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Debates about the nature of agency have flourished over the pastfew decades in philosophy and in other areas of research (includingpsychology, cognitive neuroscience, social science, andanthropology). In philosophy, the nature of agency is an importantissue in the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of psychology, thedebates on free will and moral responsibility, in ethics, meta-ethics,and in the debates on the nature of reasons and practicalrationality. For the most part, this entry focuses on conceptual andmetaphysical questions concerning the nature of agency. In the finalsections, it provides an overview of empirically informed accounts ofthe sense of agency and of various empirical challenges to thecommonsense assumption that our reasons and our conscious intentionsmake a real difference to how we act.


The standard conception of action provides us with a conception ofagency. According to this view, a being has the capacity to exercise agency justin case it has the capacity to act intentionally, and the exercise ofagency consists in the performance of intentional actions and, in manycases, in the performance of unintentional actions (that derive fromthe performance of intentional actions; seesection 2). Call this the standard conception of agency. The standard theory of action provides us with a theory of agency, according to which a beinghas the capacity to act intentionally just in case it has the rightfunctional organization: just in case the instantiation of certainmental states and events (such as desires, beliefs, and intentions)would cause the right events (such as certain movements) in the rightway. According to this standard theory of agency, the exercise ofagency consists in the instantiation of the right causal relationsbetween agent-involving states and events. (Proponents includeDavidson 1963, 1971; Goldman 1970; Brand 1984; Bratman 1987; Dretske1988; Bishop 1989; Mele 1992, 2003; Enç 2003.)


There is, as we have seen, good reason to distinguish betweendifferent kinds of agency. The standard theory offers an account ofwhat is, arguably, the most central kind of agency: intentional agency(and the kind of unintentional agency that derives from it; seesection 2). This can be distinguished from higher or more refined kinds of agency,such as self-controlled, autonomous, and free agency, and it can bedistinguished from more basic kinds of agency that do not require theascription of representational mental states. Apart from that, there areseveral candidates for further kinds of agency. They include mentalagency, shared agency, collective agency, relational agency, andartificial agency. In each case, we can ask whether the agency inquestion can be explained in terms of the standard conception andtheory, or whether it is indeed a different kind of agency. The mainfocus in this section will be on mental agency, and we will address theother candidates only very briefly.


What is the nature of agency? How should we construe the relationbetween agents and actions? How can agency be part of the event-causalorder? In this section, we will first turn to the three mainapproaches in the metaphysics of agency that provide three differentframeworks for how to think about such metaphysical questions (theevent-causal, the agent-causal, and the volitionist framework). Afterconsidering some problems and objections, we turn to an alternativeapproach that rejects the project of providing a metaphysics of agency(dual standpoint theory). Finally, we briefly consider theindividuation of actions and some further issues in the metaphysics ofagency.


Any event-causal theory of agency must require that the relevantmental attitudes cause the action in the right way. The right way ofcausation is non-deviant causation. The challenge is to spell outwhat non-deviant causation consists in within the event-causalframework; without, in particular, any appeal to some unanalyzednotion of agent-causation or control. Davidson (1974) was pessimisticabout the prospects for finding an event-causal account ofnon-deviant causation, and he suggested that the standard theory isbest understood as providing only necessary conditions foragency. Goldman (1970) suggested that giving an account ofnon-deviant causation is an empirical rather than a philosophicaltask. Since then, however, most proponents of the event-causalapproach have acknowledged that the problem of deviant causal chainsis a serious philosophical problem, and various solutions have beenproposed (see Peacocke 1979; Brand 1984; Bishop 1989; Mele 2003;Schlosser 2007, 2011; Wu 2016).[18]


We now turn, in brief, to some further issues in the metaphysics ofagency. The first concerns the individuation of actions. You flick theswitch, turn on the light, illuminate the room, and you thereby alsoalert the burglar. How many actions do you perform? Accordingto coarse-grained (or minimizing) views on the individuationof actions, you perform one action under different descriptions(Anscombe 1957; Davidson 1963). According to fine-grained (ormaximizing) views, how many actions you perform depends on how manyact-properties are instantiated. If you instantiate fouract-properties, then you perform four distinct actions (Goldman 1970;see also Ginet 1990). According to a third alternative, actions canhave other actions as their components or parts (Thalberg 1977; Ginet1990). According to all three views, actions are events, and theindividuation of actions derives from different views on theindividuation of events (see the entry onevents). Not much work has been done on this recently (see, however, Enç2003: Ch. 3). This is partly because it is now widely agreed that theindividuation of actions has little or no bearing on other issues. Toillustrate, the question of whether agency is to be explained withinan event-causal or an agent-causal framework bears directly on variousissues in the debate on free will and moral responsibility (see theentry onfree will). But event-causal and agent-causal theories are both compatible withcoarse-grained and fine-grained views on the individuation of actions.Similarly, it seems that the views on the individuation of actionshave no substantial bearing on the question of whether or not reasonexplanations are causal explanations.


A related issue is whether actions are to be identified withthe outcomes of causal processes or withthe processes themselves. According to most versions ofevent-causal and agent-causal theories, an action is an event that iscaused in the right way: the action is identical with or constitutedby the outcome of that process.[19] According to process views, the actionis either identical with or constituted by that process (Searle 1983;Dretske 1988; Wu 2011; see also Thompson 2008). This issue has also notreceived much attention. Again, this is mainly because it is widelyassumed that this issue has little or no substantial bearing on morefundamental issues in the metaphysics of agency and on debatesoutside the philosophy ofaction.[20]


Another issue in the metaphysics of agency that has received moreattention in the recent debate is the nature of omissions (inparticular, intentional omissions). According to Sartorio (2009), anintentional omission is the absence of an action that is caused by theabsence of an intention. She argues, on the basis of this account,that intentional omissions cannot be accommodated easily by thestandard theory. In reply, Clarke (2010a) has argued that in cases ofintentional omission the agent usually does have an intention not toact that plays an important causal role, and he has identified variousparallels between intentional actions and intentional omissions. Onhis view, there are no major obstacles to an account of intentionalomissions that is compatible and continuous with the standard theoryof intentional action. Further, he argues that a failure to accountfor intentional omissions would not obviously be a shortcoming of atheory of intentional action. There are, after all, significantdifferences between actions and omissions, and so we should not expectthat a theory of action provides all the resources that are requiredfor an account of omissions. (For more on this see Clarke 2014.)


One strand of empirical research that is relevant to questionsconcerning the role of consciousness in agency is the work onautomaticity; in particular, the research on automatic goalpursuit. It has been shown, for instance, that the goal to perform acertain task accurately can be primed, so that the agent pursues thegoal without any awareness of doing so (Bargh et al. 2001). There isa large body of research on this, and it has been suggested that thisresearch shows that most of our actions are executedautomatically and without conscious control (Bargh and Chartrand1999, Custers and Aarts 2010).[22] This claim is less radical than theclaims put forward by Libet (1999) and Wegner (2002), as it concernsonly the extent or scope of conscious control. Further, this appearsto be much less challenging once it is noted that the great majorityof automatic actions are sub-routines that are in the service ofhigher goals and long-term intentions. Consider, for instance, allthe sub-routines that one performs while driving a car. The claimthat such actions are performed automatically and without consciouscontrol can be reconciled with our commonsense conception of agencyand it can be accommodated by the standard theory, provided thatconscious intentions and plans can recruit the relevant routinesautomatically, either by generating the relevant motor intentions, orby activating the relevant motor schemata. (For more on this seePacherie 2008; Adams 2010; Clarke 2010b.) 041b061a72


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