Donald Davidson: An Overview of His Action Theory

One of the basics to understand bigger topics, especially ethics.

Sinoperi
Sinoperi
Oct 15, 2019 · 4 min read
Illustration by Alejandra Hernandez on mixkit.co

Do you think:

“Action theory” sounds boring, dull, not relatable, theoretical, and after all, I know what action is!

An action doesn’t happen just like this. Actions are intentional. You can always allocate it to a person. And actions are categorized morally: Already Aristotle believed that you can make a person responsible for her actions.

In philosophy, you can’t speak about action theory and not mention the American philosopher Donald Davidson (1917–2003). He defined action in a new way. For this, he uses technical terms, or better, he allocates specific meanings to words.

In his 1963 work “Action, Reasons and Causes”, the philosopher wants to describe the relation between a reason and an action. Therefore, he presents different aspects of it:

1. Explanation: he introduces the term rationalization

2. Causation and justification

3. Definition of the properties of an action

1. Explanation

If the primary reason explains the action, the reason rationalizes the action, according to Davidson.

An action:

  • has a reason which explains the action.
  • has a reason which causes the action.

Davidson’s thesis:

1: The primary reason consists of two mental forms: A pro-attitude and a belief.

2: The primary reason is the cause of action.

He gives several examples of what a pro-attitude can be: Desires, impulses, stimuli, moral thoughts, etc. An action is rationalized by a reason when it becomes clear what the motivation of the agent was. In other words, the pro-attitude is something that I would like the world to be. If it isn’t, the world has to change.

And with a belief, he means that a person is sure that a concrete action fulfills the belief. The role of the belief is to connect the pro-attitude with one specific action. You can see the belief as something how I believe the world is. If it is wrong, I have to change my belief.

It may sound very theoretical, so here’s one example Davidson gives:

A person flips the light switch. This is an intentional action because the person has the pro-attitude to light the room. Also, she has the belief, that with flipping the switch, she’ll light the room.

Now, through this action, a thief gets alarmed (the person is unaware of it). But this is not the reason the person has to switch the light on. Therefore, it is just a description of the action, but not the primary reason for it.

2. Causation and justification

For action, there are several reasons. But there is just one reason, which has caused the action.

The primary reason justifies the action in a minimal sense (not all things considered). That means, it presents the reason the agent has to act in a specific way. We can understand what the intention of the person was. Therefore, it is justified (but not justified in a moral sense).

His theory of rationalization shows a justifiable reason: because it can be put in the concept of Aristotle’s practical syllogism:

Major premise: Eating sweets is desirable. (Pro-attitude: Preference to eat sweets)

Minor premise: To eat this piece of chocolate is eating sweets. (Belief that eating chocolate is eating sweets)

Conclusion: I eat this piece of chocolate. (Action)

3. Definition of the properties of an action

Davidson shows here, that an action is an event that has different descriptions. But just one of them describes the cause for the event, it is the primary reason for the action, and as a result, it shows that it is more than just an event: it is an action.

At the same time, it is also a requirement for the theory of action: It is possible to distinguish between events and actions. Events happen in a specific causal space — time frame.

That’s the same for actions. Actions are events. Not only, but actions are also more than just events.

Events have causes: These are causal occurrences that evoke changes in the world.

Actions can be explained, can be rationalized through reasons. According to Davidson, reasons are mental occurrences that rationalize an action.

Intentional acting is acting because of reasons. If a person acts intentional, it shows that she has a primary reason.

Philosophy Studios

Wisdom from the ages: Approach fundamental problems in a…

Sinoperi

Written by

Sinoperi

Philosophy student. I primarily write about philosophical topics concerning life, science, history, society, politics, and critical thinking. Come along!

Philosophy Studios

Wisdom from the ages: Approach fundamental problems in a new way. To enrich your life.

Sinoperi

Written by

Sinoperi

Philosophy student. I primarily write about philosophical topics concerning life, science, history, society, politics, and critical thinking. Come along!

Philosophy Studios

Wisdom from the ages: Approach fundamental problems in a new way. To enrich your life.

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