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On the Relationship Between Action and Causality

By Edited Jan 5, 2016 0 0

The philosophical debates pertaining to the relation between action and causality are hardly new to the discipline, yet there is still little widespread consensus on the tenets of the relationship. Perhaps this is attributable to human limitation, but nevertheless there is an apparent inescapable paradox at the forefront that everyone comes to, consciously or otherwise, realize: our actions often feel free of opposition, yet action equally appears to be caused or uncaused—the former implicating that the agent’s action could not have been otherwise and the latter appealing to something random outside of the agent’s control. Of course the acceptance of a Humean conception of compatibilism between free will and determinism saves the determinist from being unable to impart moral responsibility upon humanity, but it is not necessarily clear that this ensures the existence of ‘free responsible actions’. For we consider ourselves free and responsible in the sense that our motives, intentions, reasoning, etc. play a moralizing role in the decision-making process preceding physiological cause and subsequent action. But if the action is separated from the premeditative process preempting the physiological cause then, because the cause necessitates the action, in the strictest sense, the action is not free and consequently not a ‘free responsible action’. Thus, in order for there to be free responsible actions, and this will be argued herein, the deliberative process preceding the physiological cause should be considered part—namely the starting point—of the causal process. And since the deliberative process is considered free, the action can be deemed free and responsible through a transitive relationship between deliberative process and action—mediated by the desired biological cause. Following, Part I will clarify this ‘liberal’ account of causation, Part II will discuss purposiveness in human action and its compatibility with causal explanation, and Part III will conclude with a consideration of F.M. Barnard’s idea of “minding” and the limitations of human agency that lie in the fundamental pretense that action and explanation are inherently relative to context.


Part I

            The predominant misconception concerning the term ‘cause’ is that it is the instigation of a mechanistic ordered sequence between cause and effect. To say that ‘X causes Y’, similar to Hume’s stance that causation is formulated in the human mind through the process of being habituated to continuous contingency rather than any actual observed proof of causation, serves to break the process of complex causation down to a simplified account of motion and impact. Rather, writes John W. Yolton, “The notion of cause as correlation, as ordered sequence, is clearly inadequate when we seek to formulate our thinking about action” due to the importance that the ‘causal antecedents’ have in the process of cause and effect (Yolton 1966: 22). Causal antecedents, such as motive, intention, and reasoning, make it impossible for he who assents to providing what Ruth Macklin calls a “causal law of the form” to, as the name entails, justify advocating a universal law governing cause and effect (Macklin 1969: 306). Macklin conjures up an example of a man who is prompted to telephone his neighbor after being frightened by a face appearing outside his window (Macklin 305). It would be absurd to claim that the man would always be frightened by a face appearing outside his window, and there are a multiplicity of possible reactions that the man could have to the situation. Obviously no one would deny that the feeling of fear caused the man to phone his neighbor, but the vital thing to take away from the example is that it is absolutely counterintuitive to formulate human behavioral causal laws independent of the causal antecedents.

A Face Outside a Window
Credit: http://www.andrewrado.com/play/2009/01/09/high-school-art-window/

Macklin's conception of a face outside one's window that can plausibly prompt several different feelings dependent upon multiple considerations. 

Continues Yolton, once an oversimplified account of causation is supplemented, “we may free ourselves for talking of mental causes in the important sense of mental events which control behavior” (Yolton 1966a: 150). And if these mental events control behavior, then that lends support to the view that these mental events lead to free responsible action insofar as the agent has the capability of creating mental events based upon their interpretation of the respective situation. There is no ‘causal law’—more specifically that we cannot feasibly determine one—because we cannot create an objective rule governing subjective interpretation in the forms of mental events (causal antecedents) and deliberation alike. This gives rise to Donald Davidson’s claim that, “'we are usually far more certain of a singular causal connection than we are of any causal law governing the case” (Davidson 1963: 698). Above, the man feels fear causing him to ring his neighbor: a universal ‘causal law’ may tell us what he will generally desire upon feeling fear (safety), but no universal ‘causal law’ could predict how he will feel about the face at the window in every possible instance. Hence, a ‘liberal’ account of causation, one that includes mental events causing the biological cause that lead to action, is warranted.

Part II

            Alas, it is the agent’s thought or purpose that serves as the conductor of causation. Purposive choosing is the very quality that gives agents recognizable autonomy. In short, as ascertained by Barnard, “there clearly is little sense in speaking of action in the first place unless there is a way of relating words to their authors or occurrences to their agents” (Barnard 1981: 293). Few philosophers would dispute the claim that purposive choosing is a quality that humans possess, but what many philosophers do hold is that purposive choosing is a separate entity from actual causation. In this view, humans do deliberate—but ultimately we only act out of passion, and our very actions are often contrary to what our reasoning told us we ought to do. Therefore, a bridge exists between reasoning and action, and it follows that we are not truly free if our actions are consequents of passion rather than our moralized reasoning. It is difficult to argue against the notion that we sometimes act contrary to reason, but, similar to the Kantian position that one’s act out of passion is still endorsed by reason, the agent does not relinquish autonomy if a passion-based account of action is accepted. For, as will be illustrated, purposive explanations are compatible with causal explanations; human action does not cease from being causally goal-oriented regardless of whether the moment of action itself is classified as reason or passion-based.

            It is often ceded that motives, desires, and intentions are “logically, not contingently, linked to actions; hence, they cannot be causes of actions” (Macklin 303). This account is simply unsatisfactory: an agent’s wanting B and doing A as a means of getting B has to count as a causal factor in action. Of course an agent can come to the aforementioned realization and do A’ when they knew they should do A, but surely this just means that humans have the ability to conceptualize a causal sequence yet equally are able to act against it. If anything, this exhibits a two-fold sense of freedom as opposed to not having freedom in action at all. Man can choose to abide by his reasons that cause his desires or he can act against reasoning out of some other desire—fundamentally causality is not interrupted. Humans simply have the empowering reigns at the moment of action.

Part III

            Building upon the ‘liberal’ conception of causation that is not analogous to direct causality but still a form of causality nonetheless, as highlighted by Barnard, there is a difference between knowing and doing—specifically whether the agent “minds” their knowledge. Barnard recounts a story told by Rousseau, “he knew perfectly well the risks of visiting a Venetian courtesan…yet, his inclinations, feelings, reason, and will to the contrary, he allowed himself, much to his own puzzlement, to be dragged off”. But Barnard insists that there is no contradiction here: we simply have a “tendency to draw too tightly the connection between knowing and acting”. He continues that there is no necessary or causal continuity between perception and continuity—we either “mind” our reasoning or we do not (Barnard 295-6). There is a gap between “minding” and knowing as there is between thought and action, and the consideration of purpose (reason or passion-based) in causality is the most adequate way to assess human behavior. Thus, there is no reason to deny human accountability because there is choice involved; the distinctive factor between causality in human behavior and causality in the natural world is that the agent could have done otherwise. Barnard stresses, “to find a reason to have been the necessary condition of an action does not presuppose that such an action must inevitably ensue whenever an identical reason is being held” (Barnard 304). Rather a potential path of causality has come to life. Whether we take said path or a different one hinges on whether and what we truly “mind”.

Venetian Courtesan
Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Courtesan

An interpretation of Rousseau's description of a Ventian courtesan. Barnard's allusion to Rousseau serves to illustrate that causality is not a simple process: contrary to what Rousseau was taught pertaining to the pursuit of immoral bodily pleasures, he is captivated by "the divinity" of the Venetian courtesan. Alas, there is a complex relationship between reason and passion--a relationship that endures vigorous deliberation.

In conclusion, the idea that there are no free responsible actions typically occurs when philosophers are unable or unwilling to deem that human reasoning and passions preceding the observable action are involved in causation. Indeed, the agent is not forced to act a certain way if they do not “mind” their reasoning, but all this shows is that human causation differs from natural causation. Therefore, claims Barnard, “human actions differ from biological processes in that they involve chosen purposes in addition to functions and structures,” and it is the functions and structures that often affect our reasoning and prompt us to do otherwise out of passion, self-doubt, or selflessness (Barnard 307). Ultimately human causation does not have to rely upon necessary contingency; in this light, actions that are caused are free because we caused them, and in turn the actions are free and responsible.


Barnard, F.M., “Accounting For Actions: Causality and Teleology”, History and Theory. 20. 3. (1981). 291-312.

Davidson, D., “Actions, reasons, and causes”, Journal of Philosophy. 60. 1. (1963). 693-700

Macklin, R., “Action, Causality, and Teleology”, The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. 19. 4. (1969). 301-316.

Yolton, J.W., “Agent causality”, American Philosophy. Q. 3. (1966). 14-26.

Yolton, J.W., “My hand goes out to you”, Philosophy. 41. 1. (1966a). 140-152.



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