Sunday, January 24, 2010

Philosophy of Action Speculations II

[ I've been thinking about when somebody is properly said to act. For example, if an Oklahoma tornado blows me bodily into you, and injures you, I didn't act to injure you, even if I did cause injury to you. Or again, the wind causes irritation to my eye, so without even noticing it, I blink my eye. I had behaviors of blinking my eye, but I didn't act to blink my eye. Causes and behaviors are different than actions. Here's another in the series -- B ]

Suppose a policeman, officer Oscar, fires a warning shot to halt the actions of a wayward citizen, Mr. Kane. Unfortunately, the bullet ricochets, subsequently striking and killing Kane. Immediately, Oscar wonders if it was his actions which killed Kane. So, did Oscar act to kill Kane?

Well, there certainly were some antecedent thoughts by Oscar -- he wanted to pull his gun; he wanted to squeeze the trigger, etc. -- and these thoughts resulted in Oscar behaving in ways to carry out those thoughts -- he held his wrist steady, exercised the muscle on his index finger, etc. But the consequences seem all wrong; the death of Kane was not intended (i.e. premeditated) by Oscar. Well, it was not premeditated in any strong sense, though Oscar would have admitted that there was always a small (say .05%) chance of the death of Kane (or anybody) getting killed by a ricochet in such circumstances. We could see this as weak premeditation.

But suppose, contrary to fact, bullets ricochet with 95% probability, and this was commonly known. Let the shooting case be re-adjusted accordingly. Still, the knowledge of the consequent isn't a sure thing, even if the chance of death is very high. Indeed, stipulate Oscar didn't plan ahead, or even think about the killing consequences to Kane. Still, with such knowledge of high odds, does the notion of premeditation even matter as regards whether Oscar acted? in this 95% case, it somehow seems right to say Oscar did act to kill Kane.

But maybe one could take both cases into account in the same way:
1. An act occurs only if somebody premeditates the consequences of their chosen behaviors.
2. Oscar didn't premeditate Kane's death in the .05% case
3. Oscar didn't premeditate Kane's death in the 95% case.
4. So, Oscar didn't act to kill Kane in either case.
In cases of negligence, we say things like, "He should have thought it through." But that just evaluates whether Oscar is morally responsible, not whether he acted. Yet the moral evaluation seems to smuggle in the hidden assumption (without giving evidence for it) that he indeed acted. Yes, we say somebody is morally responsible for some consequence only if s/he acted to bring that consequence about. Fine, but did or did not Oscar so act?


[image] by Scot Olsen in

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At 11:22 PM, Blogger Andrew said...

I wonder what a behavioral psychologist would have to say regarding the difference between an act and a behavior, and whether or not we are truly responsible for anything we do. Even decisions we make are, according to behaviorists, conditioned responses to environmental stimuli, just not as directly as, say, being blown into someone by an Oklahoma twister.

At 9:15 AM, Blogger Brint Montgomery said...

Hey, Andrew. Yes, I can a behaviorist making the case that actions are determined, maybe along these lines: Freedom is doing what we want, and what we want is determined by genes and environment; so, even our freedom is determined. Thus, actions which follow from such freedom are likewise determined. Although I see the argument, I'd say that the first premise is where I'd disagree, saying that such a definition of freedom is too weak, more is required -- such as the ability to have done otherwise than we did.


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