidson’s challenge (19). I am also in broad agreement concerning his rejection of the volition approach as being both internally inconsistent and ultimately failing to provide an account of the connection between reason-states and action, and thus the control an agent has over their actions.

I am much less convinced by his argument against agent-causal theories (20). Here is the basic argument:

If a certain causal relation constitutes control, it must be in virtue of some further fact. According to the event-causal theory, control consists in non-deviant causation by reason-states. Crucial to this account are the causal roles of mental states and events, and, in particular, the causal and explanatory roles of their intentional contents. Nothing plays a similar role in the agent-causal theory. Nothing can possibly play this role, because the theory refers to agents qua substances as the causes of actions. On the agent-causal view, the causation of actions is not guided by any properties of the agent. But because of this, it remains obscure why we should think that instantiations of the agent-causal relation constitute exercises of control at all. (20)

As far as I can tell, a view like that of Leibniz or Kant is going to be able to give a straightforward answer as to principles constituting and thus explaining the substance’s actions. Kant, in particular, has a deep critique of why event-causal views won’t work (because of the way in which temporal relations undermine the substance’s own causal activity) and has a conception of principles constituting what counts as a act under the agent’s control.

Disappearing Agents & Disappearing Agency

Disappearing agency challenge:
the event-causal theory altogether fails to capture the phenomenon of agency, as it reduces activity to mere happenings
Disappearing agents challenge:
the standard event-causal theory fails to capture important aspects of human agency, because it fails to account for the proper role of the human agent in the performance or exercise of certain kinds of agency

Schlosser I think rightly focuses, with respect to the first challenge, on the issue of ownership. He tries to avoid objections by arguing that (i) event-causal views are views according to which reason states are causes in virtue of their representational content; (ii) in normal cases of agency one actions are the product of a well-functioning sub-personal system for issuing motor commands.

I find (i) plausible, but (ii) is overly-narrow and seems to fail to account for mental acts, or mental acts that don’t issue in bodily movements of the relevant sort, and thus don’t go through the motor-control system (though see @campbell1999 for an attempt to defend this sort of position). So I think the reply to the dissapearing agency challenge fails (though Schlosser provides a set of convincing reasons for rejecting endorsement accounts as accounts of “ownership” in the sense at issue).

There is also no substantive reply to the second objection. Instead Schlosser seems to think that by claiming that there is a spectrum or hierarchy of kinds of agency is enough to show that the agent doesn’t disappear from action, but only more or less sophisticatedly participates in the action. But all this seems to ignore the motive for positing the agent as the ultimate arbiter of their actions, rather than events in the agent. In this way Schlosser never really responds to the worry that agent is really just the locus for action rather than the source of the action. This is also apparent from Schlosser’s ultimate endorsement of some sort of mesh view to distinguish between various kinds of agency within the event-causal framework (28)

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