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Agency

First published Mon Aug 10, 2015


An agent is a being with the capacity to act, and agency denotes the
exercise or manifestation of this capacity. The philosophy of action
provides us with a standard conception and a standard theory of action.
The former construes action in terms of intentionality, the latter explains
the intentionality of action in terms of causation by the agents mental
states and events. From this, we obtain a standard conception and a
standard theory of agency. There are alternative conceptions of agency,
and it has been argued that the standard theory fails to capture agency
(or distinctively human agency). Further, it seems that genuine agency
can be exhibited by beings that are not capable of intentional action, and
it has been argued that agency can and should be explained without
reference to causally efficacious mental states and events.
Debates about the nature of agency have flourished over the past few
decades in philosophy and in other areas of research (including
psychology, cognitive neuroscience, social science, and anthropology).
In philosophy, the nature of agency is an important issue in the
philosophy of mind, the philosophy of psychology, the debates on free
will and moral responsibility, in ethics, meta-ethics, and in the debates
on the nature of reasons and practical rationality. For the most part, this
entry focuses on conceptual and metaphysical questions concerning the
nature of agency. In the final sections, it provides an overview of
empirically informed accounts of the sense of agency and of various
empirical challenges to the commonsense assumption that our reasons
and our conscious intentions make a real difference to how we act.
1. Introduction
2. Conceptions, theories, and kinds of agency
o 2.1 Agency as intentional action
o 2.2 Agency as initiation by the agent

o 2.3 Agency and distinctively human action


o 2.4 Agency without mental representations
o 2.5 Other kinds of agency: mental, shared, collective,
relational, artificial
3. The metaphysics of agency
o 3.1 Three metaphysical frameworks
o 3.2 Deviant causal chains
o 3.3 Disappearing agents, naturalism, and dual standpoint
theory
o 3.4 Actions, events, processes, and omissions
4. The sense of agency
5. Empirical challenges and the role of consciousness
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1. Introduction
In a very broad sense, agency is virtually everywhere. Whenever entities
enter into causal relationships, they can be said to act on each other and
interact with each other, bringing about changes in each other. In this

very broad sense, it is possible to identify agents and agency, and


patients and patiency, virtually everywhere.[1] Usually, though, the term
agency is used in a much narrower sense to denote the performance of
intentional actions. This way of thinking about agency has a long history
in philosophy and it can be traced back to Hume and Aristotle, among
other historical figures. In contemporary analytic philosophy, it is most
commonly associated with the influential work of Anscombe (1957) and
Davidson (1963). Anscombes and Davidsons views differ significantly
in many respects, but they share the central doctrine that action is to be
explained in terms of the intentionality of intentional action. In the
debates that followed, the philosophy of action revolved largely around
the notion of intentional action. For some time, the term agency was
rarely used, and if it was, it was usually taken to refer to the exercise of
the capacity to perform intentional actions.[2] This has changed in the
more recent debate, where talk about agency has become more and more
common in many areas of philosophy (and in other areas of research).
[3]
To some extent, this focus on the notion of agency has been fuelled by
a resistance to the assimilation of agency to intentional action. As we
will see in the following section, this resistance amounts in some cases
to the rejection of the standard conception of action, in some cases it
amounts to the rejection of the standard theory of action, and in some it
amounts to the more modest claim that there are different kinds of
agency.
2. Conceptions, theories, and kinds of agency
The contributions of Anscombe and Davidson have established a
standard conception of action, and Davidsons work has provided the
groundwork for a standard theory of action. At the core of the standard
conception are the following two claims. First, the notion of intentional
action is more fundamental than the notion of action. In particular,
action is to be explained in terms of the intentionality of intentional
action. Second, there is a close connection between intentional action
and acting for a reason.

There are two ways of spelling out the first claim (which correspond to
two different views on the individuation of actions; see section 3.4).
According to the first, one and the same event can be more than one
action under different descriptions, and an event is an action just in case
it is an intentional action under some description. An action, that is, may
be intentional under some description and unintentional under others
(Anscombe 1957; Davidson 1963). Suppose that you alert the burglar by
turning on the light, and suppose that this is one event that is intentional
under the description turning on the light, but not under alerting the
burglar. On this view, alerting the burglar is nevertheless something that
you do, given that the event is an intentional action under some
description. According to a second way of spelling out the first claim,
something is an action either if it is identical with or generated by an
intentional action (Goldman 1970; see also Ginet 1990).[4] On this view,
alerting the burglar is an action of yours either if it is an intentional
action or if it is generated by an intentional action (your turning on the
light, in this case). If it is merely generated by an intentional action, it is
an unintentional action of yours. On both views, intentional action is
more fundamental than action itself: action derives from and is
dependent on intentional action.[5]
According to the second claim of the standard conception, there is a
close connection between acting intentionally and acting for a reason.
According to Anscombe and Davidsons early view, this close
connection is identity. Following Aristotle, they both held the view that
to act intentionally is to act for a reason, and that to act for a reason is to
act in a way that can be rationalized by the premises of a sound practical
syllogism, which consists, typically, of a major premise that corresponds
to the agents goal and a minor premise that corresponds to the agents
take on how to attain the goal. Furthermore, Davidson held the view that
having an intention consists in having a desire and a belief that
correspond to the major and the minor premise of the relevant syllogism
(Davidson 1963, 1970; see also Goldman 1970; Audi 1986).[6]
One can still find a fairly widespread commitment to this desire-belief
version of the standard conception (in the philosophy of mind, the

philosophy of psychology, ethics, meta-ethics, and in other areas of


research). In the philosophy of action, however, it is now widely thought
that intentions cannot be reduced to desires and beliefs (and
combinations thereof). On this view, intentions play a crucial and
irreducible role in practical reasoning, long-term planning, and in the
initiation and guidance of action (see, especially, Bratman 1987; see also
Harman 1976; Brand 1984; Bishop 1989; Mele 1992, 2003; En 2003).
It is nevertheless still widely accepted that there is a close connection
between intentional action and acting for reasons and that intentional
actions are typically performed for reasons (Mele and Moser 1994; Mele
2003; En 2003; Clarke 2010b, for instance).
The standard conception is not committed to a particular account of what
it is to act intentionally and for reasons, and it is not committed to a
particular account of the nature of reason explanations. It is important to
distinguish the standard conception from the standard theory, which
provides a causal account of intentional action and reason explanation.
This theory says, very roughly, that something is an intentional action
and done for reasons just in case it is caused by the right mental states
and events in the right way. The right mental states and events are states
and events that rationalize the action from the agents point of view
(such as desires, beliefs, and intentions). The right way of causation is
non-deviant causation (see section 3.2). On this view, a reason
explanation is an explanation in terms of mental states and events that
cause the action and that rationalize it from the agents point of view
(typically by providing a means-end rationale). This theory is often
called the causal theory of action. Strictly speaking, it is an eventcausal theory and it consists of an event-causal theory of reason
explanation and an event-causal theory of intentional action. In
conjunction with the standard conception, this causal theory provides us
with a theory of action, which has been the standard theory in the
contemporary philosophy of mind and action (see also the entry
on action).
As indicated, the standard conception is compatible with non-causal
theories of intentional action and reason explanation. It is generally

agreed that a reason explanation of an action usually renders the action


intelligible by revealing the agents goal or intention. According to noncausal theories, having the relevant goals or intentions does not consist
in the possession of causally efficacious mental states or events (Melden
1961; Ginet 1990; OConnor 2000; Sehon 2005). Non-causal theories
are, however, widely rejected (the most influential critique is due to
Davidson 1963; see also Goldman 1970: 7685; Mele 2003: 3851;
Clarke 2003: 2124). The standard conception is compatible,
furthermore, with dual standpoint theories. We will turn to this view
in section 3.3.
2.1 Agency as intentional action
The standard conception of action provides us with a conception of
agency. According to this view, a being has the capacity to exercise
agency just in case it has the capacity to act intentionally, and the
exercise of agency consists in the performance of intentional actions
and, in many cases, in the performance of unintentional actions (that
derive from the performance of intentional actions; seesection 2). Call
this the standard conception of agency. The standard theory of action
provides us with a theory of agency, according to which a being has the
capacity to act intentionally just in case it has the right functional
organization: just in case the instantiation of certain mental states and
events (such as desires, beliefs, and intentions) would cause the right
events (such as certain movements) in the right way. According to this
standard theory of agency, the exercise of agency consists in the
instantiation of the right causal relations between agent-involving states
and events. (Proponents include Davidson 1963, 1971; Goldman 1970;
Brand 1984; Bratman 1987; Dretske 1988; Bishop 1989; Mele 1992,
2003; En 2003.)
The most serious problem for this standard theory has been the problem
of deviant causal chains. Further, some have argued that this view
altogether fails to capture agency, because it reduces actions to mere
happenings. We will turn to those issues in section 3. Recently, it has
been argued that reasons for actions cannot be the causes of actions,

because reasons are facts or states of affairs, not mental states or events
(Dancy 2000; Alvarez 2010). But the standard theory is not committed
to the claim that reasons are identical with mental entities. It is, in
particular, compatible with the view that reasons are the things that are
represented by the contents of the relevant mental states and events (see
Scanlon 1998: 5664; Mele 2003: 8284; Setiya 2007: 2831).
2.2 Agency as initiation by the agent
It has often been claimed, and it is widely agreed, that agency involves
the initiation of action by the agent.[7] But it has been controversial what
this consists in. The standard conception is compatible with the claim
that intentional actions are initiated by the agent, and proponents of the
standard theory have argued that initiation can be explained in terms of
causation by the agents mental states and events. According to desirebelief versions of the view, initiation by the agent consists in causation
by the relevant desire-belief pairs (Goldman 1970; Davidson 1971;
Dretske 1988). According to more recent versions, initiation consists in
causation by the relevant intentions (Brand 1984; Bratman 1987; Bishop
1989; Mele 1992, 2003; En 2003). Opponents of the standard
conception argue, however, that an agents power to initiate action
cannot be reduced to the capacity to act intentionally and for reasons.
They argue that the exercise of agency may be entirely spontaneous, in
the sense that an agent may initiate an action for no reason and without
prior intent. On this view, reasons and intentions may have a strong and
even a decisive influence on how an agent acts. But agency has its
source in the power to initiate, and the exercise of this power cannot be
reduced to the agents being moved by reasons or intentions. This is an
alternative conception of agency (Ginet 1990; OConnor 2000; Lowe
2008; see also McCann 1998; for critical discussion see Mele 2003: 38
51, 7176; Clarke 2003: 1724). Proponents of this alternative
conception reject the standard theory and they reject, more generally,
any account of agency in terms of causal relations between agentinvolving states and events. According to some, the initiation of action
consists in irreducible agent-causation, others appeal to uncaused mental

acts of the will. The main positions on this issue correspond to the main
positions in the metaphysics of agency, to which we turn insection 3.1.
2.3 Agency and distinctively human action
In an influential article, Frankfurt (1971) argued that the difference
between persons and other agents consists in the structure of their will.
Only persons reflect on and care about their motivations. According to
Frankfurt, this reflective evaluation of our motives usually results in the
formation of second-order desires: desires that are directed at first-order
desires (which are directed at goals and actions). When a person wants
to have a certain desire and wants to be moved by it, then he or she is
said to identify with the desire and its motivational efficacy. On this
hierarchical account of agency, the role of higher-order attitudes is
essential to the kind of agency that distinguishes persons from other
agents. Taylor (1977) took this as a starting point for an account of
distinctively human agency, under the assumption that the distinction
between persons and non-persons is, essentially, the distinction between
human and non-human agents. It is not entirely clear whether Frankfurt
and Taylor meant to provide an alternative to the standard theory of
agency or anextension of it.[8] On one reading, they accepted the account
of intentional agency provided by the standard theory, and they proposed
a hierarchical extension of the standard theory that captures the kind of
agency that is distinctive of persons or human agents. (For an influential
critique of such hierarchical accounts see Watson 1975.)
According to Velleman (1992), Frankfurts observation that an agent
may fail to identify with a particular motive points to a fundamental flaw
in the standard theory. As it seems always possible that an agent
disowns the mental attitudes that cause an action, those attitudes do
not add up to the agents being involved (1992: 463). This shows,
according to Velleman, that the standard theory captures, at best, actions
that are defective. It fails, in particular, to capture human actionpar
excellence, because it fails to account for the agents participation.
Velleman rejects the appeal to irreducible agent-causation (see section
3.1), and he argues that this leaves only one strategy for solving the

problem: we must find a mental attitude that the agent cannot disown
and that is, therefore, fit to play the role of the agent. We must, that is,
find a mental attitude that is the agent, functionally speaking. According
to Velleman, the desire to act in accordance with reasons is fit to play
this role.
Bratman (2000, 2001) agrees with Velleman that the standard theory
does not explain genuine self-governance. On his view, though, an
account of full-blown agency, as he calls it, does not require reference
to a mental attitude that the agent cannot disown. Building on his work
on temporally extended planning agency (Bratman 1987), he argues that
an agents self-governing policies have the authority to speak for the
agent, because they help to establish and support the agents identity
across time, and because they specify which desires are to be treated as
providing justifying reasons in practical deliberation. According to
Bratman, these self-governing policies explain what it is for an agent to
take a stand in favor of or against certain motivations, a stand that can
itself be subject to reexamination and revision (2000: 5051). (For a
critical discussion of Bratmans account see Hornsby 2004.)
In defense of the standard theory, Mele (2003: Ch. 10) has argued that
the search for a mental attitude that plays the role of the agent is
misguided and that Vellemans critique of the view is off target. As Mele
points out, it seems clear that a desire cannot possibly be the agent,
because agents deliberate, decide, and act. Desires do none of these
things. He suggests that any talk of a mental attitude as playing the role
of the agent can at best be metaphorical. Further, there is no obvious
reason why an agents failure to identify with a motive should be
diagnosed in terms of the agents failure to participate. It seems more
plausible to suggest that the agent does participate in such cases, but in a
defective manner. Once defective participation is distinguished from a
failure to participate, it is easy to avoid Vellemans conclusion that the
standard theory leaves out the agent. Moreover, one can then separate
the question of whether the standard theory accounts for the agents
participation from the question of whether it captures human action par
excellence. According to Mele, the human agent is simply a human

being who acts. On this view, the agent does play some role in all
instances of agency, no matter how deficient. The standard theory
provides, first and foremost, an account of what it is for an agent to
perform intentional actions. It does not claim that the capacity to
perform intentional actions is the capacity that separates human from
non-human agency, and it does not claim to give an account of more
refined or excellent kinds of human agency, such as self-controlled,
autonomous, wholehearted, or free agency. It is an interesting and
important task to investigate whether or not the standard theory can be
extended so as to account for the more refined or excellent kinds of
human agency (Mele 1995; Bratman 2007, for instance). But to reject
the view because it fails to do so is to misconstrue its aim and scope (see
also section 3.3).
2.4 Agency without mental representations
Arguments for the claim that the standard theory does not account for
important aspects of agency are usually driven by a focus on
distinctively human agency. Once we shift our focus to non-human
agents, and simpler organisms, a very different challenge emerges. When
we turn to such agents, it seems that the standard theory is clearly too
demanding. The view explains agency in terms of the agents desires,
beliefs, and intentions. Usually, it is assumed that this is an explanation
in terms of mental representations: in terms of intentional mental states
and events that have representational contents (typically, propositional
contents). It seems, however, that there are beings that are capable of
genuine agency and that do not possess representational mental states.
We can distinguish here between three claims (and three challenges).
According to the first, there are non-human beings that are capable of
agency and that do not possess representational mental states. Second,
there are many instances of human agency that can and should be
explained without the ascription of representational mental states. Third,
all instances of agency can and should be explained without the
ascription of representational mental states. We turn to each claim in
turn.

We have a pervasive tendency to interpret and explain behavior in terms


of intentional mental states. We tend, even, to interpret the interaction
between animated objects in terms of desires, beliefs, and intentions
(Heider and Simmel 1944). This raises the question of when it is
appropriate to attribute mental states in the explanation of behavior.
According to an instrumentalist stance (Dennett 1987: Ch. 2), the
question of when it is appropriate to ascribe mental states cannot be
separated from the question of when it is appropriate to ascribe agency,
and both questions are to be answered in terms of predictive success: it
is appropriate to attribute mental states in the explanation of agency
when doing so supports successful predictions of behavior. However,
most proponents of the standard theory presume some form of realism,
according to which the ascription of mental states is appropriate only if
the agent in question possesses the right internal states with the right
representational contents. The question of what the possession of
representational mental states consists in is one of the most controversial
questions in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science, and it is
clearly beyond the scope of this entry (see the entries on mental
representation andcognitive science). Consider, though, the following
remarks. Davidson (1982) held the view that only human agents have
the relevant mental attitudes, because he thought that having such
attitudes requires linguistic competence. Others have argued that we are
justified in ascribing representational mental states to non-human agents
if doing so provides the best explanation of their behavior (Allen and
Bekoff 1997, for instance). Sometimes it is rather difficult to decide
whether or not the best explanation of an agents behavior requires the
ascription of representational mental states. Sterelny (2001: Ch. 11, 12),
for instance, has argued that plausible explanations in terms of desires
can sometimes be replaced by equally good explanations in terms of
drives. The ascription of a desire is usually construed as the ascription of
a representational mental state, whereas a drive can be construed in
terms of more basic mechanisms (and without the ascription of
representational content). What is important to bear in mind, here, is that
the issue concerns not only the possession of the relevant mental states
and events. It concerns, moreover, the capacity to combine or process

the contents of such attitudes in rational inferences: the capacity to treat


the relevant contents as premises in practical reasoning (as emphasized
by Anscombe 1957 and Davidson 1970).
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that it is appropriate to ascribe
representational mental states to non-human beings of various kinds. It
may still be the case that there are other kinds of non-human beings that
are capable of agency and that do not possess representational mental
states. Would this show that the standard theory is too demanding? Only
if the standard theory is construed as providing an account of agency as
such. According to a less demanding view, the standard theory provides
an account of one particularly interesting and central kind of agency:
intentional agency (and the kind of unintentional agency that derives
from it; see section 2). On this construal, the standard theory is perfectly
compatible with the claim that there are more basic kinds of agency,
including kinds of agency that do not require the possession of
representational mental states. It is, for instance, compatible with what
Barandiaran et al. (2009) call minimal agency. On their view, an agent
is a unified entity that is distinguishable from its environment and that is
doing something by itself in accord with a certain goal (or norm). This
view departs from the standard conception and theory in its
characterization of action (doing something) in terms of the adaptive
regulation of the agents coupling with the environment and in terms
of metabolic self-maintenance (inspired by Varela et al. 1974). They
suggest that organisms as simple as bacteria exhibit this minimal kind of
agency. The crucial point is that this provides an account of goaldirected behavior that does not appeal to the mental representation of
goals. Barandiaran et al. suggest, rather, that even very simple organisms
can be said to have the intrinsic goal to be: to bring about the
continuation of their existence.
We turn now to the second claim, which says that many instances of
human agency can and should be explained without the ascription of
representational mental states. This view is usually based on and
motivated by embodied and enactive approaches in the philosophy of
mind and cognitive science. Some versions of this approach are inspired

by the works Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty (Dreyfus 1991,


2002), others are based on more recent developments in robotics and
dynamical systems theory (Brooks 1991; Beer 1995). Common to such
views is the focus on skillful and online engagement with the world:
the ability to engage with others and with ones circumstances by
responding to the demands of the situation in a skillful and often
effortless manner, without conscious deliberation, reasoning, or planning
(often called skilled coping). Examples of human agency include
instances of habitual action, such as the actions that one performs while
driving a car, and cases where the agent is engaged in a responsive flow
of interaction, such as in jazz improvisation or in verbal exchanges.
Examples from robotics include skills like the coordination of limb
movements and the ability to navigate through novel environments. The
challenge to the standard theory often involves the following three
points. First, it is argued that the explanation of such skills and abilities
in terms of mental representations is both costly and clumsy: it imposes
very high demands on the agents information-processing resources and
it leads to an inelegant and implausible overpopulation of highly specific
mental representations. Second, it is pointed out that current accounts of
mental representation are untenable or, at least, controversial and that
there is no obvious reason to think that there will ever be a generally
accepted account of mental representation. Third, it is argued that the
explanation of skilled coping does not require the ascription of
representational mental states, because it can be explained in terms of
behavioral dispositions and direct guidance by the relevant features of
the situation. The proposed conclusion is that we should, therefore,
explain instances of skilled coping without reference to representational
mental states and events.
In response, proponents of the standard theory (and of representational
theories of mind) usually argue as follows. First, it is pointed out that the
standard theory does not require that the agent considers the relevant
mental contents in conscious deliberation or reasoning. This reduces the
information-processing demands to a significant degree. Second, it is
argued that the standard theory is compatible with explanations of

habitual actions in terms of motor schemata (or motor intentions). Motor


schemata are not represented in the contents of personal-level mental
states, and they are usually recruited automatically in the service of
personal-level goals and intentions. The utilization of motor schemata
further reduces the required processing load. Third, it is pointed out that
most instances of skilled coping do not occur in an intentional vacuum,
as it were. They are, rather, usually constrained by and often integrated
with the agents long-term goals and intentions. Given this, it seems that
a full explanation of skilled coping must, at some point or level, make
reference to representational mental states after all. (For more on this see
Clark and Toribio 1994; Antony 2002; Rey 2002; Adams 2010; Clarke
2010b.)
According to the third claim, all instances of agency, including all
instances of human agency, can and should be explained without the
ascription of representational mental states. This position is usually
motivated by radical versions of the embodied and enactive approach to
the mind (Chemero 2009; Silberstein and Chemero 2011; Hutto and
Myin 2014). The main strategy here is usually to generalize the
argument outlined above: explanations in terms of representational
mental states are costly and clumsy; there is no generally accepted
account of mental representation; and there is reason to think that we
will, eventually, be able to explain all kinds of agency without the
ascription of representational mental states. This radical view raises
some obvious and difficult questions. How can one explain our ability to
deliberate about the future without assuming mental representations?
How can one explain reasoning about abstract concepts, counterfactuals,
and theoretical generalizations? And how can one explain that our
agency is to a significant extent motivated, guided, and constrained by
our long-terms plans and commitments? Temporally extended planning
agency (Bratman 1987, 2000) is clearly a representation-hungry
phenomenon: it is difficult to see how it can be explained without the
ascription of representational mental states (Clark and Toribio 1994; see
also the entry on embodied cognition).

2.5 Other kinds of agency: mental, shared, collective,


relational, artificial
There is, as we have seen, good reason to distinguish between different
kinds of agency. The standard theory offers an account of what is,
arguably, the most central kind of agency: intentional agency (and the
kind of unintentional agency that derives from it; see section 2). This can
be distinguished from higher or more refined kinds of agency, such as
self-controlled, autonomous, and free agency, and it can be distinguished
from more basic kinds of agency that do not require the ascription of
representational mental states. Apart from that, there are several
candidates for further kinds of agency. They include mental agency,
shared agency, collective agency, relational agency, and artificial agency.
In each case, we can ask whether the agency in question can be
explained in terms of the standard conception and theory, or whether it is
indeed a different kind of agency. The main focus in this section will be
on mental agency, and we will address the other candidates only very
briefly.
It may seem obvious that our mental lives are filled with mental action.
We attend, consider, judge, reason, deliberate, accept, endorse, decide,
try, and so on. It may seem that these are all things that we do. If we
consider such cases through the standard theory of agency, we encounter
immediately two difficulties. First, it seems that such mental occurrences
are hardly ever, if ever, intentional actions. According to the standard
theory, an event is an intentional action of the type A only if the agent
has an intention that includes A in its content. In the basic case, this
would be an intention toA. In an instrumental case, this would be an
intention to perform some other action B in order to A. Now, thoughts
are individuated in part by their contents. Take the thought that p.
According to the standard theory, thinking that p is an intentional action
only if the agent has an intention that includes think that p in its
content. This is rather odd and problematic, because we would have to
have the intention to think a certain thought before we think it. Second,
there are problems with the central case of decision-making. According
to the standard theory, deciding to A would be an intentional action only

if one already had the intention to make a decision that includes


deciding toA in its content. This seems, again, rather odd and
problematic. Further, our reasons for making a decision to A are usually
our reasons to Athey are reasons for performing the action. According
to the standard theory, something is an action only if it has a reason
explanation (in terms of the agents desires, beliefs, and intentions). As
reasons are usually reasons for action, it is again difficult to see how
making a decision can ever be an action. Considerations of this kind may
lead one to conclude that thoughts are hardly ever, if ever, mental actions
(see Strawson 2003).
It is, however, not difficult to avoid this conclusion, as Mele (1997,
2003: Ch. 9, 2009b) has shown. Consider again the central case of
decision-making, and assume that making a decision consists in the
formation of an intention. According to the standard theory, the
formation of an intention is an action if it is an intentional action under
some description (or if it is either identical with or generated by an
intentional action; see section 2). What could plausibly be the agents
intention in making a decision? Mele suggests that processes of
decision-making are usually motivated by the intention to settle the
practical question at hand. This proposal avoids the problem outlined
above. Suppose the agent decides to A. For this to be an action, it is not
required that the agent has the intention to decide to A. For if the agent
has the intention to settle the question by making a decision, making the
decision is intentional under a description. In particular,
making a decision is then an intentional action and
making the decision to A is then an unintentional action (that is either
identical with or generated by the intentional action of
making a decision).[9] Similar considerations apply to the mentioned
issue concerning reason explanation and to other cases, such as
remembering. Mele (2009b) argues that remembering something is
never an intentional action, because no one has ever the intention to
remember the particular content in question. But there is nevertheless a
closely associated intentional mental action that one might perform:

intentionally trying to bring it about that one remembers the particular


content in question.
Hieronymi (2009) takes a very different line. She thinks that we engage
in mental agency whenever we settle the question of whether to do or
whether to believe something, and she argues that this kind of mental
agency differs from ordinary intentional agency, primarily due to a
difference in control. According to Hieronymi, we have evaluative
control over our mental attitudes. This consists in the ability to form
and revise our take on things, and it is to be distinguished from the
kind of voluntary control that we have over our overt bodily actions.
According to volitionist theories of agency, mental acts of willing
(choosing or trying) are also different in kind from overt bodily actions.
On such views, mental acts of willing are furthermore fundamental, in
the sense that they are the source of overt agency (Ginet 1990; McCann
1998; Lowe 2008; more on this in section 3.1).
Shared agency occurs when two or more individuals do something
together (such as carry a piece of furniture or sing a
song). Collective agency occurs when two or more individuals act as a
group (in accordance with certain principles or procedures that constitute
and organize the group). Research on shared and collective agency has
flourished over the past two decades or so. One central question has
been whether shared and collective agency can be reduced to the agency
of the individuals involved, or whether they are constitutive of different
kinds of agencywhether they are, in some sense, something over and
above individual agency. An account of collective agency in terms of the
standard theory raises the question of whether it makes sense to attribute
mental states and events (such as desires, beliefs, and intentions) to
groups of individuals. (For references and discussion see the entries
on shared agency and collective intentionality.)
The notion of relational agency derives from relational accounts of
autonomy. According to feminist critiques, traditional accounts of
autonomy are overly individualistic, insofar as they overlook or neglect
the importance of interpersonal relationships in the development and

sustenance of an autonomous individual. As Westlund (2009) points out,


however, most traditional accounts are compatible with the feminist
emphasis on interpersonal relationships as long as relationships and
dependence on others are construed as being causally necessary for the
development and sustenance of an individual agent. Autonomy is
genuinely relational only if interpersonal relationships and dependence
are constitutive of autonomy. On Westlunds own view, autonomous
agency requires an irreducibly dialogical form of reflectiveness and
responsiveness to others (2009: 28). On this account, autonomy is an
irreducibly relational kind of agency. (For more on this see the entry
on feminist perspectives on autonomy.)
Finally, we turn briefly to the question of whether robots and other
systems of artificial intelligence are capable of agency. If one presumes
the standard theory, one faces the question of whether it is appropriate to
attribute mental states to artificial systems (see section 2.4). If one takes
an instrumentalist stance (Dennett 1987: Ch. 2), there is no obvious
obstacle to the attribution of mental states and intentional agency to
artificial systems. According to realist positions, however, it is far from
obvious whether or not this is justified, because it is far from obvious
whether or not artificial systems have internal states that ground the
ascription of representational mental states. If artificial systems are not
capable of intentional agency, as construed by the standard theory, they
may still be capable of some more basic kind of agency. According to
Barandiaran et al. (2009), minimal agency does not require the
possession of mental states. It requires, rather, the adaptive regulation of
the agents coupling with the environment and metabolic selfmaintenance. This means, though, that on this view artificial systems are
not even capable of minimal agency: being specific about the
requirements for agency has told us a lot about how much is still needed
for the development of artificial forms of agency (Barandiaran et al.
2009: 382).
3. The metaphysics of agency

What is the nature of agency? How should we construe the relation


between agents and actions? How can agency be part of the event-causal
order? In this section, we will first turn to the three main approaches in
the metaphysics of agency that provide three different frameworks for
how to think about such metaphysical questions (the event-causal, the
agent-causal, and the volitionist framework). After considering some
problems and objections, we turn to an alternative approach that rejects
the project of providing a metaphysics of agency (dual standpoint
theory). Finally, we briefly consider the individuation of actions and
some further issues in the metaphysics of agency.
3.1 Three metaphysical frameworks
According to an event-causal approach, agency is to be explained in
terms of event-causal relations between agent-involving states and
events.[10] On this view, actions are events, and an event is an action just
in case it has the right event-causal history.[11] We may call this
a reductive approach to agency, as it reduces the agents role in the
exercise of agency to the causal roles of agent-involving states and
events. Obviously, the standard theory belongs to this reductive eventcausal framework, because it explains agency in terms of causation by
the agents mental states and events.[12](Proponents include Davidson
1963, 1971; Goldman 1970; Brand 1984; Bratman 1987; Dretske 1988;
Bishop 1989; Mele 1992, 2003; En 2003.)
According to an agent-causal approach, agency is to be explained in
terms of a kind of substance-causation: causation by the agent, construed
as a persisting substance. On this view, actions are events, and an event
is an action just in case it has the right agent-causal history.[13] This
framework provides a non-reductive account of agency insofar as it
holds that an agents role in the exercise of agency is to be construed in
terms of the exercise of an irreducible agent-causal power (Chisholm
1964; Taylor 1966; OConnor 2000; see also Clarke 2003; Lowe 2008).
According to a volitionist approach, agency is to be explained in terms
of acts of the will, usually called volitions. On this view, volitions are
the source of agency: an overt movement is an action just in case it is

caused, in the right way, by a volition. Volitions themselves are entirely


uncaused and they are sui generis acts: they are acts in virtue of their
intrinsic properties, not in virtue of some extrinsic or relational property
(such as having the right causal history). This is also a non-reductive
approach to agency, but it differs sharply from both the event-causal and
the agent-causal framework in the important respect that it rejects the
suggestion that all actions are events with a certain causal history (Ginet
1990; McCann 1998; see also Lowe 2008).[14]
The event-causal framework is by far the most widely accepted view in
the contemporary philosophy of mind and action. One reason for this is
that the commitment to the event-causal framework is tantamount to a
commitment to a very minimal and widely endorsed kind of naturalism,
according to which any appeal to irreducible substance-causation or
teleology is to be avoided. Further, this commitment to the event-causal
framework is sustained by a widespread dissatisfaction with alternative
agent-causal and volitionist theories of agency. Some objections to
agent-causal theories derive from more general objections to the notion
of substance-causation, others address more directly the agent-causal
account of agency. It has been argued, for instance, that appeal to
substances leaves both the timing and the manner of causation
mysterious (Broad 1952). Further, it has been argued that substancecausation collapses into event-causation, once it is acknowledged that a
substance has its causal powers in virtue of its properties (Clarke 2003:
Ch. 10). Others have argued that an appeal to the agent as a cause is
vacuous, because it has no explanatory import (Davidson 1971), and
because it cannot explain what an agents exercise of control consists in
(Schlosser 2010). A common objection to volitionist accounts is that
they generate a regress of mental acts (Ryle 1949). Arguably, though,
this objection begs the question. The view holds that overt actions are to
be explained in terms of volitions. There is no need to appeal to further
mental acts of the will in order to explain why volitions are actions,
because volitions are actions sui generis (see En 2003 for discussion).
This, however, points also to the reason why the view is widely rejected.
Volitionist theories stipulate as primitive what appears to be in need of

explanation. In particular, they do not explain what an agents exercise


of control consists in, as the agent is merely the subject or the bearer of
volitions (OConnor 2000: 2526; Clarke 2003: 1724). Moreover, if, as
most contemporary philosophers would assume, volitions are realized by
events in the brain, the view appears to be in tension with the fact that
there are no events in the brain that are entirely uncaused.
3.2 Deviant causal chains
In the 1950s and 60s, several philosophers argued that the event-causal
framework is incoherent. Their main argument was the so called logical
connection argument, which says, very roughly, that the relation
between mental attitudes and actions cannot be causal, because the
connection between them is logical, conceptual, or in some sense noncontingent (Hampshire 1959; Melden 1961; Kenny 1963, for instance).
It is widely agreed now that this attack was unsuccessful (the most
influential reply is due to Davidson 1963; see also Goldman 1970: 109
116).[15] Shortly after that another challenge emerged, which turned out
to be the most serious and most persistent problem for the standard
theory and the event-causal framework: the problem of deviant causal
chains.
In general, the problem is that it seems always possible that the relevant
mental states and events cause the relevant event (a certain movement,
for instance) in a deviant way: so that this event is clearly not an
intentional action or not an action at all. It is common to distinguish
between cases ofbasic deviance and consequential deviance (also called
primary and secondary deviance). A murderous nephew intends to kill
his uncle in order to inherit his fortune. He drives to his uncles house
and on the way he kills a pedestrian by accident. As it turns out, this
pedestrian is his uncle. This is a case of consequential deviance
(Chisholm 1966). In a standard case of basic deviance (Davidson 1973),
a climber intends to rid himself of the weight and danger of holding
another man on a rope by loosening his grip. This intention unnerves
him so that it causes him to loosen his hold on the rope. The difference
between the cases is best explained in terms of the distinction

betweenbasic and non-basic actions. Very roughly, basic actions are the
things that one can do without doing something else (such as raising
ones hand), whereas the performance of non-basic actions requires that
one does something else (such as giving someone a signal by raising
ones hand).[16] In the consequential case, the nephew has an intention to
perform a non-basic action (to kill his uncle). He successfully performs
several basic actions, but it is a sheer coincidence that he brings about
the intended end. The climber, in contrast, does not perform any action
at all. The mental antecedent causes a movement that would have been a
basic action, had the causal chain not been deviant.
Any event-causal theory of agency must require that the relevant mental
attitudes cause the action in the right way. The right way of causation is
non-deviant causation. The challenge is to spell out what non-deviant
causation consists in within the event-causal framework; without, in
particular, any appeal to some unanalyzed notion of agent-causation or
control. Davidson (1974) was pessimistic about the prospects for finding
an event-causal account of non-deviant causation, and he suggested that
the standard theory is best understood as providing only necessary
conditions for agency. Goldman (1970) suggested that giving an account
of non-deviant causation is an empirical rather than a philosophical task.
Since then, however, most proponents of the event-causal approach have
acknowledged that the problem of deviant causal chains is a serious
philosophical problem, and various solutions have been proposed (see
Peacocke 1979; Brand 1984; Bishop 1989; Mele 2003; Schlosser 2007,
2011).[17]
3.3 Disappearing agents, naturalism, and dual standpoint
theory
Sometimes it is suggested that the problem of deviant causal chains is
merely a symptom of the deeper problem that event-causal theories
altogether fail to capture agency, because they reduce actions to things
that merely happen to us (Lowe 2008: 9, for instance). Put differently,
this challenge says that the event-causal framework is deficient because
it leaves out agents: all there is, on this view, is a nexus of causal pushes

and pulls in which no one does anything (Melden 1961; Nagel 1986; see
also Velleman 1992). This has been called the problem of the
disappearing agent (Mele 2003: Ch. 10; Lowe 2008: 159161;
Steward 2013).
According to Mele (2003: Ch. 10), some formulations of this
disappearing agent objection are easily dismissed. Some proponents of
this challenge use the terms event-causal order and natural order
interchangeably. This would seem to suggest that, on their view, agency
is a supernatural phenomenona view that most contemporary
philosophers find hard to take seriously. However, sometimes the
challenge is raised in order to motivate alternative agent-causal or
volitionist theories of agency, and the main proponents of agent-causal
and volitionist theories maintain that their views are compatible with
naturalism. They would argue that it is a mistake to presume that the
event-causal order exhausts the natural order of things.
Further, the disappearing agent objection is not always put forward as a
general objection to the event-causal framework. As we have seen
(section 2.3), Velleman (1992) argued that the standard theory leaves out
the agent, or the agents participation, and he proposed a solution to this
problemwithin the event-causal framework. In his reply, Mele (2003:
Ch. 10) suggested that it would be more appropriate to call this the
problem of the shrinking agent. According to Velleman, the standard
theory captures only deficient instances of agency, in which the agents
participation is unwitting or halfhearted. Instances of deficient
agency can be explained in terms of various capacities or properties that
the agent does not possess, exercise, or instantiate; capacities and
properties such as conscious awareness, reflective awareness, reasonresponsiveness, self-control, self-governance, and so on. Given this,
there is no need to conceptualize instances of deficient agency in terms
of the agents absence. Further, doing so creates a rather implausible
dichotomy between a kind of agency in which the agent does participate
and a kind of agency in which the agent does not participate (Schlosser
2010).

Others, yet, press the disappearing agent objection in order to motivate a


dual standpoint theory. According to dual standpoint theories, agency
cannot be explained from any theoretical standpoint or metaphysical
framework. Agency can only be understood from a practical and
normative standpoint (Nagel 1986; Korsgaard 1996; Bilgrami 2006, for
instance). Arguably, this view has its roots in Kants account of practical
reason (see the entry on Kant and Hume on morality). Usually, dual
standpoint theories do not reject metaphysics as such, and they often
provide a metaphysical framework of their own. But they reject both
reductive and non-reductive theories of agency, and they reject, in
general, the notion that we can have a metaphysical account of what the
exercise of agency consists in. They align themselves naturally with
non-causal theories of reason explanation (see section 2). Both views
tend to emphasize the normative and irreducibly teleological nature of
reason explanation and, hence, agency. Dual standpoint theories have
received relatively little attention in the philosophy of action. To many, it
seems that such views are deeply unsatisfactory precisely because they
refuse to face a central question in the metaphysics of agency: how can
agents exercise control over their actions in a world in which all
movements can be explained in terms of event-causation? It seems that
this is in need of explanation, and it seems that this requires a
metaphysics of agency (see Bishop 1989; Schlosser 2010). Nelkin
(2000) has questioned the coherence of dual standpoint theories on the
basis of an argument for the claim that they entail commitments to
contradictory beliefs about free will.
3.4 Actions, events, processes, and omissions
We now turn, in brief, to some further issues in the metaphysics of
agency. The first concerns the individuation of actions. You flick the
switch, turn on the light, illuminate the room, and you thereby also alert
the burglar. How many actions do you perform? According to coarsegrained (or minimizing) views on the individuation of actions, you
perform one action under different descriptions (Anscombe 1957;
Davidson 1963). According to fine-grained (or maximizing) views, how
many actions you perform depends on how many act-properties are

instantiated. If you instantiate four act-properties, then you perform four


distinct actions (Goldman 1970; see also Ginet 1990). According to a
third alternative, actions can have other actions as their components or
parts (Thalberg 1977; Ginet 1990). According to all three views, actions
are events, and the individuation of actions derives from different views
on the individuation of events (see the entry on events). Not much work
has been done on this recently (see, however, En 2003: Ch. 3). This is
partly because it is now widely agreed that the individuation of actions
has little or no bearing on other issues. To illustrate, the question of
whether agency is to be explained within an event-causal or an agentcausal framework bears directly on various issues in the debate on free
will and moral responsibility (see the entry on free will). But eventcausal and agent-causal theories are both compatible with coarse-grained
and fine-grained views on the individuation of actions. Similarly, it
seems that the views on the individuation of actions have no substantial
bearing on the question of whether or not reason explanations are causal
explanations.
A related issue is whether actions are to be identified with
the outcomes of causal processes or with the processes themselves.
According to most versions of event-causal and agent-causal theories, an
action is an event that is caused in the right way: the action is identical
with or constituted by the outcome of that process.[18] According to
process views, the action is either identical with or constituted by that
process (Searle 1983; Dretske 1988; see also Thompson 2008). This
issue has also not received much attention. Again, this is mainly because
it is widely assumed that this issue has little or no substantial bearing on
more fundamental issues in the metaphysics of agency and on debates
outside the philosophy of action.[19]
Another issue in the metaphysics of agency that has received more
attention in the recent debate is the nature of omissions (in particular,
intentional omissions). According to Sartorio (2009), an intentional
omission is the absence of an action that is caused by the absence of an
intention. She argues, on the basis of this account, that intentional
omissions cannot be accommodated easily by the standard theory. In

reply, Clarke (2010a) has argued that in cases of intentional omission the
agent usually does have an intention not to act that plays an important
causal role, and he has identified various parallels between intentional
actions and intentional omissions. On his view, there are no major
obstacles to an account of intentional omissions that is compatible and
continuous with the standard theory of intentional action. Further, he
argues that a failure to account for intentional omissions would not
obviously be a shortcoming of a theory of intentional action. There are,
after all, significant differences between actions and omissions, and so
we should not expect that a theory of action provides all the resources
that are required for an account of omissions. (For more on this see
Clarke 2014.)
4. The sense of agency
There has been some debate concerning the kind of knowledge we have
of our own actions. Most prominently, Anscombe (1957) argued that the
knowledge of our actions is direct, in the sense that it is not based on
observation or inference (see the entry on action). This section provides
an overview of the closely related debate on the so called sense of
agency. It seems that when we act, we have a sense of doing
something: a sense of control and of being the agent or owner of the
action. The debate about this has been driven largely by empirical
findings from psychology and cognitive science, and it has become
common to distinguish between the following three main positions.
The first is largely due to Wegners work on the model of apparent
mental causation (Wegner and Wheatley 1999; Wegner 2002).
According to this view, the sense of agency (or the experience of
conscious will, as Wegner called it) arises when we interpret a
conscious intention to perform a certain action as its cause. It says, in
particular, that an agent interprets an intention as the cause of an action
when the following conditions obtain: the intention proximately
precedes the action, the action is consistent with the intention, and the
agent is not aware of any factors that could provide an alternative
explanation. Wegners argument for the model of apparent mental

causation is based on various experiments, studies, and observations


concerning illusions of control and failures in the ascription of agency.
This work initiated the empirical study of the sense of agency, but
Wegners model is now widely rejected. Philosophers have criticized the
view for various conceptual ambiguities and flaws in the interpretation
and use of the evidence (Nahmias 2002; Bayne 2006; Dennett 2008; and
Mele 2009a, for instance). Moreover, there is now plenty of empirical
evidence to suggest that the sense of agency is not merely a matter of
self-interpretation (Haggard 2005; Bayne and Pacherie 2007; Gallagher
2007; and Synofzik et al. 2008).
The second account of the sense of agency is based on a comparator
model of motor control. According to this model, the motor control
system uses copies of motor commands in order to generate predictions
of the ensuing bodily movements. Those predictions (so called forward
models) are then used for comparisons between the predicted and the
intended trajectories of movements, and for comparisons between the
predicted and actual trajectories (based on information from sensory
feedback). The model holds that a sub-personal system of motor control
uses those predictions and comparisons in order to adjust and fine-tune
the execution of bodily movements (Wolpert and Kawato 1998; Frith et
al. 2000; Haggard 2005). It has been suggested that this system may also
play a crucial role in the generation of the sense of agency. On this view,
positive matches in the comparator system generate a sense of agency,
whereas mismatches generate error signals that disrupt the sense of
agency. This model can explain a wide range of phenomena concerning
the sense and control of agency (Frith et al. 2000; Blakemore et al.
2002). More recently it has been argued, however, that this comparator
model provides at best a partial explanation of the sense of agency
(Haggard 2005; Bayne and Pacherie 2007; Gallagher 2007; Synofzik et
al. 2008).
The third account of the sense of agency is a hybrid of the first two.
Proponents of this approach usually distinguish between a basic sense of
agency and post-act judgments concerning ones agency. The basic sense
of agency is construed as an online and phenomenologically rather thin

experience that accompanies the performance of actions, and that does


not necessarily require the presence of a conscious intention. Judgments
about ones agency, in contrast, are offline and usually post-act, and they
are, thereby, subject to various biases that may distort the interpretation
of ones own agency. The comparator model is well suited to explain the
basic sense of agency, whereas a self-interpretation theory, akin to
Wegners, can explain why judgments about ones own agency tend to
be distorted or illusory under certain conditions (Bayne and Pacherie
2007; Gallagher 2007; Synofzik et al. 2008).
5. Empirical challenges and the role of consciousness
According to our commonsense conception of agency, our reasons and
conscious intentions tend to make a real difference to how we act
(DAndrade 1987; Malle 2004, for instance). This assumption is part and
parcel of the standard theory and of numerous psychological theories of
intentional action and motivation (Fishbein and Ajzen 1975; Locke and
Latham 1990; Heckhausen 1991; Gollwitzer 1993; Austin and
Vancouver 1996, for instance). There are, however, various empirical
findings from psychology and cognitive neuroscience that have been
taken to show that this commonsense assumption is unwarranted, and
that have raised interesting and challenging questions concerning the
role of consciousness in the initiation and guidance of agency. This
section provides an overview of the most relevant research.
An early and highly influential source of the skepticism concerning the
causal relevance of our reasons is a theoretical review by Nisbett and
Wilson (1977). This article reports numerous experiments and studies in
which participants appear to construct or confabulate rationalizing
explanations by giving reasons that could not possibly have been the
reasons they acted for. Despite some rather serious methodological
problems (White 1988), this research has achieved and retained the
status of textbook knowledge within psychology and cognitive science.
Moreover, it has been taken to show that ordinary reason explanations
are not causal explanations, even though the authors themselves rejected
this conclusion. On their view, the evidence shows, first and foremost,

that verbal reports of mental states are based on self-interpretation


(theorizing or rationalization), rather than on direct or introspective
access. They noted that this epistemic view is perfectly compatible with
the assumption that we can and often do give the actual causes of our
actions when we give an ordinary reason explanation. The upshot is that,
even if the proposed epistemic view is correct, there is nothing in the
evidence which shows that reason explanations cannot be causal
explanations, and there is nothing in the evidence which shows that
reason explanations are usually not causal explanations.
The most influential empirical challenge concerning the role of
conscious intentions stems from Libets seminal neuroscientific work on
the initiation of movements. In the Libet experiment (Libet 1985),
participants were instructed to initiate a simple and predefined
movement when the wish or urge to do so arises. During this, EEG
measurements were taken to record the readiness potential, a brain
potential that was known to precede intentional movements. The main
finding was that the readiness potential precedes the occurrence of the
conscious wish or urge to move by about 350ms. According to Libet,
this shows that movements are not consciously initiated and that we do
not have free will in the sense we commonly think we do (Libet 1999).
The methodology of this experiment has been scrutinized extensively
and criticized on a number of points. Some of those methodological
issues have been addressed in follow-up experiments (Soon et al. 2008;
Fried et al. 2011).
Most philosophers who have addressed Libets work have argued that
the conclusions about the role of conscious intentions and about free will
do not follow, even if it is granted that the experimental methods and
results are sound. They have argued that there are alternative
interpretations of the evidence that preserve a causal role for conscious
intentions and that are as plausible and probable as Libets own
interpretation of the evidence (Flanagan 1992: 136138; Zhu 2003; Mele
2009a; Schlosser 2012b). Further, it has been argued that the experiment
creates a very unusual and artificial context in which participants
are instructed to decide spontaneously. Due to this, it is questionable that

the results of the experiment can be generalized (Keller and Heckhausen


1990; Roskies 2011; Waller 2012; Schlosser 2014). Schurger et al.
(2012) have proposed and tested a model that addresses this issue.
According to this model, the timing of the movement in the Libet
experiment is determined by random threshold crossings in spontaneous
fluctuations in neural activity. In particular, the model says that a
decision when to move is determined by random threshold
crossings only when it is not constrained by any evidence or reasons for
action. The fact that this model has been tested successfully supports the
claim that the results from the Libet experiment and from similar followup studies do not generalize, because most of our everyday decisions
clearly are constrained by evidence and by reasons for action.
A related challenge concerning the role of conscious intentions stems
from Wegners model of apparent mental causation. According to this
view, conscious intentions provide mere previews of our actions: they
precede our actions, but they do not cause them (Wegner and Wheatley
1999; Wegner 2002). Wegner provided evidence of dissociations
between the sense of agency and the actual exercise of agency, and he
argued that the model of apparent mental causation provides the best
explanation of the data. As mentioned (section 4), this view has been
strongly criticized for conceptual ambiguities and argumentative flaws.
One common objection is that the fact that the sense of agency can come
apart from the exercise of agency is perfectly compatible with the
assumption that conscious intentions tend to cause the intended actions.
(See Bayne 2006; Mele 2009a; for a reply to Wegners inference to the
best explanation see Schlosser 2012a.)
The work of Libet and Wegner has nevertheless raised interesting and
challenging questions concerning the role of consciousness in agency.
Proponents of the standard theory often qualify the view with the claim
that the relevant mental attitudes need not be consciously accessed in
order to play the right role in the exercise of agency. When, for instance,
Davidson (1978: 8586) considered the example of an agent who adds
some spice to a stew with the intention of improving the taste, he
claimed that intentional agency requires only that the agent would have

reasoned on the basis of the relevant attitudes that the action is to be


performed, had he been aware of those attitudes at the time. Few,
though, would be prepared to accept the view that all of our actions
might be like this: initiated and guided by attitudes that are not
consciously accessed at the time. This raises various questions that are
rarely addressed. How often, or in what kinds of cases, should actions be
preceded by conscious intentions or conscious reasoning? What kind of
consciousness is required? In cases where the relevant attitudes are not
consciously accessed, must they be accessible? And so forth.[20]
One strand of empirical research that is relevant to questions concerning
the role of consciousness in agency is the work on automaticity; in
particular, the research on automatic goal pursuit. It has been shown, for
instance, that the goal to perform a certain task accurately can be
primed, so that the agent pursues the goal without any awareness of
doing so (Bargh et al. 2001). There is a large body of research on this,
and it has been suggested that this research shows that most of our
actions are executed automatically and without conscious control (Bargh
and Chartrand 1999, Custers and Aarts 2010).[21] This claim is less
radical than the claims put forward by Libet (1999) and Wegner (2002),
as it concerns only the extent or scope of conscious control. Further, this
appears to be much less challenging once it is noted that the great
majority of automatic actions are sub-routines that are in the service of
higher goals and long-term intentions. Consider, for instance, all the subroutines that one performs while driving a car. The claim that such
actions are performed automatically and without conscious control can
be reconciled with our commonsense conception of agency and it can be
accommodated by the standard theory, provided that conscious
intentions and plans can recruit the relevant routines automatically,
either by generating the relevant motor intentions, or by activating the
relevant motor schemata. (For more on this see Pacherie 2008; Adams
2010; Clarke 2010b.)
Another relevant strand of research is the work on dual-process (or dualsystem) theories of decision-making. According to such models, there
are two distinct types of mental processes (or systems) that underlie

decision-making and agency: one is typically characterized as automatic,


effortless, and heuristics-based, and the other as conscious, deliberate,
and rule-based. Dual-process models have been deployed widely and
successfully in many areas of research (for overviews see Sloman 1996;
Evans 2008; for critical reviews see Osman 2004; Keren and Schul
2009). In philosophy, it is commonly assumed, explicitly or implicitly,
that there is one mechanism (or faculty) of practical reason that underlies
practical reasoning and reason-based agency. This appears to be
incompatible with the dual-process framework. What complicates this
issue, though, is that there is no consensus on the details of the dualprocess model. There is, for instance, no commonly accepted view on
how the two processes (or systems) interact. Conscious and deliberate
processes may have a top-down influence on automatic processes; the
two processes may interact with each other; they may interfere with each
other in some cases; there may be cases in which processing switches
from one to the other; and so on. Not all of those possibilities are
obviously incompatible with the assumption that there is one mechanism
(or faculty) of practical reason. Further research is needed in order to
investigate whether the two types of processes are in the relevant
respects independent or whether they can be construed as interacting
parts of one mechanism of decision-making.[22]
Finally, it seems that the empirical evidence in support of situationism
raises a challenge for our commonsense conception of agency.
According to situationism, empirical research shows that commonsense
explanations of actions in terms of character traits (such as honesty,
kindness, or courage) are systematically mistaken or inaccurate, because
this research shows that the actions in question are better explained in
terms of situational features (Ross and Nisbett 1991; Harman 1999;
Doris 2002). But none of the common philosophical theories of agency
say that actions are to be explained in terms of the agents character
traits, and so it seems that situationism does not raise a problem for the
standard theory and other philosophical accounts of agency. Moreover,
the interpretation of the empirical evidence in question and the argument
for situationism have been controversial (Sreenivasan 2002, for

instance). It has been argued, however, that this evidence raises the
further question of whether we are genuinely reason-responsive. The
evidence suggests that our actions are, under certain conditions, driven
by situational and morally irrelevant factors even when there are salient
moral reasons to act otherwise. This suggests that we (or most of us) are
not as reason-responsive as we would like to think. But it is
controversial whether or not the evidence supports any stronger claims
than that (for more on this see Nelkin 2005; Schlosser 2013; Vargas
2013).