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Causal Theory of Action and Harry Frankfurt’s Objections Essay

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Updated: Apr 8th, 2020


Different philosophical positions apply in the discussion of human actions and their causation. A predominant traditional philosophical argument proposes that actions constitute a set of events that determine various mental elements such as people’s intentions, requirements, and values (Aguilar and Buckareff 925).

Harry Frankfurt, an American philosopher, upholds this account of causation of actions by offering an alternative interpretation of events. He views physical engagements and actions as separate entities. He proposes the PAP (principle of alternative possibilities). This paper discusses the philosophy of actions with reference to Harry Frankfurt’s objections.

The Causal Theory of Action and Harry Frankfurt’s Objections

Harry Frankfurt made major contributions to the philosophy of action through the idea of guidance and objection to compatibilists’ proposal about the incongruity of causal determinism and ethical accountability. Resulting from PAP, the incompatibility premise holds:

  1. Agents assume responsibility for their own actions in case they do contrary to what is expected
  2. Appropriate condition for false cause determinism is necessary for agents to do otherwise for agents to bear responsibility for their deeds with reference to the false contributory determinism (Aguilar and Buckareff 926).

Harry Frankfurt rejects (b) by claiming that determinism and accountability are well matched because accountability does not demand the liberty for doing anything else. In support of this augment, he provides several examples in which agents have a responsibility for their actions amid lacking the freedom for doing otherwise. According to Harry Frankfurt, the causal theory of action has several challenges. Firstly, it fails to offer a distinction between bodily movements and actions.

Secondly, an adequate and satisfactory understanding of rational explanations for actions is required. The main challenge here is on how to understand various rational explanations for various actions. According Donald Davidson’s theory, actions comprise bodily movements that have rational explanations while such rational justifications entail causation interpretations based on one’s beliefs and desires.

Put together, these statements declare desires and beliefs as the major causation of bodily movements. Frankfurt objects this idea by maintaining that the causation of bodily movements by people’s conviction or desires does not differentiate them in terms of their actions.

While explaining Frankfurt’s refutation to the causation theory, one has to consider his counterexamples. Supposing James dives (action) in a classy manner. From the bodily movement approach, James possesses muscles that permit him to execute indistinguishable bodily movements in terms of a classy dive. In the context of causation theory, desires and beliefs differentiate these two since they cause actions. However, Frankfurt counters that action theories act against well-known counterexamples.

For instance, James might depict a desire to execute a stylish dive while believing that such a jump requires vigorous bodily movements. If it happens that the magnitude of the desire is incredibly strong, he can develop severe spasms in his muscles so that when he falls off a platform, his body generates the required movements to execute a dive.

In this extent, bodily movements are functions of an appropriate desire and/or conviction. Frankfurt does not view this observation as an action. Rather, he revises the causation theory for actions by claiming that aspirations and beliefs cause actions in the appropriate way.

In his second objection to the action theory, Frankfurt says that beliefs and desires are not satisfactory conditions for bodily movements to qualify as actions. Bodily movements are not crucial for actions to take place and/or for agents can do otherwise. Consequently, actions are not principally byproducts of agents’ free will. Agents perform actions freely only if they can choose to perform alternative actions. Thus, free will only applies where agents demonstrate the ability to execute alternative actions in precisely the same circumstances.

Frankfurt’s Theory of Action

From Frankfurt’s interpretations of actions, the difference between mere body movements and actions is traceable from intrinsic differences in their occurrences. Agents are in touch with their body movements whenever their movements are controlled and/or subject to their guidance (Frankfurt 28). In this extent, actions constitute bodily movements that are executed through agents’ guidance. Under the control of the driving force, physical activities signify purposive engagements that are instructed by the force.

Purposive engagements are equivalent to behaviors that are meant to achieve specific points. What can one say about runny nose, clearing foreign bodies from the lungs, an unplanned action of the diaphragm, and other spontaneous or unreceptive actions? People do such things, yet they differ from making a cup of coffee. Do they qualify as actions?

Frankfurt’s theory of action considers actions as any deeds that are guided by one’s behavior or purpose. Thus, a creature, as a whole, guides actions. For instance, the movement of a spider in its web amounts to action. Actions are not guided by localized mechanisms that operate within agents. For example, movement within a digestive system, which causes a spider to move, is not the causation of actions.

Frankfurt’s theory also maintains that bodily movements within an agent due to the applied external forces do not constitute actions. For instance, when a boy induces movements of the legs of a spider by manipulating its threads that are attached to its legs, the spider does no action.

Consequently, Frankfurt asserts that the behavior of animals or any other agent must be purposeful so that the associated bodily movements amount to actions. For instance, when a spider moves across the table, it controls its movements directly with the purpose of changing its location. Since such a deed has a goal, it attracts teleological justification.

Frankfurt’s theory differs from Donald Davidson’s theory of actions. Davidson sees actions as deeds that are instigated by bodily movements that are realized through the conviction and wishes of agents. Hence, causation acts as the chief reason for the occurrence of an action. Frankfurt refutes this position by counter arguing that the causation is not an essential aspect for the definition of action. Thus, when defining a deed, it is more fruitful to consider various operational mechanisms during the time of action performance.

Analysis and Discussion of Frankfurt Action Theory

According to Frankfurt, actions are not essentially the products of agents’ free will. He states that, “The assertion that someone has performed an action entails that his movements occurred under his guidance, but not that he was able to keep himself from guiding his movements as he did” (Frankfurt 161). Perhaps, this observation implies that agents need to have solid intentions of causing bodily movements, if such movements must amount to actions.

This situation makes it difficult to distinguish between deeds and causation. When Frankfurt says that causation should not emanate from agents’ inability to shun from guiding their own movements, the suggestion is that the action only occurs when agents make a decision to guide bodily movements before such movements initiate. Hence, decision-making precedes an action. What motivates these decisions? Is it not beliefs and desires? His statement highlights the need for an agent to identify itself with an action.

Agents’ identification with their actions means that they recognize their own wills. In the context of the Frankfurt’s statement, an emerging interrogative is the point of reference that agents use to determine their will. However, the presumption that ‘one’s incapacity to restrain bodily movements should not define actions’ suggests that self-consciousness in terms of guiding and controlling movements is essential for the bodily movements to amount to actions.

Nevertheless, self-consciousness does not imply that agents are conscious of all their responses since they can unconsciously respond to some stimuli. Therefore, conscious bodily movements amount to actions since perception “necessarily involves a secondary awareness of primary responses” (Frankfurt 31). Hence, if agents are not aware of the purpose for bodily movements, the movements are unconscious. Hence, they cannot be actions.

The statement reveals the principle of PAP. The fact that a person executes a bodily movement that amounts to action means that he or she does it from his or her own guidance. Thus, even if the condition that prevents the person from doing otherwise exists, he or she is responsible for the action if the condition is not called into action while making the decision to act in the manner he or she does.

For instance, if James wants to jump, the presence of Mary can make him dive even when he makes a decision not to jump. If he dives out of his own decision at a time when Mary is present, he is responsible for the action even though he lacks the choice for not diving when Mary is absent. From the statement, Mary acts as the condition that makes James incapable of preventing his bodily movement.

Works Cited

Aguilar, Jesus, and Andrea Buckareff. “Causing Human Actions: New Perspectives in the Causal Theory of Actions.” Philosophical psychology 26.6 (2013): 925-936. Print.

Frankfurt, Harry. Identification and Wholeheartedness: Responsibility, Character, and the Emotions: New Essays in Moral Psychology. Cambridge: University Press, 1988. Print.

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