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Studies in the philosophy of action have predominantly aimed to provide theories of how the action is explained or produced. In this clear and methodical text, Sneddon aims to undermine this approach by separating out two fundamental questions that he argues should be distinguished in formulating theories of action.
The first chapter of the book sets up the distinction with great clarity, enabling the reader to engage with a problem that has lain largely overlooked by contemporary theorists of action. The status question concerns what something has to be to count as an action whereas the production question concerns how action is explained, and the author explains concisely why difficulties in contemporary theories of action (such as causalism) can be traced to the conflation of these two questions, leading to what he refers to as ‘productionist’ accounts of action.
In Chapters 2 and 3 Sneddon moves on to describe and advocate an alternative metaphysical approach based on only the status question, by developing a line of reasoning first suggested by H.L.A. Hart known as ‘ascriptivism’. Put simply, this thesis states that “the possibility of attributing responsibility for an event is a type necessary condition of that event counting as an action.” (p.19) The detailed discussion of Hart’s historical ascriptivism feels somewhat superfluous as the author’s own exegesis is more than sufficient to familiarize the reader with the relevant background to the arguments presented.
Sneddon intends to use a lay taxonomy for producing a descriptive metaphysics to say what it is that makes an event count as an action that does not rely on some explanation of how or why the event occurred. This account does not aim to improve on or modify theories of action but rather reflect our actual practice as intentional human agents. Additionally, the ascriptivist project aims to be both anti-foundationalist and externalist, and as such follows the current tide in philosophy against individualist reduction. These issues are returned to and addressed more thoroughly in Chapters 6 and 7.
The second part of the book, comprising Chapters 4 and 5, focuses on developing the ascriptivist theory of action, placing it in the context of attributions of legal and moral responsibility. If necessary and sufficient conditions for moral responsibility can be defined in terms of causal criteria, then ascriptivism is little more than a superficial addition to a productionist theory of action; this is a conclusion to which Sneddon is keen to deny credibility. Reflections on the legal concept of mens rea reveal that productionist accounts of action are largely unsupported by the law and its interpretations regarding the attribution of legal responsibility. Citing a number of Canadian cases, Sneddon demonstrates that even weak causal, private criteria for legal responsibility can be and often are replaced by normative, public criteria. Despite the foray into legal territory, concepts are explained sufficiently for those unfamiliar with the technical terms.
Arguments for the autonomy of the moral domain by such thinkers as H.A. Prichard and the late P.F. Strawson are subsequently drawn upon to suggest that moral responsibility does not have causal criteria and therefore cannot be explained by a productionist account. Instead, the ascriptivist argues that such responsibility is descriptive of an agent having assumed a certain social status. It is this status, when corresponding with an event, which identifies action. Thus ascriptivism controversially treats the role of action ascription in moral contexts as an essential part of what it is for an event to count as an action, and as such social criteria, as opposed to naturalistic mental causes, form a constitutive part of what an action is.
The final section contains an assessment of the positions advanced by three major advocates of “nouveau volitionism”, together with a critique of individualism and some reflections on the potential impact of ascriptivism for moral theory. These comments, whilst thought-provoking, are little more than speculation. The discussion does however serve to illustrate just how far-reaching the implications of the anti-productionist argument may be.
Ultimately, the critique of foundationalist and individualist theories of action are more thoroughly sophisticated and convincing than the alternative positive position proffered. One can sympathize with the criticism of status/production conflation whilst remaining unmoved by the ascriptivist account as a metaphysical theory of action.
The smattering of appendices placed within the main body of text provides thought-provoking tangents that do not detract from the painstakingly developed arguments of the chapters themselves. The clear and methodical way the book is set out ensures that a reader unfamiliar with this philosophical territory can easily engage with the text and its main arguments, even if nuances may be lost in the occasionally technical details.
This is a well-constructed, thoroughly argued addition to the extensive contemporary literature on the philosophy of action, posing some fundamental and inescapable difficulties for advocates of productionist theories of action. Sneddon provides a persuasive argument for re-evaluating the assumptions underlying such theories, although it remains to be seen whether or not ascriptivism provides the most viable alternative account of the metaphysics of action.
© 2007 Natalie F. Banner
Natalie F. Banner is a PhD Research Student at the Institute for Philosophy, Diversity and Mental Health at the University of Central Lancashire in England. Her fields of interest focus on the philosophy of psychiatry and its application to mental health policy and practice. Her PhD thesis explores the rationality of patients deemed to lack mental capacity and interpretations of their behavior in clinical settings.
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