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Alvarez, Maria, and . Kinds of Reasons: An Essay in the Philosophy of Action

2010, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Publisher’s Note: Understanding human beings and their distinctive rational and volitional capacities is one of the central tasks of philosophy. The task requires a clear account of such things as reasons, desires, emotions and motives, and of how they combine to produce and explain human behaviour. In Kinds of Reasons, Maria Alvarez offers a fresh and incisive treatment of these issues, focusing in particular on reasons as they feature in contexts of agency. Her account builds on some important recent work in the area; but she takes her main inspiration from the tradition that receives its seminal contemporary expression in the writings of G.E.M. Anscombe, a tradition that runs counter to the broadly Humean orthodoxy that has dominated the theory of action for the past forty years. Alvarez’s conclusions are therefore likely to be controversial; and her bold and painstaking arguments will be found provocative by participants on every side of the debates with which she engages. Clear and directly written, Kinds of Reasons aims to stake out a distinctive position within one of the most hotly contested areas of contemporary philosophy.

Comment: This book is on the ontological nature of reasons for which we act carries on. The first two chapters are very good introductory readings on reasons broadly. Chapters 3 to 5 explore the connection between reasons and motivation. Topics include what motivates actions, whether desires are motivating reasons, and whether motivating reasons are belief. They are proper introductory reading material for courses on ethics, reasons and philosophy of action.

Anscombe, Elizabeth, and . Intention

1957/2000, London: Harvard University Press.

Summary: Three core problems about intention are discussed: (i) expressions of intention; (ii) the intentional or non-intentional character of action; (iii) the intention of an action, or with which it is done. The book attempts to show in detail that the natural and widely accepted picture of what we mean by an intention gives rise to insoluble problems and must be abandoned.

Comment: Intention is one of the masterworks of the twentieth-century philosophy in English. Donald Davidson, for instance, has called it the most important philosophical work on action since Aristotle. It is a must-have for courses on philosophy of action and philosophy of mind (broadly construed). As other classics, it is a book that is not easy to understand. It might be a good idea to supplement it with some guide or notes.

Anscombe, Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret, and . Action, Intention and ‘Double Effect’

2005, In Geach, M., Gormally, L. (eds.), Human Life, Action and Ethics. Exeter: Imprint Academic.

Introduction: It is customary in the dominant English and related schools of philosophy to restrict the terms “action” or “agency.” That is, when the topic is ‘philosophy of action’. This is often done by an appeal to intuition about a few examples. If I fall over, you wouldn’t usually call that an action on my part; it’s not something that I do, it is rather something that happens to me. Donald Davidson has made a more serious attempt than this at explaining a restriction on the term “action,” or what he means by “agency.” “Intentional action” is an insufficient designation for him: it determines no class of events, because an action which is intentional under one description may not be intentional under another. And anyway there are unintentional actions, which he doesn’t want to say are not actions in the restricted sense in which he wants to apply the term. So he suggests that we have an action (in the restricted sense) if what is done (no restriction on the ordinary sense here) is intentional under some description. This allows pouring out coffee when I meant to pour out tea to be an action, being intentional under the description “pouring out liquid from this pot.” I fear, however, that it may allow tripping over the edge of the carpet to be an action too, if every part of an intentional progress across the room is intentional under that description. But Davidson doesn’t want to count tripping as an action. If this is right, then his account is wrong because it lets in what he wants to exclude. Furthermore, I don’t think it comprises omissions, which are often actions.

Comment: Useful in teaching about the doctrine of double effect in general, and about its application to ethical issues at the end of life in particular. Contains a good discussion of the difference between action and omission, which is useful in teaching about killing and letting die.

Heuer, Ulrike, and . Intentions and the Reasons for Which we Act

2014, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 114(3pt3): 291-315.

Abstract: Many of the things we do in the course of a day we don’t do intentionally: blushing, sneezing, breathing, blinking, smiling – to name but a few. But we also do act intentionally, and often when we do we act for reasons. Whether we always act for reasons when we act intentionally is controversial. But at least the converse is generally accepted: when we act for reasons we always act intentionally. Necessarily, it seems. In this paper, I argue that acting intentionally is not in all cases acting for a reason. Instead, intentional agency involves a specific kind of control. Having this kind of control makes it possible to modify one’s action in the light of reasons. Intentional agency opens the possibility of acting in the light of reasons. I also explain why when we act with an intention we act for reasons. In the second part of the paper, I draw on these results to show that the dominant view of reasons to intend and the rationality of intentions should be rejected.

Comment: This paper critically considers the relation between reasons for action and reasons to form an intention. It rejects the dominate symmetry view according to which a reason to φ is ipso factoia reason to intend to φ. It is a paper suitable for courses on philosophy of action.

Hurley, Susan, and . Consciousness in Action

1998, Harvard University Press

Publisher’s Note: In this important book, Susan Hurley sheds new light on consciousness by examining its relationships to action from various angles. She assesses the role of agency in the unity of a conscious perspective, and argues that perception and action are more deeply interdependent than we usually assume. A standard view conceives perception as input from world to mind and action as output from mind to world, with the serious business of thought in between. Hurley criticizes this picture, and considers how the interdependence of perceptual experience and agency at the personal level (of mental contents and norms) may emerge from the subpersonal level (of underlying causal processes and complex dynamic feedback systems). Her two-level view has wide implications, for topics that include self-consciousness, the modularity of mind, and the relations of mind to world. The self no longer lurks hidden somewhere between perceptual input and behavioral output, but reappears out in the open, embodied and embedded in its environment.

Hurley traces these themes from Kantian and Wittgensteinian arguments through to intriguing recent work in neuropsychology and in dynamic systems approaches to the mind, providing a bridge from mainstream philosophy to work in other disciplines. Consciousness in Action is unique in the range of philosophical and scientific work it draws on, and in the deep criticism it offers of centuries-old habits of thought.

Comment: This book provides an interesting challenge to some standard assumptions about consciousness, action, and perception. The chapters are relatively self-contained, and can be read separately. The appendix of argument outlines is helpful as an aid to comprehension, and could serve as a valuable teaching tool in its own right.

Hurley, Susan, and . Perception and Action: Alternative Views

2001, Synthese 129(1): 3-40.

Abstract: A traditional view of perception and action makes two assumptions: that the causal flow between perception and action is primarily linear or one-way, and that they are merely instrumentally related to each other, so that each is a means to the other. Either or both of these assumptions can be rejected. Behaviorism rejects the instrumental but not the one-way aspect of the traditional view, thus leaving itself open to charges of verificationism. Ecological views reject the one-way aspect but not the instrumental aspect of the traditional view, so that perception and action are seen as instrumentally interdependent. It is argued here that a better alternative is to reject both assumptions, resulting in a two-level interdependence view in which perception and action co-depend on dynamically circular subpersonal relations and as a result may be more than merely instrumentally interdependent. This is illustrated by reference to motor theories of perception and control theories of action.

Comment: A great introduction to motor theories of perception and a great challenge to the traditional view of the senses and actions. Would be a useful source in any examination of philosophy of perception.

Hurley, Susan, and . Animal Action in the Space of Reasons

2003, Mind and Language 18(3): 231-256.

Abstract: I defend the view that we should not overintellectualize the mind. Nonhuman animals can occupy islands of practical rationality: they can have contextbound reasons for action even though they lack full conceptual abilities. Holism and the possibility of mistake are required for such reasons to be the agent’s reasons, but these requirements can be met in the absence of inferential promiscuity. Empirical work with animals is used to illustrate the possibility that reasons for action could be bound to symbolic or social contexts, and connections are made to simulationist accounts of cognitive skills.

Comment: An excellent argument in favour of a less-intellectual criteria for reason-having. The arguments are clear and compelling, though at least some familiarity with action theory would be helpful to give proper context. Recommended for higher-level or more in-depth examinations of reasons, as its relevance is partly dependent on some of the other arguments made on the subject.

Hursthouse, Rosalind, and . Normative Virtue Ethics

1996, in Roger Crisp (ed.), How Should One Live? Essays on the Virtues. Oxford University Press. 19-36.

Abstract: Shows that virtue ethics can specify right action and defends the view that the sort of practical guidance it provides accommodates several conditions of adequacy that any normative ethics should meet. It is argued that (1) it generates an account of moral education, (2) it incorporates the view that moral wisdom cannot simply be acquired from textbooks, and (3) it can resolve resolvable dilemmas or moral conflicts but is not committed in advance to there being no such things as irresolvable dilemmas.

Introduction: A common belief concerning virtue ethics is that it does not tell us what we should do. This belief is sometimes manifested merely in the expressed assumption that virtue ethics, in being ‘agent-centred’ rather than ‘act-centred’, is concerned with Being rather than Doing, with good (and bad) character rather than right (and wrong) action, with the question ‘What sort of person should I be?’ rather than the question ‘What should I do?’ On this assumption, ‘virtue ethics’ so-called does not figure as a normative rival to utilitarian and deontological ethics. Anyone who wants to espouse virtue ethics as a rival to deon­tological or utilitarian ethics will find this common belief voiced against her as an objection: ‘Virtue ethics does not, because it can­not, tell us what we should do. Hence it cannot be a normative rival to deontology and utilitarianism.’ This paper is devoted to defending virtue ethics against this objection.

Comment: This is an easy-to-understand, concise argument in favour of the viability of virtue ethics. It is a useful illustration of the practical application of Aristotelian moral theory and would aid students understanding of that type of view and its implications if assigned as a supplement. Easy to understand even for those relatively unfamiliar with the issues, it is suitable as part of a first introduction to virtue ethics for undergraduates.

Swanton, Christine, and . A Virtue Ethical Account of Right Action

2001, Ethics 112(1): 32-52.

Introduction: It is a common view of virtue ethics that it emphasizes the evaluation of agents and downplays or ignores the evaluation of acts, especially their evaluation as right or wrong. Despite this view, some contemporary proponents of virtue ethics have explicitly offered a virtue ethical criterion of the right, contrasting that criterion with Kantian and consequentialist criteria. I too believe that though the virtues themselves require excellence in affective and motivational states, they can also provide the basis of accounts of rightness of actions, where the criteria for rightness can deploy notions of success extending beyond such agent-centered excellences. They can do this, I shall claim, through the notion of the target or aim of a virtue. This notion can provide a distinctively virtue ethical notion of rightness of actions. In this article I make two basic assumptions: first, that a virtue ethical search for a virtue ethical criterion of rightness is an appropriate search, and second, since virtue ethics in modern guise is still in its infancy, relatively speaking, more work needs to be done in the exploration of virtue ethical criteria of the right.

Comment: This paper attempts to develop virtue ethics by outlining a way that a clear concept of right action can form a part of it, as well as describing and addressing some of the gaps in modern virtue ethics. It would be useful as part of an in-depth examination of virtue ethics, either in a course on normative ethics or perhaps as a look at how the virtue ethics of the ancients could be adapted to be relevant for modern society. Though it requires some background knowledge of virtue ethics, in a context where that has been provided it would be suitable for undergraduate students.

Swanton, Christine, and . Virtue Ethics

2011, in Christian Miller (ed.), The Continuum (or Bloomsbury) Companion to Ethics.

Introduction: Part I of this article discusses the nature of virtue ethics as a type of normative ethical theory, alongside primarily consequentialism and Kantianism. However, since the virtue concepts are central to all types of virtue ethics, attention needs to be paid to the notion of virtue as an excellence of character, and related notions such as the virtue concepts as aplied to actions (e.g., kind act). Part II discusses the notion of virtue as an excellence of character, while part III further elucidates the nature of virtue ethics by considering a number of central but selected issues, such as the notion of virtuous action and virtue ethical conceptions of right action. Needless to say not all of interest can be treated here.

Comment: A good, detailed overview of virtue ethics, including a good examination of the degree of diversity virtue ethical views can have. It would serve as a good first introduction to the topic, either in an undergraduate course on moral theory generally or virtue ethics specifically.