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Action

My work on the nature of action mostly concentrates on the problem of act individuation or how we distinguish between actions based upon the descriptions we have of them. Whether it is acceptable to say that a finger moving is a harming or helping seems to depend upon the normative upshot of the action descriptions. Much of the work is based upon empirical studies undertaken to explore how non-philosophers have tended to understand the distinction between actions. What my work has shown is how influential normative valence of actions play a role in our analyses.

Book

The Identities of Action: How the Moral Valence of Consequences of Action Influence How We Distinguish Between Them

(Bloomsbury Publishers, 2025)

 

This book uses illustrative examples to show how the normative valence of the consequences of actions shapes our views of action individuation and that how we distinguish between actions has practical and philosophical import.

Edited Collection 

Virtue, Narrative, and the Self: Explorations of Character in the Philosophy of Mind and Action

(Routledge, 2020)

Editors: Joseph Ulatowski and Liezl Van Zyl

Virtue, Narrative, and Self connects two philosophical areas of study that have long been treated as distinct: virtue theory and narrative accounts of personal identity. Chapters address several important issues and neglected themes at the intersection of these research areas. Specific examples include the role of narrative in the identification, differentiation, and cultivation of virtue, the nature of practical reasoning and moral competence, and the influence of life’s narrative structure on our conceptions of what it means to live and act well. This volume demonstrates how recent work from the philosophy of mind and action concerning narrativity and our understanding of the self can shed new light on questions about the nature of virtue, practical wisdom, and human flourishing.

 

This book will be of interest to scholars and advanced students working in virtue theory, moral philosophy, philosophy of mind and action, and moral education.

Articles / Chapters

Virtues, Self-Narratives and the Causes of Action

Acta Analytica (2023) 3.2: 249-262.

with David Lumsden

Virtues can be considered to play a causal role in the production of behaviour and so too can our self-narratives. We identify a point of connection between the two cases and draw a parallel between them. But, those folk psychological notions, virtues and self-narratives, fail to reduce smoothly to the underlying human physiology. As a first step towards handling that failure to connect with the scientific framework that is the familiar grounding for our understanding of causation, we consider the causal theory of action, a leading theory of action, which shows how reasons, understood as an appropriate pair of beliefs and desires, can be treated as causes of action. Davidson’s picture is based on cause as a relation between events, which can have both a description in scientific terms and in folk psychological terms. The character of both virtues and self-narratives is not that of events, even extended ones, so we need to refer to examples of scientific explanation that incorporate structural properties of objects. While we retain the spirit of the causal theory, we wish to guard against any unwarranted optimism that an explicitly scientific explanation for human action lies in our future, drawing on Chomsky’s view that a causal explanation of human actions is likely to remain beyond human science forming capacities. We take a mild-realist view of virtues and self-narratives, in the style of Dennett. We argue that, in spite of that limited form of realism, underlined by Chomsky’s mysterian position in this domain, we still need to frame our explanations of behaviour based on virtues and self-narratives in causal terms.

How Self-Narratives and Virtues Cause Action

In Virtue, Narrative, and the Self: Explorations of Character in the Philosophy of Mind and Action, edited by Joseph Ulatowski and Liezl Van Zyl, pp. 69-90 (Springer, 2020).

with David Lumsden

While the nature of the virtues and their role in human action are controversial, we wish to explore the thesis that virtues play a causal role in the production of action.  One fruitful, though controversial, approach to understanding the nature of the self is through the notion of a narrative and in particular a person’s self narrative or narratives.  Similarly we wish to explore the thesis that self narratives play a causal role in action.  We consider how virtues and self-narratives interrelate as well as playing a comparable role in the production of action. The basic ideas in the literature concerning reasons as causes of action provide us with a useful starting point even though the focus on reasons has tended to sideline potential causal roles for both virtues and self-narratives.  Without attempting to develop a new theory of causation, we draw a picture of how virtues and self-narratives, in relation to each other, can be regarded as causally effective in producing action.

Act Individuation: An Experimental Approach

Review of Philosophy and Psychology (2012) 3.2: 249-262.

Accounts of act individuation have attempted to capture peoples’ pre-theoretic intuitions. Donald Davidson has argued that a multitude of action descriptions designate only one act, while Alvin Goldman has averred that each action description refers to a distinct act. Following on recent empirical studies, I subject these accounts of act individuation to experimentation. The data indicate that people distinguish between actions differently depending upon the moral valence of the outcomes. Thus, the assumption that a single account of act individuation applies invariantly seems mistaken.

Fixing the Default Position in Knobe's Competence Model

Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2010) 33.4: 352-353.

with Justus Johnson

Although we agree with the spirit of Knobe's competence model, our aim in this commentary is to argue that the default position should be made more precise. Our quibble with Knobe's model is that we find it hard to ascribe a coherent view to some experimental subjects if the default position is not clearly defined.

Intuitions and Individual Differences: The Knobe Effect Revisited

Mind and Language (2007) 22.4: 346-365.

with Shaun Nichols

Recent work by Joshua Knobe indicates that people’s intuition about whether an action was intentional depends on whether the outcome is good or bad. This paper argues that part of the explanation for this effect is that there are stable individual differences in how ‘intentional’ is interpreted. That is, in Knobe’s cases, different people interpret the term in different ways. This interpretive diversity of ‘intentional’ opens up a new avenue to help explain Knobe’s results. Furthermore, the paper argues that the use of intuitions in philosophy is complicated by fact that there are robust individual differences in intuitions about matters of philosophical concern.

A Conscientious Resolution of the Action Paradox on Buridan's Bridge

Southwest Philosophical Studies (2003) 25: 85-94.

Let us suppose that a bridge spans the width of a river connecting two separate lands. Plato and a few of his cronies stand guard at one end of the bridge. No one can cross the bridge without his assent. Socrates arrives at the bridge and pleads with great supplication for Plato to let him cross. Plato flies into a rage and swears an oath in these terms: "Surely, Socrates, if in the first proposition which you utter, you speak the truth, I will permit you to cross. But surely, if you speak falsely, I shall throw you in the water." Socrates replies, "You will throw me into the water." The dilemma is that if Plato throws Socrates in the water, then the first proposition Socrates uttered was true, in which case, to keep his promise, Plato should instead have let him freely pass. If Plato allows Socrates to cross, then the first proposition Socrates uttered was false, so that in accord with his vow, Plato should instead have thrown him in the water. This is the paradox of Buridan's Bridge. The paradox raises the question: "What ought Plato do to keep his promise?" The aim of this paper is to offer a critical assessment of Buridan's proposed solution to the bridge keeper paradox. First, I will outline his proposed solution to the paradox, and, second, carefully analyze each issue mentioned in the proposed solution. Finally, I will attempt to conclude that Buridan has implicitly accepted a three-valued logic that does not allow him to conclude that Plato ought not do anything.

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