Can we sufficiently define agency in the causal story of action-explanation? Features and forms of agency from Davidson to Bratman. Kate Papari
I. Introduction: Insufficiencies in Davidson’s account of agency and the rising issues of subjective normative authority and agential authority Donald Davidson has been among the most influential philosophers in the analytic philosophical tradition especially as far as it concerns issues he has raised about the origins of actions and explanation of action as well. One of the most crucial issues that arise in philosophy of action is agency. Davidson’s causal story of action despite its appeal to philosophical community lacks a strong and sufficient definition of it.
Two main questions that arise from the davidsonian account of agency will be the main focus of this paper and the way contemporary philosophers of action deal with them. The first problem in Davidson’s account of agency is that actions seem to consist of motivated behavior and bodily movements without clarifying the engagement of normative reason in action. Although Davidson himself made it clear that in the sphere of reason explanation, causality is connected with the normative demands of rationality, nowhere in explanation of action seems clearly to intervene normative reason, namely the ideal of rationality in agents’ actions, an element which indicates that actions are governed and guided by agents.
As a consequence of the first question, a second one is raised posing the question whether agents are autonomous and free and therefore ‘full-blown’ agents or the locus of causal pushes and pulls. According to Jennifer Hornsby, the standard story finds actions among spatiotemporal events (such as bodily movements) and agency is misconceived in an events-based account of it. So events-based accounts introduce a conception of the causal order in which agents have no place and their role disappears in this account of action-explanation.
In this paper I am going to discuss two interrelated issues, the latter of which concerns metaphysics of agency; the problem of subjective normative authority and the problem of agential authority. Many philosophers have been engaged in offering answers to both of these questions. My focus will be to demonstrate responses to these questions as they emerge in recent work of contemporary philosophers such as Michael Smith, Jonathan Dancy, Harry Frankfurt and Michael Bratman. I believe that they offer a philosophical clarification to these issues that will plausibly provide a stronger definition about human agency, as human beings are ineliminable from any account of their agency and in any of its versions. In short, they claim that human agents’ reasons to act correspond to normative principles that demonstrate a concept of ‘full-blown’ agency through characterizations of purposiveness, autonomy, and the conception of agency as temporally extended.
According to Davidson agency is revealed when someone is doing something intentionally, therefore intentional is a criterion of agency. As Hornsby phrases it ‘desire’, ‘believe’ and ‘do intentionally’ form a sort of conceptual trio. Despite its primacy, this trio does not form a complete concept of agency. In Davidson, causality is central to the concept of agency, but it is a scheme of cause-effect causality that concerns mostly the effects and not the causes of actions. One way Davidson chooses to bring agency about is by describing Joel Feinberg’s ‘accordion effect’: the accordion effect tells us that an agent causes what his actions cause. It is not applicable if there is no intention present and it is limited to agents. But this is not enough.
Davidson’s argument led him to the conclusion that causality allows as to redescribe actions in ways in which we cannot redescribe other events; but this fact is a mark of actions and yields no analysis of agency.
II. The issue of subjective normative authority; Jonathan Dancy’s and Michael Smith’s highlighting of its significance and Michael Bratman’s thesis It is clear by now that the davidsonian concept of agency faces intrinsic insufficiencies. As far as it concerns the first issue, namely subjective normative authority, Dancy’s well aimed discrimination among causative and normative reasoning helps at first to understand the meaning of normative reasoning in explanation and secondly to realize how its omission from Davidson’s causative explanation of action renders the latter inadequate, especially as far as it concerns agents.
Jonathan Dancy holds that there are two ways of explaining actions; one is the normative that reveals reasoning and the other is causal, which is factive. Normative explanations give the agent’s reasons for doing what she did, they serve the condition of rationality and they are not factive. The causal–factive explanation will indeed be an explanation of the action, but it will not explain the action by laying out the agent’s reasons for doing it. Dancy’s view is that if actions are caused by any mental state, that state could be purely cognitive. The causal explanation is not the very same explanation as the normative one, as it does not explain the action in terms of the agent’s reasons for doing it and therefore does not require the sort of evaluative backing that offers the normative one. So the two explanations cannot really be just two ways of saying the same thing and there needs to be a psychological story, because only such a thing could render it intelligible how it could be the case that someone acted for the reason that she did. So agents as we try to portray them are responding to some norm of rationality and their actions are frequently the issue of normative deliberation.1
Another considerable approach of normative reasoning lies in Michael Smith’s paper The Structure of Orthonomy, where he also denotes the importance of normative element in the theory of action and dissociates motivating from normative reasons. Motivating reasons as Davidson has argued for them are constituted by desires for ends and means-end beliefs, namely phycological states that teleologically explain actions. Normative reasons, on the contrary, are considerations to which we appeal when we construct a justification of an agent’s conduct, namely these are considerations that justify the action. Actions are those bodily movements that are caused and rationalized by a pair of mental states and the feature that bodily movements have that makes them especially suitable to count as actions, as distinct from (say) the ends that agents desire, is that they are the events in the world over which agents are supposed to have direct rational control.
The rational etiology of desires for ends and means-ends beliefs provides us with an illuminating picture of both responsibility and control, characteristics that show agent’s capacity for autonomy, namely the capacity an agent has to rule herself. The exercise of these capacities, in turn, is what underwrites the possibility of rational criticism of the action they perform. Therefore, actions are rationally criticizable to the extent that the beliefs they produce them are rationally criticizable. Desires for ends, on the other hand, are not the product of a rational capacity and they are not subject to correctness condition as they are not subject to rational control. What makes the discriminations above of such a special interest is that agents meet a certain condition of ideal of rationality and there is a potential to provide an account of responsible conduct.
Therefore, as we have seen so far, a striking feature of the common sense conception of action is the way in which we think of agents as exercising a whole range of rational capacities that they possess, capacities that forge connections between different elements in their psychology.
Michael Bratman in his planning theory of action poses clearly the question of subjective normative authority and manages to merge causal with normative reasoning. He holds that given a desire to act in a certain way, a reflective agent asks whether she has a normative reason for so acting. It is when action is the issue of normative deliberation anchored in such an endorsed conception of practical authority that there is ‘full-blown’ agency and not merely an outcome of causal pushes and pulls. The problem of subjective normative authority and the problem of agential authority in Bratman’s work are answered with reference to the idea of a self-governing policy, that is, a higher-order policy about which desired ends treat as reasons in one’s motivationally effective deliberation. Such self-governing policies provide a structural connection between motivation and normative deliberation. And such policies also help ground agential authority.
Bratman purports to enlighten agency underlying a crucial feature in human agency; that agency is temporally extended, as agent’s authority is tied to the agent’s identity over time. This seems a promising strategy in part because such higher order intentions, plans and policies have as a matter of function, tight connections to the temporal extension of agency. Thus, self-governing policy is a higher order policy about which desired ends to treat as reasons in one’s motivationally effective deliberation.
III. The issue of agential authority; Harry Frankfurt’s crucial marks and Michael Bratman’s scheme of agential authority The question of subjective normative authority is inseparably linked to agential authority. Harry Frankfurt underlined two crucial features that mark agential authority. He holds that what is decisive in agency is to consider whether or not the movements as they occur are under the person’s guidance. Complexity of body movements suggests action only when it leads us to think that the body, during the course of its movement, is under the agent’s guidance. This seems plausible as when we act, our movements are purposive and therefore their course is guided. The facts that we are rational and self-conscious substantially affect the character of our behavior and the ways in which our actions are integrated into our lives.
Additionally, agency according to Frankfurt includes two ideals; the commitment to freedom and the ideal of individuality. But there is a conflict or strain between freedom and individuality. The latter requires limits that the former tends to erase. With total freedom there can be no individual identity. This is because an excess of choice impairs the will. The boundaries of a person’s will define her shape as a person and this is a mark of agential authority. Therefore our plans involve a hierarchy of ends and means. Further more to be a person entails evaluative attitudes, not necessarily based on moral consideration, meaning that to adopt a certain final end is quite different matter from estimating its intrinsic goodness.
Bratman is also led to seek a fuller account of action’s aetiology than the standard story provides, as he thinks that the standard story is conceptually inadequate to explain agency. A distinction he makes falls between action determined or governed by an agent and ‘merely’ motivated behavior (i.e. children have beliefs and desires, but they do not yet have the conceptual resourses for normative deliberation). So the question of what makes someone a ‘full blown’ agent of his action is a question about the type of psychological functioning from which his action issues.
For Bratman intentional action is the issue of deliberation in which the agent considers what she sees as a reason for or against her alternatives. Bratman postulates that where agency is full-blown, actions are caused by higher-order reflexive policies. When action is the upshot of such a policy, there is a strong form of agency, so that the agent determines, directs and governs the action and therefore is far from being a locus of causal pushes and pulls.
His argument is based on the idea that we are purposive agents, reflective about our motivation, meaning that besides our planning ability, we have also the capacity to step back and reflect on our desires and inclinations. In the planning theory of intention, because of the normative demands, plans introduce characteristic forms of practical reasoning: plans provide a somewhat stable background framework that needs to be filled in appropriately with specifications of means and the like. We also usually adopt or form policies, which constitute, according to Bratman, general commitments. Their difference from ordinary desires is that they are subject to distinctive rational norms of consistency, coherence and stability. In giving plans and policies a basic explanatory role in our theory of human action we remain within a causal view of human action, one that avoids seeing the agent as a distinct element in the etiology of action.
Finally, we are temporally extended agents, namely temporally persisting agents and this is the reason why we form self-governing policies. Self-governing policies are embedded in a planning framework, whose organizing roles involve the constitution of continuities and connections characteristic of temporally extended agency. The agent treats the achievement of a desired end as providing a justification for the action, so when someone is motivated by a desire, she treats that desire as providing a justifying end.
Summarizing Bratman’s scheme, we conclude that we form prior plans and policies that organize our activity over time and we see ourselves as agents who persist over time and who begin, develop and then complete temporally extended activities and projects. This trio of features –reflectiveness, planfulness, and conception of our agency as temporally extended—is actually needed in any complete theory of human action.
Authority problem as we analysed it above is connected to hierarchical theories. And we have seen that authority problem concerns the connection of self-governing policies to the agent’s identity over time that grounds their authority to determine where the agent stands (i.e. we all experience authority’s coordinating role, as it helps organize and structure our life over time).
Bratman’s enriched account of agency, embedded in the event causal order, argues that such self-governing policies provide structural connection between motivation and normative deliberation on the one hand and they ground agential authority on the other, because of their tie, by way of their function to the organization of deliberative agency over time. So within the agent’s perspective, the self-governing policy seems to have a normative authority. And because of this tight connection of their role in constituting agency, self-governing policies have agential authority.
IV. Conclusion: Towards a complemented definition of human agency There are many controversies towards Bratman’s defense to the standard story and we might find out that the problems in the concept of agency might actually stem from the causative character of action language. Another controversy against Bratman is referred particularly in the way that he treats agency, namely as if actions are of a specially high-grade sort that he takes for granted and that agents always act in an orthonomous way or even act as being superhumans. But Bratman implies that very often actually agents act irrationally or are being incontinent. Bratman’s supplementing account of the concept of agency becomes of special interest, once we accept that actions as events is one thing, endorsing an events-based account of agency is quite another and defining agency a totally different thing as well.
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1 Dancy discerns among objective and subjective principles of normativity and claims that it is wrong to think of the two principles (obj – subj) as being concerned with rationality in the same sense. Instead the objective ones are concerned with what there is reason to do, and subjective ones are concerned with an independent question whether the agent is acting rationally. [Jonathan Dancy, 2004, p. 36]