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Causal Theory of Action – Philosophy Essay

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Updated: Apr 8th, 2020


The theory of action states that whatever individuals do is always intentional meaning a theoretical relationship between legitimate action and an intention exists. However, establishing this relationship has always been a debatable issue among philosophers and there has been a concerted effort to do so unsuccessfully because of two major reasons. In this case, understanding the actor’s normative intention is critical in offering an explanation.

Again, it is prudent to focus on the intention with which a person acted because such actions might be having teleological dimensions that could not be reduced to the simple concept of causal guidance. Recent studies are focused on the nature of intention, as well as their distinctiveness as far as mental states are concerned. In other words, they center on the norms governing cogent intending. In this article, the ideas of Frankfurt on the problem of action are reviewed in an attempt to explain the causal theory of action.

Problem of Action according to Frankfurt

In his analysis, the author suggested that people face problems in distinguishing between what happens by chance and what they did intentionally. In other words, certain body movements are usually intentional while others are accidental in the sense that they were never initiated. Causal theories prove that differences exist between the two forms of movements, which are mainly based on their causal histories. A bodily movement is considered an action in case it was a result of antecedents of a certain kind.

Various types of movements might result in different types of events or states that must represent causality in producing actions. However, this form of action is similar to the voluntary action in the sense that it is sufficient and necessary for human survival meaning it determines an event is perhaps an action.

Approaching an action from this perspective is unsatisfactory even though this does not suggest a lack of action, but instead it does not meet the threshold to be termed an action. It does not mean that any event is an action even if it has a specific history. The author notes further that history alone is not sufficient to establish whether an event is an action because some events might be sharing histories, but they differ in terms of whether they are actions.

If for instance something happens to an individual abruptly, he or she might not be in a position to offer explanation because of lacking sufficient knowledge to deal with it. In this regard, it is critical to consider the nature of the events instead of thinking they are similar with previous occurrences due to their origin and histories. Causal theories are so different in the sense that they not focus so much on events that tend to compare closely when it comes to nature and occurrence time.

The theories suggest that an individual could still produce an action without necessarily being in his or her conscious mind. In other words, they dispute the claim that a relationship between an event and an intention must exist for it to produce an action. The event could still take place without the effort of the agent, as soon as the causal antecedent is established. In this case, the body could move in any direction without the knowledge of the agent.

In the second scenario, the author goes a notch higher to suggest that actions and simple events that happen are identical claiming further that the idea is important in understanding the motivation for causal theories. If indeed it were believed that human actions and things that happen involuntarily are inherently different, it would be true that identifying inherent differences would be the first step towards delineating them.

This idea is based on the principle that nothing could differentiate happenings from actions apart from the pertinent issues. For some scholars, desires play a critical role in the manufacture of actions and a distinction cannot be made between bodily involuntary movements and the induced actions.

In this case, classifying these movements would call for the understanding of the origin of actions. In case an individual moves his or her body, it would not be determined at once whether he or she is performing an action. However, the same movement could be applied when an individual intends to make an action.

Therefore, an analysis of an action does not consider the position of the body before the movement. The most important factor to consider is the whether the movement was under the guidance of an agent because it would determine whether an event is an action. On the other hand, it is noted that antecedent does not tell whether the body movement was under the guidance of the agent. In this regard, an event could only occur after the conditions even though it could be directed through the course of its occurrence at a chronological distance.

Additionally, complex movements could be ordinary happenings as well, but some people might term them actions. For instance, a pianist might engage in an event that would be termed an action right away yet it was involuntary happening. In case an individual suffers from epileptic seizure, chances are high that he or she would thrash about his or her body, which is a complex happening yet it does not constitute an action.

In the third case, Frankfurt gives the details of what constitutes an act since he suggests that it is closely related to the purpose of an event. In other words, he underscores the fact that an action is always guided, but such movements are not necessarily actions. For instance, the eye’s pupil might be dilated once the light fades, which is purposeful, but it would be surprising to note that it does not constitute an action.

Additionally, a certain action is likely to guide the entire process even though the occurrence is inconsistent with the action in the sense that the pupil dilates itself without the command of the agent. In this regard, the action is not under the guidance of the agent, as he or she is forced to participate in an act involuntarily. An example of pupil dilation is confusing due to intentional movement in the sense that an individual must participate in the act.

However, it differs from intentional action since the agent was never prepared to carry out the process. Intentional action takes place only when the agent deliberately engages in an act meaning he or she was willing to conduct the actions. Therefore, behavior could be termed as purposive in case they are adjustable to compensate for the forces that interfere with actions.

Lastly, Frankfurt underscored the fact that causes might have their origin in an action, but they would be different from considerations of virtue. In many cases, people are forced to perform things that do not fulfill their interests. In case the idea behind freedom is to be understood, analyzing the causes of actions is very important. If an individual is allowed what to do, the action would be intentional, but forcing people to engage in involuntary actions do not amount of intentional behavior.

In trying to deal with the issue of addiction and drugs, the concept of causes of action is much applicable. For instance, an individual taking heroin should never be harassed because his actions are never free in the sense that an external force influences them. In this regard, preventing an external force from entering into the body of an individual would be beneficial as opposed to trying to deal with the effects after the incident.


The causal theory of action talks extensively about the occurrence of event whereby a movement that takes place by chance is differentiated from another one that is intentional. It is observed that an individual might engage in act without knowing leading to involuntary action while certain body movements are usually initiated meaning an individual might put an effort.

The theory is critical in the understanding of freedom because some actions in life are initiated while others are never intended. For instance, an individual being forced to follow the law does is compared to the one experiencing involuntary action because an effort is not placed. In case an individual is allowed to do as he or she wishes, he or she is said to have acted because no external force was used.

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