What is the difference between my arm’s going up, and me raising my arm?

When we question the difference between mere behaviour and behaviour that is attributable to the subject as its cause we are entering the realm of agent-causality in the Philosophy of Action. Intuitively it is easy to distinguish the conceptual polarity between events that are “actions”, and events that are “happenings”; actions being events that the agent has power over, closely connected with concepts such as responsibility, blame, praise, etc, whereas happenings are events that do not, effectively, have any human agency to them. Let us consider two statements: (a) X fires the gun (b) The gun fires Whilst (a) contains (b), the same is not true vice versa: that is, (b) is a necessary component for (a), as the happening is a necessary component of the action. The action (a) is x bringing about the happening (b), that is to say, x is causing (b) to happen. This means that the agent (x, in this case) is causally responsible for the happening. But how can a subject cause its own behaviour? Here one would argue intuitively that the subject’s beliefs and desires are the cause of his behaviour, but if that is so, then the subject himself had nothing to do with it, he was a slave to something else, namely, his beliefs and desires. Within agent-causation there is also the question of mental causation, since the behaviour that we attribute to the subject we are also tempted to explain in terms of desires and beliefs. When Wittgenstein asks what the difference is between raising one’s arm, and one’s arm being raised, we are left with an age old question of agent causation. Actions (raising one’s arm) tend to be explained in terms of motives, reasons, intentions and volitions, whereas mere happenings (one’s arm being raised) are explained in physical or physiological terms. But are there really actions, or are they simply a type of happening? Let us consider the arguments of Danto, Pritchard and Melden who each posit different but fundamental viewpoints in agent-causation.


Danto aims in his article “Basic Actions” to show us as responsible for our actions rather than having the regress problem that a reductionist view suffers. That is, when actions are explained as a type of happening, we find ourselves without an initial action that caused all the happenings within each action, hence an infinite regress. Thus Danto introduces the idea of basic actions: actions that are not caused to happen, or uncaused causes. This means that basic actions are not achieved by the agent performing any other action. Danto keeps basic actions within the physical realm stressing that desire cannot be a basic action. Let us consider the earlier example of “x fires a gun”, when I state that x causes the gun to fire, I’m implying that there is something extra that x is doing that brings about the gun’s firing. That is, x makes his finger move, which pulls the trigger, which releases the bullet into the chamber, which fires the gun. Danto’s basic action would be that action which we do that requires nothing else to precede it, the earliest physical action. This is the action that we “just do”, or rather, that we do without doing anything else before it. So in the case of x firing a gun, what is the basic action? Shall we say it is x making his finger move? Does x do anything before that? One could argue that x sends blood to his muscle, which tenses his finger, which makes it move, etc. etc. But Danto would reply that all of those actions are encompassed in x makes his finger move, and thus that is the basic action. But what about phantom limbs? Those with paralysis will testify that they intend to move their limb but are unable to, surely the intention is enough to distinguish this from a mere happening. Danto argues that this still would not constitute an action taking place. He stops the regress at a physical level to avoid the connection between physical action and desire, otherwise known as the interaction between the mind and the body. Danto argues that the basic action is the first objectively observable action. But this seems intuitively to be wrong: someone could raise their arm and yet fail because their arm is tied down. This should still be a basic action, yet according to Danto, because it is unobservable it is not. This brings about the issue of trying. Danto uses the example of trying to retract ones nails like a cat, or trying to raise a limb when paralyzed. He explains that if you physically are incapable of doing something, then you cannot try to do it. In other words, you cannot try to retract your 2

nails like a cat when you are physically incapable of doing so in the first place. But this still doesn’t address the problem of someone whose arm is tied down and tries to raise it: he is physically capable of raising it, and tries to do so, yet fails: there seems to be intuitively something else, other than the basic action, which exists to distinguish an action from a happening. Similarly, if the person who is paralyzed was not always so, he is aware of what is required to raise his limb, and hence is still capable of doing so, regardless of failing to on a physical level. Let us return to the examining the difference between raising one’s arm and one’s arm being raised, in light of Danto’s claims. It seems we are left with four possible instances: 1. x causes himself to raise his arm 2. someone other than x causes him to raise his arm 3. x raises his arm because of a nervous spasm 4. x raises his arm as an exercise of the power to raise one’s arm at will. While in all of these cases x’s arm goes up, it is not true that in all these cases x raises his arm. In both instance 2 and 3 x’s arm’s raising isn’t an action at all, because x has no control over what is happening that causes his arm to go up. Similarly, it seems that in instance 1 the story is incomplete: x causes himself to raise his arm, but how? What then is the basic action? In instance 4 we see the raising of the arm as the basic action, by knowing the intention behind the arm raising, we can see that it is the first physical action taken, and thus the basic action. This implies that instance 1 is really a part of, and dependent of instance 4. Danto’s argument seems to be missing something. It seems intuitively incomplete to initiate basic actions at a physical level. Since there are instances in which one wishes to, or attempts to cause something to happen, but is inhibited through external forces or inabilities, it seems unfair to suggest that the events that follow cannot be actions due to the lack of physical evidence for them. So what then, is missing from Danto’s theory? It seems that he does not account for volition, or the will behind an action. Isn’t it volition which separates the agent’s causal role in an event (an action) from a mere happening? 3

Following Danto, Prichard’s article “Acting, Willing, Desiring” aims to answer what it is to be acting or doing something. According to Prichard, actions should be understood in terms of willing something. So how is volition connected to action? Intuitively we may think that to act is to cause something, but Pritchard argues that whilst it may not be incorrect to lay this claim, it is incorrect to define action as causing something because acting implies being active in some way, whereas causing something doesn’t require such an activity.1 Furthermore, there are in fact originations that are not actions, such as the mental states within the brain that originate when raising one’s arm: the agent has no clear knowledge of what these mental states are, and did not originate them. Prichard’s main point is that “to act is essentially to will something”2. But by defining willing in terms of an action is he committing himself too strongly towards willing being in itself an action? That is, if willing is indeed an action, the initial action, then doesn’t this undermine other actions that result from willing (such as taking an aspirin, turning one’s head, etc)? Perhaps Pritchard is harping back to the old volitional theory which defines an action as willing plus a happening, and so turning one’s head is indeed an action, as long as it contains within it the volition to have one’s head turned. Is it paradoxical however to suggest that the only real actions we have are ones which contain willings? That is to say, if (x) fires a gun that kills the Archduke, but his volition was only to fire the gun, the killing of the Archduke was a result of that action but really only a mere happening because there was no volition behind it: is it fair to remove the responsibility of the Archduke’s death from (x) merely because the volition ended at the firing of the gun, and not at the complete action of the firing of the gun which killed the Archduke? Prichard explains that we do not will an action per se, but rather, a movement or “change of state of something or some person”3. It would be redundant to will an action, since an action is defined as a willing of something, meaning we would be willing a willing of something. He rejects the possibility of this because “by the very nature of willing… what we will must be something other than willing”4 and because it would lead to an infinite regress due to circular definitions. Prichard posits that actions require a
1 2

Prichard, H. A. Acting, Willing, Desiring. p. 60-61 Prichard, H. A. Acting, Willing, Desiring p. 62 3 Prichard, H. A. Acting, Willing, Desiring p.64 4 Prichard, H. A. Acting, Willing, Desiring p.64


desire to do that action. Unfortunately because he is forced to admit the connection between action and desire, he fails to answer what the object of the desire in question is. Essentially, if the action requires a desire, and that desire is to will the implied change, then it is impossible for the agent to will the change for the first time, which is absurd. Let us consider the Humean theory of causation in regards to this objection: In order for the agent (x) to believe that his willing (y) will cause (y) to occur, he must first have noted a repeating pattern in which the willing of (y) has been followed by the occurrence of (y). Hence, now (x) cannot desire to will the change (y) unless in the first occasion (and previous occasions) he did will (y) without having the belief that in doing so (y) would be caused. That is to say, unless some other day (x) willed the change (y) without desiring to will it, he cannot now desire the change (y). Let us consider this in light of Prichard’s thesis that willing a change always requires the desire to will the change. If this thesis is true, then (x) cannot have ever willed the change (y) without ever having desired to will the change (y). Hence (x) cannot now will the change (y), thus leading that (x) cannot now will the change (y) for the first time. And so Pritchard distinguishes three things when considering an action: the action itself (the originating something), the required willing to originate it, and the required desire to originate it.5 Melden, in his article “Willing” explains that definition-wise, there is very little difference in what happens physically between one raising one’s arm, and one’s arm being raised. He expresses the difference between an agent flexing his own biceps (in order to raise his arm) and having his biceps become flexed (as if someone were to raise his arm for him). He goes on to summarise Prichard’s argument that an act of volition is what causes the transition between not having one’s arm raised, and having one’s armed raised. That is, when one is told to raise one’s arm, one will only do so out of choice, through the volition to raise it. But Melden elaborates on Prichard by expressing that one must will to will that his arm be raised, ad infinitum to bridge the gap between the occurrence of an act of volition and the agent’s performing of the act. Melden attempts to describe the act of willing, finding that there is no proper definition that can distinguish one volition from another. He then logicially concludes that if “in thinking of v1 (some


Prichard, H. A. Acting, Willing, Desiring


particular act of volition) we are of necessity to think of it as the willing of m1 (some particular muscle movement), then v1 cannot be any occurrence, mental or physiological, which is causally related to m1, since the very notion of a causal sequence logically implies that cause and effect are intelligible without any logically internal relation of the one to the other”6. He is essentially pointing out that neither v1 or m1 function as stand alone properties, and thus since they cannot stand alone, they can also not stand connected. On the other hand, he states “we think of v1 and m1 as causally related in the way in which we think of the relation between the movements of muscles and the raising of one’s arm, then we must conclude that when we first perform v1 we should be taken completely by surprise that m1 does in fact ensue”7 But this clearly is not the case, and so Melden suggests that to avoid this problem we must maintain that the thought of the muscle movement must be within the concept of the volition which creates it. But if the account of volition v1 must contain within it the muscle movements of m1, then the idea that the volition v1 is a cause that produces m1 must be abandoned completely. Melden criticizes this as clearly contradictory. He returns to stating that whatever the act of volition may be (physical or mental), it must be logically distinct from its effect (the action), but that this is impossible because nothing can be an act of volition without being logically connected with the action that it is willed, leaving him to conclude that “there could not be such an interior event like an act of volition since nothing of that sort could have the required logical consequences.”8 Melden concludes through an analysis of semantics that the volition cannot exist as a motivator for an action, and so it cannot serve to distinguish the difference between one raising one’s arm, and one’s arm being raised. What then, is the difference between one raising one’s arm and one’s arm being raised? As we have seen, Danto would argue that the primary basic action is what differentiates the action (one raising one’s arm) from a mere happening (one’s arm being raised). If one’s arm is being raised, then it is the other agent who is the keeper of the basic action, being that he raises your arm. He is thus the initiator of the primary action:
6 7

Melden 76 Melden, A. I. Willing p.76 8 Melden, A. I. Willing p. 77


he lifts your arm, your muscles tense, and your arm is raised. As opposed to a situation in which you yourself raise your arm and the basic action lies with you: you flex your muscles which raises your arm. Danto believes that it is in these basic actions that we can identify the initiators of actions and differentiate them from mere happenings. A problem for Danto arises when we consider situations where you attempt, intend, and for all intensive purposes want to raise you arm, and complete the action required to do so (flexing the muscles, etc), but because your arm is tied down, you fail. Danto says this would not be an action as there is no physical evidence of a success: but this seems intuitively wrong, as the attempt to raise one’s arm is more of an action than not raising one’s arm at all, you still want to raise your arm, and had there been no obstacle you would have raised your arm successfully. Also, it seems intuitively that there is something extra, internally, that distinguishes the difference between one raising one’s arm, and one’s arm being raised. It is this extra volition which Pritchard deals with. He argues that the difference between you raising your arm, and you having your arm raised stems from will. In the former you will that your arm be raised, in the latter you do not. But again, this is not without objections. Let us consider a situation in which you would like to raise your arm, but before you have a chance to, someone else does so for you: here you still have all the ingredients for an action and not a happening: you willed that your arm be raised, and so it was, just not by your doing. Is this still agent causation? You did not tell the person to raise your arm, they simply chose to do so at the same particular instant in which you were thinking you would like to raise you arm. According to Pritchard, this is still agent causation, though it seems intuitively that it shouldn’t be. Furthermore, how can you will to raise your arm without knowing that in willing to raise your arm your arm will be raised? Pritchard ends up with a problem of logical order when acknowledging the objection that one cannot will an action without previously knowing what the willing of that action will bring about. It seems that even though volition leads us closer to the crux of the difference between raising one’s arm and one’s arm being raised, there is still something else that exists, that accounts for failed volitions and logical inconsistencies. Finally, Melden posits that the logical inconsistencies that Pritchard and others have run into when attempting to define volition without taking into account the action that one is willing (that is, the action that is associated with that


particular volition) makes volition redundant and non existent as a stand alone property. In other words, it cannot be volition which exists as the difference between one raising one’s arm, and one’s arm being raised. Despite the objections to volition, it seems to be intuitively the most sensible response to the question: perhaps old volitional theory served better, in which an action was described as volition + bodily movement. This would remove the logical inconsistencies in trying to define volition without previous experience of the thing one is willing. And so when looked at mathematically, we could see that: 1) raising one’s arm = the volition to raise one’s arm + the bodily movement 2) one’s arm being raised = the bodily movement This would clearly show that the act of willing is the key ingredient that differentiates actions from mere happenings, one raising one’s arm from one’s arm being raised.

Bibliography and Works Cited Danto, Arthur. Basic Actions. Course Pack Prichard, H. A. Acting, Willing, Desiring. Course Pack Melden, A. I Willing. Course Pack Blackburn, Simon. Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford University Press 1996 Pink, Thomas, Free Will (A Very Short Introduction) Oxford University Press 2004


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