One of the most lively discussions in philosophy is about how to understand or explain human actions. It’s a discussion that is almost as old as Western philosophy. The problem was discussed, then faded away, then flared up again, again it faded away, and so on. It was discussed by Aristotle (the first who did), by Hume and by Kant. It was a central theme in the methodological discussions at the end of the 19th century when Dilthey presented his view on Verstehen (understanding) as an alternative method for explaining human actions. It flared up again during the 1960s and thereafter, when Davidson, von Wright and Apel presented their views on action explanation as alternatives for Hempel’s positivism and Popper’s critical rationalism. These are a few highlights in the history of action philosophy, and actually since the 1960s the discussion didn’t die down. In 1996 I published my PhD thesis as my own contribution to the field – a book that, as so many books, has largely been ignored (but that’s reality).
Probably I hadn’t written this blog, if the journal Philosophical Explorations hadn’t devoted its most recent number (Vol. 21, No. 1, March 2018) to a long period in this discussion: The philosophy of action from Suárez till Anscombe (roughly the period from 1570 till 1970). I’ll not discuss the articles here, but they made me think of two main approaches in action philosophy. These approaches may have become obsolete today (for superseded by recent views), but even so I think that its distinction gives a clear insight into relevant questions that must be answered if we want to understand or explain human actions: The distinction between the Humean approach of action explanation and the Kantian approach. Note, however, that “Humean” and “Kantian” are only labels. It is not so that these approaches as put forward by me can be literally ascribed to Hume and Kant.
If it weren’t already so before that date – since in 1963 Donald Davidson published his famous article “Actions, Reasons, and Causes”, which states that it is our beliefs and desires that determine how and why we act, and that there are actually no other factors that do, this typically Humean approach has been the mainstream in the philosophy of action for decades. Although now it has faded into the background in some sense, it still has a big influence on the thinking of many action philosophers, even if they are critical of it, like me. For basically it says that only factors internal to the mind determine our actions, and it leaves no room to what is external to the mind and happens around us. And just such factors are the fundamental and main action determining factors in what I called a Kantian approach. According to Kant it are our moral obligations and our maxims, so let’s say our guidelines, that make how and why we act, and it need not be so that these guidelines are internal. Most of the time they have been imposed upon us, if not enforced by the people around us, society and the world around us. This can go that far that some philosophers think that only such – what is usually called – external factors make us act, which have to be distinguished from the internal factors that make us act according to a Humean approach. Indeed, there is some reason to think so, when we consider the psychological view that says that is especially the situation we are in that makes how and why we act, and that it’s not our internal makeup and ideas that do. Maybe you remember my blogs on Philip Zimbardo, who stresses the influence of situational factors on our actions (if not, you can find these blogs via the search machine on this page). Also the philosopher Hannah Arendt actually says that it works that way, when she analyzes the Eichmann process and talks of the “banality of evil”. And there is much truth in it.Nevertheless I think that it is a too polarized way of thinking to say that either a Humean approach of action is right or a Kantian approach is. Maybe in some cases a Humean approach is better and in other cases a Kantian approach is, but I don’t want to see them as mutually exclusive. Isn’t it so that often the best course is a middle course? I think that this “golden rule” applies here as well. Often, if not mostly, we act in a certain way because the situation we are in presses us to do so; because moral obligations do, etc. Briefly, external factors make us act as we act. However, this doesn’t mean that internal factors don’t play a part, for we’ll not act, if we don’t agree with the actions imposed upon us. Or rather then, what we’ll do can vary from acting unwillingly to resistance and refusal. Or we act because in advance we had already intentionally decided to do so, even in case we wouldn’t fully agree with what is asked from us. Or we act as we are asked or assumed to do since it fits our character or background ideas. In other words, internal factors are explicit or implicit filters that can control what externally is expected of us. And sometimes they can also play a part of their own, as Humeans assume. Actually we always do what we wanted to do, even if we are forced to do so. Of course, stated in this extreme way, it’s not true, but the statement can be used as a standard when we have to judge morally relevant actions.