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  • The Possibility of Buddhist Ethical Agency Revisited—A Reply to Jay Garfield and Chad Hansen
  • Bronwyn Finnigan

I begin by warmly thanking Professors Garfield and Hansen for participating in this dialogue. I greatly value the work of both and appreciate having the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with them. Aside from the many important insights I gain from their replies, I believe that both Garfield and Hansen misrepresent my position. In [End Page 183] response, I shall clarify the argument contained in my preceding comment, and will consider the objections as they bear on this clarified position.


Both Garfield and Hansen characterize the central argument of my comment as presupposing a relatively mainstream Western account of action. They suggest that, with a mainstream Western account in hand, I challenge Classical Chinese and Indo Tibetan Buddhist thought for not having the resources to fit this account. In replying to my argument, they argue that the mainstream account of action is an inappropriate model of action in the context of the Asian traditions. They also maintain that the mainstream account is itself a highly problematic model of action. Garfield and Hansen then proceed to offer highly insightful suggestions about the possibilities of action available in their respective traditions of Asian thought. The underlying thought of both replies, it would seem, is that the dilemma generated in my comment is the fruit of a mistaken presupposition about the nature of action rather than indicative of a genuine limitation in Classical Chinese and Indo-Tibetan Buddhist thought.

If the underling argument of my comment did, indeed, fit the above characterization, then I would be extremely sympathetic to Garfield’s and Hansen’s line of reply. And, to be fair, I can see how it may be read this way. However, this characterization misrepresents the argument. To see this, we first need to clarify what is meant by the mainstream Western view of the nature of action and then identify the aspects of my argument that Garfield and Hansen believe commit me to this view.

Arguably, the dominant contemporary Western account of action is the causal theory. Donald Davidson is widely recognized to champion this theory, characterized as the idea that intentional actions are both caused by mental states with propositional content (i.e., beliefs, desires, intentions) and ‘rationalized’ by reference to these mental states. What does Davidson mean by rationalization? This notion is often interpreted as the view that the reasons an agent gives to explain their actions corresponds to the propositional attitudes that caused the action (i.e., they are the reasons because of which the agent acted), and these propositional attitudes are related to one another due to some process of reasoning. This conception of action is what I understand Garfield and Hansen to mean by the ‘mainstream’ view. Significantly, both scholars additionally presuppose that, in the mainstream view, the propositional attitudes that cause action and are the referent for rationalizations of action are necessarily consciously represented or entertained. Now, there are reasons to think that neither Davidson nor mainstream philosophers of action are explicitly committed to this additional presupposition. 1 Nevertheless, Garfield and Hansen seem to think mainstream philosophers of action hold the view that an intentional action is one that is produced by propositional attitudes that are consciously represented and related to one another by means of a process of practical reasoning and subsequently explained (or rationalized) by reasons that refer to these very attitudes.

According to both Garfield and Hansen, the definition of action I present in my comment articulates this mainstream view. I define an action as intentional if it involves [End Page 184] the capacity both to ‘direct’ behavior and to give explanations, using reasons, for the directedness of such behavior. There is reason to think that this definition of action is not necessarily committed to the mainstream view.

Consider, first, what I call the ‘weak’ sense of intentionality; namely, that intentional actions are “directed or guided.” This condition may certainly be met by agents who consciously form intentions or actively engage in practical reasoning directly prior to action (i.e., the mainstream view). 2 However, not only can this condition be met by propositional...