Philosophy Archive | Reason, Action, Cause | 6 min

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Philosophy Archive | Reason, Action, Cause | 6 min

Before I sat down to start writing this essay, I got myself a snack. Why? Well, for the obvious reasons of me being a little hungry. How does one satisfy this crave? Indeed, by getting a snack. One could be inclined to state that me feeling hungry eventually caused me to eat, but one should be careful in making such a claim.

Davidson (1963) argues that “a primary reason for an action is its cause”. In the aforementioned example, the hunger is the primary reason. The primary reason for an action is defined by Davidson as entailing both a pro-attitude and a related belief. The pro-attitude is the willingness to act and eat the snack; the related belief is me being knowledgable about the result the action will render, i.e. the fulfillment of the hunger. Combined, these two factors lead to the action. According to Davidson (1963) actions are
the sequel that may be explained by the primary reason. Hence, the 1) primary reason explains 2) the action and renders 3) the cause. Moreover, step 1 and 3 are one and the same. Reformulating this with respect to the analogy of the snack: 1a) the willingness to eat and 1b) the belief that the hunger is lessend 2) stimulate one to eat a snack 3) which satisfies the appetite (with nutritious fulfillment being the primary reason). But what can one say about causality here?

In general, a causal relationship between two events; event A and event B, would imply that A happend before before B and that event B exists solely thanks to the occurrence of A. Proponents of Davidson’s theory might argue that the primary reason is reflected in such an event. The properties of the primary reason (i.e. pro-attitudes and related beliefs) however, are no events. Instead they are mere mental propositions, lacking any physical causality whatsoever. Indeed, one wanting to eat in order to get satisfied
does not causally result in one eating. In fact it can even result in starving.
For the hungry person to eventually get fed, a broad variety of other (external) factors must be accounted for. As I just mentioned, an obvious necessity is the presence of food. Moreover, one must be physically able to feed the self. A baby, for example, would not be able to do so. All the other factors might be present, but a lone baby in a room with a properly set, four-feet-high dinner table, still is likely to starve. In this example, the baby would entirely suit the profile of having a primary reason for eating. Nonetheless, the final action would not occur and causality would be absent.
Without the causation; what is left of the action? The primary reason appears to be an alternative formulation of the concept of the action and there is no valid distinction left between the two. Indeed, both the properties of action and reason are entailed in the all-encompassing concept of the act. Returning for one last time to the analogy of the snack:
the crave and the quench are both properties of the act of eating (although they need not be causally related). This notion is comparable to the Spinozan theory of belief which states that people cannot contemplate (action) about any preposition they might think of before believing (reason) -and thus passively already accepting (reason plus action)- them (Mandelbaum, 2013).
Accordingly, without the distinction between reason and action and without the relationship between the primary reason and causality, one cannot but conclude that comprehensive action and causation cannot be linked and that reasons for actions can never be causes.

  • Davidson , D. (1963) Actions, Reasons and Causes. The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 60
    (23). Pp. 685-700
  • Mandelbaum, E. (2013) Thinking is Believing. Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of
    Philosophy

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