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FREDERI CK STOUTLAND

OBLI QUE CAUSATI ON AND REASONS FOR ACTI ON


By a causal t heor y of act i on I mean one which makes t wo distinctive
claims: (1) t hat behavi or is not intentional unless it is caused in a
cert ai n wa y- unless it has cert ai n specific kinds of causes; (2) t hat all
accept abl e expl anat i ons of intentional behavi or are caus al - in parti-
cular, that when we explain an agent' s act by giving the reasons f or
his acting as he did, we speci fy causes of his behavi or, so t hat reasons
are causes of a cert ai n kind. A causal t heor y sees t hese t wo claims as
necessari l y connect ed: an intentional act j ust is an act t hat has a
cert ai n kind of expl anat i on, namel y, one t hat was done for a reason,
and an act is done f or a r eason onl y if it is caused in a cert ai n way.
The most influential advocat e of a causal t heor y of act i on in recent
years is Donal d Davi dson, who in spite of candid self-criticism contin-
ues to def end the main lines of an account he first laid out in ' Act i ons,
Reasons, and Causes' . In that paper Davi dson def ended t wo theses:
1. R is a primary reason why an agent performed the action A under the description
d only if R consists of a pro attitude of the agent toward actions with a certain
property, and a belief of the agent that A, under description d, has that property.
2. A primary reason for an action is its cause)
Davi dson here identifies the causal conditions of intentional action
with the agent ' s beliefs and pro attitudes, or, as he put s it later, with
the beliefs and desires of an agent that rationalize an action, in the sense that their
propositional expressions put the action in a favorable light, provide an account of the
reasons the agent had in acting, and allow us to reconstruct the intention with which he
acted. 2
When t hese beliefs and desires cause the agent ' s behavi or in a certain
way, t hen t hey are t he agent' s reasons f or behavi ng as he did, and t he
behavi or t hat resul t ed is intentional.
Davi dson argues for a causal t heor y of action on the grounds that it
al one enabl es us t o make sense of the not i on of an agent ' s acting f or
a reason. That not i on presupposes a distinction bet ween an agent ' s
Synthese 43 (1980) 351-367. 0039-7857/80/0433-0351 $01.70.
Copyright 1980 by D. Reidel Publishing Co., Dordrecht, Holland, and Boston, U.S.A.
352 FREDERI CK STOUTLAND
acting and having reasons and his acting because of those reasons.
One may j ust i f y an act by citing reasons an agent had even if he did
not act because of them, but one cannot explain his act unless he
acted because of those reasons. This ' because' , Davidson argues,
mus t be causal: an agent acts because of or for reasons, that is, pro
attitudes or beliefs (which I shall simply call ' attitudes' ), only if the
attitudes cause his behavior. If on a given occasion an agent has an
attitude but it does not cause his behavior on that occasion, then the
agent has a reason but he has not acted because of it; only if the
attitude caused his behavior on that occasion did he act because of it
(and only then could the attitude be a sufficient condition for his act' s
being intentional)?
I do not believe that this ' because' must be causal; my intent in this
paper, however, is not to develop that general position, but to argue
the inadequacy of Davidson' s distinctive causal account of this
' because' . What is distinctive about his account is that it is designed
to avoid commitment to any covering law model of explanation.
Debate about the causal theory has tended to turn on whether
explanations of human action fit that model. Defenders of the theory
have argued that they do, and that explanations of action, therefore,
presuppose causal generalizations which ' cover' the behavior and the
explanatory attitudes. Critics of the causal theory, on the other hand,
have argued that there are no such causal generalizations and that the
covering law model is, therefore, incorrect and the causal theory
inadequate. Davidson' s most noteworthy contribution has been to
argue that this whole debate is beside the point, on the grounds that a
causal theory of action does not stand or fall with the possibility of
formulating causal generalizations connecting attitudes with behavior.
The thesis of this paper is that insofar as Davidson' s theory avoids
commitment to the covering law model, it faces difficulties more
serious than any faced by that version of the causal theory.
I I
Davidson avoids the covering law model by construing the causal
theory' s claim that attitudes cause behavior whenever it is intentional
OB L I QUE C AUS AT I ON AND R E AS ONS F OR AC T I ON 3 5 3
in an oblique sense, holding not that there are causal laws connecting
types of attitudes with types of behavior, but that the events which on
an occasion are in fact attitudes are connected to types of behavior
because they are tokens of physical event types not because they are
tokens of attitude types. An attitude is (contingently) identical on an
occasion with a physical event (presumably neural), and it is the
latter, not the former, which is related by causal law to behavior.
Although reasons are causes, there are no causal laws connecting
reasons and actions; the only genuine causal laws connect neural
events with behavior described non-psychologically.
What lies behind this are two theses. The first is Davidson' s oblique
theory of singular causal statements, statements affirming that one
particular event caused another, which is how Davidson construes the
statement that an agent' s attitudes caused his behavior. Davidson' s
theory is Humean in the sense that it is committed to the view that
singular causal statements entail causal laws. But he argues that the
latter is ambiguous.
I t ma y me a n t hat ' A c a us e d B' ent ai l s s ome par t i cul ar l aw i nvol vi ng t he pr e di c a t e s us e d
in t he de s c r i pt i ons ' A' and ' B' , or it ma y me a n t hat ' A c a u s e d B' ent ai l s t hat t he r e exi s t s
a caus al l aw i ns t ant i at ed by s ome t r ue de s c r i pt i ons of A and B. (A.R.C., p. 194)
The first option is the covering law model of explanation, which
Davidson rejects. The second allows Davidson to argue that an
attitude causes an act even if no causal law can be formulated
connecting attitudes of that type with a type of behavior. All that is
required for an attitude to cause behavior is that there be in principle
a causal law connecting events of a type to which that particular
attitude happens to belong with the behavior.
Th e pr i nci pl e o f t he nomol ogi cal c ha r a c t e r o f c a u s a l i t y . . , s ays t hat wh e n e ve nt s ar e
r el at ed as c a us e and ef f ect , t he y have de s c r i pt i ons whi c h i ns t ant i at e a l aw. I t doe s not
s ay t hat e ve r y t r ue si ngul ar s t a t e me nt o f caus al i t y i ns t ant i at es a l aw. 4
With regard to action he argues:
The l aws wh o s e e xi s t e nc e is r equi r ed i f r e a s ons ar e c a us e s o f act i on do not , we ma y b e
sur e, deal in t he c onc e pt s in whi c h r at i onal i zat i ons mus t deal . I f t he c a us e s of a cl as s o f
e ve nt s ( act i ons) fal l i n a cer t ai n cl ass ( r eas ons ) and t he r e is a l aw t o back e a c h si ngul ar
causal s t a t e me nt , i t doe s not f ol l ow t hat t he r e is any l aw c onne c t i ng e ve nt s cl assi f i ed as
r e a s ons wi t h e ve nt s cl assi f i ed as a c t i o n s - t he cl assi f i cat i on ma y e ve n be neur ol ogi cal ,
chemi cal , or phys i cal . (A.R.C., p. 195)
354 FREDERI CK STOUTLAND
The second thesis is that this classification must be physical (in the
broad sense of ' non-psychological' or ' non-mental' ) because there are
no causal laws which can be formulated in psychological (or mental)
terms. This thesis, which Davidson has defended only in papers more
recent then "Actions, Reasons and Causes", goes beyond asserting
that causal laws relating acts to the attitudes which cause them are
unnecessary, to asserting that there can be no such laws. This is the
'principle of the anomonalism of the mental' : "There are no strict
deterministic laws on the basis of which mental events can be
predicted and explained." (M.E., p. 81) Davidson' s argument for this
principle is very interesting, though complex and obscure; I believe it
is worth spending a little time trying to clarify it. It has two facets: a
direct argument that t here are no causal laws relating attitude des-
criptions and behavior descriptions (Davidson calls both of these
' psychological' or ' mental' descriptions since they do not belong to a
physicalistic language) and an indirect argument based on the im-
possibility of psycho-physical laws.
The direct argument turns on the ' holism of the mental': "Beliefs
and desires issue in behavior only as modified and mediated by
further beliefs and desires, attitudes and attendings, without limit."
(M.E., p. 92) The "without limit" is the crux here; it implies an
inability ever to fix the framework within which we can ascribe
conditions sufficient for the performance of an intentional act. This
inability is in principle ineliminable in the same way and for the same
reason that indeterminacy of radical translation is ineliminable: it is a
mistake to think that there are truth conditions which uniquely
determine the correctness of an attitude ascription. Given an agent' s
behavior, there is no one right choice of what attitudes to ascribe to
him. If we fix his beliefs on an occasion, we may be able to fix his
desires on that occasion, and vice versa. But to fix an agent' s beliefs
on an occasion requires fixing his beliefs or desires on other
occasions, and the difficulties will be compounded. There are alter-
native ways of (in Davidson' s sense) rationalizing an action; the
important point is not that we do not know which is correct, but that
it doesn' t make any difference. There is no fact of the matter to make
one rationalization more correct than (a range of) others.
OB L I QUE C AUS AT I ON AND R E AS ONS F OR AC T I ON 355
This implies that there will be no genuine causal laws connecting
attitudes with behavior psychologically described.
An y ef f or t at i n c r e a s i n g t h e a c c u r a c y a nd p o we r o f a t h e o r y o f b e h a v i o r f o r c e s u s t o
br i ng mo r e a n d mo r e of t h e wh o l e s y s t e m o f t he a g e n t ' s be l i e f s a n d mo t i v e s di r ect l y
i nt o a c c o u n t . . . . S u p p o s e we h a d t h e s uf f i ci ent c ondi t i ons [ f or a n act ] . T h e n we c oul d
s ay: wh e n e v e r a ma n h a s s u c h - a n d - s u c h bel i ef s a n d de s i r e s , a n d s u c h - a n d - s u c h f u r t h e r
c ondi t i ons ar e s at i s f i ed, he wi l l a c t i n s u c h - a n d - s u c h a wa y. Th e r e ar e n o s e r i ous l a ws o f
t hi s ki nd. By a s e r i ous l aw, I me a n mo r e t h a n a s t at i s t i cal g e n e r a l i z a t i o n . . . ; it mu s t be
a l aw t h a t . . , al l ows u s t o d e t e r mi n e i n a d v a n c e wh e t h e r or n o t t h e c ondi t i ons o f
a ppl i c a t i on ar e sat i sf i ed. ( P . P . , pp. 43, 45)
We can' t determine in advance whether conditions of application are
satisfied for a (putative) causal law connecting attitudes and behavior
unless we determine exactly what an agent' s attitudes are on an
occasion, and that will require not only knowing his behavior on that
occasi on-i n which case the conditions will not be determined in
advance - but also knowing his attitudes on previous occasions, which
requires the task of taking his whole system of attitude into account -
a task practically impossible and theoretically pointless since there is
no one right way of taking the system into account.
That there are for this reason no causal laws connecting attitudes
and behavior is less a discovery than a commitment: "if we are
intelligibly to attribute attitudes and beliefs, or usefully to describe
motions as behavior, then we are committed to finding, in the pattern
of behavior, belief, and desire, a large degree of rationality and
consistency" (P.P., p. 50). It is this commitment which drives us on to
take into account "the whole system of the agent' s beliefs and
motives," for that is the only way to make him a rational and
consistent agent, to understand how a seemingly irrational action is,
from his own larger perspective, a reasonable thing to do. This
commitment is not arbitrary, however, and it is fundamental: "The
limit placed on the social sciences is set not by nature, but by us when
we decide to view men as rational agents with goals and purposes,
and as subject to moral evaluation." (P.P., p. 52).
Davidson puts more emphasis on an indirect argument from the
impossibility of strict psycho-physical laws, an argument resting on
the claim that the conditions for ascribing physical and psychological
predicates respectively are radically different. He puts it intuitively by
356 F R E DE R I C K S T OUT L AND
saying that "mental and physical predicates are not made for one
another." (M.E., p. 93) In ascribing either kind of predicate, we
presuppose a certain framework (or theory) to hold for the subjects
of predication, but the frameworks are different.
It is a feature of physical reality that physical change can be explained by laws that
connect it with ot her changes and conditions physically described. It is a feature of the
mental that the attribution of mental phenomena must be responsible to t he background
of reasons, beliefs, and intentions of the individual. (M.E., p. 97f)
The framework of the mental, therefore, requires that "we must
stand prepared, as the evidence accumulates, to adjust our theory in
the light of considerations of overall cogency: the constitutive ideal of
rationality partly controls each phase in the evolution of what must be
an evolving theory. " (M.E., p. 98) No such condition holds for the
attribution of any physical predicates (for we do not assume that
events in nature are the expressions of rational agents) and, there-
fore, "standing ready, as we must, to adjust psychological terms to
one set of standards and physical terms to another . . . . we cannot
insist on a sharp and law-like connection between them. " (P.P., p. 52)
The impossibility of psycho-physical causal laws in turn implies the
impossibility of psychological laws, since the psychological does not
constitute a ' closed system' : "Too much happens to affect the mental
that is not itself a systematic part of the mental." (M.E., p. 99) Any
causal law connecting reasons and action, therefore, would have to
take account of physical factors which causally impinge on the
psychological, and since there are no causal laws covering this
psycho-physical interaction, neither can there be any causal laws
covering reasons and actions.
These arguments against the possibility of psychological causal
laws entail that all causal types are physical types: any event has
causal power only insofar as it is a token of some physical type. Since
attitudes are not physical types, attitudes are not causal types: an
attitude never causes behavior because it is a token of some attitude
type but because it is (also) a token of a physical type. To describe an
event as an attitude, therefore, is not to describe it in terms of its
causal powers. This in turn entails the conclusion that every attitude,
OBLI QUE CAUSATI ON AND REASONS FOR ACTI ON 357
insofar as it causes behavior, must be identical with some physical
event -Davi dson' s so-called ' token materialism'. To put it in other
words: every event which causes behavior and which has an attitude
description must also have a physical description. It is the physical
description which figures in causal expl anat i ons of behavior; the
attitude descriptions merely specify causes of behavior. Whereas the
covering law version of the causal theory holds that attitudes must
causally explain behavior if it is intentional, Davidson holds that it is
sufficient for a causal theory that attitudes merely cause it, and that
any causal explanation of behavior will be in terms of the neural
events with which the attitudes happen to be identical.
I I I
This is an ingenious and striking way of undercutting the significance
to the causal theory of the debate over the covering law model of
explanation. But new and even more serious difficulties emerge, as
long as the theory escapes commitment to that model, a commitment
which it is central to Davidson' s approach to avoid. All the difficulties
are rooted in a significant consequence of Davidson' s theses, namely,
that there can be no explanatory relation between the causal powers
of attitudes and the fact that they are attitudes. It is, on the one hand,
because they are attitudes that they account for the intentionality of
behavior (or figure in the explanation of intentional action); it is, on
the other hand, (only) because they are identical with physical
(neural) events that they cause behavior. But that any particular event
should be both a specific attitude and a specific neural event - that is,
that the same event should have both an attitude description and a
physical description- is something for which there cannot, on David-
son' s grounds, be an explanation. For if there were an explanation, it
would have to take some such form as this: an event which belonged
to this type of attitude would also belong, under such and such
circumstances, to this type of physical event. But that subjunctive
conditional would be a law, and if types of attitudes are connected by
law to types of physical events, which are connected by law to types
of behavior, t hen- t hi s relation being t ransi t i ve- types of attitudes
358 FREDERI CK STOUTLAND
would be connected by law to types of behavior, and we would be
back with the covering law model.
To avoid commitment to the covering law model means, therefore,
given Davidson' s theses, that it is simply a brute fact, without
explanation, that an attitude produces the behavior it does. But this
induces a strange alteration in the notion of acting because of a
reason, giving an account of which motivated the causal theory in the
first place. A causal theory construes the statement that an agent
acted because of an attitude as involving two claims: (1) the agent' s
attitudes were reasons for acting in that way, that is, his behavior was
reasonable in the light of his at t i t udes- t hey ' rationalized' his
behavior; and (2) the agent' s attitudes caused his behavior. On the
covering law version there is an important relation between these two
claims: the first (at least partly) expl ai ns the second, so that an agent' s
having reasons for acting causally explains his acting. In particular, if
he has strong reasons for acting, he is more apt to act on them than if
he has weak reasons for acting, just because they are strong reasons.
On Davidson' s theory this relation cannot obtain, for that the two
cl ai ms- that an agent' s attitudes were reasons for acting and that his
attitudes caused his behavi or - ar e ever true of an agent on the same
occasion is simply a brute fact, and the truth of the first cannot even
partly explain the truth of the second. Consider a case where I want a
drink and reach out for the glass on the table because I believe it is
the only one around. Davidson, of course, accepts the causal thesis
that only if my desire and belief caused my behavior in taking the
glass did I act intentionally for those reasons. But his oblique theory
makes it brute fact that this desire and belief, which were reasons for
that act, caused my act. Their causing the act and their being reasons
for the act are distinct matters, since they caused it because they
were tokens of physical types, but they were reasons for it because
they were desires and beliefs, which are not physical types. That any
event should be a token of both types (on an occasion) is beyond
explanation, as long as we eschew the covering law model. The
tokens of the types ' my desire for a drink' and ' my belief that this is
the only glass around' would have had the effects they did have
whether or not they were tokens of those types, for they had the
OB L I QUE C AUS AT I ON AND R E AS ONS F OR AC T I ON 359
effects they did have by virtue of a quite distinct matter, namely, that
they were tokens of causal, i.e., physical, types. That they were
strong reasons rather than weak reasons does not account for my
acting because of them, since acting because of them was a matter of
their causing my behavior, and hence of their causal powers, while
their being strong or weak was a matter of their being reasons or
attitudes of a certain type and hence not a matter of their causal
powers.
This surely involves a strange alteration in the notion of acting for a
reason: whether persons ever do something for a reason on an
occasion is now disconnected from their status as intentional agents
on that occasion. Davidson is right that merely having the desire and
belief I had was not sufficient for my act of taking the glass to be
intentional, for I might have had those reasons but not acted because
of them. He adds the conditions that they must cause my taking the
glass; given the oblique theory, however, that this causal condition
ever obtains is independent of - not explained by- wha t the agent
may want or believe, how he may evaluate his act, whether he has
strong reasons or weak reasons. His having attitudes of a certain kind
does not account for the fact that the tokens of those attitudes belong
to any causal types and, therefore, given a causal theory, cannot
account for the fact that his act is intentional. While we may grant
that his attitudes caused his behavior, that they did so on any
occasion is external to his capacity for belief, desire, or evaluation,
and therefore disconnected from his status as an intentional agent on
that occasion. On the assumption that singular causation in the
oblique sense is a necessary condition of intentionality, we have the
strange situation of a causal theory of action holding that there is not,
and cannot be, a causal explanation of why an intentional agent ever
acts intentionally on a particular occasion.
I V
One line of objection to this treatment of Davidson calls for special
consideration, namely that I have oversimplified his account by
ignoring certain kinds of generalizations about reasons and actions. 5
360 FREDERI CK STOUTLAND
These generalizations fall short of being causal laws, and acceptance
of them is not, therefore, inconsistent with the anomonalism of the
mental and the rejection of the covering law model. But they are, it
may be argued, sufficient nevertheless to rule out the difficulties to
which my treatment of Davidson exposes him.
What I have said is net a criticism of the oblique theory of
causation as such, and that theory requires such generalizations since
they constitute an important kind of evidence for singular causal
statements. Thus consider a situation where I drop a china dish on the
floor and it breaks; I would normally explain what happened by
saying that dropping the dish caused it to br eak- a singular causal
statement. The oblique analysis seems apropos here: the description
'dropping the china dish' describes a particular event which was the
cause of another event described as ' the dish' s breaking'. But these
descriptions occur in no causal l aw- no amount of provisos or
conditions will yield an exceptionless causal generalization containing
them. To get the latter we need a new vocabulary of causal types.
Then it could be said that this dish dropping was a token of a type
related by causal law to another type of which the dish breaking was
a token, where the types would be specificable in the language of
physics. But we do not need to know what that law is; we need only
know that there is such a law and that there are such t ypes. 6
Here is where generalizations which fall short of being causal laws
play a crucial role. For the rough generalization that china dishes
dropped on the floor tend to break is our evidence that there is a
causal law at work here, and it gives good reason to expect that
dropping the dish will probably result in its breaking.
The descriptions that figure in rough generalizations of this kind are
not causal t ypes- the latter figure only in strict causal l aws- but we
might call them 'quasi-causal types' . They have an evidential and
predictive, but non-explanatory, relation to causal types. Events
which are tokens of quasi-causal types are apt also to be tokens of
relevant (if unspecificable) causal types. To know that an event is a
token of a quasi-causal type is to have evidence that it is likely to be a
token of some relevant causal type, and that enables predictions to be
made about its causal powers. That an event is a token of a quasi-
OB L I QUE C AUS AT I ON AND R E AS ONS F OR AC T I ON 361
causal t ype does not, however , explain why it is a t oken of a causal
t ype, for that woul d require that t here be a causal law to the effect
that any event whi ch was a t oken of the one t ype woul d be a t oken of
the other, and that woul d entail that bot h t ypes were causal.
Quasi-causal t ypes may be empirical or logical. They are empirical
if t hey figure in rough generalizations of the dish-dropping sort. They
are logical if t hey figure in such st at ement s as ' ingesting poi son is apt
t o cause bodi l y harm' or ' brittle obj ect s t end to shatter when st ruck a
hard bl ow' . ' Ingesting poi son or ' brittleness' are not causal t y p e s -
t hey figure in no strict causal l a ws - but a descri pt i on of a subst ance
as ' poi sonous' or ' brittle' entails that it belongs t o a causal t ype within
a definite range. These t ypes have, by virtue of t he meaning of the
descriptions, an evidential and predictive, but non-expl anat ory, rela-
tion with causal t ypes.
The obj ect i on to my t reat ment of Davi dson' s account of reasons
for act i on can now be formul at ed as follows: I have ignored the fact
that attitude (and action) descriptions are quasi-causal t y p e s - ei t her
logical (as in the dispositionalist or functionalist account of mental
states) or empirical (by virtue of the rough generalizations we can
make about attitudes and acts). The latter alternative finds support in
Davi dson, who, while arguing against strict psycho-physi cal laws,
affirms the role that psychophysi cal generalizations play as evi dence
for underlying causal laws.
If an event of a cer t ai n ment al sor t has usual l y been accompani ed by an event of a
cer t ai n physi cal sort , t hi s of t en is a good r eason t o expect ot her cases t o fol l ow sui t
roughl y in proport i on. The general i zat i ons t hat embody such pract i cal wi sdom are
assumed t o be onl y roughl y t rue . . . . Thei r i mpor t ance lies mai nl y in t he suppor t t hey
l end si ngul ar causal cl ai ms and rel at ed expl anat i ons of part i cul ar event s. The suppor t
deri ves f r om t he f act t hat such a general i zat i on, however cr ude and vague, may pr ovi de
good r eason t o bel i eve t hat underl yi ng t he part i cul ar case t her e is a regul ari t y t hat
coul d be f or mul at ed sharpl y and wi t hout caveat . (M.E., p. 93f)
Gi ven this, t he obj ect i on continues, Davi dson' s t heory, while disal-
lowing causal laws covering attitudes and actions, allows ample r oom
for generalizations about reasons for act i on (generalizations whi ch do
not support count er-fact ual claims, for example), and such general-
izations are sufficient t o eliminate t he difficulties implicit in his ac-
count.
362 FREDERI CK STOUTLAND
However, even granting that attitude types are quasi-causal is not
sufficient to save Davidson' s theory. For the adequacy of a causal
theory of action requires that there be more than an evidential or
predictive relation between attitude types and causal types. It
requires that there be an explanatory relation, that is, requires that
attitude types be genuinely causal, and that is just the covering law
model.
Let us remember that the fundamental motivation for the causal
theory is to give an adequate account of the difference between
justification and expl anat i on-t o distinguish between an occasion
where an agent has an attitude R and does A but not for that reason
and another occasion where he has R and does A because of R.
Davidson' s claim is that this ' because' expresses singular causation
and no more, so that the only relevant difference between the two
occasions is that on the second but not the first R caused A (in the
oblique sense). Given that this is the only relevant difference between
the two occasions, however, then that an agent' s attitude caused his
act on a particular occasion, and, therefore, that he acted for that
reason on that occasion, is without explanation and afortiori in-
dependent of his status as an intentional agent in just the way I have
argued.
It might be replied: singular causation is not the only element
present when an agent acts because of R, absent when he does not act
because of it. Attitudes agents act on have special features expressed
in generalizations about the strength of desires, the depth of belief,
etc., expressed, in short, in those generalizations that Davidson
characterizes as embodying practical wisdom. But this is not an
adequate reply, for such generalizations, if they are not causal laws,
at best give evidence that singular causation is present on such
occasions. What is needed, however, is not evidence that singular
causation is apt to be present but an explanation of its presence on a
particular occasion in terms of the character of the agent' s attitudes
on the occasion in which he both had the attitudes and acted because
of them. Failing an explanation of this kind, it is brute fact that on
any particular occasion an agent' s attitudes were both reasons for
acting and causes of his behavior.
OBLI QUE CAUSATI ON AND REASONS FOR ACTI ON 363
To argue that attitudes are quasi-causal types misses the point,
because attitudes will be equally quasi-causal on an occasion where
an agent has them and doesn' t act because of them and on an
occasion where he has them and acts because of them. Appealing to
generalizations about attitudes and act i ons- about how persons with
certain attitudes are apt to perform certain actions, and so on- may
enable one to make reasonable predictions about what agents are apt
to do on certain occasions, but it does not speak to the issue which
motivates the causal theory. For these generalizations do not dis-
criminate between an occasion when an agent has those attitudes and
acts on them and an occasion when he has them and doesn' t act on
them, simply because any generalization which falls short of being a
causal law will apply equally to both kinds of occasion and hence give
no explanation of why singular causation underlies the one and not
the other.
The covering law theory avoids this objection by arguing, not only
that the ' because' in 'S did A because of R' is causal, but also that
there are causal differences necessarily tied to the attitudes them-
selves between the attitudes an agent has in a situation where he acts
because of them and those he has in a situation where he does not act
because of them, causal differences which allow for a causal
explanation of his act in terms of his attitudes in the former case but
not in the latter. Any causal theory which avoids the covering law
model cannot allow for such explanations since, given that attitudes
are at best quasi-causal, there can be no causal explanation of why
the attitude is in the one case a token of a relevant causal type and in
the other case not. A causal theory without the covering law model,
therefore, simply fails to give an adequate account of the very
distinction which motivated the theory in the first place.
V
Given the fairness of my treatment of Davidson, the seriousness of
the difficulties implicit in his version of the causal theory of action is
pretty clear. There is first of all an epistemological difficulty, for the
theory implies that no one, including the agent himself, is ever in a
364
FREDERI CK STOUTLAND
position to know with any certainty whether he is acting for a reason
on an occasion and therefore acting intentionally. The theory does,
as we have seen, allow for certain generalizations about the agent' s
attitudes and acts (provided the generalizations are not causal laws),
and predictions could be made about the agent by others (or perhaps
the agent himself) as to the probability of his attitudes causing an act
on a particular occasion, and therefore as to the probability of his
acting intentionally in a certain way on that occasion. Moreover, it is
true that we may sometimes be in doubt about the reasons for which
we are acting or even whether we are acting intentionally. Neverthe-
less, in the central cases we do not merely think it probable that we
are acting intentionally. If you ask me to turn off the television, I
might come to reflect on why I obeyed you so passively, or what
might have led me to do it, but I am not in doubt that I pushed the
switch in order to turn off the set, and not in doubt that pushing the
switch was something I did intentionally. If you were in doubt, the
inquiry would not be a neuro-physiological one, as Davidson' s theory
implies it must be, for determination of intentionality never goes in
that direction. In any case, the chance of such an inquiry would be
lost forever after the act was done, since there could be no neural
traces of the attitude and belief without there being causal laws
connecting neural events with attitudes and beliefs as psychological
types. Whatever we may say about peripheral cases, in the central
cases, at any rate, to act intentionally just is to act knowing what we
are doing and afortiori knowing that we are acting intentionally, and
Davidson' s theory cannot account for that knowledge.
The knowledge here is of what I am now doing. A similar problem
arises for knowledge of what I could do, which brings in the concept
of ability. Most of the things I do intentionally (ruling out things I
accomplish just by luck) I also have the ability to do, in the sense of
ability that ranges over act types. Being able to do an act in this sense
presupposes that I can recognize situations in which I have the
opportunity to do the act, and hence recognize the kind of situation in
which I can do the act if I want to. If I can wiggle my ears, then I am
able to recognize the kind of situation where if I want to I could and
indeed would. But on Davidson' s theory the opportunity for doing an
OBLI QUE CAUSATI ON AND REASONS FOR ACTI ON 365
act always includes the condition that my attitudes should cause the
act, and it is simply impossible to recognize a situation as being of
that kind. There are no kinds of situations in which my wanting to do
an act causes the act, for wanting to do an act is not a causal kind.
A similar difficulty can be stated without reference to epistemolo-
gical considerations about what the agent can know or recognize.
Given Davidson' s theory it can never be true of an agent that he has
the ability to do an act on a given occasion, has, that is, the sense of
ability Austin called the 'all-in sense' , which ranges over act tokens
and is most naturally expressed by saying ' the agent can if he
chooses' . If it is true of an agent that he can if he chooses, then the
only thing lacking in the given situation for the intentional per-
formance of the act is the agent' s choosing to do it, so that if he
chooses he will. This conditional is not, I think, causal, but it does
assert that choosing to do this act is, in the situation, sufficient for
doing it. But this will never be true for Davidson; that the agent
should choose can never be the only thing lacking since the agent' s
choice must also be on that occasion a token of a causal type, and
that is something external to his status as an intentional agent, not
determined by what his choice is. No matter how fortunate the
circumstances, there will always be something which does not depend
simply on the choice the agent made, so that it will never be true to
say of an agent that he can if he chooses, and hence never true that
he has the 'all-in' sense of ability, never true, that is, that the only
thing lacking for his doing it is his choosing to do it.
Finally, Davidson' s account makes the problem of ' wayward causal
chains' intractable. This difficulty in the causal theory is one which
Davidson himself has pressed and which he candidly admits he does
not know how to resolve. It involves a counterexample to the claim
that it is su~cient for an intentional act that it is caused by the
attitudes which are the agent' s reasons for acting. Davidson' s own
example is as good as any.
A climber might want to rid himself of the weight and danger of holding another man
on a rope, and he might know that by loosening his hold on the rope he could rid
himself of the weight and danger. This belief and want might so unnerve him as to
cause him to loosen his hold, and yet it might be the case that he never chose to loosen
his hold, nor did he do it intentionally.
366 F R E DE R I C K S T OUT L AND
Commenting on this kind of case Davidson writes:
Bel i efs and desi res t hat woul d rat i onal i ze an act i on if t hey caused i t i n t he r i g h t
wa y - t hr ough a cour se of pract i cal reasoni ng, as we mi ght t r y s a y i n g - ma y cause it in
ot her ways. I f so, t he act i on was not per f or med wi t h t he i nt ent i on t hat we coul d have
r ead off f r om t he at t i t udes t hat caused it. Wha t I despai r of spelling out is t he way i n
whi ch at t i t udes must cause act i ons i f t hey are t o rat i onal i ze t he act i on. (F.A., p. 153)
In ' Freedom to Act' Davidson regards this difficulty as serious but he
thinks it can be resolved by adding further causal conditions on the
way the beliefs and attitudes caused the act. But in the light of our
discussion it is clear that this tactic cannot work.
The problem presented by wayward causal chains is that it is not
the character of the desire as a reason which accounts for the act but
its character as a cause of emotional phenomena. The climber loosens
his grip because his desire and belief caused him to be unnerved and
agitated, not because, to use Aristotelean terms, they functioned as
premisses from which his act was any kind of conclusion. If we are
going to use causation to characterize the difference here, we must
say that in the former case his attitudes caused his act because they
caused agitation, in the latter case because they played a role in the
agent' s practical reasoning, or, as Davidson himself puts it, "through
a chain or process of reasoning that meets standards of rationality."
(P.P., p. 45)
Given the oblique theory of causation, however, what can this
mean? Attitudes cannot be causes because they play a role in the
agent' s practical reasoning, for attitudes are causes only because they
are tokens of physical types. The most we could say is that the
attitudes which played a role in the agent' s reasoning also happened
to be tokens of causal (physical) types. But then the caused act can in
no sense be a conclusion of the agent' s reasoning, for though the act
which was caused may be the act which was the conclusion, its being
caused was not explained by its being the conclusion.
The problem of wayward causal chains is a problem any causal
theory of action will find very difficult to resolve. It cannot be solved
given the oblique theory of causation, a fact Davidson may be
suggesting in ' Psychology as Philosophy' : "Can we somehow give
conditions that are not only necessary, but also sufficient, for an
OB L I QUE C AUS AT I ON AND R E AS ONS F OR AC T I ON 3 6 7
action to be intentional, using only such concepts as those of belief,
desire, and caus e?. . . [Not] without using notions like evidence, or
good reasons for believing, and these notions outrun those with which
we began." (P.P., p. 45) At the same time it seems to me that the
critics of the covering law theory, one of the most penetrating of
whom is Davidson himself, are correct, and that strict causal laws
connecting reasons for acting with acting are not to be found. The
reasonable conclusion to draw is that any causal theory of action is
incorrect, but to construct an alternative is a different and rather more
difficult task. 7
St. Ol af College, Northfield, Minnesota
NOT E S
I D. Davi dson, ' Act i ons, Reasons, and Causes' , i n Care and Landes man (eds.), Read-
ings in the Theory of Action, Bl oomi ngt on, 1968, pp. 181, 188. ( Hencef or t h: ' A. R. C' )
2 D. Davi dson, ' Fr eedom t o Act ' , in T. Honder i ch (ed.), Essays on Freedom of Action,
London, 1973, p. 147. ( Hencef or t h: ' F. A. ' )
3 Cf. Davi dson, ' Psychol ogy as Phi l osophy' , in S. C. Br own (ed.), Philosophy of
Psychology, London, 1974, p. 44 ( hencef or t h: 'P.P.') and A. R. C, pp. 72ff.
4 D. Davi dson, ' Ment al Event s ' , i n Fost er and Swanson (eds.), Experience and Theory
( Amher st , 1970), p. 89. ( Hencef or t h: 'M..E.')
5 Lawr ence Davi s and Davi d Pear s have pr essed t hi s obj ect i on.
6 Cf. A. R. C, p. 196, " . . . In or der t o know t hat a si ngul ar causal st at ement is t rue, it is
not necessar y t o know t he t r ut h of a l aw; i t is necessar y onl y t o know t hat some l aw
cover i ng t he event s at hand exi st s. "
7 I have def ended an al t er nat i ve i n ' The Causat i on of Behavi or ' , i n Essays on
Wittgenstein in Honor of G. H. Von Wright (Acta Philosophica Fennica Vol. XXVI I I
Nor t h- Hol l and, Amst er dam) , pp. 286-326. Draft s of t he pr esent paper wer e r ead t o
phi l osophi cal groups i n Engl and and Wal es and at t he West er n Di vi si on Meet i ngs of t he
A. P. A. I am i ndebt ed t o comment s I r ecei ved f r om member s of t hose groups, f r om my
colleagues i n t he Nort hfi el d Noumenal Soci et y, and f r om G. E. M. Anscombe, Davi d
Charl es, Lawr ence Davi s, H. E. Mason, and Davi d Pears.