Page 1

proceedings of the aristotelian society

issue i | volume cxiii | 2012 - 2013

Agency and Two-Way Powers maria alvarez king’s college london

D r a P a p f t e r

1 8 8 8


c e l e b r a t i n g

1 2 5

y e a r s


2 0 1 3

proceedings of the aristotelian society 134th session

issue no. 1 volume cx111 2012 - 2013

ag e n cy a n d t wo - way p ow e rs

maria alvarez king’s college london

m o n d a y, 1 0 d e c e m b e r 2 0 1 2 17.30 - 19.15

the woburn suite senate house university of london malet street london wc1e 7hu united kingdom

This event is catered, free of charge, & open to the general public

contact Š 2012 the aristotelian society

biography Before coming to King’s College London, Dr Alvarez was a lecturer at the University of Southampton, having previously taught at the universities of Oxford and Reading. Maria is also a member of the Executive Committee of the British Philosophical Association. Her research interests include the philosophy of action, including the metaphysics and explanation of actions, reasons for action, agent causation, and the problem of free will and moral responsibility. editorial note The following paper is a draft version that can only be cited with the author’s permission. The final paper will be published in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Issue No. 1, Volume CXIII (2013). Please visit the Society’s website for subscription information:

agency and two-way powers maria alvarez In the theory of action, human agency is often characterised in terms of intentionality. Accordingly, there is agency when, and only when something is done intentionally, which in turn requires that it should be done for a reason. I want to propose an alternative way of characterising human agency in terms of the concept of a two-way power. This conception helps to see how human agency as an extension of the agency that is found throughout the natural world, both among animate and inanimate things. In this paper I try to sketch this way of characterising human agency.

My concern in this paper is to understand the human capacity for agency.1 So I shall not be concerned with non-human agents and I shall only be concerned with the agency of individual human beings and not that of groups. In what follows, then, I shall use ‘agency’ to refer to individual human agency, unless otherwise indicated. Let me make a preliminary point that is often been noted but bears repeating. Although agency generally involves doing something, the reverse does not hold. In general the verb ‘do’ is not a reliable indicator of human agency, even when its grammatical subject denotes a human being, because ‘do’ is often used to talk about what happens to one or to ‘sub-personal’ agency, etc.. For example, fainting, breathing, falling asleep, digesting food, turning sugar into fat, having one’s hair cut, etc., are things that we are said to ‘do’ but they are not (typically) actions, or not our actions: they are instances of things that happen to us or are done to us; or actions or doings that are properly attributed to sub-personal systems, etc. So we can ask the question which of the things we are said to do are instances of our agency. I shall suggest that there is human agency whenever we exercise a distinctive kind of power – namely a two-way power. Many instances of agency are exercises of a two-way causal power: a power to cause changes. This is the case whenever we move our bodies – but not only then, for we can cause changes without moving our bodies. But, as we shall see, there are instances of agency that are not exercises of a causal power. The idea that the power of agency is a two-way power has a long pedigree –it goes back to Aristotle – but it is also controversial.2 This paper is devoted to a characterization and defence of this conception of human agency. The paper is divided into two parts. In the first part, I explore a range of different things we do that are prima facie instances of agency. I shall suggest that what they have in common is they are all instances of the exercise of a two-way power. In the second part I elaborate and


defend the idea that the human capacity for agency can be understood in terms of the concept of a two-way power.

1. the power of agency 1.1 As I just noted, many instances of human agency are exercises of a power to cause changes. In such cases, agency consists in exercising these causal powers: the exercise of the power is an action which is, i.e. consists in, the causing of that change by a human being, who is the agent. The most common way in which we do this is by moving our bodies although, as we shall see, we can exercise our causal powers without moving our bodies. What sorts of things do we cause when we exercise our causal powers? We cause events to happen, as well as processes to unfold and to change, and states to obtain; and we cause objects to come into, and out of, existence. We do that when, for example, we press a button, or spin a top (cause it to spin), or spin it faster (cause it to be spin faster), or dry the dishes (cause them to be dry); or when we paint a picture, crack a nut, or burn down a house. But although we can cause things in all these categories, causing any of them involves causing events, for the initiation of a process, or the causing of a change within it, the coming about of a state of affairs, and an object’s coming into, or out of, existence are events – events by causing which, we cause those other things (processes, states, the coming into existence of objects, etc.). In claiming that causing these changes involves causing events, I follow von Wright, who characterizes an event as a change from a state of affairs, p, to another state of affairs, not-p. For instance, from a state of affairs where a jumper is in the drawer to a state of affairs where the jumper is not in the drawer but is, say, on the bed, or one where a piece of chocolate is in a solid state to one where it is in a liquid state; or one where a person is alive, to one where he is dead. The event is the change from one such state to another. But, as von Wright also notes, there are events that are changes from states to processes, from processes to states, and others that are transformations of processes. Examples of each are, a change from a ball being stationary to its rolling along the ground and vice-versa, or a change from its rolling on the ground to its flying through the air, or from its rolling slowly to its rolling quickly, and so on. On this model, events can be thought of as changes from one state to another (which may involve the unfolding of a process); as changes that consist in a


process starting or ending (or in a process ending and another starting, when the event is a transformation of processes); as changes within the same process; etc..3 Now I turn to the question how we cause events when we do exercise our causal powers. The most common and uncontroversial way in which we exercise our causal powers of agency is whenever we exercise the power we have to move our bodies. This is true both because moving one’s body is itself exercising a causal power, viz the power to cause changes to or in one’s body, and because many of the changes we cause, we cause by moving our bodies.

1.2 So when we move our bodies we cause them to move, which is to say, we cause changes in them, and these changes themselves cause other changes – which is how we cause many of the changes we cause: changes in the position of doors, the shape of dough, the motion of balls, the arrangement and disposition of materials, etc. But it seems that we can cause changes without moving our bodies. For it seem possible to cause events by not doing something, for example, cause offence by not greeting someone, cause a death by not feeding someone, etc. One response against this suggestion might be to deny that these are genuine causal claims. But that seems plausible only if causal claims are genuine only if they relate just events or, at any rate, particulars, since these claims relate a non-event to an event, and a non-event is not a particular. But that view seems unduly restrictive. Some causal claims are causal-explanatory claims. They don’t state relations between particulars but they still identify causal factors which contribute to the explanation of an event. And sometimes, an agent’s not doing something is such a causal factor. The conditions under which someone can be said to have caused an event through a notdoing are complex, involving as they do issues about explanatory salience, duties, roles, and normative expectations generally, as well as counterfactuals concerning what would have happened if the agent had done what she failed to do, among other things.4 But when the conditions are met, these are cases where a change is caused (say, a hamster’s death) by an agent’s exercising her agential powers (e.g. by not feeding it). Note that it is not necessary that the not-doing or the causing be intentional:5 I may forget to feed the hamster and thus cause its death unintentionally. So it is possible to cause an event by not doing something, and this appears to suggest that instances of not-doing something can be instances of agency. Is that right?


1.3 A not-doing is, simply, the negation of a doing: for every kind of doing there is a corresponding kind of not-doing, the negation of the action-kind, which implies the absence of any particular action of the corresponding kind.6 Examples of actions and their corresponding negations are: uttering a word and not uttering a word, giving a present and not giving a present, going for a walk and not going for a walk, voting and not voting, etc. The term used to describe the not-doing need not be negative: ‘keeping silent’ is a not-doing because it consists in not doing something, namely not uttering any sound, even though the term ‘keeping silent’ does not involve a negation.7 Some philosophers think that instances of not-doings are actions, albeit ‘negative’ actions (see, e.g. Vermazen, 1985). Whether this is right depends on how the term ‘action’ is defined. If an action is anything that can be said to be intentional or voluntary, then some instances of not-doings are actions, since they are intentional or voluntary. But note that, as well as voluntary and intentional inactivity (not-doing), there is also voluntary and intentional passivity (having something done to one or undergoing something), as when I allow myself to be anesthetized, and yet to have something done to one is not to perform an action.8 This speaks in favour of another characterisation of the term ‘action’, where it is reserved for an active doing and, on this characterisation, instances of not-doings are not actions. To some extent, this is a terminological choice and I shall use the term ‘action’ in the second sense, although I shall hold that both doings and not-doings can be instances of agency. But when not doing something is an instance of agency, it is not because it is the causing of an event, state, etc. So not-doings are examples of agency that is not causal (this is consistent with the claim I made above, that we can cause events by not doing something).

1.4 Preventing and allowing, as well as enabling and sustaining events, processes and states, can also be instances of agency but they do not consist in causing an event, although they are all related, in different ways, to the occurrence or non-occurrence of an event of a certain kind, which depends on the agent’s doing or not doing certain things. For instance, I can prevent a paper from flying away by holding it down: doing that is not causing a change – it is rather, sustaining a state and preventing a change. This instance of sustaining requires me to exercise the causal power to move my body although others don’t. It does, because I need to exert some force on the paper, even if just a little, for otherwise I would not be preventing it from moving but simply resting my hand on it, and that in turn requires that I effect some changes i.e. contractions of muscles. But I can sustain a state and prevent a change by not moving, e.g. if I’m 4

standing in front of a laser-beam mechanism that keeps a door open. Similarly, I can keep the water flowing by holding a lid up (sustaining by doing); allow a bird to fly out of a cage by opening its door or by not closing it (allowing by doing and not doing respectively); an ambassador may prevent a diplomatic incident by keeping quiet when provoked (preventing by not doing; though here it might be said that the not doing requires a decision to keep quiet, in which case this would be a preventing by doing). And so on.

1.5 As well as these examples of agency, there is the phenomenon of so-called ‘mental acts’: such doings as making a calculation in one’s head, trying to recall the time of a meeting, etc. These seem to be instances of agency but they do not consist in causing, preventing, sustaining, allowing or enabling, etc., a change, so they do not seem to be exercises of a causal power.9 It might be though that, since when we perform mental acts we cause events in our brains, mental acts are themselves also exercises of a causal power. But this does not seem right. For, even if we cause those events, the mental act does not consist in the causing of those events in the brain: the mental act of, say, adding two numbers may involve our causing some brain events but it does not consist in the causing of such events. If performing a mental act involves causing a change in one’s brain, all that follows is that performing a mental act involves the exercise a causal power but not that it is the exercise of a causal power. And this is so even if one thinks that a mental act is identical to some brain event(s), since we don’t cause our mental acts. So mental acts seem instances of agency that are not causal – which is not to say that we cannot cause something through these mental acts, only that they themselves are not instances of causing a change. So we have seen that, although the paradigmatic case of agency seems to be the exercise of the causal power to move one’s body, there are other instances of agency which differ in structure from the paradigm. The question arises: what do these cases all have in common, so that it seems right to say that they are all instances of agency? My suggestion is that an instance of these doings and not doings is so characterisable only when it is the exercise of a two-way power or is something done by exercising a two-way power.10 And this brings me to the second part, where I shall say try to say more about the concept of a two-way power and defend the claim that it provides a plausible and illuminating way of characterising human agency.


ii. two-way powers 2.1 I have claimed that human agency requires the exercise of a two-way power. The term ‘two-way power’ is medieval but the concept is Aristotelian: in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that ‘where it is in our power to act it is also in our power not to act, and vice versa’ (NE, 1113b6).11 To understand the concept of a two-way power, something needs to be said about the notion of possibility involved in its use. I follow Kenny (1975, 151) in holding that the relevant possibility is that of ability and opportunity. Thus, A has at t the two-way power to φ at t, if and only if at t A has the ability to φ and the ability not to φ, and the opportunity to φ at t and the opportunity not to φ at t. Kenny explains the difference between ability and opportunity as follows: An ability is something internal to the agent, and an opportunity is something external. It is difficult to make this intuitive truth precise. The boundary between internal and external here is not to be drawn simply by reference to the agent’s body: illness, no less than imprisonment, may take away the possibility of exercising my abilities without necessarily taking away the abilities themselves (1975, 133). The ability to do something, say cook omelettes, is something that, if I have, I have also when I am not exercising it, and even if I rarely exercise it, though of course I can exercise my ability only when the circumstances permit me to do so, e.g., when I have eggs, a frying pan, etc. That much is true of all abilities. However, for me to have a two-way power to cook omelettes at any given time, I need to have the ability and the opportunity to cook omelettes at that time and it must be ‘up to me’ whether I exercise the ability at that time – that is, it is up to me whether or not I cook omelettes then.12 Consider, by contrast, the capacity to hear certain sounds. This is a capacity I can exercise only under the right conditions (absence of interference, well-functioning organs, etc.) but it is not a capacity whose exercise is up to me: if the conditions are right, I will hear the sound.13 (Though, of course, I may be able to alter the conditions, e.g. stop my ears with my fingers, so I won’t hear it). Thus, I don’t ever have the twoway power to hear sounds. So our two-way powers involve abilities such that, when the opportunity to exercise them is present, it is up to us whether we exercise them or not: if at time, t, A has the ability to φ and the ability not to φ, and has also the opportunity to φ at t and the opportunity not to φ at t, then it must be up to A whether she φ-s at t or not. For 6

suppose that it is not up to A whether she φ-s at t; then something else would determine whether she does. And suppose that something determines that she φ-s at t: in that case it would not be true that she had the opportunity not to φ at t, since the thing that determines that she φ-s at t, would have prevented A from not φ-ing at t. Thus, two-way powers are such that the agent who has the power determines whether she exercises the relevant ability, that is, whether she φ-s or not. That is why a two-way power cannot be analysed as the conjunction of two one-way powers. For one-way powers are characterised by the fact that when the conditions for the actualisation of the power obtain, the power will necessarily be actualised. But if an agent has both the ability and opportunity to φ and not φ at t, and this were the conjunction of two one-way powers, then the agent would both φ and not φ at t – but that is impossible.14 That is why, if the power is genuinely a two-way power, whether the agent φ or not φ at t, must be up to the agent. Now, if having a two-way power requires that the exercise of the corresponding ability is up to the agent, it seems to follow that the exercise of a two-way power requires an epistemic condition, for the required control over the exercise of the relevant ability seems impossible without knowledge, or at least appropriate beliefs about what I am doing. The precise nature of this epistemic condition may require finetuning but for our purposes it seems sufficient to say that, in addition to the conditions given above, for the exercise of an ability to be up to me at a particular time, t, I need to be aware of what I am doing, or trying to do, at t. I have claimed that human agency requires the exercise of a two-way power but not every instance of agency is itself the exercise of a two way power: sometimes, what we do is an instance of agency if, as I said above, it is something done by exercising a two-way power. For instance, suppose that I unwittingly start a war by deliberately pressing a button. Surely both pressing the button and starting a war are instances of my agency – the difference is that one is intentional while the other is unintentional. However, since I wasn’t aware of the connection between pressing the button and starting the war, I did not have the two-way power to start the war – so this is an instance of agency that is not itself the exercise of a two-way power. That seems right: starting the war is an instance of agency because it is something I do by exercising a two-way power: namely the two-way power I had to press the button. Thus, my view makes room for the possibility of unintentional action, and it is neutral on the vexed


question of action individuation: on whether when I do one thing by doing another, my doing the first is the same as action my doing the second. Although the view that acting is exercising a two-way power is old and familiar, it is thought to be problematic, not to say untenable. For example, it has seemed to many that ‘the scientific picture’ of the world implies that agency is never the exercise of a two-way power. Or, it might seem that there are cases of human agency that do not involve the exercise of a two-way power, and therefore that that cannot be what is distinctive about agency – so Aristotle’s claim that ‘where it is in our power to act it is also in our power not to act’ must be false. I shall examine what I regard as the major objections in the following sections, starting with the most wide-ranging objection, which concerns determinism.

2.2 The objection goes as follows. The claim that every instance of human agency is the exercise of a two-way power implies the falsity of determinism. So, if determinism is true, then, no instance of agency is the exercise of a two-way power. But since we do not know whether determinism is true, but we know that there is human agency, agency cannot be the exercise of a two-way power. (Another version would say: ‘and since determinism is probably true, agency cannot be the exercise of a two-way power’.) There are two responses one can make to this objection. One is to turn the objection on its head and say that, if the idea that agency is the exercise of a two-way power implies the falsity of determinism, since there is such agency, then determinism must be false.15 The second response is to deny that determinism is incompatible with the twoway power of agency. Some compatibilist positions (e.g. those that give conditional and dispositional analyses of an agent’s powers) do not seem helpful for my purposes because, on these positions it does not seem that, at the time of acting, it is in an agent’s power to act and also in his power to not act. However, there are other compatibilist positions that retain a genuine notion of a two-way power. These compatibilist positions argue that an agent’s having the power to act and to not act at a time t is consistent with the claims that the laws that govern the physical world are deterministic, and that the past is unchangeable. And they do so, for instance, by pointing out that arguments to the contrary depend on equivocating between different kinds of possibility (e.g. physical and agential), or on assumptions 8

that what is true at one level of description say, a merely physical description, carries over to other levels of description – crucially to descriptions about agents and their abilities.16 It is not necessary for my purposes to choose between these two responses, nor indeed between the particular versions of compatibilism so long as there is a version that retains a strong notion of a two-way power, because it is sufficient for me to note that jointly they show that the claim that (the possibility of) determinism undermines the idea that agency could be the exercise of a two-way power is, at the very least, inconclusive.

2.3 But it may be thought that there are grounds other than determinism for rejecting the view that agency requires the exercise of a two-way power. For there may seem to be instances of human agency which do not involve the exercise of a two-way power. Among others, the following have been advanced as such cases: reflex actions and reactions (involuntary movements, such as kicks or recoiling in disgust, etc.); actions done under hypnosis, somnambulist actions, and more generally adjustments made during sleep; spontaneous expressions of emotion; things done under duress (e.g., threats, violence); actions that are the result of ‘psychological’ necessity, whether this is pathological (such as addiction and obsessive compulsions) or character/volitional necessities (e.g., Luther). And, in addition, the range of so-called ‘Frankfurt-style cases’ (and the related ‘Fischer-style cases), which involve brain manipulation. And there may be others. I have discussed many of these cases elsewhere (Alvarez 2009). In that paper, I argue that many of the Frankfurt-style examples depend on either a question-begging or questionable notion of what it is to choose or decide to act (e.g. as something that can be caused by causing a brain event), or on the implicit claim that causing A’s body to move (e.g. by manipulating his brain) is causing A to move his body, and hence causing A to act, which is false. Of course there’s much more to say about this but much has been said by myself and others elsewhere so I move on to other difficulties.17 There is a whole range of things we do that, it seems, we cannot generally avoid doing. This includes reflex actions (kicking when tapped on the knee), and reactions (blinking, ducking to avoid a flying object, etc.), spontaneous expressions of emotions (smiling, cowering, etc.). Given that awareness of these doing typically operates at a sub-personal level, it seems plausible to argue that these actions are generally properly


attributable to the agency of certain sub-personal systems. However, it is true that we can also often suppress them, especially if we attend to them, that is, bring them to the personal level of awareness.18 When we do so, then these actions fall on the continuum between our agency and that of those sub-personal systems, and they will seem closer to one or the other precisely to the extent to which we are able to control when they happen, suppress them if we choose, and generally bring them under our control – that is, to the extent to which doing them is the exercise of a two way power. A slightly different but related kind of example is adjustments made during sleep and somnambulistic actions – and the latter can be striking in the purposiveness and sometimes complexity of the behaviour. Again, what is crucial about these actions is awareness: when one is asleep, one is not aware of what one is doing (though there is a twilight zone of being half-sleep and half-aware). As above, in these examples, awareness and control operate at a sub-personal level, one below the level of full consciousness. And again, to that extent, these actions are more properly attributed to those sub-personal systems than to the agent.

2.4 By contrast, cases of acting under duress (threats, etc.) are, I contend, cases where the agent retains the ability and opportunity to refrain from doing what he does, even though the cost of doing so is often very high, and often such that one need not pay, or perhaps even, should not pay it. These cases work by coercing the agent to choose an alternative that he would rather not choose – but the agent still chooses what to do, albeit under duress. But there are case of extreme violence and terror: do agents in such conditions retain the ability to refrain from doing what they do (sign a confession, reveal a name) in such cases? What is problematic about the question whether an agent could have refrained from doing such things in the face of the pain, terror, exhaustion, etc. is that we have no independent way of measuring an agent’s ability to withstand them other than whether they did. In such circumstances, we can say that one agent resists, perhaps even dies resisting, while another gives in: does that show that first had but the second lacked the ability to resist? I think what all we can say is that the second did not resist – perhaps even though they tried very hard. We often declare ourselves unable to do things that we were patently able to do. For example, we say we could not resist telling a joke when we could clearly have done so but chose not to, or by contrast, that we felt an irresistible urge to do something but suppressed it. So again, I do not think these cases are clear counterexamples to the view that agency is the


exercise of a two-way power because it is not clear that agents lacked the ability to not do what they did. Examples of obsessive-compulsive disorders and addictive behaviour (drug addicts, alcoholics, kleptomaniacs, compulsive hand-washers, etc.) are often put forward as cases where agents cannot refrain from doing what they do – but this, in the relevant sense that concerns us here (ability and opportunity) is not clearly true. The claim that these agents lack the ability to refrain depends on the idea that their desires to engage in the relevant actions are ‘irresistible’. But, again, in the absence of a measure of an agent’s ability to resist particular desires, other than whether they resist them, I think these claims should be construed to express not an inability to refrain but rather the difficulty in refraining, given the intensity of the sensations that accompany the desire (withdrawal symptoms, the memory of the pleasure/ relief in engaging in activity) and, sometimes, the lack of effective contrary motivation to do so. It is worth noting that inveterate addicts of all sorts sometimes give up on their addiction from one day to the next, perhaps as a result of a clearer realisation of the extent and implications (for themselves and others) of the addiction. And it is also worth noting that agents who display obsessive-compulsive behaviour often show high levels of control: attention to detail, avoidance of risk, careful planning, desisting from the action if the circumstances require it, etc. which suggests that they have the ability to refrain from doing what they do, and will do so if they see reason (within their pathology) to do so. Moreover, they are often treated with behavioural therapies that depend on the gradual habituation to refraining from the behaviour – but if they lacked the ability to refrain, how could the therapy begin? The final example I shall discuss along these lines is what Williams calls ‘moral incapacities’, where an agent is said to be morally incapable of doing certain things, and so-called volitional necessities: the common example is Luther saying he could not recant.19 Do these cases present a difficulty to my account? If an agent is indeed (morally) unable to do something, then it is not in her power to do it nor not to do it, that is, it is not up to her whether she does it or not. But if that is so, if there are indeed moral incapacities, these are not objections to my account unless we insist that in those cases the agent’s not doing those things are instances of agency – but why should we so insist when we do not insist that someone’s not flying unaided is an instance of agency? In any case, it is questionable that at least some of the examples often given are indeed cases of inability in the sense relevant here. On the one hand there are cases (such as Luther’s) where the right description seems to be that the agent chooses to act and


regards the alternative as an unacceptable choice: morally, or for some other reason. There is no more reason to think that Luther had no ability to recant (he clearly had the opportunity) rather than that he chose not to do so because it would go against his conscience, than there is to think that a relative who says that they cannot, e.g., put you up for the night, has no ability to do so, rather than to say that she could but chose not to because it would cause her a great deal of inconvenience. But there may be cases where it seems the agent really cannot refrain: a mother may be unable to refrain from rushing into a burning house to save her children.20 But suppose that the mother is told that by running into the house she’d make it more likely that her children will die. Surely she would then not rush in. This, I contend, shows that she had the ability and opportunity to refrain – what she didn’t have before but would have after being so informed is the motivation to refrain from rushing into the house. Some philosophers reject the contention just made because, they say, perhaps it is true that, had the agent had different motives, she could have refrained. But this does not show that given the motives, reasons, etc., she actually had, she could have refrained. However, this somewhat misrepresents the contention, for it treat motives, reasons, etc. as conditions for the ability to refrain. But the idea that refraining from doing something requires different or stronger motivations should not be understood as the idea that these motivations are part of the conditions for the ability to refrain, or part of the circumstances that constitute an opportunity to do so. Of course, if the ability to act or not act was conditional on the right motivation, then the absence of the relevant motivation would imply the absence of the ability. But the claim was that the right motivations were conditions, not for the possession of the ability, but for their exercise. It may be that part of the disagreement here depends on invoking different notions of possibility. For my opponent may concede that the agents in question have the abilities and opportunities I say they have but claim that they are ‘psychologically’ incapable, given their motives and inclinations, to act other than they do. But, for the reasons about claims about strength of desires and motivations generally, outlined above, I see no reason to interpret this as saying anything other than that they would have needed different motivations to act differently, rather than to be able to act differently. And that would still be consistent with the claim that in acting they were exercising s two-way power. In short, I claim that these alleged counterexamples are cases where the doings are not our actions but those of sub-personal systems; or where it is not clear that the 12

agent lacked the ability and opportunity to refrain – and his having that is what my account of agency requires.

2.5 Finally, I shall say something about certain cases of not-doing, as they might also be thought to refute the two-way power conception of agency. Consider Locke’s example of the man who is carried while asleep ‘into a room where is a person he longs to see and speak with’. He awakes and stays in the room, though unknown to him the room is locked fast, so he cannot get out. Is his staying not an instance of agency even though he could not have left,21 that is, even though his staying is not the exercise of a two-way power. It is indisputable that the man stays in the room and that he could not have left, since he lacked the opportunity. But, although he could not have left, our man could certainly have chosen to leave – though, had he done so, he could not have left, since the door was locked. In the circumstances, his choosing to leave needn’t have been anything other than his trying to open the door, just as his choosing to stay needn’t have been anything other than his staying while believing that it was in his power to leave. And it is the presence of that possibility that explains why, although we could not characterise his staying as, say, and act negligence or recklessness, we could characterise his choice to stay (of his failure to choose to leave) in those terms. Thus, since his choosing to stay was the exercise of a two-way power, the example does not present a problem for my view.

conclusion I have proposed and tried to defend a conception of human agency as the exercise of a two-way power and have claimed that such a conception enables us to accommodate a whole range of doings and not doings that we seem inclined to characterise as instances of agency. This suggestion is, as we have seen, linked to the idea that what we do is up to us. Perhaps because of this, many who have defended similar views, have presented them as accounts of free action. But I think the conditions for agency I have given provide only a necessary condition for free agency, not a sufficient one. For, at least on some very plausible conception of what it is to act freely, many exercises of two-way powers are not free, for they are constrained: because they are done because of


coercion, obligation, psychological disorders, etc.22 And whether someone’s agency is so constrained is a fact that will affect the extent to which we think that agent is morally responsible for what he does and fails to do, and for their consequences. However, when, how, to what extent, and why different factors affect freedom of agency and the corresponding moral responsibility are extremely complex questions that I have not tried to address in this paper.

Maria Alvarez Department of Philosophy King’s College London The Strand London WC2R 2LS United Kingdom


references Alvarez, M., 2001, ‘Letting Happen, Omissions and Causation’, Grazer Philosophische Studien, 61, 63-81. --------, 2009, ‘Actions, thought-experiments and the “Principle of Alternate Possibilities”’ ', Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 87: 1, 61 — 81. Anscombe, G.E.M., 1957, Intention, (Oxford: Blackwell). --------, 1965/6, ‘Comment on Mr Bennett’s “Whatever the Consequences”’, Analysis, 26: 25. Aquinas, T., 1960–73, Summa Theologiae, ed. Gilby, T., (Cambridge: Blackfriars). Aristotle, 1984, The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. Barnes, J. (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press). Berofsky, B., 2011, ‘Compatibilism without Frankfurt: Dispositional Analyses of Free Will’, The Oxford Handbook of Free Will. Second Edition, ed. Kane, R. (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 153-174. Campbell, J.K., 2005, ‘Compatibilist Alternatives’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 35, 3: 387-406. Clarke, R. 2009, ‘Dispositions, Abilities to Act, and Free Will: The New Dispositionalism’, Mind, 118: 323-351. Coope, U., 2007, ‘Aristotle on Action’ Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volume, 81 (1): 109–138. Frankfurt, H., 1969, ‘Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility’, Journal of Philosophy, 66 (4): 829–39. Fischer, J., 2011. ‘Frankfurt-Type Examples and Semi-Compatibilism: New Work’ in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will. Second Edition, ed. Kane, R. (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 243-265. Geach, P. 2000. ‘Intention, Freedom and Predictability’, in Logic, Cause and Action: Essays in Honour of Elizabeth Anscombe, ed. Teichmann, R., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 73–81. Hornsby, J., 1980, Actions, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul). Hyman, J., 2007, ‘Three Fallacies about Action’, in Proceedings of the 29th International Wittgenstein Symposium, (Hölder-Pichler-Tempsky). Kapitan, T., 2011, ‘A Compatibilist Reply to the Consequence Argument’, in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will. Second Edition, ed. Kane, R. (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 131-150. Kenny, A.J.P., 1975, Will, Freedom and Power, (Oxford: Blackwell). List, C., 2012, ‘Free Will, Determinism, and the Possibility of Doing Otherwise’ (ms). Locke, J., 1979 [1689], An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. P.H. Nidditch (Oxford University Press).


Taylor, R., 1966, Action and Purpose, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall). Reid, T., 1969 [1788], Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind, ed. Brody, B.A., (Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press). Steward, H., 2012, A Metaphysics for Freedom, (Oxford: Oxford University Press). Strawson, G., 1986, ‘On the Inevitability of Freedom from the Compatibilist Point of View’, American Philosophical Quarterly, 23 (4): 393-400. Vermazen, B., 1985, ‘Negative Acts’, in Essays on Davidson: Actions and Events, eds. Vermazen B. and Hintikka, M.B., (Oxford: Oxford University Press). Von Wright, G.H., 1963, Norm and Action, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul). Williams, B., 1993, ‘Moral Incapacity’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 93, 59-70.



And I leave it open whether other animals ever manifest such agency.


The idea is found in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics 1113b6 and in EE. It is also found in Aquinas ST and Reid (1788), among others. In contemporary philosophy it has been endorsed, though with slight variations by Taylor (1966), Galen Strawson (1986), Geach (2000), Steward (2012), among others. I endorse this view in Alvarez (2009).


This has been denied in favour of the view that we cause states (Coope, 2007, attributes the view to Aristotle). I cannot address this issue here but suffice it to say that causing a state seems to require causing an event, namely the change into that state.


I have discussed this in Alvarez 2001.


Not even under some description. This depends on rejecting the idea that if one causes an event e by not doing something, then the event is caused by whatever one does instead of not doing that thing, though that identification is problematic. See Anscombe (1965/6) and Alvarez (2001).


I use the term ‘not-doing’ rather than omission because not all not-doings are omissions. The latter, as the term is normally used, is context-dependent in that it is, roughly, not doing something against a background where doing that thing is possible, due, salient, expected, etc. Again, see Alvarez 2001.


That is why not-doings can often be referred to as ‘doings’: keeping silent, keeping still, remaining on one’s place, refraining from kicking, etc.


See e.g. Anscombe, 1957, and Hyman, 2007. However, an instance of passivity will count as voluntary only if the patient does nothing to try to prevent what is done to her when she believed that she could have done so. That is why suffering something can count as an exercise of agency.


So I agree with Steward that, to use her example, 2012, nt.17, if I add 24 and 38 mentally, one should not consider ‘24 and 38 being added’, or the fact that they are added, as events that I cause. As she says, these are a passive way of describing the action, and a fact, respectively, and thus not an event I cause. But I disagree with her that mental acts ‘too are exercises of an agent’s power to make one’s body move’ (32, my italics) for the reasons given above.


‘Done by doing something else’, should here be interpreted to include in doing something else, as when one breaks a valuable artwork in breaking a garishly decorated vase.


See also EE 1223a 4-7. Aquinas follows him in saying that ‘some capacities can be realized in more than one way (ad multa)’ others ‘can be realized in only one way (ad unum)’ (ST 1a 2ae, 49, 4).


This doesn’t imply that whenever I decide or try to exercise an ability I have, given that the opportunity is present, I shall ϕ, for I may be weak willed and fail to implement my decision or, as Austin argued (Austin) with his famous golf example, I might try to implement it but fail. But, as Kenny notes, it does mean that, in general, if I have the ability to ϕ and the opportunity and try to exercise it, then I shall normally succeed. (But note that this does not mean that trying is a condition for the possession of the ability or the presence of the opportunity).


Our ability to hear sounds is a qualified ability, e.g. to hear sounds within certain frequencies and degrees of loudness, etc., or an ability to hear certain sounds with/without the aid of a special apparatus, etc.


I take this to be the gist of Aristotle’s argument in Metaphysics: It follows that as for potencies of the latter kind, when the agent and the patient meet in accordance with the potency in question, the one must act and the other be acted upon; but in the former kind of potency this is not necessary, for whereas each single potency of the latter kind is productive of a single effect, those of the former kind are productive of contrary effects, so that if the rational powers were under the same necessity, one potency would produce at the same time contrary effects. But this is impossible. Therefore there must be some other deciding factor, by which I mean desire or deliberate choice (1048a6ff).


Steward, 2012, seems to defend a version of this response, although she does not claim it to be a conclusive argument, and in any case her view might be more accurately rendered by saying that if determinism implies that we cannot settle anything, then since we can settle some things, determinism must be false. As she recognizes, this response implies that the truth of determinism can be settled a priori – which may be thought to be untenable.



A proper discussion of this issue is not possible here. Campbell (2005) offers an overview of some compatibilist positions, as well as his own, as does Kapitan (2011). Berofsky (2011) surveys compatibilist positions that depend on a dispositional analysis of ‘can do otherwise’. Kenny (1975) defends a non-conditional compatibilist position, in chapters VII and VIII. And, more recently, List [2012] has outlined and defended in detail a compelling version of compatibilism.


For a summary of recent work on this debate, see Fischer (2011).


Many of these things can be done as full exercises of a two-way power, even of deliberate and explicit choice, as when we decide to smile to someone in order to reassure them.


Though apparently the words ‘Here I stand, I can do not other’ are of uncertain origin, as they are a later addition to his declaration which was: ‘I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May Gold help me.’ The famous words are not included in records by witnesses of his appearance before the Diet of Worms and their origin is uncertain.


The example is a variant of Steward’s, 2012, 183.


Locke says his staying is voluntary but not free, since he cannot forbear (Essay BkII, Ch XXI, Of Power, §10).


In that respect I disagree with Galen Strawson who thinks that our actions are all wholly free, although the disagreement may be terminological, since he accepts that there is a sense of ‘free’ in which they are not.


the aristotelian society

president: Sarah Broadie (St. Andrews) president-elect: E.J. Lowe (Durham) honorary director: Lucy O’Brien (UCL) editor: Matthew Soteriou (Warwick) lines of thought series editor: Scott Sturgeon (Oxford) executive committee: Ben Colburn (Glasgow) / Alison Hills (Oxford) / Rosanna Keefe (Sheffield) Marie McGinn (UEA) / Samir Okasha (Bristol) / Ian Rumfitt (Birkbeck) / Robert Stern (Sheffield) executive administrator: Mark Cortes Favis assistant editor: David Harris editorial assistant: Lea Salje

w w w. a r i s t o t e l i a n s o c i e t y. o r g . u k

Maria Alvarez (KCL): Agency and Two-Way Powers  

Draft paper to be delivered to the Aristotelian Society on 10 December 2012: "Agency and Two-Way Powers" by Maria Alvarez (KCL). Before comi...