Monday, October 05, 2009

The relativity of action

Definitions of what an action is are often absolute in the sense that they strictly separate actions from other kinds of doing: A doing is an action or it isn’t. My own definition of action in my dissertation is no exception. I called a doing guided by an intention an action; if it doesn’t have an intention, it is an instance of behaviour. Using intention as criterion for distinguishing action from non-action is quite common among action philosophers. However, other perspectives are possible. Jonathan Dancy distinguishes an action from a mere bodily movement when there is a reason behind what the agent does. Berent Enç distinguishes what one does in a deliberative way from what one does automatically. Deliberation involves weighing the pros and cons of what the agent might do and determines the agent’s purposes, beliefs, desires and intentions. However, in all these cases there is a clear distinction between two types of doing.
The dichotomy has been relativized somewhat by an idea put forward by G.E.M. Anscombe that says that actions can be described in different ways and that we have different actions depending upon the description chosen. This idea that has been developed by Donald Davidson. However, even then the dichotomy between action and non-action still remains.
This is different in Christine Korsgaard’s description of action in her recently published Self-Constitution (pp. 97-98). Korsgaard defines action as “an intentional movement … guided by a representation or conception … of [the] environment”. Also in this definition intention is substantial for making a movement an action. However, as Korsgaard explains, there is no “hard and fast line in nature between action and other forms of intentionally describable responses because there is not a hard and fast line in nature between mere reaction and perceptual representation”. There is a sliding scale between how plants react to their environment (non-action), how animals do and how man does when s/he acts. Also the doings of man are on a sliding scale from mere behaviour on the one end till action on the other end. In fact, Korsgaard had anticipated this explanation already in her definition for actually it runs: “Action is an intentional movement of an animal ... guided by a representation or conception that the animal forms of his environment”.

But if it is so that there is a sliding scale between action and mere behaviour and if this distinction is relative then it is also so that our responsibility for what we do must be on a sliding scale and be relative. Then our responsibility for what we do is rarely hundred percent or zero but in many cases it is somewhere in between. In fact this is often acknowledged, for example in trials. There it can happen that the perpetrator of a criminal act is declared to have been in a state of diminished responsibility for what s/he did, which means that the act had not been fully deliberate but that the perpetrator had been partially guided by bodily urges that s/he had not under control. However, as Korsgaard adds, “[t]here are many cases in which we need a hard and fast concept for the purposes of philosophical understanding and indeed for ethical and political life...”. But does it really contribute to our understanding and our ethical and political life if a distinction is based on a distorted view of the world?

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