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Natural Agency An Essay On The Causal Theory Of Action

1. The Nature of Action and Agency

It has been common to motivate a central question about the nature of action by invoking an intuitive distinction between the things that merely happen to people — the events they undergo — and the various things they genuinely do. The latter events, the doings, are the acts or actions of the agent, and the problem about the nature of action is supposed to be: what distinguishes an action from a mere happening or occurrence? For some time now, however, there has been a better appreciation of the vagaries of the verb ‘to do’ and a livelier sense that the question is not well framed. For instance, a person may cough, sneeze, blink, blush, and thrash about in a seizure, and these are all things the person has, in some minimal sense, ‘done,’ although in the usual cases, the agent will have been altogether passive throughout these ‘doings.’ It is natural to protest that this is not the sense of “do” the canny philosopher of action originally had in mind, but it is also not so easy to say just what sense that is. Moreover, as Harry Frankfurt [1978] has pointed out, the purposeful behavior of animals constitutes a low-level type of ‘active’ doing. When a spider walks across the table, the spider directly controls the movements of his legs, and they are directed at taking him from one location to another. Those very movements have an aim or purpose for the spider, and hence they are subject to a kind of teleological explanation. Similarly, the idle, unnoticed movements of my fingers may have the goal of releasing the candy wrapper from my grasp. All this behavioral activity is ‘action’ in some fairly weak sense.

Nevertheless, a great deal of human action has a richer psychological structure than this. An agent performs activity that is directed at a goal, and commonly it is a goal the agent has adopted on the basis of an overall practical assessment of his options and opportunities. Moreover, it is immediately available to the agent's awareness both that he is performing the activity in question and that the activity is aimed by him at such-and-such a chosen end. At a still more sophisticated conceptual level, Frankfurt [1988, 1999] has also argued that basic issues concerning freedom of action presuppose and give weight to a concept of ‘acting on a desire with which the agent identifies.’ Under Frankfurt's influence on this point, a good deal has been written to elucidate the nature of ‘full-blooded’ human agency, whether the notion is finally delineated either in Frankfurt's way or along different but related lines [see Velleman 2000, essay 6, Bratman 1999, essay 10]. Thus, there are different levels of action to be distinguished, and these include at least the following: unconscious and/or involuntary behavior, purposeful or goal directed activity (of Frankfurt's spider, for instance), intentional action, and the autonomous acts or actions of self-consciously active human agents. Each of the key concepts in these characterizations raises some hard puzzles.

1.1 Knowledge of one's own actions.

It is frequently noted that the agent has some sort of immediate awareness of his physical activity and of the goals that the activity is aimed at realizing. In this connection, Elizabeth Anscombe [1963] spoke of ‘knowledge without observation.’ The agent knows ‘without observation’ that he is performing certain bodily movements (perhaps under some rough but non-negligible description), and he knows ‘without observation’ what purpose(s) the behavior is meant to serve [see also Falvey 2000]. Anscombe's discussion of her claim is rich and suggestive, but her conception of ‘knowledge through observation’ is problematic. Surely, one wants to say, proprioception and kinesthetic sensation play some role in informing the agent of the positions and movements of his body, and it is uncertain why these informational roles should fail to count as modes of inner ‘observation’ of the agent's own overt physical behavior. What Anscombe explicitly denies is that agents generally know of the positions or movements of their own bodies by means of ‘separably describable sensations’ that serve as criteria for their judgements about the narrowly physical performance of their bodies. However, when a person sees that there is a goldfinch in front of him, his knowledge is not derived as an inference from the ‘separably describable’ visual impressions he has in seeing the goldfinch, but this is an instance of knowledge through observation nonetheless.

In a related vein, David Velleman [1989] describes knowledge of one’s present and incipient actions as ‘spontaneous’ (knowledge that the agent has achieved without deriving it from evidence adequate to warrant it), and as ‘self-fulfilling’ (expectations of acting that tend to produce actions of the kind expected). For Velleman, these expectations are themselves intentions, and they are chiefly derived by the agent through practical reasoning about what she is to perform. Thus, Velleman is what Sarah Paul (2009) calls a Strong Cognitivist, i.e., someone who identifies an intention with a certain pertinent belief about what she is doing or about to do. Setiya (2009) holds a similar view. A Weak Cognitivist, in Paul's terminology, is a theorist that holds that intentions to F are partially constituted by but are not identical with relevant beliefs that one will F. For instance, Paul Grice (1971) held that an intention to F consisted in the agent’s ‘willing’ herself to F combined with a belief that she will actually F as a more or less immediate consequence of her having so willed. Because Strong Cognitivists maintain that the intention/beliefs of the agent are predominantly not based either on observation or evidence of any sort, and because they claim in addition that these states are causally reliable in producing actions that validate their contents, such theorists believe that these intentions, when they have been carried out, constitute a mode of ‘practical’ knowledge that has not been derived from observation. Weak Cognitivists can construct a similar story about how the agent's own actions can, in a plausible sense, be known without relying on observation.

However, it is not obvious that an agent’s knowledge of her intentional actions is not inferred from immediate knowledge of her own intentions. Consider, to illustrate the line of thought, Grice's theory of intention and belief. As noted above, he held a Weak Cognitivist view according to which an agent wills that he Fs and derives from his awareness of willing that he will in fact F (or at least try to F) precisely because he has willed to do so. However, it seems plausible, as Sarah Paul argues at length in her 2009, that intentions to F, rightly understood, can take the place of the counterpart ‘willings’ in Grice's account. Thus, an agent, intending to F in the near future, and being immediately aware of so intending, forms inferentially the belief that she will F soon (or at least try to F) precisely because she has intended to do so. After all, the conditional,

If the agent intends to F shortly and does not change her mind, then shortly she will at least try to F.

appears to be knowable a priori. The belief that the agent thereby derives is, although it is inferred, not derived from observation. Paul labels this the “the inferentialist account,” and it is not easily ruled out. [See also Wilson 2000 and Moran 2001.] These puzzles about the nature of an agent's knowledge of her own intentional actions are thus closely intertwined with questions about the nature of intention and about the nature of the explanation of action. In the final section, we address briefly some further key issues that arise in this connection.

1.2 Governance of one's own actions.

It is also important to the concept of ‘goal directed action’ that agents normally implement a kind of direct control or guidance over their own behavior. An agent may guide her paralyzed left arm along a certain path by using her active right arm to shove it through the relevant trajectory. The moving of her right arm, activated as it is by the normal exercise of her system of motor control, is a genuine action, but the movement of her left arm is not. That movement is merely the causal upshot of her guiding action, just as the onset of illumination in the light bulb is the mere effect of her action when she turned on the light. The agent has direct control over the movement of the right arm, but not over the movement of the left. And yet it is hardly clear what ‘direct control of behavior’ can amount to here. It does not simply mean that behavior A, constituting a successful or attempted Fing, was initiated and causally guided throughout its course by a present-directed intention to be Fing then. Even the externally guided movement of the paralyzed left arm would seem to satisfy a condition of this weak sort. Alfred Mele [1992] has suggested that the intuitive ‘directness’ of the guidance of action A can partially be captured by stipulating that the action-guiding intention must trigger and sustain Aproximally. In other words, it is stipulated that the agent's present-directed intention to be Fing should govern action A, but not by producing some other prior or concurrent action A* that causally controls A in turn. But the proposal is dubious. On certain assumptions, most ordinary physical actions are liable to flunk this strengthened requirement. The normal voluntary movements of an agent's limbs are caused by complicated contractions of suitable muscles, and the muscle contractions, since they are aimed at causing the agent's limbs to move, may themselves count as causally prior human actions. For instance, on Davidson's account of action they will since the agent's muscle contracting is intentional under the description ‘doing something that causes the arm to move’ [see Davidson 1980, essay 2]. Thus, the overt arm movement, in a normal act of voluntary arm moving, will have been causally guided by a prior action, the muscle contracting, and consequently the causal guidance of the arm's movement will fail to be an instance of ‘proximal’ causation at all [see Sehon 1998].

As one might imagine, this conclusion depends upon how an act of moving a part of one's body is to be conceived. Some philosophers maintain that the movements of an agent's body are never actions. It is only the agent's direct moving of, say, his leg that constitutes a physical action; the leg movement is merely caused by and/or incorporated as a part of the act of moving [see Hornsby 1980]. This thesis re-opens the possibility that the causal guidance of the moving of the agent's leg by the pertinent intention is proximal after all. The intention proximally governs the moving, if not the movement, where the act of moving is now thought to start at the earliest, inner stage of act initiation. Still, this proposal is also controversial. For instance, J.L. Austin [1962] held that the statement

(1) The agent moved his leg

is ambiguous between (roughly)

(1′) The agent caused his leg to move

and the more specific

(1″) The agent performed a movement with his leg.

If Austin is right about this, then the nominalization “the agent's moving of his leg” should be correspondingly ambiguous, with a second reading that denotes a certain leg movement, a movement the agent has performed. Thus, no simple appeal to a putative distinction between ‘movement’ and ‘moving’ will easily patch up the conception of ‘direct control of action’ under present scrutiny.

In any event, there is another well-known reason for doubting that the ‘directness’ of an agent's governance of his own actions involves the condition of causal proximality — that an action is not to be controlled by still another action of the same agent. Some philosophers believe that the agent's moving his leg is triggered and sustained by the agent's trying to move his leg in just that way, and that the efficacious trying is itself an action [see Hornsby 1980, Ginet 1990, and O'Shaughnessy 1973, 1980]. If, in addition, the agent's act of leg moving is distinct from the trying, then, again, the moving of the leg has not been caused proximally by the intention. The truth or falsity of this third assumption is linked with a wider issue about the individuation of action that has also been the subject of elaborate discussion.

Donald Davidson [1980, essay 1], concurring with Anscombe, held that

(2) If a person Fs byGing, then her act of Fing = her act of Ging.

In Davidson's famous example, someone alerts a burglar by illuminating a room, which he does by turning on a light, which he does in turn by flipping the appropriate switch. According to the Davidson/Anscombe thesis above, the alerting of the burglar = the illuminating of the room = the turning on of the light = the flipping of the switch. And this is so despite the fact that the alerting of the burglar was unintentional while the flipping of the switch, the turning on of the light, and the illuminating of the room were intentional. Suppose now that it is also true that the agent moved his leg by trying to move his leg in just that matter. Combined with the Davidson/Anscombe thesis about act identification, this implies that the agent's act of moving his leg = his act of trying to move that leg. So, perhaps the act of trying to move the leg doesn't cause the act of moving after all, since they are just the same.

The questions involved in these debates are potentially quite confusing. First, it is important to distinguish between phrases like

(a) the agent's turning on the light

and gerundive phrases such as

(b) the agent's turning on of the light.

Very roughly, the expression (a) operates more like a ‘that’ clause, viz.

(a′) that the agent turned on the light,

while the latter phrase appears to be a definite description, i.e.,

(b′) the turning on of the light [performed] by the agent.

What is more, even when this distinction has been drawn, the denotations of the gerundive phrases often remain ambiguous, especially when the verbs whose nominalizations appear in these phrases are causatives. No one denies that there is an internally complex process that is initiated by the agent's switch-flipping hand movement and that is terminated by the light's coming on as a result. This process includes, but is not identical with, the act that initiates it and the event that is its culminating upshot. Nevertheless, in a suitable conversational setting, the phrases (b) and (b′) can be properly used to designate any of the three events: the act that turned on the light, the onset of illumination in the light, and whole process whereby the light has come to be turned on. [For further discussion, see Parsons 1990, Pietrofsky 2000, and Higginbotham 2000].

Now, the Davidson-Anscombe thesis plainly is concerned with the relation between the agent's act of turning on the light, his act of flipping the switch, etc. But which configuration of events, either prior to or contained within the extended causal process of turning on the light, really constitutes the agent's action? Some philosophers have favored the overt arm movement the agent performs, some favor the extended causal process he initiates, and some prefer the relevant event of trying that precedes and ‘generates’ the rest. It has proved difficult to argue for one choice over another without simply begging the question against competing positions. As noted before, Hornsby and other authors have pointed to the intuitive truth of

(3) The agent moved his arm by trying to move his arm,

and they appeal to the Davidson-Anscombe thesis to argue that the act of moving the arm = the act of trying to move the arm. On this view, the act of trying — which is the act of moving — causes a movement of the arm in much the same way that an act of moving the arm causes the onset of illumination in the light. Both the onset of illumination and the overt arm movement are simply causal consequences of the act itself, the act of trying to move his arm in just this way. Further, in light of the apparent immediacy and strong first person authority of agents' judgements that they have tried to do a certain thing, it appears that acts of trying are intrinsically mental acts. So, a distinctive type of mental act stands as the causal source of the bodily behavior that validates various physical re-descriptions of the act.

And yet none of this seems inevitable. It is arguable that

(4) The agent tried to turn on the light

simply means, as a first approximation at least, that

(4′) The agent did something that was directed at turning on the light.

Moreover, when (4) or (4′) is true, then the something the agent did that was directed at turning on the light will have been some other causally prior action, the act of flipping the switch, for example. If this is true of trying to perform basic acts (e.g., moving one's own arm) as well as non-basic, instrumental acts, then trying to move one's arm may be nothing more than doing something directed at making one's arm move. In this case, the something which was done may simply consist in the contracting of the agent's muscles. Or, perhaps, if we focus on the classic case of the person whose arm, unknown to her, is paralyzed, then the trying in that case (and perhaps in all) may be nothing more than the activation of certain neural systems in the brain. Of course, most agents are not aware that they are initiating appropriate neural activity, but they are aware of doing something that is meant to make their arms move. And, in point of fact, it may well be that the something of which they are aware as a causing of the arm movement just is the neural activity in the brain. From this perspective, ‘trying to F’ does not name a natural kind of mental act that ordinarily sets off a train of fitting physical responses. Rather, it gives us a way of describing actions in terms of a goal aimed at in the behavior without committing us as to whether the goal was realized or not. It also carries no commitment,

  1. concerning the intrinsic character of the behavior that was aimed at Fing,
  2. whether one or several acts were performed in the course of trying, and
  3. whether any further bodily effects of the trying were themselves additional physical actions [see Cleveland 1997].

By contrast, it is a familiar doctrine that what the agent does, in the first instance, in order to cause his arm to move is to form a distinctive mental occurrence whose intrinsic psychological nature and content is immediately available to introspection. The agent wills his arm to move or produces a volition that his arm is to move, and it is this mental willing or volition that is aimed at causing his arm to move. Just as an attempt to turn on the light may be constituted by the agent's flipping of the switch, so also, in standard cases, trying to move his arm is constituted by the agent's willing his arm to move. For traditional ‘volitionalism,’ willings, volitions, basic tryings are, in Brian O'Shaughnessy's apt formulation, ‘primitive elements of animal consciousness.’[1] They are elements of consciousness in which the agent has played an active role, and occurrences that normally have the power of producing the bodily movements they represent. Nevertheless, it is one thing to grant that, in trying to move one's body, there is some ‘inner’ activity that is meant to initiate an envisaged bodily movement. It is quite another matter to argue successfully that the initiating activity has the particular mentalistic attributes that volitionalism has characteristically ascribed to acts of willing.

It is also a further question whether there is only a single action, bodily or otherwise, that is performed along the causal route that begins with trying to move and terminates with a movement of the chosen type. One possibility, adverted to above, is that there is a whole causal chain of actions that is implicated in the performance of even the simplest physical act of moving a part of one's body. If, for example, ‘action’ is goal-directed behavior, then the initiating neural activity, the resulting muscle contractions, and the overt movement of the arm may all be actions on their own, with each member in the line-up causing every subsequent member, and with all of these actions causing an eventual switch flipping somewhere further down the causal chain. On this approach, there may be nothing which is the act of flipping the switch or of turning on the light, because each causal link is now an act which flipped the switch and (thereby) turned on the light [see Wilson 1989]. Nevertheless, there still will be a single overt action that made the switch flip, the light turn on, and the burglar become alert, i.e., the overt movement of the agent's hand and arm. In this sense, the proposal supports a modified version of the Davidson/Anscombe thesis.

However, all of this discussion suppresses a basic metaphysical mystery. In the preceding two paragraphs, it has been proposed that the neural activity, the muscle contractions, and the overt hand movements may all be actions, while the switch's flipping on, the light's coming on, and the burglar's becoming alert are simply happenings outside the agent, the mere effects of the agent's overt action. As we have seen, there is plenty of disagreement about where basic agency starts and stops, whether within the agent's body or somewhere on its surface. There is less disagreement that the effects of bodily movement beyond the body, e.g., the switch's flipping on, the onset of illumination in the room, and so on, are not, by themselves at least, purposeful actions. Still, what could conceivably rationalize any set of discriminations between action and non-action as one traces along the pertinent complex causal chains from the initial mind or brain activity, through the bodily behavior, to the occurrences produced in the agent's wider environment?

Perhaps, one wants to say, as suggested above, that the agent has a certain kind of direct (motor) control over the goal-seeking behavior of his own body. In virtue of that fundamental biological capacity, his bodily activity, both inner and overt, is governed by him and directed at relevant objectives. Inner physical activity causes and is aimed at causing the overt arm movements and, in turn, those movements cause and are aimed at causing the switch to flip, the light to go on, and the room to become illuminated. Emphasizing considerations of this sort, one might urge that they validate the restriction of action to events in or at the agent's body. And yet, the stubborn fact remains that the agent also does have a certain ‘control’ over what happens to the switch, the light, and even over the burglar's state of mind. It is a goal for the agent of the switch's flipping on that it turn on the light, a goal for the agent of the onset of illumination in the room that it render the room space visible, etc. Hence, the basis of any discrimination between minimal agency and non-active consequences within the extended causal chains will have to rest on some special feature of the person's guidance: the supposed ‘directness’ of the motor control, the immediacy or relative certainty of the agent's expectations about actions vs. results, or facts concerning the special status of the agent's living body. The earlier remarks in this section hint at the serious difficulty of seeing how any such routes are likely to provide a rationale for grounding the requisite metaphysical distinction(s).

2. Intentional Action and Intention

Anscombe opened her monograph Intention by noting that the concept of ‘intention’ figures in each of the constructions:

(5) The agent intends to G;

(6) The agent G'd intentionally; and

(7) The agent F'd with the intention of Ging,

For that matter, one could add

(7′) In Fing (by Fing), the agent intended to G.

Although (7) and (7′) are closely related, they seem not to say quite the same thing. For example, although it may be true that

(8) Veronica mopped the kitchen then with the intention of feeding her flamingo afterwards,

it normally won't be true that

(8′) In (by) mopping the kitchen, Veronica intended to feed her flamingo afterwards.

Despite the differences between them, we will call instances of (7) and (7′) ascriptions of intention in action.[2] These sentential forms represent familiar, succinct ways of explaining action. A specification of the intention with which an agent acted or the intention that the agent had in acting provides a common type of explanation of why the agent acted as he did. This observation will be examined at some length in Section 3.

Statements of form (5) are ascriptions of intention for the future, although, as a special case, they include ascriptions of present-directed intentions, i.e., the agent's intention to be Ging now. Statements of form 6), ascriptions of acting intentionally, bear close connections to corresponding instances of (7). As a first approximation at least, it is plausible that (6) is true just in case

(6′) The agent G'd with the intention of (thereby) Ging.

However, several authors have questioned whether such a simple equivalence captures the special complexities of what it is to G intentionally.[3] Here is an example adapted from Davidson [1980, essay 4]. Suppose that Betty kills Jughead, and she does so with the intention of killing him. And yet suppose also that her intention is realized only by a wholly unexpected accident. The bullet she fires misses Jughead by a mile, but it dislodges a tree branch above his head and releases a swarm of hornets that attack him and sting him until he dies. In this case, it is at least dubious that, in this manner, Betty has killed Jughead intentionally. (It is equally doubtful that Betty killed him unintentionally either.) Or suppose that Reggie wins the lottery, and having bizarre illusions about his ability to control which ticket will win, he enters the lottery and wins it with the intention of winning it [Mele 1997]. The first example suggests that there needs to be some condition added to (6′) that says the agent succeeded in Ging in a manner sufficiently in accordance with whatever plan she had for Ging as she acted. The second suggests that the agent's success in Ging must result from her competent exercise of the relevant skills, and it must not depend too much on sheer luck, whether the luck has been foreseen or not. Various other examples have prompted additional emendations and qualifications [see Harman 1976].

There are still more fundamental issues about intentions in action and how they are related to intentions directed at the present and the immediate future. In “Actions, Reasons, and Causes,” Davidson seemed to suppose that ascriptions of intention in action reduce to something like the following.

(7*) The agent F'ed, and at that time he had a pro-attitude toward Ging and believed that by Fing he would or might promote Ging, and the pro-attitude in conjunction with the means-end belief caused his Fing, and together they caused it ‘in the right way.’

(In Davidson's widely used phrase, the pro-attitude and associated means-end belief constitute a primary reason for the agent to F.) In this account of ‘acting with an intention’ there is, by design, no mention of a distinctive state of intending. Davidson, at the time of this early paper, seemed to favor a reductive treatment of intentions, including intentions for the future, in terms of pro-attitudes, associated beliefs, and other potential mental causes of action. In any case, Davidson's approach to intention in action was distinctly at odds with the view Anscombe had adopted in Intention. She stressed the fact that constructions like (7) and (7′) supply commonsense explanations of why the agent F'd, and she insisted that the explanations in question do not cite the agent's reasons as causes of the action. Thus, she implicitly rejected anything like (7*), the causal analysis of ‘acting with a certain intention’ that Davidson apparently endorsed. On the other hand, it was less than clear from her discussion how it is that intentions give rise to an alternative mode of action explanation.

Davidson's causal analysis is modified in his later article “Intending” [1980, essay 5]. By the time of this essay, he dropped the view that there is no primitive state of intending. Intentions are now accepted as irreducible, and the category of intentions is distinguished from the broad, diverse category that includes the various pro-attitudes. In particular, he identifies intentions for the future with the agent's all-out judgments (evaluations) of what she is to do. Although there is some lack of clarity about the specific character of these practical ‘all-out’ judgements, they play an important role in Davidson's overall theory of action, particularly in his striking account of weakness of will [1980, essay 2]. Despite his altered outlook on intentions, however, Davidson does not give up the chief lines of his causal account of intentions in action — of what it is to act with a certain intention. In the modified version,

(7**) The agent's primary reason for Ging must cause her, in the right way, to intend to G, and her intending to G must itself cause, again in the right way, the agent's particular act of Fing.[4]

The interpolated, albeit vague, conditions that require causation in ‘the right way’ are meant to cover well-known counterexamples that depend upon deviant causal chains occurring either in the course of the agent's practical reasoning or in the execution of his intentions. Here is one familiar type of example. A waiter intends to startle his boss by knocking over a stack of glasses in their vicinity, but the imminent prospect of alarming his irascible employer unsettles the waiter so badly that he involuntarily staggers into the stack and knocks the glasses over. Despite the causal role of the waiter's intention to knock over the glass, he doesn't do this intentionally. In this example, where the deviant causation occurs as part of the performance of the physical behavior itself, we have what is known as ‘primary causal deviance.’ When the deviant causation occurs on the path between the behavior and its intended further effects — as in the example of Betty and Jughead above — the deviance is said to be ‘secondary.’ There have been many attempts by proponents of a causal analysis of intention in action (‘causalists,’ in the terminology of von Wright 1971) to spell out what ‘the right kind(s)’ of causation might be, but with little agreement about their success [see Bishop 1989, Mele 1997]. Some other causalists, including Davidson, maintain that no armchair analysis of this matter is either possible or required. However, most causalists agree with Davidson's later view that the concept of ‘present directed intention’ is needed in any plausible causal account of intention in action and acting intentionally. It is, after all, the present directed intention that is supposed to guide causally the ongoing activity of the agent [see also Searle 1983].

The simplest version of such an account depends on what Michael Bratman has dubbed “the Simple View.” This is the thesis that proposition (6) above, [The agent G'd intentionally] and, correspondingly, proposition (7) [The agent Fed with the intention of Ging] entail that, at the time of action, the agent intended to G. Surely, from the causalist point of view, the most natural account of Ging intentionally is that the action of Ging is governed by a present directed intention whose content for the agent is, “I am Ging now.” So the causalist's natural account presupposes the Simple View, but Bratman [1984, 1987] has presented a well-known example to show that the Simple View is false. He describes a type of case in which the agent wants either to φ or to Θ, without having any significant preference between the two alternatives. The agent does know, however, that it is flatly impossible, in the given circumstances, for him to both φ and Θ although, in these same circumstances, it is open to him to try to φ and try to Θ concurrently. (Perhaps, in trying to φ, he does something with one hand, and, in trying to Θ, he does something with the other.) Believing that such a two-pronged strategy of trying to achieve each goal maximizes his chances of achieving his actual goal of either φing or Θing, the agent actively aims at both of the subordinate ends, trying to accomplish one or the other. The example can be spelled out in such a way that it seems clear that the agent is wholly rational, in his actions and attitudes, as he knowingly pursues this bifurcated attack on his disjunctive goal (but see Yaffe 2010 for skepticism about this claim). Suppose now that the agent actually succeeds in, say, φing and that he succeeds in virtue of his skill and insight, and not through some silly accident. So, the agent φ's intentionally. It follows from the Simple View that the agent intended to φ. And yet, the agent was also doing something with the intention of Θing and had this attempt succeeded instead (without the intervention of too much luck), then the agent would have Θ'd intentionally. By a second application of the Simple View, it follows that he also intended to Θ. And yet, just as it is irrational to intend to φ while believing that it is flatly impossible for him to φ, so also does it seem irrational to have an intention to φ and an intention to Θ, while believing that it is flatly impossible to do the two things together. So the agent here should be open to criticisms of irrationality in his endeavor to φ or Θ. Nevertheless, we observed at the outset that he is not. The only way out is to block the conclusion that, in trying to φ and trying to Θ in these circumstances, the agent has the contextually irrational pair of intentions, and rejecting the Simple View is the most direct manner of blocking that conclusion.

Even if Bratman's argument defeats the Simple View [see McCann 1986, Knobe 2006], it doesn't rule out some type of causal analysis of acting intentionally; it doesn't even rule out such an analysis that takes the crucial controlling cause to be an intention in every instance. One might suppose, for example, that (i) in a Bratman case, the agent merely intends to try to φ and intends to try to Θ, and that (ii) it is these intentions that drive the agent's actions [Mele 1997]. The analysis in (7**) would be modified accordingly. However, the project of finding a workable and non-circular emendation of (7**) remains an open question.

The conceptual situation is complicated by the fact that Bratman holds that (7) [The agent F'd with the intention of Ging] is ambiguous between

The agent F'd with the aim or goal of Ging


The agent F'd as part of a plan that incorporated an intention to G.

(8) above is an especially clear example in which the second reading is required. The second reading does entail that the agent intends to F, and it is only the first that, according to Bratman's argument, does not. Therefore, Bratman thinks that we need to distinguish intention as an aim or goal of actions and intention as a distinctive state of commitment to future action, a state that results from and subsequently constrains our practical endeavors as planning agents. It can be rational to aim at a pair of ends one knows to be jointly unrealizable, because aiming at both may be the best way to realize one or the other. However, it is not rational to plan on accomplishing both of two objectives, known to be incompatible, since intentions that figure in rational planning should agglomerate, i.e., should fit together in a coherent larger plan. Bratman's example and the various critical discussions of it have stimulated interest in the idea of the rationality of intentions, measured against the backdrop of the agent's beliefs and suppositions. We discuss some of these issues at greater length in Section 4.

It has been mentioned earlier that Davidson came to identify intentions for the future with all out judgements about what the agent is to be doing now or should do in the relevant future. Velleman [1989], by contrast, identifies an intention with the agent's spontaneous belief, derived from practical reflection, which says that he is presently doing a certain act (or that he will do such an act in the future), and that his act is (or will be) performed precisely as a consequence of his acceptance of this self-referential belief. Paul Grice [1971] favored a closely related view in which intention consists in the agent's willing that certain results ensue, combined with the belief that they will ensue as a consequence of the particular willing in question. Hector-Neri Castañeda [1975], influenced by Sellars [1966] maintained that intentions are a special species of internal self-command, which he calls “practitions.” Bratman [1987] develops a functionalist account of intention: it is the psychological state that plays a certain kind of characteristic causal role in our practical reasoning, in our planning for the future, and in the carrying out of our actions. This causal role, he argues, is distinct from the characteristic causal or functional roles of expectations, desires, hopes, and other attitudes about the agent's future actions.

Castañeda's views on intention are distinctive, and they deserve greater attention than they have recently received. For instance, he holds that intentions and beliefs are structurally parallel in the following key respect. Both involve the endorsing of an appropriate type of structured content. When a person believes that P, she endorses or accepts the proposition that P; when a person intends to F, she endorses or accepts the practition, ‘I [am] to F.’ Roughly a practition ascribes an action property F to an agent, but the ascription involves a distinctive type of predication that essentially carries some kind of imperative force. Orders, commands, and requests all have practitions as their contents as well, but, as a rule, these will represent prescriptions directed at others. They express the content, e.g., ‘You [are] to F.’ An intention is, by contrast, self-directed, but it is not only that the intended practition is self-directed in this sense; in intending the agent conceives of himself under a distinctively ‘first person’ conception. Other philosophers, e.g., Hare [1971] and Kenny [1973] have likened intentions to self-directed commands. Still others, notably Annette Bair [1970], have wanted to construe the logical objects of intending as non-propositional and as represented by an unmodified infinitive. Versions of both of these ideas are worked out more carefully and extensively in some of Castañeda's key writings on action. Castaneda was concerned to assign a systematic semantics to the chief locutions that figure in practical thinking and reasoning. These include ascriptions of belief and ascriptions of intention, but they also include the varieties of ‘ought’ statements that make explicit the normative character of practical reflection. It was a chief ambition in his investigations to chart out the structure of implicative relations that hold between propositions and practitions of these varied sorts and thereby to elaborate the conceptual foundations of deontic logic. (For a rich exegesis of Castañeda on action see essay 12 in Bratman 1999.)

Individuals do not always act alone. They may also share intentions and act in concert. There has been growing interest in the philosophy of action about how shared intention and action should be understood. A central concern is whether the sharing of intentions should be given a reductive account in terms of individual agency (see Searle 1990 for an important early discussion of the issue). Michael Bratman [1992] offers an influential proposal in a reductive vein that makes use of his planning conception of intentions. A central condition in his account of shared cooperative activity is that each participant individually intends the activity and pursues it in accordance with plans and subplans that do not conflict with those of the other participants. But Margaret Gilbert [2000] has objected that reductive approaches overlook the mutual obligations between participants essential to shared activity: each participant is obligated to the others to do his or her share of the activity, and unilateral withdrawal constitutes a violation of this obligation. Gilbert argues that a satisfactory account of these mutual obligations requires that we give up reductive individualist accounts of shared activity and posit a primitive notion of joint commitment (see also Tuomela, 2003).

Roth [2004] takes seriously the mutual obligations identified by Gilbert, and offers an account that, while non-reductive, nevertheless invokes a conception of intention and commitment that in some respects is friendlier to that invoked by Bratman. It is not entirely clear whether, in positing primitive joint commitments, Gilbert means to commit herself to the ontological thesis that there exist group agents over and above the constituent individual agents. Pettit [2003] defends just such a thesis. He argues that rational group action often involves the “collectivizing of reason,” with participants acting in ways that are not rationally recommended from the participant's individual point of view. The resulting discontinuity between individual and collective perspectives suggests, on his view, that groups can be rational, intentional agents distinct from their members.

3. The Explanation of Action

For many years, the most intensely debated topic in the philosophy of action concerned the explanation of intentional actions in terms of the agent's reasons for acting. As stated previously, Davidson and other action theorists defended the position that reason explanations are causal explanations — explanations that cite the agent's desires, intentions, and means-end beliefs as causes of the action [see Goldman 1970]. These causalists about the explanation of action were reacting against a neo-Wittgensteinian outlook that claimed otherwise. In retrospect, the very terms in which the debate was conducted were flawed. First, for the most part, the non-causalist position relied chiefly on negative arguments that purported to show that, for conceptual reasons, motivating reasons could not be causes of action. Davidson did a great deal to rebut these arguments. It was difficult, moreover, to find a reasonably clear account of what sort of non-causal explanation the neo-Wittgensteinians had in mind. Charles Taylor, in his book The Explanation of Action [1964], wound up claiming that reason explanations are grounded in a kind of ‘non-causal bringing about,’ but neither Taylor nor anyone else ever explained how any bringing about of an event could fail to be causal. Second, the circumstances of the debate were not improved by the loose behavior of the ordinary concept of ‘a cause.’ When someone says that John has cause to be offended by Jane's truculent behavior, then “cause” in this setting just means ‘reason,’ and the statement, “John was caused to seek revenge by his anger,” may means nothing more than, “John's anger was among the reasons for which he sought revenge.” If so, then presumably no one denies that reasons are in some sense causes. In the pertinent literature, it has been common to fall back on the qualified claim that reasons are not ‘efficient’ or ‘Humean’ or ‘producing’ causes of action. Unfortunately, the import of these qualifications has been less than perspicuous.

George Wilson [1989] and Carl Ginet [1990] follow Anscombe in holding that reason explanations are distinctively grounded in an agent's intentions in action. Both authors hold that ascriptions of intention in action have the force of propositions that say of a particular act of Fing that it was intended by its agent to G (by means of Fing), and they claim that such de re propositions constitute non-causal reason explanations of why the agent Fed on the designated occasion. Wilson goes beyond Ginet in claiming that statements of intention in action have the meaning of

(9) The agent's act of Fing was directed by him at [the objective] of Ging,

In this analyzed form, the teleological character of ascriptions of intention in action is made explicit. Given the goal-directed nature of action, one can provide a familiar kind of teleological explanation of the relevant behavior by mentioning a goal or purpose of the behavior for the agent at the time, and this is the information (9) conveys. Or, alternatively, when a speaker explains that

(10) The agent F'd because he wanted to G,

the agent's desire to G is cited in the explanation, not as a cause of the Fing, but rather as indicating a desired goal or end at which the act of Fing came to be directed.

Most causalists will allow that reason explanations of action are teleological but contend that teleological explanations in terms of goals — purposive explanations in other words — are themselves analyzable as causal explanations in which the agent's primary reason(s) for Fing are specified as guiding causes of the act of Fing. Therefore, just as there are causalist analyses of what it is to do something intentionally, so there are similar counterpart analyses of teleological explanations of goal directed and, more narrowly, intentional action. The causalist about teleological explanation maintains that the goal of the behavior for the agent just is a goal the agent had at the time, one that caused the behavior and, of course, one that caused it in the right way [for criticism, see Sehon 1998, 2005].

It has not been easy to see how these disagreements are to be adjudicated. The claim that purposive explanations do or do not reduce to suitable counterpart causal explanations is surprisingly elusive. It is not clear, in the first place, what it is for one form of explanation to reduce to another. Moreover, as indicated above, Davidson himself has insisted that it is not possible to give an explicit, reductive account of what ‘the right kind of causing’ is supposed to be and that none is needed. Naturally, he may simply be right about this, but others have felt that causalism about reason explanations is illicitly protected by endemic fuzziness in the concept of ‘causation of the right kind.’ Some causalists who otherwise agree with Davidson have accepted the demand for a more detailed and explicit account, and some of the proposed accounts get extremely complicated. Without better agreement about the concept of ‘cause’ itself, the prospects for a resolution of the debate do not appear cheerful. Finally, Abraham Roth [2000] has pointed out that reasons explanations might both be irreducibly teleological and also cite primary reasons as efficient causes at the same time. It is arguable that similar explanations, having both causal and teleological force, figure already in specifically homeostatic (feedback) explanations of certain biological phenomena. When we explain that the organism Ved because it needed W, we may well be explaining both that the goal of the Ving was to satisfy the need for Wand that it was the need for W that triggered the Ving.

In a recent article, Brian McLaughlin (2012) agrees that reason explanations are teleological, explaining an action in terms of a purpose, goal or aim for which it was performed. He also agrees that these purposive explanations are not species of causal explanation. However, he rejects the view that these same explanations are grounded on claims about the agent's intentions in acting, and he thereby sets aside the issues, sketched above, about purpose, intention, and their role in rationalizations. McLaughlin takes the following position: if (i) an agent F-ed for the purpose of G-ing, then, (ii) in F-ing, the agent was thereby trying to G. To assert (i) is to offer an explanation of the action (the F-ing) in terms of the agent's trying to G. Moreover, if (i) is true then the act of F-ing is identical with or is a proper part of the agent's attempt to G. Thus, statement (ii) offers what purports to be, in effect, a mere redescription of the act of F-ing. Assuming Hume's maxim that if an event E causes an event E′, then E and E′ must be wholly distinct, McLaughlin maintains that purposive explanations of actions are constitutive and not causal in character.

Michael Thompson has defended a position that makes a rather radical break from the familiar post-Davidson views on the explanation of action. He rejects as misconceived the debates between causalist and non-causalist accounts of explaining action. He does not deny that actions are sometimes explained by appeal to wants, intentions, and attempts, but he thinks that the nature of these explanations is radically misunderstood in standard theorizing. He thinks that desires, intentions, and attempts are not ‘propositional attitudes,’ as they are usually understood, and the ‘sophisticated’ explanations that appeal to them are secondary to and conceptually parasitic upon what he calls ‘naïve action explanations.’ The naïve explanations are given in statements in which one action is explained by mentioning another, e.g., “I am breaking an egg because I’m making an omelet.” It is a part of the force of these explanations that the explanandum (the egg breaking) is present as part of a broader, unfolding action or activity (the explanans: the omelet making). Similarly, “I am breaking a egg because I'm trying to make an omelet,” the explanans (the trying) is itself an action, under a certain description, that incorporates the breaking of the egg. Kindred forms such as ‘A is F-ing because he wants to G’ and ‘A is F-ing because he intends to G’ are held to give explanations that fall in ‘the same categorical space’ as the naïve action explanations. Thompson's overall position is novel, complex, and highly nuanced. It is sometimes elusive, and it is certainly not easy to summarize briefly. Nevertheless, it is a recent approach that has rapidly been drawing growing interest and support.

One of the principal arguments that was used to show that reason explanations of action could not be causal was the following. If the agent's explaining reasons R were among the causes of his action A, then there must be some universal causal law which nomologically links the psychological factors in R (together with other relevant conditions) to the A-type action that they rationalize. However, it was argued, there simply are no such psychological laws; there are no strict laws and co-ordinate conditions that ensure that a suitable action will be the invariant product of the combined presence of pertinent pro-attitudes, beliefs, and other psychological states. Therefore, reasons can't be causes. In “Actions, Reasons, and, Causes,” Davidson first pointed out that the thesis that there are no reason-to-action laws is crucially ambiguous between a stronger and a weaker reading, and he observes that it is the stronger version that is required for the non-causalist conclusion. The weaker reading says that there are no reason-to-action laws in which the antecedent is formulated in terms of the ‘belief/desire/intention’ vocabulary of commonsense psychology and the consequent is stated in terms of goal directed and intentional action. Davidson accepted that the thesis, on this reading, is correct, and he has continued to accept it ever since. The stronger reading says that there are no reason-to-action laws in any guise, including laws in which the psychological states and events are re-described in narrowly physical terms and the actions are re-described as bare movement. Davidson affirms that there are laws of this second variety, whether we have discovered them or not.[5]

Many have felt that this position only lands Davidson (qua causalist) in deeper trouble. It is not simply that we suppose that states of having certain pro-attitudes and of having corresponding means-end beliefs are among the causes of our actions. We suppose further that the agent did what he did because the having of the pro-attitude and belief were states with (respectively) a conative and a cognitive nature, and even more importantly, they are psychological states with certain propositional contents. The specific character of the causation of the action depended crucially on the fact that these psychological states had ‘the direction of fit’ and the propositional contents that they did. The agent F'ed at a given time, we think, because, at that time, he had a desire that represented Fing, and not some other act, as worthwhile or otherwise attractive to him.

Fred Dretske [1988] gave a famous example in this connection. When the soprano's singing of the aria shatters the glass, it will have been facts about the acoustic properties of the singing that were relevant to the breaking. The breaking does not depend upon the fact that she was singing lyrics and that those lyrics expressed such-and-such a content. We therefore expect that it will be the acoustic properties, and not the ‘content’ properties that figure in the pertinent explanatory laws. In the case of action, by contrast, we believe that the contents of the agent's attitudes are causally relevant to behavior. The contents of the agent's desires and beliefs not only help justify the action that is performed but, according to causalists at least, they play a causal role in determining the actions the agent was motivated to attempt. It has been difficult to see how Davidson, rejecting laws of mental content as he does, is in any position to accommodate the intuitive counterfactual dependence of action on the content of the agent's motivating reasons. His theory seems to offer no explication whatsoever of the fundamental role of mental content in reason explanations. Nevertheless, it should be admitted that no one really has a very good theory of how mental content plays its role. An enormous amount of research has been conducted to explicate what it is for propositional attitudes, realized as states of the nervous system, to express propositional contents at all. Without some better consensus on this enormous topic, we are not likely to get far on the question of mental causation, and solid progress on the attribution of content may still leave it murky how the contents of attitudes can be among the causal factors that produce behavior.

In a fairly early phase of the debate over the causal status of reasons for action, Norman Malcolm [1968] and Charles Taylor [1964] defended the thesis that ordinary reason explanations stand in potential rivalry with the explanations of human and animal behavior the neural sciences can be expected to provide. More recently, Jaegwon Kim [1989] has revived this issue in a more general way, seeing the two modes of explanation as joint instances of a Principle of Explanatory Exclusion. That Principle tells us that, if there exist two ‘complete’ and ‘independent’ explanations of the same event or phenomenon, then one or the other of these alternative explanations must be wrong. Influenced by Davidson, many philosophers reject more than just reason-to-action laws. They believe, more generally, that there are no laws that connect the reason-giving attitudes with any material states, events, and processes, under purely physical descriptions. As a consequence, commonsense psychology is not strictly reducible to the neural sciences, and this means that reason explanations of action and corresponding neural explanations are, in the intended sense, ‘independent’ of one another. But, detailed causal explanations of behavior in terms of neural factors should also be, again in the intended sense, ‘complete.’ Hence, Explanatory Exclusion affirms that either the reason explanations or the prospective neural explanations must be abandoned as incorrect. Since we are not likely to renege upon our best, most worked-out scientific accounts, it is the ultimate viability of the reason explanations from commonsense ‘vernacular’ psychology that appear to be threatened. The issues here are complicated and controversial — particularly issues about the proper understanding of ‘theoretical reduction.’ However, if Explanatory Exclusion applies to reason explanations of action, construed as causal, we have a very general incentive for searching for a workable philosophical account of reason explanations that construes them as non-causal. Just as certain function explanations in biology may not reduce to, but also certainly do not compete with, related causal explanations in molecular biology, so also non-causal reason explanations could be expected to co-exist with neural analyses of the causes of behavior.

4. Intentions and Rationality

Earlier we introduced the Cognitivist view that intentions are special kinds of beliefs, and that, consequently, practical reasoning is a special form of theoretical reasoning. Some theorists of action have been attracted to Cognitivism because of its promise to vindicate Anscombe’s (admittedly controversial) claim that, in acting intentionally, we have knowledge of what we’re doing that we do not get by observation. But an opposing tradition has been at least as equally prominent in the last twenty-five years of thinking about the nature of intention. Philosophers in this tradition have turned their attention to the project of giving an account of intention that captures the fact that intentions are distinctive mental states, states which play unique roles in psychological explanations and which are subject to their own sorts of normative requirements.

This project of articulating the distinctive nature of intention was influentially undertaken in Michael Bratman’s Intention, Plans, and Practical Reason (1987), partially as a response to the reductive view, which had once been endorsed by the early Davidson, according to which intentions could be analyzed as complexes of beliefs and desires. Much contemporary work on normativity and moral psychology can be seen as flowing from Bratman’s central (purported) insight about the distinctive nature of intention.

On the simple desire-belief model, an intention is a combination of desire-belief states, and an action is intentional in virtue of standing in the appropriate relation to these simpler states. For example, to say that someone intentionally turns on the air conditioner is just to explain her action by appealing to (e.g.) a desire to turn on the air conditioner and a belief that moving her hand in a certain way is a token of that type of act. It is important to note that Bratman’s early arguments were directed against this simple desire-belief model of intention, and not necessarily against the model proposed by Cognitivists. We turn in a moment to the question of to what degree Bratman’s theory of intention militates against the latter view.

Bratman motivated the idea that intentions are psychologically real and not reducible to desire-belief complexes by observing that they are motivationally distinctive, and subject to their own unique standards of rational appraisal. First, he noted that intentions involve characteristic kinds of motivational commitment. Intentions are conduct controlling, in the sense that if you intend to F at t, and nothing changes before t, then (other things equal) you will F. The same is clearly not true for desire; we habitually resist present-directed desires. Second, he noted that intentions involve characteristic kinds of normative commitment (or “reasoning-centered commitment”). Intentions resist reconsideration—they are relatively stable, in the sense that we take ourselves to be settled on a course of action when we intend it, and it seems to be irrational to reconsider an intention absent specific reason for doing so. In addition, intentions put pressure on us to form further intentions in order to more efficiently coordinate our actions. When we intend to go to the park, for example, we feel pressure to form intentions concerning how to get there, what to bring, etc. Again, desires do not appear to be subject to norms of non-reconsideration, and they do not seem to put pressure on us to form further desires about means.

Bratman went on to provide a more rigorous characterization of the constitutive norms on intention, a characterization that has been hugely influential. The three main norms he discussed are requirements of internal consistency, means-end coherence, and consistency with the agent’s beliefs. The applicability of these requirements to states of intention was, for Bratman, a further strike against the desire-belief model.

The first norm requires agents to make their intentions consistent with one another. Imagine that Mike intends to go to the game, and also intends to refrain from going. Mike seems obviously irrational. Yet it would be in no way irrational for Mike to desire to go to the game and to desire to refrain from going. So it appears that the irrationality of having inconsistent intentions cannot be explained by appealing to run of the mill norms on desire and belief. Likewise, intentions seem subject to a norm of means-end coherence. If Mike intends to go to the game, and believes that he must buy a ticket in advance in order to go, then he is obviously irrational if he does not intend to buy a ticket (provided he persists in intending to go to the game). Again, merely desiring to go to the game, and believing that going to the game requires buying a ticket, would not be sufficient to render Mike irrational in the event that he failed to desire to buy one. So again it appears that the norms on beliefs and desires cannot suffice to generate the norms on intentions.

Finally, Bratman claimed that rational agents have intentions that are consistent with their beliefs. The exact nature of this intention-belief consistency norm has since been the subject of considerable attention [Bratman 1987, Wallace 2001, Yaffe 2010]. But the general idea is that it is irrational to intend to F while also believing that one will not F—this would amount to an objectionable form of inconsistency. Yet desiring to F while believing that one will not F seems like no rational error at all.

[It should be noted that the general intuition about the irrationality of this form of inconsistency is by no means unassailable. As Bratman himself points out, it seems perfectly possible, and not irrational, to intend to stop at the library without believing that I will (recognizing, say, my own forgetful nature). If that is correct, then it is not immediately obvious why I could not permissibly intend to stop while also believing that I will not.]

However, while Bratman’s arguments do seem devastating for the desire-belief view of intention, they are not necessarily as persuasive against the Cognitivist’s reduction of intentions to beliefs. For example, consider again the norm of intention consistency, which convicts Mike of error when he intends to go to the game and also intends to refrain from going. Above we suggested that this norm could not be explained by appealing to norms on desire, since it is permissible to have inconsistent desires. But now imagine that the intention to F just is (or necessarily involves) the belief that one will F. Then intending to F, and intending to refrain from F-ing, will entail that one has contradictory beliefs. So if the Cognitivist can help himself to this constitutive claim about the link between intending and believing, he appears to have an attractive explanation of the norm requiring intention consistency. The status of this constitutive claim, and of the plausibility of deriving other norms (e.g. means-end coherence) from it, is a matter of dispute (see Ross 2008). Of course, if Bratman was right to contend that one can intend to F without believing that she will F, then the Cognitivist picture of intention seems doomed from the get-go.

Seen in another light, then, the conclusion that intentions are psychologically real and irreducible to simpler states may be vindicated by way of a critique of the motivations for Cognitivism. In this vein, some philosophers (notably Sarah Paul (2009)) have influentially argued that the Cognitivist is committed to an unattractive picture of the justification of intention formation. An intention is, according to the Cognitivist, just a belief of something like the following form: ‘I will now F’. But as Paul points out, before I form an intention I typically lack sufficient reason for thinking that I will perform the action intended—if I have sufficient reason to believe that I will F, then I needn’t form the intention to F at all. It seems to follow that intending constitutively involves forming a belief for which I lack sufficient evidence. Indeed, it appears that the only sort of consideration potentially counting in favor of the belief that I will F is my preference that this proposition turns out true. So intending appears to be a form of wishful thinking on the Cognitivist picture of intentions. This can be seen as a troubling result, given that we ordinarily regard wishful thinking as deeply irrational and intending as perfectly rational. [It should be noted that Velleman (1989) embraces this idea; he thinks it sufficient to justify the rationality of intentions that they will be rationally supported once they are in place. Paul is arguing more directly against Setiya (2008), who does not regard Velleman’s faith in post hoc justification as sufficient for justifying the formation of an intention.] Paul takes this and other problems for the Cognitivist to establish that intentions are distinctive practical attitudes, incapable of reduction to the theoretical attitude of belief. So conceived, this critique of Cognitivism is continuous with Bratman’s critique of Davidson’s early reductive picture of intention.

The issues about intention just canvassed are an instance of a more general project of understanding the nature of our mental states by understanding the normative requirements that apply to them. Just as some philosophers attempt to illuminate the nature of belief in a way that will be profitable for epistemology and the philosophy of mind by making normative claims about it—for example by claiming that belief ‘aims at truth’ (Velleman 2000, Shah 2003)—many philosophers interested in agency have become increasingly hopeful that a thorough investigation of the norms on intentions will result in important conclusions for other areas of inquiry. One guiding thought of Gideon Yaffe’s ambitious Attempts (2010) is precisely that an adequate account of the normative commitments of intention will have a great deal to tell us about how the criminal law ought to be structured.

But the idea that there are distinctive norms on intention has been challenged from another direction as well. Niko Kolodny (2005, 2007, 2008) makes the skeptical claim that we have no reason to be rational, and one main consequence of this thought is that there are no distinctively rational norms on our propositional attitudes at all. (Raz (2005) argues for a similar claim, but restricts his skepticism to what he regards as the mythical norm of means-end coherence.) We do not have the space to present the details of Kolodny’s arguments. There are two main ideas: first, that all putative coherence requirements of rationality are in fact underwritten by two “core” requirements, which appeal to the rational pressure to form and refrain from forming attitudes on the basis of our beliefs about whether there are sufficient reasons for having those attitudes; and second, that these core requirements are not themselves genuinely normative. If Kolodny were correct, then the rational norms on intention would be explicable by appeal to the same principles as the norms on belief, and any other normatively assessable attitudes—and would moreover be, at best, pseudo-norms, or principles that merely appear normative to us. This would not amount to a win for Cognitivism, since the explanation would turn on underlying features of all reasoning processes, and not on any necessary connection between the possession of intentions and beliefs. But Kolodny’s view might well be viewed as a threat to the idea that inquiry into the norms on intention is a useful way to get traction on other issues. In any event, this skeptical view about the authority and autonomy of rationality is highly controversial, and depends on disputed claims about reasoning and the logical form of rational requirements (see Bridges (2009), Broome (1999, 2007), Schroeder (2004, 2009), Finlay (2010), Brunero (2010), Shpall (2012), Way (2010)).

Finally, Richard Holton (2008, 2009) has initiated a new direction in contemporary work on the nature of intention with his advocacy of a novel theory of partial intentions. On his view, partial intentions are intention-like states that figure as sub-strategies in the context of larger, more complex plans to accomplish a given end. Such partial intentions are, Holton thinks, necessary for adequately rich psychological explanations: merely appealing to full intentions cannot succeed in capturing the wide range of phenomena that intention-like states appear to explain. And much like credential doxastic states, partial intentions will presumably bring with them their own sets of norms. Intuitively, having high credence that Spain will win the World Cup places me under different commitments than believing that Spain will win. Likewise, only partially intending to steal the cookie from the cookie jar seems to be in some way normatively different than fully intending to steal the cookie.

There are many outstanding questions about Holton’s account, and about the nature of partial intentions more generally. For example, why can’t Holton’s states of partial intention be analyzed as regular intentions with conditional content? And why should we think that there is any connection between an intention’s being partial and it’s being a part of a more complex plan? If competing accounts of partial intention result in a more unified picture of partial attitudes is this a substantial consideration in their favor? Consider accounts that link the notion of partial intention to the (partial) degree to which an agent is committed to the action in question. Such accounts have a nice story to tell about the relationship between credential states and partial intentions—they are species of the same genus, in the sense that they involve not full but partial commitment to the proposition or action in question. Thought about these questions is still in its early stages, but is likely to shed light on at least some of the central normative questions of interest to philosophers of action.


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Thomas Reid: Theory of Action

Thomas Reid (1710-1796) made important contributions to the fields of epistemology and philosophy of mind, and is often regarded as the founder of the common sense school of philosophy. However, he also offered key arguments and observations concerning human agency and morality.

Reid carefully criticized the views of his contemporaries, and defended an account of human freedom in which he argues that only beings endowed with will and understanding, who also have power over their will and actions, and who are directed by motives and reasons, are agents, beings capable of acting freely. Agents are, in Reid’s terms, efficient causes of some of their actions, causing them by exerting their power to act. To say that an agent possesses active power is, for Reid, to say that the agent is capable of exerting a productive capacity and that in such cases it is really up to the agent to produce or to refrain from producing the actions which the agent has the power to produce. Reid presents this theory of action and human liberty primarily in his last published work, the Essays on the Active Powers of Man (1788).

Reid argues that human beings have power not only over their actions, but also over their choices and intentions. Reid therefore opposes what he calls the system of necessity, and openly challenges the views of philosophers such as John Locke, Joseph Priestley, Anthony Collins, and David Hume; who tend to share the view that human beings have freedom over their actions but not over their wills.

In the Essays on the Active Powers of Man, Reid develops his theory of action around an examination of active power, of the will, of human motives and beliefs, and around a defense of his account of human freedom.

Table of Contents

  1. On Active Power
    1. On the Notion of Power
    2. Active Power, Will, and Understanding
      1. General Observations Concerning Active Power
      2. Agents with Active Power are Endowed with Will and Understanding
  2. Of the Will
    1. General Observations
    2. Voluntary Operations of the Mind
  3. The Principles of Action or Motives
    1. Mechanical Principles
    2. Animal Principles
    3. Rational Principles
    4. Influence of Motives on the Will
  4. On Moral Liberty
    1. The Notion of Moral Liberty
    2. Of Causes
      1. Efficient Causes and First Principles
      2. Physical Causes
      3. Principles of Action and Causation
    3. The Problem of Infinite Regress
    4. First Argument for Moral Liberty
    5. Second Argument for Moral Liberty
    6. Third Argument for Moral Liberty
  5. References and Further Reading
    1. Primary Sources
    2. Secondary Sources

1. On Active Power

a. On the Notion of Power

Reid writes in the first essay of the Essays on theActive Powers that active power is the power of acting—the power of producing a work of art or of labor (EAP, 12). Reid starts his book by arguing that, contrary to what David Hume had defended (T.1.3.14), human beings have an idea of power. In order to show that we do have such a notion, Reid observes that the ideas of acting and being acted upon are found very early and universally in the minds of children. If one is able to form the thought of hitting or of being hit upon, and if all languages have active and passives voices, Reid argues, then one must be able to form the ideas of activity and of passivity (EAP, 13). Moreover, Reid contends that all humans have the notion of active power because many ordinary operations of mind imply a belief in active power, both in ourselves and in others. Actions such as deliberations, purposes, making promises, counsels, encouragements and commands imply, Reid writes, the belief that we have some degree of power over these operations and over their effects.

When Reid writes that humans have an idea or a notion of power, he means that humans have at least a conception of power. Conception, for Reid, is a term of art that should not be understood in the Kantian sense of subsuming some object under a particular concept, or as predicating some quality to the object. To the contrary, conception, for Reid, is one of the most basic cognitive capacities, whereby beings (both humans and some non-human animals) hold something in mind without predicating anything to it. The being grasps the object by holding it in mind without thinking anything about or of the object. Reid thinks that human beings all have, at the very least, a conception of power—even though they often also form more complex beliefs or judgments about power.

Hume, Reid points out, argues that since the notion of power is neither produced by sensation nor reflection, and since we cannot properly define the notion, then we have no such idea (EAP, 24). Reid, in reply, points out that although we do not directly perceive an agent’s power, we are nonetheless conscious of our exertions of power. Moreover, even though ‘power’ cannot be defined by appealing to more general or more simple categories, one may still form a conception of power from its effects, and one may still offer observations about its attributes and qualities. Reid therefore writes that since we do have a notion of power we may now study its characteristics. The first attribute Reid observes is that active power only exists in beings with will and understanding.

b. Active Power, Will, and Understanding

Reid turns to the question of whether beings who have active power could at the same time lack understanding and will (EAP 27). We cannot answer this question, Reid points out, by observing changes in nature since we do not perceive the agent nor the power behind these changes (more on changes in nature in section 4.b.ii). Reid writes that it is better to turn our attention to human agents, since, in agreement with Locke, Reid points out that our first ideas of power are taken from the power we find ourselves experiencing when we produce changes in our bodies and in the world around us (EAP, 20).

i. General Observations Concerning Active Power

By turning our view to our own exertions of power we notice, according to Reid, that power is brought into action by volition. A person’s capacity to act is actualized by exerting that power. There are many times when a person may not use his or her capacity to act. However, Reid argues, when they do exert that power, it is because the agents willed, at some point, to perform the action either immediately or later in time. An agent’s power, Reid writes, “is measured by what he can do if he will” (Of Power 10). For Reid, we notice that our willings or choices are exertions of power when we turn our attention to them. Opinions vary about Reid’s use of various terms related to volition, but one way to understand Reid is to think of volitions as willings, choices, or decisions. And, for Reid we are conscious that our choices are something over which we have some control. When we chose to do something immediately, the choice (or volition) “is accompanied with an effort to execute that which we willed” (EAP, 50). We may not always pay attention to this effort, but, Reid continues, “this effort we are conscious of, if we will but give attention to it; and there is nothing in which we are in a stricter sense active” (EAP, 51). Reid’s view, therefore, is that choices or willings are exertions of power, they are mental events through which the agent puts his or her power into action, and agents are conscious of these exertions of power.

Reid’s account is hence different from an account such as the one Thomas Hobbes defended, where an agent is free or has active power (freedom) to perform an action if he willed to perform the action. If the agent wills to perform the action, but is prohibited from performing it, then the agent is not free, according to the Hobbesian picture (Hobbes, 1648, 240). Reid, however, contends that an agent is free not only to act if he willed to act, but that the agent is also free to will or to refrain from willing. The anti-Hobbesian view Reid defends is that an agent is not free unless he has power over his willing or refraining from willing. First, Reid argues, we have an idea of power that implies having control or power over our choices, and this belief is presupposed in many other beliefs, and in our everyday actions (see previous section and arguments for moral liberty). Second, Reid observes that we are conscious of the effort we exert when we choose. The exertion of power is the object of consciousness, which we directly observe if we carefully attend to the objects of our consciousness.

ii. Agents with Active Power are Endowed with Will and Understanding

That beings with active power possess a will follows immediately, Reid holds, from his claim that the power to act implies the power to will. Reid develops his argument for this claim in several steps. First, we are conscious of having power over many of our actions: over the movements of our bodies, and the movements of our minds. Second, for Reid, having power over an end such as an external action that depends on our will requires having power over the actions of the agents which bring about the end. Reid writes that the action or effect an agent produces “cannot be in his power unless all the means necessary to its production be in his power” (EAP, 203). By ‘necessary means’ Reid does not refer to all the involuntary physical or biological events that are necessary conditions for performing the action. After all, he writes that the man who intends to shoot his neighbor dead is the cause of the death, but “he neither gave to the ball its velocity, nor to the power its expansive force, nor to the flint and steel the power to strike fire…” (EAP, 41). The velocity of the ball is not something that is in the agent’s power, even though it is a necessary condition for the killing of the man. The choice and intention of the agent, however, are events over which the agent does have power (1.b.i).

Reid’s third step, therefore, is the premise that choices and intentions are actions; they are mental events over which the agent has power—the evidence for this claim is that agents are conscious of the effort of exerting their power when they choose. Furthermore, choices and intentions are necessary means to performing effects. Hume’s predecessors all agreed that we have power over our actions or effects. Reid, therefore, points out that “to say that what depends upon the will is in a man’s power, but the will is not in his power, is to say that the end is in his power, but the means necessary to that end are not in his power, which is a contradiction” (EAP, 201). For Reid, this statement follows from the claim that willings (choices) are actions. If an agent has the power to perform an external action A, then the agent has the power to perform another external action B required to perform A. But if an internal action C is required to perform A, then the agent who has the power to perform A, also has the power to C. Reid’s conclusion, therefore, is that agents who must carry out a chain of actions in order to perform an end must have the power over each specific action (including volitions) in the chain of actions in order to perform the end (see Yaffe 2004, chapter 1, for a more complete development of this argument).

Now, if the performance of an external action requires having power over the internal action of choosing, then the power to act requires having a will. Only agents with a will are capable of willing. This does not mean that all beings with a will have power over their wills. After all, some animals might be endowed with a will and act voluntarily but not have power to control their will. But having power over one’s will implies having a will. For Reid, therefore, human beings who are able to have some control over their actions and choices, who have active power, must be endowed with a will.

According to Reid, active power or human freedom requires having, not only a will, but also understanding to direct that will. To reach this conclusion Reid argues it is important to observe that the power to will implies the power to refrain from willing. To have control over our choices and to observe that our choices are exertions of active power leads to the observation that in many cases we are free to will or to refrain from willing. This is what Reid means we he argues that we have power over our actions. Actions (external actions or internal willings)—as long as they are truly the agent’s actions—are capacities to act or to refrain from acting. The inability to refrain from acting is the consequence of forces with respect to which an agent is passive. Reid therefore writes that

If, in any action [an agent] had the power to will what he did, or not to will it, in that action he is free. But if, in every voluntary action, the determination of his will be the necessary consequence of something involuntary in the state of mind, or of something in his external circumstances, he is not free; he has not what I call the liberty of a moral agent, but is subject to necessity. (EAP, 197)

To be active, for Reid, requires the ability to will and to refrain from willing to perform an action. The two way power of willing and refraining from willing defines a person’s capacity to truly have control over his choices and actions.

If active power is a power to will and to refrain from willing, Reid thinks only beings with understanding could have such a two-way power. This two-way power implies the capacity to weigh reasons, or at least to be able to act in light of a reason, or against some good reason, and this would require possessing intellectual capacities. Hence liberty, Reid writes, “implies, not only a conception of what he wills, but some degree of practical judgment or reason” (EAP, 196). The power to act, therefore, implies the power to will. The power to will together with the capacity to weigh reasons and act in light of them or not (the ability to will and to refrain from willing for certain reasons), require that the being with active power be endowed with both a will and some degree of understanding.

2. Of the Will

a. General Observations

Reid introduces his essay on the will (Essay II of EAP,) by pointing out that the will is the power to determine to act or to refrain from acting. If active power is the power to act freely, to have power or control of the direction of (some of) our thoughts, of our bodies, and to initiate changes outside of us, the will seems to be simply the capacity to determine, that is, to choose, to decide, and to intend a certain course of action. Since we have no direct knowledge of the will other than by its effects, Reid focuses his discussion on what he calls ‘volitions,’ a term that refers to the acts of the will.

Reid continues by describing five essential qualities of every act of will. First, acts of will are about something—they have an object. The person who wills must will something, Reid writes, and this implies being able to have a conception of what is willed, and an intention to carry out what is willed. Acts of will produce voluntary actions, and what distinguishes them from things done by instinct or from habit is precisely that voluntary actions involve a conception and intention, whereas things done instinctively do not require any thought or intention.

Second, the object of will must be some action of the person who wills. For Reid, this is what distinguishes willings (acts of will) from commands and desire. We may desire things that are not within our power, and we may command others to do things we do not desire them to do (think of the judge who commands that one be punished even though he or she does not desire that the criminal be punished). Acts of will, for Reid, are therefore to be distinguished from desires. Third, the object of the act of will must be something we believe to be in our power and to depend upon our will (EP 50). If one loses the power to speak, for instance, and if one believes one has no such power, one does not will to speak—only to try to speak if recovery, say, is possible.

Fourth, Reid points out that the volition to act immediately is accompanied with an effort to do what is willed. We might not always be conscious of this effort, especially when the action is easy, but Reid thinks we might still notice and be conscious of the effort involved if we are attentive to what is happening when we determine to act. Finally, Reid observes that in decisions and intentions that are important to an agent, there is always some motive or reason that influences and inclines the agent in willing one way or another. Unimportant actions might not be performed for particular reasons, but actions that are wise, virtuous, and meaningful are performed for reasons (they are motivated by rational principles of action; see section 3.c).

b. Voluntary Operations of the Mind

The intellect and the will are, Reid writes, always conjoined in the operations of the human mind (as far as we know). Even acts usually attributed to the understanding only, like perceiving and remembering, for instance, involve some degree of activity. Conversely, every act of will involves at least some conception, intention, belief, and often also some belief about the value or worth of the action. These operations clearly involve the understanding, Reid points out (EAP 60).

Reid writes that there are three operations of the mind that have mistakenly been thought to be intellectual operations only. Reid, however, holds that these operations are also active capacities. These voluntary operations he has in mind are attention, deliberation, and fixed purposes. It is important for Reid to show the voluntary aspect of these operations because they are involved in a person’s character traits and personalities. Reid’s ‘necessitarian’ opponents might think persons have no control over their personalities, but, for Reid, since the operations involved in them are active then persons will have some degree of control and hence responsibility over them.

The first voluntary operation Reid discusses is attention. The attention we might give to a subject or to an action for the most part depends upon our will. For Reid this does not mean, however, that attention is completely within the control of agents and that attention is always the result of an act of will. To the contrary, attention is often the involuntary result of some impulse or habit. Our passions and affections direct our attention to the objects that move them. Still, Reid holds, the attention one finds oneself to have may be changed or focused. Even though the wonderful smell of the garden draws my attention to it as I walk past, the act of stopping to consider the garden and to really pay attention to it is an act of the will, Reid argues. Since attention is a voluntary act, Reid will later be in a position to argue that “we ought to use the best means we can to be well informed of our duty, by serious attention to moral instruction…” (EAP, 271).

The next voluntary operation of the mind Reid discusses is deliberation. Genuine human actions are not always the result of deliberation. One may act freely out of a fixed resolution or habit to act virtuously, for instance. Moreover, one may not always have time to deliberate. And one does not deliberate in cases that are perfectly clear: “no man deliberates,” Reid writes, “whether he ought to choose happiness or misery” (EAP, 63). But when the times permits, and when the situation is unclear, then a person might deliberate. Deliberation, for Reid, is the exercise of the agent’s capacity to consider various reasons, various desires, or various feelings and affections that move him to perform a particular action or set of actions. Deliberation is an active capacity to consider outcomes and motives and then to determine to act according to, or against, some of these reasons. Since deliberation is an active operation, Reid will later be able to show that we have a duty to deliberate coolly and impartially about our actions.

Finally, fixed purposes and resolutions are also, and essentially, active operations of the mind according to Reid. He distinguishes them from volitions or determinations to act immediately. They are, rather, intentions to act at a distance. One may decide to perform a single action in the future, or one may resolve to follow a course of actions, or to pursue some general end. In fact, Reid’s view is that the general purposes and fixed resolutions of agents are the basis of the character traits of agents. Character traits, as opposed to natural tempers, are for Reid general and regular tendencies to act in a certain manner, and the tendencies result from the person’s resolution or purpose to act according to some plan or rule. A person who is a person of virtue, for instance, is a person who formed the resolution to be a person of virtue (EAP, 69), Reid writes. This resolution will express itself in the person’s general and regular tendency (the character trait) to act virtuously. Ultimately, therefore, the character traits of agents are based in voluntary determinations of the agent’s will. And a person’s constancy or steadiness depends on the person’s commitment to the person’s general purposes and resolutions. When an agent resolves to act according to his principles, this resolution is clearly an act of will, Reid argues. Reid concludes by pointing out that since resolution is a voluntary act, over which we have some control, it may therefore properly be a virtue, whereas willfulness, inflexibility and obstinacy may properly be recognized as vices.

3. The Principles of Action or Motives

It is vital, Reid maintains, to have a correct understanding of the various motives or incitements to act, because without these active power would be utterly useless and fickle. Whatever incites us to act is, according to Reid, a principle of action. By ‘principle of action’ Reid means the last answer to the ‘why did you act?’ question. For Reid, motives or principles of action are not instrumental means to reaching some further end (EAP, 110). Principles of action are motives for actions pursued for no further reason, or which are desired for no further end or purpose.

For Reid it is important to pay close attention to those principles on which human beings do or could act—recognizing that humans often act from a variety of principles concurring in one direction.  A correct account of the various motives or principles of action will help us understand the character of the action performed: whether it is instinctive, meaningful, the outcome of some natural affection, intelligible, meaningful, wise, virtuous, etc. (EAP, 75).

Reid categorizes these principles into three classes: the mechanical, the animal, and the rational principles of action.

a. Mechanical Principles

Mechanical principles of action are motives that influence beings to act and which do not require any thought or intention. Reid writes that they require no attention, no deliberation, no will, no conception and no intention. They are completely blind impulses. Among the collection of mechanical motives, Reid points out, we find instincts and habits. Instincts are blind tendencies that are natural, found early in animals and humans, and which do not require repeated use in order to motivate. The fact that infants cry when they are hurt, that they are afraid when left alone, that they are terrified by an angry tone of voice but soothed by soft and gentle voices, are the result, according to Reid, of such mechanical instincts (EAP, 79). Brute animals are also moved to perform amazing accomplishments (like honey combs or spider webs) from mere instinct, without any intelligence of the mechanics or mathematics displayed by their artworks. Another instinct Reid observes in both humans and animals is the instinct of imitation. And even belief, in the early part of our lives, is guided by instinct and imitation, Reid points out.

Human beings can also learn to perform an action easily, without any thought, by having performed the action frequently, as well as by the natural instinct to imitate others. The habit or facility to perform an action is therefore a mechanical principle, according to Reid. Speaking, writing, riding a bicycle are, Reid points out, often performed blindly by those who have developed the habit of such activities (EAP, 88-90). These actions are carried out involuntarily and without any particular intention. The mechanical principle of habit will therefore be of great help, according to Reid, in developing the habit of performing those types of action a person has resolved to perform. Certain character traits, Reid holds, are the effect of a person’s fixed resolutions or purposes. These fixed resolutions and the actions one performs in line with them are, for Reid, voluntary operations (see 2.b.). But when these actions are performed regularly, the mechanical principle of habit helps agents acquire a facility to perform them.

b. Animal Principles

The second category of principles of action are those that Reid calls ‘animal’ because, he holds, we have them in common with many brute animals (EAP, 92). Among the animal motives, Reid notes the appetites (hunger, thirst, lust), constant desires (such as a desire for knowledge, power and esteem), benevolent affections (gratitude, love, parental affection, pity, esteem, friendship, and public spirit), and malevolent affections (emulation and resentment).

Reid argues that animal motives move all human beings who are capable of having thoughts, even though an animal motive is of a more instinctive sort when it is at work in animals and small children. When animal motives move and influence a being, the mental state which is, at the very least, required, is a conception of the object or action toward which the being is moved. Conception is the bare minimum mental capacity necessary in order to be moved by animal motives, but animal motives may require in many cases forming beliefs (propositional attitudes), or even forming beliefs about value. Esteem for the wise, for instance, may require believing that the person esteemed is wise, virtuous, or acted in an estimable manner. Animals may have an instinctive kind of admiration or affection for its master, but it does not involve thinking of its master as wise, virtuous, or kind. According to Reid, the mental capacities of animals is smaller than those of humans, and animals consider actions only, and not the intentions of others. A motive such as gratitude, for instance, is observable in the dog who is “kindly affected to him who feeds it” (EAP 115), even though the person is about to kill it. Humans who are moved by gratitude, however, have in mind the intention of the benefactor, and the gratitude of humans suppose beliefs such as that the action of the benefactor goes beyond what justice or morality requires (Ibid.).

Reid’s understanding of the nature of beliefs is not always clearly expressed. He often writes of beliefs in the same way he writes of judgments, where “the objects of judgment” are “expressed by a proposition”, but at other times he writes of belief as an attitude (belief, disbelief or doubt) about that judgment or proposition, and which accompanies the judgment (EAP, 347). Reid, furthermore, thinks that animals of the most sagacious kind are capable of having conceptions of states of affairs, but he is unsure whether they are capable of forming beliefs. He writes in one place that he thinks brutes do not have opinions (EAP, 147), but he writes in another passage that brutes have instinctive beliefs, and, he points out: “Whether brutes have anything that can properly be called belief, I cannot say; but their actions shew something that looks very like it” (EAP, 86). In any case, whether or not they are capable of having beliefs, Reid points out, “it will be granted, that opinion in men has a much wider field than in brutes” (EAP, 147). Only the beliefs of human beings, Reid points out, involve evaluations, values, and reasoning about laws and systems. Animal motives (appetites, desires, affections) are present both in animals and in human beings. However, when they move animals and small children they are more simple mental operations, more similar to the mechanical motives, whereas when they are at work in adult human motivation they usually involve higher mental capacities.

Reid understands animal motives as desire/object pairs. He writes that animal motives always involve a desire for some object and sometimes—but not always—a sensation or feeling which is typical of each desire. Reid calls all animal motives animal or natural desires, since they all aim to achieve or attain some object or end.

Furthermore, according to Reid, each natural animal motive or natural desire has its own natural object (EAP, 113). Desires for the good of certain persons, desires for knowledge, desires for power, etc. imply a state or mental act in the agent who desires and some object desired. Reid writes, for example, that when we come to realize that food will satisfy our hunger, the desire and its object “remain through life inseparable. And we give the name of hunger to the principle that is made up of both” (EAP, 93). It is therefore natural, according to Reid, to describe each animal motive either in terms of the desire or mental state involved, or in terms of the end desired.

c. Rational Principles

Reid observes that human beings are not only moved by passions, affections or desires, but also by a third important class of motives, which he calls ‘the rational principles of action.’ Reid further distinguishes between two different rational principles of action: our overall good, and our duty. Reid calls these ‘rational’ because “they can have no existence in beings not endowed with reason, and, in all their exertions, require, not only intention and will, but judgment or reason” (EAP, 154).

The first rational motive, a regard for our good as a whole, which Reid also characterizes as regard for one’s overall interest or happiness, is a rational motive because only beings with reason are able to consider and be moved by what is their overall good. Reid observes that being motivated by our overall happiness requires the ability to compare actions and to determine the possible outcomes and consequences of future courses of action. Directing our actions in order to aim at our overall happiness therefore clearly requires having rational capacities.

The second rational motive, a regard for duty, also involves the rational capacity to form judgments or evaluations of what one ought, morally, to do. Agents must have the rational capacities to consider existing actions and agents, to see that this action is morally good, and that one wrong, and hence to form specific and particular estimations of the moral quality of actions and of persons. Agents must also have the capacity to form general principles or axioms such as “what is in no degree voluntary, can neither deserve moral approbation nor blame” (EAP, 271), or “we ought to act that part towards another, which we would judge to be right in him to act towards us, if we were in his circumstances and he in ours” (EAP, 274). Forming these beliefs requires a minimum level of rational capacities, for Reid, but also, and more importantly, a moral faculty or sense, which he also calls ‘conscience.’ These capacities are required to be able to judge that a future action is one we should perform.

If animal principles are best understood as desire/object pairs, rational motives, rather, are best understood in terms of the end, object or state of affairs, to which they aim rather than as the mental state required in order to be moved toward that end (Yaffe 2004, 108). It is true that Reid often speaks in a language that implies that rational principles are some kind of mental state. After all, Reid often writes that rational principles of action imply a belief or judgment about what is good: prudentially or morally. And it is easy to conclude that the motive is the belief, thought, judgment or conviction itself rather than the end that is pursued. However, as Yaffe points out, when Reid seems to hold such a view it is because he is emphasizing the point that in order to move us, ends must bear a special relation to us. An end is a reason for me only if I think of that end and if I think of my future actions as bearing the relevant kind of relation to me and to the end (Yaffe 2004, 108).

When an agent is moved by the motive of duty, the agent is moved by a future ideal or by a future state of affairs that will instantiate that ideal. The agent, for instance, recognizes that an action that does not yet exist is one he ought to bring about because the action is conducive to duty. Ultimately, for Reid, the motive does not depend on the agent’s desires since an agent might not desire to do what he thinks he ought to do.

For Reid animal motives, or passions in general, serve an important purpose and are good and useful parts of human and animal nature. These motives, when they are not deformed by bad education and bad habits, are often conducive to virtue (Kroeker 2011). However, if there is a conflict between animal and rational motives, the rational ones have the final word, according to Reid. Rational principles are simply better guides to what is wise and virtuous since they require knowing not only what we naturally desire but also what, in the long term, will be better, would fulfill moral laws and requirements, or would bring about that which is valuable. By their moral sense, in fact, human beings recognize the value and worth of their natural animal motives, and they might also consider which course of action, whether with or without the influence of animal motives, would be morally valuable. By adopting such a position, Reid clearly opposes the view of David Hume who holds that all motives are passions, and that ultimate ends are determined by human desires and not by the intrinsic value or worth of future courses of action (T 3.1 and EPM 161).

d. Influence of Motives on the Will

Reid further distances himself from the Humean position and from the position of philosophers such as Anthony Collins and Joseph Priestley (as well as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Baruch Spinoza and perhaps David Hartley) by claiming that motives do not causally necessitate the agent’s choices, intentions and actions. Rather, Reid argues that motives influence the agent in his or her volitions.

Animal motives and rational motives, Reid observes, influence agents in different ways. Animal motives, or what has commonly been called ‘passion,’ draw us “toward a certain object, without any farther view, by a kind of violence, a violence which indeed, may be resisted if the man is master of himself, but cannot be resisted without a struggle” (EAP, 55-56). These passions move us easily, and counterbalance the defects of our wisdom and virtue, Reid points out. For example, we often eat out of mere hunger, without any thought about what is wise or good for us, or without any thought about the quality of the object. In fact, Reid points out that it is often difficult to answer questions about what we should eat, how much, and how often. If we had to reason about such questions, we would often fail to be moved to eat. These passions, therefore, serve to preserve the human species, and to help us perform tasks (EAP, 52). Passions may be stronger or weaker, but an effort is always required to resist them. Two passions may move a being in contrary ways. In animals and in humans who do not have time to deliberate or think about what they are doing, the strongest passion may prevail (EAP, 53). But human beings are usually able to form some judgment about what they are doing, and to weigh goods and evils. Human beings are therefore usually passive in part, and active in part. When the passion is irresistible or when there is no time to determine, human beings are mostly passive. But when the person is able to deliberate calmly and impartially, and to determine according to distant goods and values (and not only in terms of present gratification), the active power of the person is increased.

Rational principles of action never causally determine an agent’s choices and intentions. They function like advice or like the testimony of various parties in front of a judge. They leave a person completely at liberty to choose and to determine (EAP, 59). By the rational principles of action, Reid writes, we judge “what ends are most worthy to be pursued, how far every appetite and passion may be indulged, and when it ought to be resisted” (EAP, 56). Therefore, both kinds of principles of action move us in different ways. The phenomenology involved is different in both cases. Passions are felt like forces that push us, whereas the rational principles are felt like arguments or advice, which may, at the most, produce a cool conviction of what we ought to do.

4. On Moral Liberty

a. The Notion of Moral Liberty

According to Reid, moral liberty is the agent’s power to act. Moral liberty and active power are therefore identical for Reid (see section 1 for more on active power). Moreover, moral liberty is more than the power an agent has over his or her voluntary actions. It is also power over “the determinations of his own will” (EAP, 196). Here Reid distinguishes between merely voluntary actions and free voluntary actions. Small children and animals, Reid observes, may act voluntarily if their actions are the result of their choices and intentions. However, their voluntary actions are determined by the strongest passion, appetite, affection or habit. Brute animals, Reid writes, lack moral government, which is the control one has to choose according to what one thinks is best or required. These beings, Reid continues, have no conception of a law or of a guide to action by which they could direct or fail to direct their choices and actions (EAP, 197). Instead of being guided by the moral law they are guided, blindly, by the physical laws that govern their constitution, in the same manner as the inanimate creation is governed by physical laws. Hence, since they cannot form the conception of what is best or required, they cannot govern their choices accordingly. Since their voluntary actions are the result of choices that are causally determined by physical laws, Reid concludes that they lack moral liberty.

Moral liberty, Reid contends, is a two-way power to will or not to will something (see 1.b). Reid holds that agents who possess moral liberty must not only be capable of following rules, guidelines, advice and arguments, they must also be capable of disobeying these directives (EAP, 200).  One may imagine, Reid writes, some puppet that is endowed with understanding and will, but who has no degree of active power. This puppet, Reid points out, would be an intelligent machine, but it would still be subject to the same laws of motion as inanimate matter (EAP, 222). The puppet, that is, would be incapable of disobeying these laws. But being incapable of disobedience implies, Reid holds, that the puppet is not active in its obedience – it does not even obey in the proper sense of the term. To be free, or to possess active power in Reid’s sense, would mean that the puppets’ obedience is obedience in the proper sense; “it must therefore be their own act and deed, and consequently they must have power to obey or disobey” (EAP, 222). When agents act freely, their actions are truly up to them, and hence they must be capable of willing and of refraining from willing the action they perform. Free actions, for Reid, are the effects of the agent’s exertion (putting into effect) of his active power. He writes that it is “the exertion of active power we call action” (EAP, 13). For Reid, therefore, only actions that are produced by an agent’s exertion of this kind of active power are genuine, free, actions.

b. Of Causes

i. Efficient Causes and First Principles

According to Reid, we all have an idea of productive causes. These productive or efficient causes, for Reid, are causes that have the power to bring about certain events. Efficient causes have the power to produce changes. Efficient causes are therefore very different in nature from events that constantly precede or follow other events in nature. Events in nature, humans come to realize, are passive rather than active. “Instead of moving voluntarily, we find them to be moved necessarily; instead of acting, we find them to be acted upon…” Reid writes (EAP, 207). Moreover, Reid points out that constant conjunction does not link true causes with effects. Priestley and Hume, Reid writes, define a cause as a circumstance that is constantly followed by a certain event (EAP, 205). Reid disagrees—he holds that genuine causes cannot be defined this way. A preceding event does not have the power to produce the effect with which it is constantly conjoined, Reid points out. Smoke is constantly conjoined with fire, but, according to Reid, fire is not the active producer of smoke. And yet we all have a notion of causes that are productive—of causes which actually produce and are responsible for change.

An efficient or productive cause, Reid holds, “is that which has power to produce the effect” (Of Power, 6) and “which produces a change by the exertion of its power” (EAP, 13). To produce an effect, there must be in the cause a power to produce the effect, and the exertion of that power. For Reid, a power that cannot be exerted is no power at all (EAP, 203). The only things which possess the power to produce changes and which can exert this power are beings with will and understanding (see section 1.b.ii). Beings with active power, the will to exert it, and understanding to direct it, are agents. Efficient causes—causes in the proper sense—are therefore agents (EAP, 211).

Furthermore, Reid observes that a principle or belief that appears very early in the mind of human beings is that everything that begins to exist must have a cause (in the proper or real sense of the term) of its existence, “which had power to give it existence” (EAP, 15 and 202). For Reid “that things cannot begin to exist, nor undergo any change, without a cause that hath power to produce that change…is so popular, that there is not a man of common prudence who does not act from this opinion, and rely upon it every day of his life” (EAP, 25).

In examining Reid’s account, three questions must be answered. First, ‘what are first principles?’ Second, ‘is this principle of causality—that whatever begins to exist must have a cause—truly a first principle?’ And third, ‘if it is a first principle, does it require holding a strong notion of causes (causes as efficient causes or as agents)? ‘

First principles, according to Reid, are propositions “which are no sooner understood than they are believed” (EIP 452). First principles are things human beings believe naturally: “there is no searching for evidence, no weighing of arguments; the proposition is not deduced or inferred from another…” (Ibid.). What is believed, is, for Reid, a first principle when it functions as an axiom for other propositions. Other propositions are discovered through the power of reasoning – either by inductive or by deductive reasoning. Reasoning is the capacity of drawing a conclusion from a chain of premises, Reid writes. But “first principles, principles of common sense, common notions, self-evident truths” (EAP, 452), are words that all express propositions that do not require reasoning from a chain of premises.

For instance, the proposition that the objects we perceive really do exist is a first principle (EIP 476). It is not something we usual hold by deducing it from other premises. Furthermore, it is not inferred from repeated experiences since the proposition is supposed in the experience itself. Another example is that the future will resemble the past (EIP 489). “Antecedently to all reasoning,” Reid writes, “we have, by our constitution, an anticipation, that there is a fixed and steady course of nature” (Inquiry 199). The child, Reid observes, who has once been burnt by fire will continue to shun fire. Repeated experiences and reasoning may help them confirm that fire always burns, but children will believe that the fire which burned them once will burn them again by nature, before reasoning and experience have offered any confirmation of such a fact. One may offer support for first principles, and false first principles may be defeated (EIP 463-467), but first principles are natural and found to be true as soon as they are understood and regardless of any proof in their favor.

The principle of causality, according to Reid, is one of these natural principles. That whatever begins to exist must have a cause which produced it is, according to Reid, a first principle of our human constitution (EIP 497). Reid writes that Hume has convincingly showed that the arguments offered in defense of this principle all take for granted what must be proved (EIP 498). This principle cannot be proved by induction from experience either, according to Reid. Indeed, Reid writes, “in the far greatest part of the changes in nature that fall within our observation, the causes are unknown, and therefore, from experience, we cannot know whether they have causes or not” (EIP 499). Yet, it would be absurd, Reid argues, to conclude that these events do not have causes. The proposition that every change must have a cause that produced it is therefore a first principle, an axiom that humans hold, not as a result of any kind of reasoning or of repeating observations, but as a result of their natural constitution.

Finally, now, even if Reid is correct to think of the principle of causality as a first principle, why should we think that every change or any beginning of existence must have an efficient cause? One of Reid’s strategies is to show that we hold this belief in cases of human actions. Those actions which are truly an agent’s actions, Reid argues, are actions that are up to the agent, that are within the agent’s control, and really produced by the agent. The cause of human actions is an agent with the power to act, with the will to act, with understanding to direct his power, and who exerted his power (sections 1.b and 4.a).

Another strategy to which Reid appeals, in order to show that when we think of causes of some change we have in mind efficient causes, is to focus on what causes the beginning of existence. One natural belief, according to Reid, is the belief that nothing can come into existence without an efficient cause (EAP, 202). The first cause, that which brought things into existence, it is commonly believed, is a cause which had power to bring about existence and understanding to bring about the order of existence. Order and purposiveness (teleology) are effects of something with power and intelligence. Existence and order do not just pop into being, according to Reid. We all believe, in practice if not in words, that existence has a cause. And since existence is ordered and purposeful, we think of the cause as an efficient cause (a substance endowed with active power, will, and understanding). Reid then seems to think that we all believe that the first coming into existence is caused by an efficient cause, and this would explain why we believe that all change is caused (perhaps in the beginning, or by intermediate actions), by an efficient cause. Hence, we hold the belief that we, as human beings, are sometimes efficient causes, and we hold the belief that existence itself, and the course of nature, requires an efficient cause.

ii. Physical Causes

Although the proper sense of the term ‘cause’ is efficiency or productive causality, Reid recognizes that there is also a lax or popular use of the term. We often use the term ‘cause’ to describe events in nature that are constantly conjoined with other events, which we call ‘effects.’ Causes in this sense—in the Humean sense—are not agents but events constantly conjoined with others according to the laws of nature. Only efficient causes are causes per se, for Reid, but events that ‘cause’ others according to laws of nature may be called ‘causes’ or ‘necessary causes’ as long as we bear in mind that this is an improper use of the term.

Originally, however, Reid notices that human beings were prone to think of inanimate beings as agents. In agreement with Hume, Reid writes that human beings tended to think a soul or agent is the cause of any motion that is not accounted for. In anticipation to contemporary cognitive science, Reid recognizes that humans have what is called today a ‘hyper active agency detecting device.’ We are prone to attribute powers to beings, qualities and relations that are inanimate and passive (Of Power, 6 and EAP, 207). Then by reflection and education human beings can come to observe that objects in nature are merely passive, and that they have no productive force or power. As philosophy advances, Reid writes, we find that objects which appeared to be intelligent and active are dead, inactive, passive, and moved necessarily (EAP, 207).

Nonetheless, many human beings still tend to think of laws of nature as powers or as causes in the true sense of having power to initiate change (EAP, 211). They observe constant conjunction, events constantly following others in similar circumstances, such as heat and ice melting. However, they do not perceive the real connection between these events. “Antecedent to experience,” Reid writes, “we should see no ground to think that heat will turn ice into water any more than that it will turn water into ice” (Of Power, 7). And yet the tendency is to attribute to laws of nature behind these events the same productive powers we attribute to agents. But, Reid argues, Newton himself was correct to write that a little reflection will clearly show that laws of nature cannot produce any phenomenon “unless there be some agent that puts the law in execution” (Of Power, 7). It is as absurd to attribute agency to laws of nature as it is to attribute agency to beings who lack will and understanding. However, one may continue to use the word ‘cause’ to refer to events constantly preceding others according to the laws of nature, or to refer to the laws themselves, but one must recognize, Reid insists, that such a use is a popular and improper use of the term.

We do not observe active power in inanimate beings, and we do not perceive such a productive power in the laws of nature. Still, human beings all believe that beginning of existence, order and purpose require an efficient cause (4 b.i) Our causal beliefs, Reid argues, are teleological—we assume there is purpose and activity behind events in nature. Our context, education, bad science, or certain kinds of religion or philosophy might then lead us to give up such teleological beliefs. But, for Reid, careful attention to those beliefs that are presupposed behind our arguments and practices will reveal that human beings all have the (legitimate) tendency to think of nature as purposeful.

For Reid, laws of nature express purpose because they are expressions of divine character traits. Every agent who forms resolutions and fixed purposes will tend to act in a regular manner (section 2.b). Since natural events do not have any productive capacity, since the laws of nature are not productive powers, since all change and beginning of existence requires an efficient cause, and since human agents are not these efficient causes, there must be another agent behind the existence and motion of nature, God. Events in nature follow regular courses of action, which, like all regular courses of actions, express the character traits or fixed resolutions of an agent: the Author of nature. We do not know exactly how this efficient cause acts in nature, Reid points out (EAP, 210). He might have acted once, or might act in all changes, or act through intermediary agents. But “it is sufficient for us to know, that, whatever the agents may be, whatever the manner of their operation, or the extent of their power, they depend upon the first cause, and are under his control; and this indeed is all that we know; beyond this we are left in the darkness” (EAP, 30). In conclusion, therefore, efficient causes are agents, beings with active power, will and understanding. Events in nature and inanimate objects are not agents, and hence are called ‘causes’ in a popular sense only, but they require an efficient cause, an agent who acts orderly and purposefully.

iii. Principles of Action and Causation

In opposition to his ‘necessitarian’ opponents, Reid argues that the rational principles of action that motivate human agents in their choices and actions are not causes (in any sense of the term). The opponents Reid confronts directly are David Hume and Joseph Priestley, but he also has in mind philosophers such as Locke, Collins, Leibniz, and Spinoza. All of these philosophers held, according to Reid, that the will is not free, but that human choices and decisions are determined, necessarily, by the strongest, or, under some views, the best, motive.

In Reid’s account, the two great categories of motives or principles of action are the animal and the rational ones. Reid points out animal motives may function as physical causes do, but only in cases where the agent has no power. In cases of torture, or of madness, human beings may lose all power of self-government and of action. In such instances we do not hold them responsible for their actions (although we might hold them responsible for previous actions which were in their power) because we recognize that the animal motive (pain, fear, etc.) was irresistible. For this reason Reid concludes that when a person discloses an important secret by the agony of the rack, for example, we pity him more than we blame him (EAP, 57-58). If the person with strength of mind succeeds in resisting the passion (the fear of pain, for instance), we impute the action to the person. If the person fails after trying, we impute the action more to the passion than to the person, and we blame the person in proportion to a person’s capacity to resist passions (EAP, 59). The extent to which we have power to act is inversely proportional to the influence of animal motives. Animal motives, therefore, may act as physical causes, but never as efficient causes, since events or mental states are not beings with power and understanding.

On the other hand, rational principles of action—which are valuable ends that agents recognize they may instantiate by their actions—never act as physical causes. It is impossible for such motives to function as physical causes, Reid argues. These motives are non-existing ends that the agent considers, and since they are not existing states of affairs there is no way they could function as physical causes (EAP, 214; more on this in Yaffe 2004). They could not function as efficient causes either, since efficient causes are substances with power and understanding. Hence (rational) motives are neither causes nor agents, “they suppose an efficient cause, and can do nothing without it” (EAP, 214). Instead of thinking of rational motives as causes, Reid writes, we should rather think of them as advice or exhortation, which leave agents perfectly free to determine their choices and actions.

Defenders of necessity (Collins, Hume, Kames, Hartley, Priestley, Leibniz) have argued, Reid writes, that the strongest of contrary motives must prevail. And if there is but one motive, they hold, then this motive determines the agent. There is a necessary relation, according to these philosophers, between a person’s motives and his actions. Motives, according to them, function as necessary causes. The strongest or best motive is the motive that causally determines the action.

In response to such views, Reid examines what test these philosophers use to determine the strength of a motive. Reid asks us to consider how we judge which of two motives is the strongest. One way to establish which motive is the strongest is to consider which motive prevails. The strongest motive, according to such a position, is simply the motive that prevails (that wins). Or, one could claim that “by the strength of motive is not meant its prevalence, but the cause of its prevalence…” (EAP, 217). But, Reid points out, this answer simply asserts that the strongest motive is the strongest motive. To prevail or win is identical to being the strongest (Ibid). This solution, therefore, fails to offer a test or way of determining which motive is the strongest. Moreover, it assumes what must be proved: that the strongest motive, or the cause of the strongest motive, is the necessary cause of action. These accounts all beg the question and assume, Reid argues, that “motives are the causes, and the sole causes of actions” (Ibid.). Reid points out that the test of the strength of motives we use to determine if motives are necessitating causes to action must not assume that motives function as necessitating (physical) causes.

In reaction to his opponents, Reid writes that the strength of animal motives is determined differently from the strength of rational motives. The strongest animal motive, Reid observes, is the one that is most difficult to resist. The strength of animal motives is determined by the effort required to resist them. In a limited number of situations, they are irresistible (in cases of torture, for instance) but in the majority of situations agents are able to resist strong animal motives, Reid notices. Brutes cannot resist the strongest animal motive because they are not capable of forming the notion of ‘ought’ and ‘ought not’ (EAP, 219). Agents, on the other hand, sometimes act according to rational motives, because they are able to recognize that an action is worth performing even if it is contrary to a strong animal motive. They can consider whether the action will be either prudentially or morally valuable, and hence act according to rational motives. The strongest rational motive, Reid observes, is the one that offers the best reason to act. It is not the one which is hardest to resist, but it is “that which it is most our duty and our real happiness to follow” (EAP, 219). The best reason, furthermore, cannot be a necessitating cause to action. Indeed, ends such as moral value or overall well-being are non-existing states of affairs, and they are not substances. Hence they could be neither necessary (physical) causes nor efficient causes.

Finally, Reid points out that it is true that we often reason from men’s actions to their motives. But we do not have enough evidence to be able to conclude, inductively, that human beings are always determined by motives (EAP, 220). Indeed, we do not have empirical data to justify such an inference. The relation strong motive-action is a probable one, but there are too many instances in which humans resist strong motives, or act according to weak motives, or act in light of future values, or act against what they consider to be best. The relation is probable, at best, but far from being certain, Reid concludes. Moreover, in many cases that are unimportant, it is possible for agents to act without any motive at all (EAP, 215; see also Rowe 1991, 171-175).

c. The Problem of Infinite Regress

Several well-known objections could be offered to theories of liberty such as Reid’s. One kind of objection is that theories of action which hold that choices and actions are not causally determined by motives, or that hold that agents have power over their will (their volitions), lead to problems of infinite regress. Some argue that accounts of liberty such as Reid’s presuppose a regress of acts of will. Others argue that they lead to a regress of motives or reasons for action. And some point out that they lead to a regress of exertions of power. All such kinds of infinite regresses are impossible, the objections go, and hence the doctrine of liberty which Reid defends must therefore be false.

Reid offers a response to the first kind of regress. Indeed, he notices that an objection first advanced by Thomas Hobbes is that the claim that we have power over our will (to will this way or that) amounts to saying that we may will it, if we will. Hobbes therefore argues, Reid notes, that in order to act the will must thus be determined by a prior will, which must in turn be determined by a prior will, and so on ad infinitum (EAP, 199). Hobbes, Reid writes, therefore holds that liberty consists only in the power to act as we will, and it does not extend to the will itself.

In response to Hobbes, Reid points out that his account does not imply an infinite regress of acts of will because even though the determinations of the will are effects, Reid writes, which must have a cause, the cause of the determining (the choice or intention) is not some previous choice or intention. If the will is free, the agent is the cause of the agent’s determinations, he writes, and the action is thus imputable to the agent. If another agent is the cause (either immediately or by the interposition of other events), then the determination is imputable to that other agent. There is no regress of acts of will, according to Reid, since the cause is the agent and not another act of will (EAP, 201). Moreover, as explained in section 1.b.ii, Reid argues that power over an end action requires having power over the intermediary actions leading up to the end. Volitions (choices or willings) are internal actions leading up to the end, and hence power over the end implies having power over the volitions (Ibid.).

Another possible regress implied by Reid’s account of liberty (which is often called today a ‘libertarian’ account of freedom, to be distinguished from the political theory) is a regress in reasons or explanations. Under an account like Reid’s, the agent is influenced by different motives, desires, reasons, and the agent then decides to act in line with one motive rather than another. How does the agent make this choice? Leibniz, for instance, writes that if the best motive does not causally necessitate the choice, then the agent must have a further reason or motive to choose one motive rather than another. Leibniz imagines that the agent must listen to different voices, different motives, and that in order to choose between these voices or considerations, the agent must listen to yet another higher-order voice, and choosing this higher-order motive requires considering still higher-motives. The agent, that is, needs a higher order motive in order to choose between lower order motives. But then, Leibniz argues, the agent would need a reason to choose the higher-order motive, and so on ad infinitum (see Leibniz 1985, and Rowe 1991b:181). Since agents cannot go through an infinite number of reasons, and in order to keep from falling into the regress trap, a more appealing account, according to Reid’s opponents, is the one that holds that agents are determined, necessarily, by the strongest or the best motive.

According to Reid, however, the process of weighing motives and of deliberation does not lead to an infinite regress of motives. Rational motives may be higher-order motives about which animal motive should be acted upon or resisted, or about the overall prudential or moral value of the courses of action to which various motives lead (EAP, 57). But at the moment of decision, deliberation has stopped. Deliberation ends with a final judgment about what one ought to do, and with an intention either to act accordingly, or to refrain from acting according to what is best. “The natural consequence of deliberation on any part of our conduct,” Reid writes, “is a determination how we shall act; and if it is not brought to this issue it is lost labour” (EAP, 64). At the moment of decision, Leibniz is wrong, Reid would contend, to think that the libertarian must revert to an infinite series of reasons. The agent knows which motive he should follow. Deliberation ends with a consideration of which course of action is most valuable. And whether the agent follows the one that is best or not will not depend on yet another reason or motive. Indeed, what other reason could he offer? Evaluations of what one ought to do, about prudence or moral duty, are evaluations about ends, according to Reid. And an end is something that requires no further justification or reason. Therefore, once a person recognizes the end, and which course of action will instantiate the end, no further reason needs to be offered. Now, whether or not the agent in fact acts according to such an end is a question of weakness of will, or of lack of self-government; it is not an issue of providing yet further motives for choosing between higher-order motives (Kroeker 2007).

In the late 20th and early 21st century, several Reid scholars have argued that yet another kind of regress looms for Reid: an infinite regress of exertions of active power. Reid writes that “in order to the production of any effect, there must be in the cause, not only power, but the exertion of power; for power that is not exerted produces no effect” (EAP, 203). The regress arises when we consider the nature of the exertion of active power. Is the exertion an event? If so, then it must have a cause since Reid writes that every event must have an efficient cause. Efficient causes, for Reid, are agents, and when an agent acts freely, that agent is the cause of his or her own action. But if exertions are effects, does this mean that the agent causes the exertion of power? If so, then the agent would have to exert his active power in order to exert his active power. But if this former exertion is also an event caused by the agent, then it requires another previous exertion of active power, and so on.

Reid does not explicitly address the problem of regress of exertions of active power, and scholars disagree about which response he would adopt. Since this problem is well known, it is worth mentioning some suggested responses. One possible answer is simply to accept the regress, and to defend its coherence (Chisholm 1979). Another possible strategy is to argue that some acts of will are acts of mind that are uncaused. William Rowe, for instance, argues that the exertion of active power is an event but it is logically or conceptually impossible for such an event to be the effect of the exertion of active power of any agent (Rowe 1991b). For Rowe exertions are acts by which agents agent-cause their choices and actions. But agents do not cause the exertion itself, Rowe argues.

Another Reidian response to the problem of regress of exertions is that there can be events that an agent causes without bringing about any other event as a means of producing them. Paul Hoffman, for instance, suggests that exertions of power are events. But they are the kind of events that do not require a previous exertion of active power (this solution was first considered, but not ultimately defended, by Rowe (1987)). Hoffman argues that exertions of active power are events, but events which are exempted of being caused by an exertion of active power. These events “do not require a prior activating of a power” (Hoffman 2006, 445).

A further suggested solution is to reject the view that exertions of active power are events. Timothy O’Connor, for instance, argues that exertions are better understood as relations that hold between agents and their effects. Agents bring about their volitions, but not by some further action. They bring about their effects directly. And this irreducible relation is the exertion of active power. Exertions of active power are relations between causes (agents) and effects (the agents’ volitions and actions), and as relations they are not caused, and hence are not events (O’Connor 1994, 621).

A solution to the regress of exertions problem, Gideon Yaffe alternatively suggests, may be found if we consider what is involved in trying to act. For Yaffe, when an agent tries to do something and succeeds, there is just one action. If someone tries to commit a murder and succeeds in committing the murder, for example, we do not think the person performed two different things: trying and killing. The only action performed here is killing. The trying is not a separate action, but it is somehow part of the action of killing. Hence, Yaffe writes that “if the trying is anywhere in cases of success it is ‘in’ the successful action (Yaff 2004, 157). Now, Yaffe continues, if exerting power is just like trying, then in cases of success, the exertion is in the action. In cases of failure, on the other hand, the only thing the agent does is try. Trying in cases of failure is an action or event. We might say that in cases of failure the agent exerts his power to try. Moreover, since trying is a successful action, there is no further action of trying to try which would require a further exertion of active power. Hence, when we understand the exertion of power as trying (regardless of whether the trying succeeds and the agent acts, or the agent fails and the agent only tries to act) it is false to say that such exertions lead to a regress of exertions. Yaffe concludes, therefore, that since the relation agent-action in cases of success is direct and non-reducible, Reid’s account is best characterized as an agent-causal view of action.

Finally, James Van Cleve suggests, in response to the infinite regress of exertions objection, that in causing an action, the agent causes his own causing of the action. An agent’s causing some action has a reflexive component: in causing an action, the agent thereby causes the causing of the action. And we need not worry about the further complexity that in causing the causing the action I also cause the causing of the causing of the action, because this further complexity “is matched by no corresponding complexity in the fact described” (Van Cleve, 2015: 432). In causing an action, Van Cleve argues, the agent causes his own causing of the action—the causing of the action is not a further causing of this causing but is the agent himself.

d. First Argument for Moral Liberty

In the fourth essay of the Essays on the Active Powers, Reid focuses on three arguments for the conclusion that adult human beings have active power over their will. According to Reid’s account, moral liberty is the freedom an agent has to choose and to act (see sections 1.b and 4.a). What Reid calls the ‘first argument’ for moral liberty is based on the fact that the belief that we are free and the belief that every event must have a cause which had power to produce it are natural beliefs. For Reid some beliefs are natural beliefs, and natural beliefs are legitimate. They are legitimate in that it is reasonable to hold these beliefs unless proof is brought against them. Reid will show that there is, in fact, no good proof brought against such beliefs, and hence that it is legitimate to hold that humans possess moral liberty.

Natural beliefs are held by all adult human beings who are not under the influence of madness, of drugs, or of circumstances which might diminish their rational and active capacities. They are generated by our innate natural faculties, and, for Reid, we have no good reason to distrust our natural faculties. They all stand on the same footing, and hence we have no reason to trust one faculty and not another, Reid argues. Moreover, he shows that we cannot distrust all of them since we would be using our faculties to offer reasons for distrusting all of them—a position that is self-defeating and untenable (EAP, 229).

Another characteristic of natural beliefs is that they appear very early in the mind of humans even though they are neither a result of induction nor of deduction. Children, for instance, believe very early that they have a degree of active power over their actions, and that every event must have an efficient cause. Human beings do not first form these beliefs by observing external objects. In nature we only perceive events constantly conjoined to others, Reid points out, and not the connection between them (EAP, 229). The notion of power (and of efficient causation), therefore, cannot be formed by observation of external objects (see section 1.a on our ideas of active power; and 4.b.i for more on natural principles). Moreover, as adults we are not directly conscious of our own power (only of the exertions of our power), but yet we are convinced that we do have power when we choose and act. For Reid we only will to perform actions which we believe to be in our power. Hence, in exerting our power (in acting), we also believe that the action is in our power, and hence that we have the power over our willings and external actions.

Furthermore, Reid continues, the conviction that we have power over our choices and actions is implied in all our deliberations. When we deliberate about which action we should perform, according to Reid, we are convinced that the action we are considering performing is in our power. And once we finish deliberating, our resolutions and purposes imply a conviction that we have power to execute what we have resolved to do (EAP, 230). Reid adds that our acts of promising also imply the belief that we have the power to carry out what we have promised, and the human activity of blaming also presupposes a belief that the person acted wrongly. Blame, Reid writes, presupposes a wrongful use of power, as it is absurd to blame a person for yielding to necessity. Finally, the belief that humans often do have power over their will is assumed in the regulations of tribunals.

Some of these examples, however, show that humans believe that they have power over their actions, but they do not imply the conclusion Reid is seeking: that we do have power over our volitions. Reid’s view, in response, is that unless reflection, good philosophy, good science or compelling evidence may be given to distrust the propositions that sane adult human beings believe naturally, we are justified in holding them. Natural beliefs are legitimate; they express what is the case. To accept a proposition as a natural principle (as a first-principle), it is not enough to simply assert that we all believe it. Reid argues, rather, that there are “ways of reasoning about them, by which those that are just and solid may be confirmed, and those that are false may be detected” (EIP 463). One must show, for instance, that the belief is acquired without the need of inductive or deductive reasoning, that it is common to the learned and the unlearned, that giving up the conviction would lead to absurdities, that it enjoys the same kind and level of evidence as other similar beliefs which we admit as first principles, and that it appears early in the mind of children (EIP, VI.4). Reid, in his first argument for moral liberty, contends that we have power over our will because it is a proposition that is believed, naturally, and because it meets the requirements for being a first principle. The burden of proof, therefore, falls on the side of those who defend the doctrine of necessity (EAP, 235). This epistemological point, coupled with Reid’s belief that there are no convincing arguments to show that the belief must be rejected, lead Reid to conclude that we have moral liberty.

One might object that many might profess that they do not, in fact, believe that they have power over their will. Reid, in response, argues that what people profess or state is not always in line with what they actually believe. To know what people believe, Reid points out, it is not always best to ask them. It is better to look at their actions and practices. Hence a man might claim that he is not afraid of the dark, and yet refuse to sleep alone and to turn the light off. His actions betray his fear, Reid points out (EAP, 232). The same holds for our beliefs of power over our will and actions. Everyday practices are evidence that we believe we have power not only over our actions but also over our will.

e. Second Argument for Moral Liberty

Reid also argues for moral liberty from the fact that humans are moral and accountable beings. For Reid there can be no “moral obligation and accountableness, praise and blame, merit and demerit, justice and injustice, reward and punishment, wisdom and folly, virtue and vice” if human beings do not have active power (EAP, 240). In civil government, in religion, and in all moral discourse, the obligation that human beings have to do what is right is taken as given. Humans, it is universally recognized, are moral and accountable beings.

In order to be a moral being, Reid argues, a being must know the law and must have the power to obey it. Brute animals, Reid observes, are not moral and accountable beings, because they do not have the capacity to understand the moral law. Human beings, however, if they are not insane or incapacitated, are, according to Reid, capable of recognizing a moral law (what they ought to do). Human beings also have the power to do what they are responsible for (EAP, 237). Reid points out that it is self-evident to all human beings that one cannot “be under an obligation to do what it is impossible for him to do” (Ibid.). A person may be responsible for a previous action, like cutting off his finger, but he cannot then be held responsible for not being able to use his fingers for a particular action that requires dexterity. The fact that humans are held responsible for some of their actions, therefore, implies that they are capable of knowing the moral law, and that they can have the power to act accordingly.

The doctrine of necessity, Reid, argues, is not coherent with the moral accountableness of human agents. According to the doctrine of necessity, Reid writes, a man is not free to will or to choose. But if this is the case, then it is impossible for a person to will otherwise than how he in fact wills. But this means that it is impossible for a person who is determined to will to refrain from willing. And hence, according to Reid, the doctrine of necessity implies that persons should not be held responsible, because it is absurd to hold someone responsible for what he could not refrain from choosing. But we do continue to hold humans accountable for their choices and actions. Again, therefore, the burden of proof falls on those who hold that our everyday practices and beliefs are wrong, according to Reid.

f. Third Argument for Moral Liberty

In his third argument for moral liberty Reid argues that human beings have power over their actions and their volitions because they are able of conceiving plans and of carrying them out, which implies they possess moral liberty. A regular plan of conduct, Reid contends, cannot be contrived without understanding, and cannot be carried into execution without power (EAP, 240).

Reid assumes, from the start, that some persons lay down a plan of conduct, and resolve to pursue that plan. Reid also assumes we will all agree that some have in fact pursued such plans or ends by adopting and performing the proper means.

For Reid, these assumptions imply that the person who carries out the plan has wisdom and understanding. But, he argues, they also demonstrate that the person has a degree of power over his voluntary determinations. For Reid, “understanding without power may project, but it can execute nothing” (EAP, 240). A regular plan of action cannot be contrived without understanding, and it cannot be executed without power.

The question, now, is ‘where is this understanding and power?’ In other words: ‘who is the true cause of the plan?’ If wisdom and understanding is in fact in the person who carried out the plan, Reid writes, then we have the very same evidence that the power which executed it is also in that person.

For Reid’s opponent, the true cause of the plan lies in the motives of the agent, and not in the agent who exerts his active power. But, Reid points out, motives do not have understanding and power. These qualities are characteristics of agents, but only agents have understanding and power over their wills and actions. So, is there an agent other than the person who carried out the plan who in fact arranged the motives (and was the true cause of the plan)? If the cause is an agent other than the person who carried out the plan, Reid writes, then we cannot say the person had a hand in the execution of the plan; it is not even his plan, and, further, we have no evidence that the person is a thinking being. After all, many animals carry out plans such as building bee hives or spinning webs. But we do not think of the plans as the effects of intelligence in the animal. The plans here are effects of another agent, of another efficient cause. But in the case of human beings, the plans they carry out really are their plans. And we think of humans as exerting the intelligence required to lay out and pursue their plans of action. Hence, Reid concludes, if the intelligence is really in the person who carried out the plan and whose plan it is, then the power must be in that person as well.

What evidence do we have that our fellow human beings think and reason? For Reid, the evidence that persons who carry out intelligent plans have wisdom and understanding is provided by the persons’ speech and actions. The behavior of human beings, their language, and their bodily movements and expressions are all signs of intelligence (for more on natural signs of mental states, see EAP, 116 and 141). The understanding therefore truly lies in the person who carried out the plan. However, to carry out a plan, one must have power to execute it. Hence, “if the actions and speeches of other men give us sufficient evidence that they are reasonable beings, they give us the same evidence, and the same degree of evidence, that they are free agents” (EAP, 242). Pursuing plans, step by step, therefore, is a sign of both wisdom and active power.

In conclusion, Reid recognizes that although many questions remain to be answered, one thing is clear: in everyday activities and concerns of the present life of human beings, no person is very much affected by the doctrine of necessity (EAP, 269). Even though some vehemently defend necessity and others zealously guard liberty, we see no great difference between them in their everyday conducts. The fatalist, despite his claims, “deliberates, resolves, and plights his faith. He lays down a plan of conduct, and prosecutes it with vigour and industry…” (EAP, 269) He exhorts, commands, blames and praises. In all cases “he sees that it would be absurd not to act and to judge as those ought to do who believe themselves and other men to be free agents” (Ibid.). In everyday life, Reid concludes, all men act in a way that is consistent with his theory of liberty, and inconsistent with the doctrine of necessity. All humans believe, in the everyday, that they possess active power over some of their actions. And what all humans believe is a sign of what is, according to Reid, unless one may offer good arguments to show that the belief is false. In the absence of such good arguments, Reid thinks that the most reasonable position it to claim that humans have moral liberty. And what is most important, according to Reid, is for us “to manage these powers, by proposing to ourselves the best ends, planning the most proper system of conduct that is in our power, and executing it with industry and zeal. This is true wisdom; this is the very intention of our being” (EAP, 5). Powers to act, to direct our actions, to plan, to decide, are all useful powers for Reid, and using them well, for good ends, is the noblest human mission.

5. References and Further Reading

a. Primary Sources

  • Collins, Anthony (1976) ‘A Philosophical Inquiry Concerning Human Liberty’ in Determinism and Free Will, ed. J.O’Higgins SJ. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
  • Hobbes, Thomas (1648) ‘Of Liberty and Necessity’ in The English Works of Thomas Hobbes, iv, accessed November 24, 2015, https://archive.org/details/englishworkstho28hobbgoog.
  • Hume, David (1998) An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (EPM), Tom L. Beauchamp (ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hume, David (2007a) A Treatise of Human Nature: A Critical Edition (T), David Fate Norton and Mary J. Norton (eds.). Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Leibniz, Gottfried (1985) Theodicy. LaSalle, Il: Open Court.
  • Locke, John (1979) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Priestley, Joseph (1782) Doctrine of Philosophical Necessity Illustrated; being an Appendix to the Disquisitions relating to Matter and Spirit. London.
  • Reid, Thomas (1997) An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (I), Derek R. Brookes (ed.). Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press. (Original work published in 1764.)
  • Reid, Thomas (2001) ‘Of Power’, The Philosophical Quarterly 51.202: 3-12 (Original work unpublished manuscript, 1772).
  • Reid, Thomas (2002) Essays on the Intellectual Powers of ManA Critical Edition (EIP), Derek R. Brookes (ed.). Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press. (Original work published in 1785.)
  • Reid, Thomas (2010) Essays on the Active Powers of ManA Critical Edition (EAP), Knud Haakonssen and James A. Harris (eds.). Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press. (Original work published in 1788.)
  • Spinoza, Baruch (1985) Ethics, in The Collected Works of Spinoza, vol. 1, transl. E. Curley. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

b. Secondary Sources

  • Alvarez, Maria (2010) ‘Thomas Reid’, in A companion to the Philosophy of Action, Timothy O’Connor & Constantine Sandis (eds.). UK: Wiley-Blackwell: 505-512.
    • Argues that Reid’s endorsement of the thesis that we cause changes by causing volitions gives rise to serious problems.
  • Chisholm, Roderick M. (1979) ‘Objects and Persons: Revisions and Replies’, in Essays on the Philosophy of Roderick M. Chisholm, Ernest Sosa (ed.). Amsterdam, Rodopi: 317-388.
    • Recognizes that his account implies an infinite regress but denies that the regress is vicious.
  • Hatcher, Michael (2013) ‘Reid’s Third Argument for Moral Liberty’, British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 21.4: 688-710.
    • Argues that the argument from design is one of the premises in Reid’s third argument for moral liberty.
  • Harris, James (2003) ‘On Reid’s “Inconsistency Triad”: A Reply to McDermid’, British Journal of the History of Philosophy 11.1: 121-127.
    • Defends Reid against the charge that Reid’s attempt to offer arguments for moral liberty is inconsistent with his view that the proposition that we have power over our wills is a first principle, and hence cannot be proved.
  • Hoffman, Paul (2006) ‘Thomas Reid’s Notion of Exertion’, Journal of the History of Philosophy 44.3: 431-447.
    • Offers a Reidian answer to the infinite regress of exertions problem by showing that exertions of power are events which are exempted of being caused by prior exertions.
  • Jaffro, Laurent (2011) ‘Reid on powers of the mind and the person behind the curtain’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 41.sup1: 197-213.
    • Examines Reid’s claim that there is no inert activity; the operations of the understanding involve some degree of activity.
  • Kroeker, Esther (2007) ‘Explaining our Choices: Reid on Motives, Character and Effort’, The Journal of Scottish Philosophy, 5 (2) 2007, 187–212.
    • Offers a Reidian answer to the objection that Reid’s account or moral liberty leads to an infinite regress of reasons and motives, and examines Reid’s criticism of the Principle of Sufficient Reason.
  • Kroeker, Esther (2011) ‘Reid’s Moral Psychology: animal motives as guides to virtue’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 41.sup1: 122-141.
    • Examines Reid’s understanding of the animal motives and argues that uncorrupted animal motives are, for Reid, guides to virtue.
  • Lindsay, Chris (2005) ‘Reid on Scepticism about Agency and the Self’, Journal of Scottish Philosophy 3.1: 19-33
    • Defends Reid’s possible response to Alvarez’s objection that Reid’s theory gives rise to a skeptical worry concerning awareness of one’s actions, and suggests there are still tensions originating from Reid’s dualist metaphysics.
  • Madden, Edward (1983) ‘Commonsense and Agency Theory’, Review of Metaphysics 36.2: 319-341.
    • Presents an overview of Reid’s views on agency and causality, and discusses problems related to Reid’s claim that reasons for action are not causes.
  • McDermid, Douglas (1999) ‘Thomas Reid on Moral Liberty and Common Sense’, British Journal for the History of Philosophy 7.2: 275-303.
    • Presents the essential features of Reid’s theory of liberty, shows how his arguments depend on common sense epistemology, and discusses limitations of Reid’s account.
  • McDermid, Douglas (2010) ‘A Second Look at Reid’s First Argument for Moral Liberty’, in Reid on Ethics, Sabine Roeser (ed.). Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan: 143-163.
    • Discusses the Reidian claim that the principle that we have moral liberty (that we have some degree of power over our actions and determinations of our will) is a principle of common sense.
  • O’Connor, Timothy (1994) ‘Thomas Reid on Free Agency’, Journal of the History of Philosophy 32.4: 605-622.
    • Argues that the Reidian response to the problem of infinite regress of exertions of power is that it is best to understand exertions as relations that hold between agents and their actions, and that such relations, as opposed to events, are uncaused.
  • Rowe, William (1987) ‘Two Concepts of Freedom’, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 61: 43-64.
    • Presents a Reidian response to the objection that Reid’s moral theory leads to an infinite regress of exertions of power by arguing that exertions are the kind of events that do not require a previous exertion of power.
  • Rowe, William (1991a) ‘Responsibility, Agent-Causation, and Freedom’, Ethics 101: 237-257.
    • Argues that agent-causation, for Reid, is the concept that plays a central role in the logical connection between moral responsibility and freedom.
  • Rowe, William (1991b) Thomas Reid on Freedom and Morality. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
    • Presents and evaluates Reid’s theory of freedom.
  • Stalley, R.F. (1998) ‘Hume and Reid on the Nature of Action’, Reid Studies, 12: 33-48.
    • Discusses Reid’s response and criticism of Hume’s claim that we have no clear idea of power or cause.
  • Stecker, Robert (1992) ‘Thomas Reid’s Philosophy of Action’, Philosophical Studies 66: 197-208.
    • Argues that Reid’s theory of causality leads to a regress problem, and if it does not it is still uninformative and mysterious.
  • Van Cleve, James (2015) Problems from Reid. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Examines Reid’s arguments related to a wide range of topics such as perception, sensation, skepticism, conception, epistemology and first principles, as well as action theory.
  • Van Woudenberg, René (2010) ‘Thomas Reid on Determinism,’ in Reid on Ethics, Sabine Roeser (ed.). Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan: 123-142.
    • Argues that Reid understood ‘determinism’ differently from how it is currently understood, and discusses Reid’s criticism of determinism as he understood it.
  • Weinstock, Jerome (1975) ‘Reid’s Definition of Freedom’, the Journal of the History of Philosophy, 13.3: 335-345.
    • Examines Reid’s attempt to include power over one’s will in the definition of freedom, and argues that power over the will has to do with possession of reason and a faculty of judgment that enables us to govern ourselves.
  • Yaffe, Gideon (2007), ‘Promises, Social Acts, and Reid’s First Argument for Moral Liberty.’ Journal of the History of Philosophy 45. 2: 267-289.
    • Presents Reid’s philosophical views about the act of promising, and showing that, for Reid, it is because promising is a social act that he thinks it presupposes active power.
  • Yaffe, Gideon (2004), Manifest Activity. Thomas Reids Theory of Action, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Offers a critical examination and reconstruction of Reid’s arguments in favor of his doctrine of moral liberty.


Author Information

Esther Engels Kroeker
Email: Esther.kroeker@uantwerpen.be
University of Antwerp

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