restricted access 7 What Are You Causing in Acting?
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7 What Are You Causing in Acting? Rowland Stout My target for attack in this essay is the fairly widespread view in the philosophy of action that what an agent is doing in acting in a certain kind of way is causing an event of some corresponding type. On this view agency is characterized by the agent’s causing of events. To pick one of many manifestations of this view, here are Maria Alvarez and John Hyman: We can describe an agent as something or someone that makes things happen. And we can add that to make something happen is to cause an event of some kind. (Alvarez and Hyman 1998, 221) And a particular instance of this view might be the following: In raising your arm you are causing the event of your arm’s rising. Such claims about the causal nature of action are sometimes presented as conceptual claims: claims about when it is correct to describe someone as performing such an action. But I am interested here in the possibility of making a constitutive claim: a claim about what such an action is. Actions seem to be causings in some sense yet to be worked out. The causal theories that I am questioning take someone’s action of raising their arm to consist in that person (or perhaps some of his or her mental states or events) causing the event of his or her arm’s rising. Despite its widespread philosophical currency, there is something puzzling about the idea of causing an event. The relation of causing, like the property of acting, is not a timeless relation. By this I mean that when we attribute this relation or property to things we must specify or presume a time for the attribution. Gavrilo Princip was assassinating the Archduke Ferdinand at one time but not a year earlier or a year later. But events are things that are usually predicated timelessly in that sense; standardly, when philosophers of causation talk about a causal relation between events, they take it to be a timeless relation. Saying that the assassination 102 R. Stout of the Archduke Ferdinand caused the First World War, even though we employ the past tense of the verb “to cause,” is to attribute a relation timelessly . It is not that it caused it then and continues to cause it now. Rather, we can attribute this relation between the events without having to specify a time for that attribution. So a standard approach to the philosophy of causation focuses on the timeless relation of causality holding between events. And that is why it seems appropriate to think of this in terms of the relation of counterfactual dependence, for example, which holds timelessly in the same way. But when we address the constitutive question about actions we are concerned with processes that happen at one time and not at others. And if what Princip was doing was causing something, then he was doing it then but not at other times. Given this, how are we to understand the claim that he was causing at some particular time an event—the event of the death of the Archduke or perhaps the event of the First World War? One way to understand his causing these events is in terms of his initiating processes, the completion of which constituted these events.1 We can say that as Princip was squeezing the trigger he was initiating a process in the gun, giving momentum to the bullet. This process in turn initiated the process of the bullet moving under its own momentum, which initiated a process of the bullet causing a perforation of the jugular vein of the Archduke, and then the process of the Archduke dying as a result of this damage. Perhaps this initiated an international relations process leading to war being declared and pursued. Princip set the ball rolling, as it were, by squeezing his finger. Once he had done this, various mechanisms outside of him took over one after the other, resulting eventually in the Archduke’s being dead. In this way we can say that in squeezing the trigger he was causing the event that was the death of the Archduke. He was initiating these things at one time and not at others. And his initiating the dying of the Archduke was his action of killing the Archduke. The idea under attack in this essay is that all actions are like this. The target idea is that in acting...