Regulative actions

Human agents naturally see themselves as having a capacity to refrain from acting. We decide not to eat cake for a week, not to enable a self-destructive friend, or not to check our e-mails on Sundays. We think we can follow through on such decisions. We call some of the resulting omissions intentional. And, in the right circumstances, we praise, blame, and/or hold their agents responsible. I think the only way to do justice to our naïve view of (some) intentional omissions is to see them as the result of genuine actions. Some of them are familiar productive actions, on the model of Ulysses’ getting himself tied to the mast of his ship so as not to jump ship. But others are sui generis actions, which I call regulative actions. I defend an account of these actions in terms of a notion of control. In a nutshell that demands a lot of spelling out: someone regulatively acts when one of her intentions controls for a pattern in her behavior in the right way — and, yes, I have more to say about what the right way looks like. The resulting view of regulative actions is a friendly addition to a causal theory of productive actions, because of parallels between causation and control.

I also think that the above view of regulative actions isn't just naïve. I believe that human agents have the right psychological capacities to perform a non-trivial range of regulative actions. In particular, I defend the role of attention and access consciousness in this regard.

Feel free to e-mail me for the two working papers — descendants of chapters 1 and 2 of my dissertation

Decision-making, consciousness, and attention

What are the roles of attention and (access) consciousness in decision-making? Does consciousness of, and attention paid to, motives change the outcome of decision-making?

Do consciousness and attention play a role when we carry out long-term and regulative intentions, such as the intention to take a break this summer, the intention to stop checking the New York Times website so much, or the intention to cease enabling a self-destructive friend?

If these sorts of intentions play their role in organizing my behavior across time, they should prevent me from acting in various ways. For example, the first intention should prevent me from taking on commitments incompatible with a summer break, or that would make it significantly harder to take a break. More specifically, what is to be prevented, at least very often, is my knowingly doing something of the kind. Despite copious amounts of wishful thinking, I most often take commitments in full knowledge of their scheduling consequences. The intention need not direct my attention to the consequences. What it needs to do is strengthen my resolve.

This role of intentions in preventing known (willful) behavior is what I call their willpower role, their role in empowering the agent's will against various sources of temptation. I do not wish to deny or minimize the equally important role of intentions in preventing absent-minded or mistaken behavior. Sometimes the intention to take a break really does need to remind me of scheduling consequences I might overlook. But we should not assume that the psychological mechanisms involved here are the same as in the willpower role.

Chapter 2 of my dissertation offered an empirical hypothesis about the contribution of attention and access consciousness to the willpower role. I think there is significant empirical evidence to suggest such a contribution.

I am now interested in looking at related phenomena. First, I think attention and access consciousness could play similar roles in a lot of para-motivation, in the role of a lot of mental states that are not quite motives and yet should influence what we do (beyond intentions, let me mention evaluative and normative beliefs, policies, perhaps habits, etc.). Second, phenomena other than decision-making might present similar effects, especially belief fixation.

Coordination and collective action

I am interested in working further on a (very) thin theory of collective action, to cover all instances of planned coordination. Philosophers have paid a lot of attention to robust forms of collective agency, most prominently the shared actions of those who intend together, or the actions of structured groups such as corporations. They have not had much to say about less structured or less integrated forms of collective actions, such as the coordinated behavior of agents who nonetheless do not trust each other, or lack the intention to further the collective project - for example because they act under duress. My project is to explore the common denominator of these very different forms of collective agency, broadly construed. A particular area of application I am interested in concerns the actions of groups of animals, or of mixed groups of human beings and other animals.