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Michael Lacewing

The distinction between reasons and causes


This handout follows the handout on Determinism. You should read that handout first. ACTION AND CAUSATION Are our actions caused? Intuitively, we say yes; we explain our actions in terms of motivation, and it is natural to think of motivation as a kind of causation. Motivation being moved can feel like a psychological force, which is a causal idea; motivation makes things happen. Notice that we use statements like If he had wanted to learn, he wouldnt have thrown away his books, and If he were to want a drink, he would go to the kitchen expressing the kind of regularity involved in causation. The same motives produce the same actions, at least in similar situations. (If the action is different, then we appeal to different causes or situation.) We rely on this regularity all the time. We expect that others will, in their voluntary actions, act in very specific ways, e.g. in taking goods to market, I expect others to come, to want to buy, and so on. Peoples choices and actions are regular. Determinism threatens free will like this: Our actions are events. Therefore, they have causes. Given the causes they have, no action is possible other than what we actually do. If we couldnt do any other action, then we do not have free will, e.g. to choose between doing different actions. The argument can be run at the level of choices as well: our choices are events, and so have causes. Given those causes, only one choice is possible. So we are not free to choose anything other than what we actually choose. An important contrast There is, however, a very important difference between action and physical (or natural) causation, between what we do and things that just happen. Take the example of crop circles. Some people explain them in terms of natural forces, such as whirlwinds or a peculiar magnetic phenomenon. Once we have established the cause and how i works, t we have explained crop circles end of story. It is quite different to explain them in terms of people deliberately creating them. After showing that someone created a crop circle, we can ask why they did, how successful they are in creating a particular design, and so on. Unlike natural events, actions dont just happen. We can develop this idea by noting another distinction between what we do and what happens to us. Compare deliberately pushing someone over and accidentally knocking them over, e.g. because you trip. In both cases, your body moves in a particular way and has the same effect. But in one case, you do something, and you move your body, and in the other, something happens to you, and the movement of your body is imposed. When you do something, what you do is intentional you intended it and brought it about. When something happens to you, what follows is not intentional it just happened.

These tw distinctions a e the basis for a third contrast between action and nat ra ca sation. We are respo s b e for our actions, but natura causes are not responsible for their effects. For exa ple, people who create crop circles can be bla ed for destroying crops or praised for their creativity. If a crop circle is created by a whirlwind, the wind cant be praised or bla ed.
S AND AUSES REAS We can develop this distinction to defend compatibilism. We can argue that these two ways of talking are independent of each other, so determinism does not undermine free will.

The claim is this: to explain some occurrence as an action by giving the reasons why the person did it is logically different from explaining it as an effect of some (natural) cause. 1. Causes precede their effects in time. Reasons do not need to if I give money to charity because it helps the needy, charity helps the needy is not something occurs before I give money (it doesnt occur in time at all). 2. s the example of charity shows, reasons can cite purposes in order to. But a causal explanation cannot cite a purpose. 3. Reasons can be good or bad. Not anything can be a (good) reason to act in a certain way: I hit him because his socks are purple. But a cause cannot be good or bad in the same way. If the colour of his socks caused me to hit him, then it did; but it cant be a reason to hit him. nything can be the cause of anything, logically speaking. This is not true of reasons. 4. If I say the cigarette caused the fire, this entails that there was a fire. However, if I say he intended to start a fire in order to keep warm, this doesnt entail that he actually started the fire. When we identify a cause, then the effect must exist. When we identify an intention or a reason, the action it is an intention or reason for does not have to have occurred.
THE DISTINCTI N BETWEEN ACTI N AND B DILY M VEMENT From these differences, we can argue that to identify some occurrence as an action and to identify it as an effect are logically independent. When we characterize something as an action, we talk of reasons and intentions. This depends on rules. For example, to say that someone moved their queen and checkmated their opponent only makes sense in relation to the rules of chess. To say that someone got married requires us to understand marriage. To say that someone paid their bill implicitly refers to the rules that govern economic transactions.

None of these examples are physical processes. If you describe the physical causal sequence of someone moving a shaped piece of wood on a chequered board, you havent said that they moved their queen. To say someone emitted the sounds that in English mean I do is not to say they got married. To say someone made a series of ink marks on a piece of paper that they then put in a post box is not to say they paid their bill. We can only say what someone did if we dont talk at the level of bodily movements (or chemical exchanges in the brain) but at the level of social interactions.

Bodily movements are not actions, and actions cannot be reduced to bodily movements. What action a particular bodily movement serves depends on the context. Raising ones arm could be any number of actions waving for help, making a bid at an auction, exercising. On the other hand, an action such as paying ones bill can involve many different kinds of bodily movement writing (a cheque), typing (on a website), talking (over the phone).
THE ARGUMENT F R COMPATIBILISM The compatibilist can argue that the determinist is trying to reduce everything to the language of causes, to force us to talk about actions in terms of cause and effect. But we cant do this. Talking about actions is not reducible to talking about effects. If we talk about physical causes and effects, we lose sight of people and their actions. Having free will relates to people and their actions. So it is logically independent of determinism.

We can object that this leaves us with a puzzle. Even if the distinction between actions and bodily movements, reasons and causes, is right, this might not defend free will. ctions involve bodily movements, and the compatibilist accepts that the bodily movements are causally determined. But in that case, no other bodily movement is possible at a particular time from the one that occurred. If I raise my arm, then whether this is bidding, or waving, or exercising, I could not have not raised my arm. How, then, do I have free will? To become an argument for free will, perhaps the distinction between reasons and causes needs to be supplemented by other compatibilist accounts.
DETERMINISM AS UNDERMINING RATIONALITY We can use the idea and importance of reasons to object to determinism in a different way. In this argument, we appeal to reasons for believing, rather than reasons for acting or choosing.

If determinism is true, and incompatible with free will, no one ever freely chooses to be a determinist. No one ever freely chooses to believe in free will either. To make a judgment, to form a belief, these are also actions mental actions. If determinism is true, the beliefs we have are causally determined just as much as the actions we do. This has a strange result. Suppose I believe that the theory of evolution is true. I have read books about evolution and arguments against evolution; I have been to museums and seen fossils; I have discussed the issue with creationists and scientists. On the basis of the evidence, I judge that the theory of evolution is true. But if determinism is true, I am causally determined to have this belief, so I do not have it because I freely judge that the theory of evolution is true. Instead, I cannot (or could not) believe otherwise. If this is right, then I dont form the belief on the basis of reasons I consider. In fact, the whole idea of a reason seems to disappear. To give someone a reason to believe something, to show them evidence, is not to cause them to believe in a deterministic way. It is certainly not to force them to believe the way we can force them to fall over by pushing them. They can weigh up the evidence and make up their minds, we say. But this is causally determined, according to determinism. Suppose we apply this result to beliefs about determinism. First, no one ever freely judges that determinism is true or false. Second, if you try to convince someone that

determinism is true, you do not provide evidence tha t enables them to make up their minds. Either the argument you give will cause them to believe in determinism or it will not; if it does, this isnt because they judge that your reasons are convincing. Rather, they could not believe anything else. Which arguments cause people to believe in determinism may have nothing to do with whether the arguments are rational, and may be different for different people. So there are no good arguments for (or against) determinism, only arguments that cause people to believe in it and arguments that dont. We can turn this into an objection: if determinism is true, there is no such thing as reasoning. However, the arguments for determinism show that there is such a thing as reasoning. Therefore determinism must be false. In fact, this conclusion only follows if determinism is incompatible with judgment. Compatibilism will reject this, and so reject the conclusion. But the objection does apply to hard determinism, the position that claims that because determinism is true, we dont form beliefs freely on the basis of judgment.