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Anscombe, Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret. Action, Intention and ‘Double Effect’
2005, In Geach, M., Gormally, L. (eds.), Human Life, Action and Ethics. Exeter: Imprint Academic.
Added by: Simon Fokt
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.

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