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9 Intentional Omissions Randolph Clarke Often when one omits to do a certain thing, one’s omission is due to one’s simply not having considered, or one’s having forgotten, to do that thing. When this is so, one does not intentionally omit to do that thing. But sometimes one intentionally omits to do something. For example, Ann was asked by Bob to pick him up at the airport at 2:30 AM, after his arrival at 2:00. Feeling tired and knowing that Bob can take a taxi, Ann decides at midnight not to pick him up at 2:30, and she intentionally omits to do so. Other examples of intentional omissions include instances of abstaining , boycotting, and fasting.1 Intentional omissions would seem to have much in common with intentional actions. But the extent of the similarity is not immediately obvious. Intentional omission has been recognized as a problem for theories of agency, but it is one on which, especially lately, little effort has been expended. My aim here is to advance a conception of intentional omission, address a number of claims that have been made about it, and examine the extent to which an account of it should parallel an account of intentional action. I’ll argue that although there might indeed be interesting differences, there are nevertheless important similarities, and similarities that support a causal approach to agency. Although much of our interest in omissions concerns responsibility for omitting, my focus is on the metaphysical and mental dimensions of intentional omission. What sort of thing (if it is a thing at all) is an omission? What, if any, mental states or events must figure in cases of intentional omission, and how must they figure? Answers to these questions have some bearing on the moral issue, but the questions are interesting in their own right. And they stand in some degree of mutual independence from the moral issue, as there can be intentional omissions for which no one is responsible, and (on the assumption that we can be responsible for anything at all) we can be responsible for omissions that aren’t intentional.2 136 R. Clarke A preliminary distinction might help clarify the object of my attention. My focus is on cases about which it is correct to say that someone intentionally omits to do something. There are cases of another sort in which we might say that it is intentional of some individual that she doesn’t do a certain thing, but she doesn’t intentionally omit to do it. For example, wanting to ensure that he wouldn’t leap into the sea when he heard the Siren song, Ulysses had himself bound to the mast of his ship. As planned, he didn’t jump into the sea; but he nevertheless didn’t intentionally omit to leap in, for while he could hear the song, he tried his best to free himself and jump into the water.3 Intentionally omitting to A at t would seem to require, at least, that one is not at t trying to A.4 1 Omissions and Actions Let us call actions of a familiar sort, such as raising one’s arm, walking, or speaking, “positive actions.” It is on positive actions that action theory has, understandably, largely focused. How are omissions related to positive actions? For one thing, when one intentionally omits to A, is one’s omission identical with some intentional positive action that one then performs? Perhaps sometimes it is. Imagine a child crouching behind a chair and holding still for several minutes while playing hide and seek.5 The child’s holding still is arguably an intentional action; it requires the sending of a pattern of motor signals to certain muscles, perhaps the inhibition of other motor signals, the maintenance of balance, with fine adjustments made in response to feedback, at least much of which arguably results from the child’s intending to hold still. The child’s not moving is an intentional omission. And perhaps the child’s not moving in this case is just her holding still.6 It might be objected that the child might have not moved even if she hadn’t intentionally held still—she could have been frozen stiff. But we may grant this possibility without accepting that the child’s holding still (that particular event) is distinct from her not moving, just as we may grant that on some occasion when I walked slowly, I might have...


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