Agents and Actions: Causation and Responsibility

Dissertation, Queen's University at Kingston (Canada) (1999)

Andrew Sneddon
University of Ottawa
I address the questions "What is an agent?" and "What is an action?" from the standpoint of reconciliatory naturalism: I am committed to the commensurability of the moral and natural scientific perspectives on the world. I treat humans as natural beings, subject to naturalistic inquiry. Yet I examine "action" and "agent" as primarily moral concepts, linked by the concept of responsibility : we attribute responsibility to agents for their actions. Taking our moral practice of attributing responsibility as a given, I inquire, in Part I, as to what sort of being agents must be for this practice to work. Part II addresses the nature of the events for which we attribute responsibility. ;My position is characterized by three themes. It is ascriptivist: following H. L. A. Hart, I think it is a mistake to seek causal analyses of "actior". However, I update Hart's ascriptivism: I argue that it is a necessary condition of action that it is possible to attribute responsibility for that event. It is causalist : despite my rejection of the project of seeking causal analyses of agency and actionhood, I think we must retain the idea that agents cause those events which are their actions. It is externalist0. I treat mental content as fixed by the context, both physical and social, of the cognitive agent. However, I argue that the character of actions is externally determined also. What sort of action an event is depends upon much more than the agent's mental states: it is largely fixed by the context in which the action is performed.
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