My research interests concern the metaphysics of action and agency, as well as related issues in the philosophy of mind. In my dissertation, I present an alternative account of action centered around the notion of effort. I argue that effort has several unique features: it is attributed directly to agents; it is a causal power that each agent alone possesses and employs; it enables agents causally to initiate, sustain, and control their capacities during the performance of an action; and its presence comes in varying degrees of strength. After defending an effort-based account of action and criticizing what is known as the standard story of action, I apply my account to situations in which an agent displays strength of will, such as when one struggles to perform an action while overcoming a persistent urge to do otherwise. I conclude by offering an explanation of mental action that demonstrates the extent of our powers of agency within the domain of the mental.
Papers in Progress
‘An Alternative Account of Agent Causation’
According to proponents of agent causation, when an agent performs an action she plays a unique role in its causal production. I argue that current accounts of agent causation are incomplete insofar as they overlook the role of a distinctive kind of effort involved in the performance of every action and which explains the active nature of action as such. The alternative account of agent causation developed here exploits the notion of will-power, understood as a distinct causal power, to explain the self-generating nature of the activity that is characteristic of action. I argue that will-power is neither a bodily nor a cognitive capacity, but something distinct in its own right, functioning so as to enable the agent causally to initiate, sustain, and control her bodily and cognitive capacities during the performance of an action.
‘Against the Standard Story of Action’
I present an argument against what has come to be known as the standard story of action. The standard story depicts bodily actions as events that are caused by and made intelligible through the appropriate interactions between the agent’s motivational factors, including her beliefs, desires, and intentions. I attempt to undermine the standard story in two ways. First, I claim that it fails to explain situations in which an agent displays strength of will, such as when one struggles to perform an action while overcoming a persistent desire to do otherwise; second, I claim that in order to explain why an agent performed an action in light of one set of motivational factors rather than another, we need not assume that the relevant motivational factors cause the agent’s performance thereof. Rather, we can explain the action in terms of the agent’s deliberation and subsequent understanding of the motivational factors at play, as well as the effort that she exerts so as to activate the relevant bodily capacities.
‘Understanding Strength of Will’
In his recent work, Richard Holton has employed a notion of strength of will to criticize two prominent accounts of action. Holton claims that these accounts of action cannot explain cases in which an agent adheres to the dictates of a previous resolution in spite of persistent desires to the contrary. I provide further evidence in support of Holton’s criticism of these well-known accounts of action and I argue that, while he highlights a crucial deficiency in both, Holton’s own explanation of strength of will is problematic because it does not provide a sufficient explanation of the way in which an agent is able to remain unyielding in her commitment to her previous resolution. In responding to this difficulty, I provide an alternative explanation of strength of will that further develops the account introduced in the previous paper.
‘Mental Action and Agency’
I introduce and defend an explanation of mental action that builds upon the alternative account of agent causation developed in an earlier paper. In defending this explanation of mental action, I argue against Galen Strawson, who has suggested that mental action is restricted to ensuring that representational content comes to mind. I claim that Strawson has overlooked a crucial distinction between the notion of content passively coming to mind and the notion of content actively coming to mind as a result of the agent’s exertion of effort, thereby misrepresenting the very activity of thinking itself. I end by arguing that mental actions are best understood in terms of the agent, her cognitive capacities, and the effort by which she causally initiates, sustains, and controls the activation thereof.