Monday, November 30, 2015

At the right time at the right place

Last week I talked about the phenomenon that what people do is influenced by the situation they are in in the sense that the situation determines what they do and that it is not their values and attitudes that make them act in a certain way. The latter is what we should expect and it is also what many people consider desirable. This view that actions are situation-dependent is called situationism.
I have talked about situationism in my blogs before, although I didn’t call it that way. For instance, maybe some long-time followers of these blogs remember that people with a warm cup of coffee in their hands are more positive towards strangers than people holding a cold pad. In several other blogs I discussed the view of the psychologist Phillip Zimbardo who developed the theory (based on his research) that it is the situation that makes you a devil or a hero. Not psychological dispositions make people behave in an evil way but the situation brings people that far, so Zimbardo. Actually it is also what Hannah Arendt defends in her book on the Eichmann trial, just as Stanley Milgram does in his famous study Obedience to Authority.
If situationism were true in its strict sense, the question presents itself whether people can still be considered responsible for their behaviour. For isn’t it so that they can say then “I can’t help that I acted that way; the situation made me do so and I couldn’t resist”? And indeed, that is in fact what people do when they appeal to an order given to them by someone above them. In the end strict situationism means that we cannot be held responsible for what we do and also the idea that we have a free will is at stake.
Although I don’t want to deny that a situation can have a large influence on our behaviour and that it is often difficult to resist the “pressure of the situation”, I think that there is much to say against the idea of strict situationism. (In what follows for a part I follow the argumentation by Pauline Kleingeld in her article referred to below). For isn’t it so that we can often chose the situation that fits us best? To give a banal example: Don’t be surprised that we’ll play football if we have joined a football club, for if we had preferred to skate, we would have joined a skating club. And so it often goes. Another approach is trying to manipulate a situation. Again a simple example: If you don’t want to be asked for a task but you know that you’ll not refuse, hide yourself behind the backs of the others present; if you just want to be asked, seat yourself in the first row. A third way to confront conceivable situations is to train for it. That’s what soldiers do, when they train for war, so that they don’t run away when the shootings start. All these possibilities – and there are certainly more - are forms of situation management: conscious ways to make yourself prepared to what can happen or to influence what will happen.
But if we can make the situation so that it makes us do what we do want to do – and often it is possible – we can no longer hold the view that we are not the responsible agents that we denied we are. Although situations often happen to us, we are free to prepare ourselves for the possibility that they will happen and that we will be “pressed” to take a stand we actually do not want to take. “Why do I do now what I do?” is a question we have to learn to ask as much as possible. By preparing ourselves “[our] behavior is no longer just due to ‘the power of the situation’ and ‘without intentional direction’ ”, as Kleingeld says it (p. 357; italics K.). This doesn’t mean that we can always follow our preferences, but it makes us conscious of what we do by our own volitions and what we do “because we can’t help” and what is beyond our control. By doing so, we make ourselves the responsible persons we are, but we are also ready to take the responsibility that others ascribe to us (and with right). Then we don’t need to refer to the situation as an unjustifiable excuse. If you want to be free, prepare yourself.

Reference: Pauline Kleingeld, “Consistent Egoists and Situation Managers”, in: Philosophical Explorations, 18/3, pp. 344-361.

Monday, November 23, 2015

At the wrong time at the wrong place

A few days ago I read an article about moral luck (see the reference below). The authors distinguished several kinds of moral luck, but in this blog I must ignore that because of lack of space. In order to make clear what the concept involves I’ll use an example from the article.
An effect corroborated in many studies is the so-called bystander effect. Suppose you are walking in the street and you see someone getting a heart-attack. What will you do? If you are the only person there, you’ll probably help, but the more people are around there, the smaller the chance is that you’ll come to the person’s aid: “the likelihood of intervention in emergency situations inversely correlates with the number of people present in that situation”, as the authors formulate it (p. 367). It depends on what is happening and how serious the accident is – or whatever it is –, but if you are the only bystander, the chance that you’ll help is, say, more than 80%; if there are more people present the chance that you’ll help may be as low as 10% or less. The bystander effect applies apart from your personal attitude towards helping in emergency situations in the abstract (so what you would say you would do when you are not there). In other words, even if you are morally and maybe also legally required to render assistance to a person and even if you think you should help, how you really will act generally depends on the accidental number of people present. So whether you’ll do your moral duty is dependent on whether you are in luck or whether it is just your luck, so to speak, whether or not many people are around there on the place of emergency. That’s why philosophers talk here about “moral luck”. Whether you’ll act in a moral way as you should do or whether you’ll dodge is determined by the situation you are in, at least for a big part. Does this mean that we are actually not responsible for our actions because “the situation made us do what we do”? Maybe, but I think that in the end a person is responsible for his or her own actions and that s/he is always accountable for what s/he does, certainly if there is freedom to act, as in my examples. But that’s a subject for debate for another blog.
Actually all this has nothing to do with the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday the 13th of November,  but when I read this article a few days later, automatically I linked up a connection between what happened to the victims and the idea of moral luck. For isn’t moral luck a bit like being somewhere at some time by chance? I mean, someone gets an accident and you happen to see it: two unrelated events that coincidentally go together. And by chance nobody else is there, or just a few other people are there, or maybe a lot. These phenomena unrelated to your walking there happen to go together and together they make what you’ll do. But one of the factors might be different and you would behave in a different way: Things happen to you and often you cannot help. It’s a bit like when we say: he was there at the right time at the right place (so he could and did help) or just at the wrong time and at the wrong place.
So it was in Paris in the evening of Friday the 13th November 2015 as well: Many people who were where the terrorist attacks took place simply happened to be there but they could have been elsewhere as well. Coming one minute later; leaving one minute later; just a banal thing as having gone to the toilet (and whether or not it was in use); that the terrorist would have come a few minutes or even seconds later, because a car happened to cross their way; such banal things in life often make whether you are a victim or a survivor. Being at the wrong time at the wrong place can kill a life; or many. From the point of view of the victims, of course; for the perpetrators there is no excuse. What happens in your life can be a matter of good luck and back luck. Often life is on your side, but not always.

Reference: Marcela Herdova and Stephen Kearns, “Get lucky: situationism and circumstancial moral luck”, in: Philosophical Explorations, 18/3, pp. 363-377.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Are individual actions possible?

Sometimes we do things alone, sometimes we do things together with other people, tuned to what our companions do – together with us. We could call the former kind of doings individual actions and the latter one coordinated actions, or maybe joint, shared or collective actions – the term is not important. Are individual actions possible?
Let’s say that I want to take the train to Utrecht in order to go to a concert there. So I take my coat, walk to the railway station, buy a ticket and get in the train, after it has arrived. In Utrecht I get off the train, leave the railway station and walk to the concert hall. This complicated action of going to a concert can be divided in a series of subactions with their own separate intentions that can also be considered on their own. I’ll consider the subaction “taking the train to Utrecht”.
When I want to spade my garden, I walk to the shed behind my house, take a scoop, go to my garden and start to turn the soil over. There is no other person involved than myself. How different it is when I take a train. Taking a train is not possible without the presence of a whole man-made and man-maintained infrastructure. In order to be able to take the train (in a legal way), first I must buy a ticket, for instance from a ticket machine. Even this simple action supposes many intentions and actions of other persons in order to make it possible! Someone (or several people) must have thought out this system, some must have constructed the machine, some must have put the ticket machine on the platform, must maintain the ticket machine and take care that there is enough paper and ink for tickets to be printed, etc. In selling railway tickets a whole structure of intentions and actions is involved and without such a structure buying a ticket is simply impossible. No one could print his own train ticket, or it would be seen as forgery.
It is the same for getting in the train and going by it to your destination. This is only possible if there is an infrastructure intentionally built up by many people who cooperated together in making it, with their own individual reasons and intentions for doing their tasks and, last but not least, the personnel (engine driver, guard) on the train and others that make that the train can safely ride on the railways.
So what looks like an individual action with an individual intention at first sight, turns out to be possible only if there are other people – most of them unseen by you – who each for their own reasons help you perform your action in some way. The individual action of taking the train to Utrecht can be performed only within the presence of an intentionally built up structure intentionally run by cooperating people. And so it is for performing many other individual actions as well, if not for most of them: they are based on a structure of individual intentions and actions geared to one another in order to make their realization possible. We need coordinated intentions and actions in order to make the structure run. In the case of my example, we could call it “railway system” or “maintaining a railway system”. Moreover, it works in two directions: No train, no customs, but also no customs no train. One implies the other and every participant needs to endorse the coordinated intentions and actions in some way. Every participant makes his or her own contribution realizing his or her own individual intentions.
The upshot is that most individual actions are difficult to distinguish from what I called coordinated actions. The difference is rather gradual than absolute. Most actions that are individual on the face of it can only be realized by cooperating with others in some way, as it is the other way round.
And how about spading your garden? Is it really an individual action, as I supposed? Who made your scoop? What made it that you are allowed to spade that piece of land? Why did you want to dig your garden? (maybe for selling the vegetables you grow there or preparing the soil, because you want to compete in a flower show next year?) It is to be wondered whether really pure individual actions are possible, or you must be a Robinson on a deserted isle before you met your Friday.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Philosophical paradoxes

Paradoxes are a type of puzzle cases not mentioned on the website on action puzzles in my last blog. Nevertheless, they can be useful in clarifying concepts in the philosophy of action. I suppose that every reader of this blog will know the most famous of all paradoxes, the Liar Paradox: Epimenides said: Every man from Crete is a liar. The paradox becomes clear, if we know that Epimenides himself is a man from Crete.
I have discussed already extensively a well-known paradox in my blogs above, namely the Ship of Theseus, which is also known as Theseus’ paradox. Also one of the leading ideas in the philosophy of action actually is nothing but a kind of paradox, namely the idea that what we do – our actions – is dependent on the way we describe it. This idea has been introduced by Elizabeth Anscombe. Here I’ll use the version of E.J. Lowe: “A man is described as poisoning the inhabitants of a house by pumping contaminated water in its supply from a well, which the inhabitants drink with fatal consequences. There are various ways of describing what this man is doing: ... moving his arm, ... depressing the handle of the pump, ... pumping water from the well, contaminating the water-supply ..., ... poisoning the inhabitants of the house, ... killing the inhabitants ... [A]re these six different things he is doing, or just six different ways of describing one and the same thing?” (p. 240) In the former case, we would call him a juggler, so Lowe, but also the latter case – the one accepted in the philosophy of action – is problematical. Moving his arm is considered then to have different descriptions, but suppose that we want to know when and where the man is killing the inhabitants of the house. Depending on the way we describe what the man is doing, he kills them at different places and at different times, for the arm-moving takes place outside the house and the killing (which take place later) occurs within the house. (pp. 240-241) “So, it seems, we have to say that the man kills the inhabitants outside the house and quite some time before they die. But that is surely absurd”, so Lowe (p. 241). Lowe presents an alternative approach to resolve the paradox, but I refer those interested in it to Lowe, for here I want to talk about paradoxes.
I end this series of blogs on puzzle cases with a paradox that can be used to cast light on the idea of intention. The question is: Can we intend what we surely will not do? Generally philosophers of action support the view that intending to do a supposes minimally the absence of the belief that one will not a. However, take this paradox, which is known as the toxin paradox and which has been developed by G. Kavka (here quoted from an article by Stephanie Rennick): “You are offered a million dollars to form the intention of drinking a vile potion which, though not lethal, will make you unpleasantly ill. Once you have formed the intention the money is handed over, and you are free to change your mind. The trouble is that you know this, and it will prevent you from forming the intention, since you cannot intend to do what you know you will not do”.
This brings me back to the question whether I can try to do what I cannot do, discussed in my blog last week. Suppose now that I know that I cannot break the world record 5.000 m running, if my personal record is still three minutes slower than the world record after many years of hard training. Can I say then that nevertheless I can try to break the world record? Just as we cannot intend to do what we know we’ll not do, we cannot try to do what we know for sure we cannot do. Nevertheless I think there is much truth in the conventional wisdom saying “who doesn’t try doesn’t win”, even if you know that you have no chance.

Sources: - E.J. Lowe, An introduction to the philosophy of mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000 (
- Stephanie Rennick, “Things mere mortals can do, but philosophers can’t”,

Monday, November 02, 2015

On trying

In the philosophy of action puzzle cases can be used for several reasons. An already old website (I suppose it has been made by Joshua Knobe, who is now especially known for his contributions to experimental philosophy) mentions three such reasons:
– Exploring the causality of the relation between intention and action. Davidson’s case of the mountain climber in my blog last week falls under this category.
– Exploring the question whether acting intentionally implies acting with the intention to do what one intentionally does. For example, Harman discusses this case (quoted from the website): “In firing his gun, [a] sniper knowingly alerts the enemy to his presence. He does this intentionally, thinking that the gain is worth the possible cost. But he certainly does not intend to alert the enemy to his presence.”
– Exploring the relation between intending and succeeding to do what one intends to do. (see
In this blog I want to discuss a question that belongs to the last category and that I find intriguing since already a long time: Can one try to do what one cannot do? For instance, can I try to break a world record, if I am by far not good enough to break it?
According to Stuart Hampshire trying implies that “there is some difficulty and a possibility of failure”. If so, we speak of trying “whenever difficulty or the chance of failure is stressed” and the trying agent knows what to do and has decided to perform the trying action: The agent “should have some idea of how the required result might be achieved and that he should make up his mind now” (Hampshire 1959:107).
Suppose that I am a long distance runner. The world record on 5,000 metres track (5K) is 12'.37,35", run in 2004 by Kenenisa Bekele in Hengelo in the Netherlands. It is my big wish to break this record. However, my personal record (pr) is exactly three minutes slower: 15'.37,35". I ran it after many years of hard training. Therefore everybody body will say that it will be impossible for me to break the world record. Nevertheless, I don’t give up and I train and train and train ... and then I choose a race for the big try. As expected by the experts, I fail and because I have started by far too fast in the race I even fail to break my own pr.
According to Hampshire’s definition of trying, we can say that I tried to break the 5K world record but that I failed. Is it really so? It’s clear that I failed, but can we say that I tried? I think that we cannot, for it was 99.99999... % certain that I would fail, and I think that in order to speak reasonably of a try there must be a minimal chance of success and the chance of success was absent from any reasonable point of view. Therefore I want to add this “minimal chance of success” as a condition when we want to speak of a try. However, what is a minimal chance? Is it when my pr would have been 14'.37,35"? Or 13'.37,35"? Or 13'.07,35"? Or 12'.52,35"? Or ...? The problem is what tells a try from a not-try. A man cannot try to give birth to a baby, but a long distance runner with a pr of 12'.38,35" on the 5K track can reasonably try to break the world record on the distance, and there is a lot in between from the perspective of what we can possibly try and what we cannot. But where is the line that separates them? Often there is one, but as my case of the 5K runner shows, also often there isn’t one. In practice we know what trying is but in theory we cannot define it. The upshot is that we can’t even try to define “try” for there is no chance of success but only failure.

Hampshire, Stuart, Thought and action. London: Chatto and Windus, 1959.