Introduction

On 13 April 1865, John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln. It happened in a theatre near the White House, at about 10. 13 p.m. Booth wanted to kill Lincoln in retaliation for his treatment of the South during the civil war. So upon learning that the President would attend a play that night, Booth (an actor who knew the layout of the theatre) decided to hide near the President's box and wait for an opportunity to get inside. At some point, the Secret Service guard left his station to get a better view of the stage. Booth saw his chance, got into position, and fired his pistol.

American history texts usually contain some such account of the events that led to Lincoln's death. Taken at face value, the brief account just given offers a description of Booth's action, and an intentional explanation of that action. This explanation reveals why Booth acted as he did, by providing information that makes his reason for action apparent, even if we find the reason insufficient (and the action deplorable). Following Davidson (1963 , 1967a , 1971) and many others, I hold that rationalizing explanations cite causes, and that actions are events. An intentional explanation of a person's action cites a mental cause of the event that is his action. When we speak of mental causes, we may be speaking of various things: events, like Booth's coming to see that he had an opportunity to kill Lincoln; states, like Booth's desire to kill Lincoln; or perhaps other entities, like the fact that Booth wanted to kill Lincoln. But I will focus primarily on events, which have the effects they do, in part because of prevailing background conditions.

Given that actions have mental causes, a variety of considerations make two further claims very tempting: paradigmatic actions are bodily motions; and the mental causes of human actions are certain biochemical events in our brains. On this view, Booth's action of pulling the trigger was a motion of his trigger finger; and when we say 'Booth saw his chance', we are citing a biochemical cause of that finger motion. But I think these further claims are false. My principal aim is to defend an alternative conception of intentional explanation, according to which actions typically cause bodily motions, and the mental causes of our actions are not biochemical events of any sort. (Let me say at the outset that I have been influenced by Hornsby (1980 , 1997), in elaborating and modifying certain aspects of Davidson's view.)

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Causing Actions
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Causing Actions iii
  • Preface vii
  • Contents ix
  • Introduction 1
  • 1: Actions as Inner Causes 18
  • 2: Fregean Innocence 55
  • 3: From Explanation to Causation 89
  • 4: Other Things Being Equal 117
  • 5: Personal Dualism 147
  • 6: Modal Concerns 179
  • 7: Natural Causes 216
  • Appendix 246
  • References 260
  • Index 271
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