Action Theory Framework

Here are some of the best justifications for an action theory framework.

In order for environmental protection to be prioritized, it must be possible for developing countries to know whether their actions are in accord with or in violation of the goal of protecting the environment.

1. We must be able to explain the unity of action. Laurence:
Ben Laurence, “An Anscombean Approach to Collective Action”. University of Chicago, pp.8-10.  RP 9/8/13 

Expanding on an example from Anscombe we may consider a case where a man is making tea.12 Let us suppose he (i) fills up the kettle, (ii) turns on the stove, (iii) puts the water on to boil, (iv) places a tea bag in each of several cups, (v) waits for the kettle to whistle, and then (vi) pours the boiling water into each cup. All along as he does first one thing and then another the man is making tea: there is some one thing he is doing throughout: when he is finished doing them all he will have made tea. So here we have several actions the performance of which adds up to the performance of a single action. And, furthermore, they all are done with the intention of making tea. So here, also, we have several actions that “share” an intention. But what is involved in this?Let us consider it from the perspective of the explanation of action. The sort of explanation we are interested in here is the one investigated by Anscombe in which an explanation cites the agent’s reasons for acting. The question “Why?”, heard in the right way, is a request for such an explanation. If we ask our man why he is filling the kettle he might say he is heating some water. And when we query this in turn, he might say that it’s because he’s making tea. Here we see a nested set of explanatory relations. For example, (i) and (ii) are explained with reference to (iii), and (iii) as well as each of the other items on the list— including (i) and (ii)—can be explained by adverting to the fact that the man is making tea: the reason the man is doing all those things is that he is making tea. The several actions thus share an explanatory unity: they are all to be explained as phases or elements of tea-making.13 We could gesture at the same explanatory point by saying that it is no accident that the man is filling the kettle—he is filling the kettle precisely because he’s heating water. And it is no accident that he’s heating water—he is doing that precisely because he is making tea. Unlike a random collocation of actions, perhaps culled haphazard from a list of actions performed by an agent on one particular day, these actions are not arbitrarily related, but rather are fit together in a unified explanatory series as elements of the action they serve.

The unity of an action can be explained by its principle only when we can derive each phase of the action as being a means to the end given by the principle. Then, each phase of the action will be unified because the agent knows that the means are together sufficient to bring about the end given by the principle. This means that we can only explain an action’s unity if it is possible for an agent to know that the means she takes in her action are sufficient to achieve the principle guiding the action. 

2. Morality is action guiding, so it must be governed by principles that enable agents to make a determinate choice between courses of action. So, we can only prioritize a principle that provides a reason for agents to do one thing rather than another. A principle that failed to meet this requirement would be equally consistent and inconsistent with every action, and so would not guide a choice between courses of action.  A principle can only play this role if it is possible for agents to know whether their actions are in accord with or in violation of that principle. Absent this, a principle would be equally as consistent and inconsistent with every action, and so would not guide a choice between courses of action.  Even if morality need not guide action in general, it must serve that role in context of the actor. If we only cared about principles abstracted from whether those principles guide action, there would be no reason to deliberate about policies at all. The resolution indicates governments don’t construct new principles, but to act as the institutional mechanism by which we enforce our principles.

3. The condition of identifying your action as your own is to identify what you are doing as in line with the principle of choice on which you act. However, that is only possible if it is possible for you to know  that what you are doing is in accordance with the principle as opposed to the principle. Korsgaard:

CHRISTINE M. KORSGAARD, “SELF-CONSTITUTION IN THE ETHICS OF PLATO AND KANT”. The Journal of Ethics 1999, Volume 3, Issue 1, pp 1-29. Specifically, “VII. GOOD ACTION AND THE UNITY OF THE KANTIAN WILL”.  Professor of Philosphy, Harvard University. RP 7/21/13 

The first step is this: To conceive yourself as the cause of your actions is to identify with the principle of choice on which you act. A rational will is a self-conscious causality, and a self-conscious causality is aware of itself as a cause. To be aware of yourself as a cause is to identify yourself with something in the scenario that gives rise to the action, and this must be the principle of choice. For instance, suppose you experience a conflict of desire: you have a desire to do both A and B, and they are incompatible. You have some principle which favors A over B, so you exercise this principle, and you choose to do A. In this kind of case, you do not regard yourself as a mere passive spectator to the battle between A and B. You regard the choice as yours, as the product of your own activity, because you regard the principle of choice as expressive, or representative, of yourself. You must do so, for the only alternative to identifying with the principle of choice is regarding the principle of choice as some [a] third thing in you, another force on a par with the incentives to do A and to do B, which happened to throw in its weight in favor of A, in a battle at which you were, after all, a mere passive spectator. But then you are not the cause of the action. Self- conscious or rational agency, then, requires identification with the principle of choice on which you act. 

4. For a rational principle to be a principle at all, it must be justified by reason. A rational principle is statement from which certain actions are excluded. (For example, if I say it is going to rain today, it necessarily follows from that principle that the ground will be wet and that principle excludes the possibility of the ground being dry). Thus principles are only coherent insofar as the agent who acts upon the principle can know whether they are consistent with or in violation of the principle, because otherwise the agent couldn’t determine which actions are excluded or necessarily follow from the principle. Moreover, a principle can only be identified as unique if the agent sees the set of actions that are excluded or follow from the principle as distinct from a set of actions excluded or entailed by another principle. If both set were the same, then the principles would be the same. To identify the principle as having any content at all is to see what follows from it or is excluded by it. 
Thus, the sufficient negative burden is to show the affirmative’s advocacy is an impossible principle of action. 

[This framework originally and generously contributed by La Jolla RP.]