The Things We Do and Why We Do Them

December 20, 2012

Why did the chicken cross the road? Why did you choose to have coffee this morning rather than tea? Before we can even attempt to provide an answer to these and similar questions, Constantine Sandis argues, we need to specify what exactly it is that we want to explain. For, contrary to common conception, there is no such thing as the explanation of an action. Rather, depending on our explanatory purposes, there can be a multitude of different explanations, none of which is more “real” or “true” than the others.

Accordingly, in his view, many of the philosophical and empirical debates regarding the nature of our reasons for action are the result of confusion: they conflate different senses of action as well as different senses of reason (Sandis distinguishes 20 such conflations). Failure to see this, he claims, has dire consequences for the philosophy of action and the study of human behaviour more generally. On the other hand, by recognising and clearing up these confusions, we are in a position to reconcile views and approaches that were previously seen as incompatible.

If Sandis is right, those who are worried, for example, by challenges posed by the empirical sciences to the way in which we think about the nature of human behaviour have reason to breathe a sigh of relief.

Take theories of implicit bias. It is often argued that such theories threaten the common-sense view of the reasons we have for acting the way we do by revealing the “true” reasons for our actions. For instance, in a well-known study by Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson, passers-by were invited to evaluate four - identical - pairs of women’s tights and to give reasons for their choices. The experimenters found that the object that was placed at the right end of the display was strongly preferred over objects placed to the left. However, when giving their reasons, none of the subjects mentioned the position of the article in the display. Moreover, when asked directly, almost all of them denied that the position of the item could possibly have had an effect on their choice. According to Sandis, what this shows is not that we don’t have the reasons we think we have; rather, studies such as these reveal something about the psychological factors that provide the background for the reasons we come to have. They provide a story of how we come to see certain features in a more positive or negative light, but this doesn’t detract from the fact that “it is the features as you see them that guide your actions and intentions”.

Similarly, the debate about whether or not action explanations must be causal will dissolve, once we see that it rests on a conflation between the reasons for which we act and the reasons why our actions occur.

Sandis’ dense, rich and subtle book succeeds in highlighting the complexity of human action and the corresponding diversity of its explanations - although I would have liked to learn more about how these different types of action explanation ultimately relate to (and perhaps put constraints on) each other. The book provides an important counterweight to the-ories claiming to reveal the “true” nature of human action and a helpful corrective to some of the most entrenched debates in the philosophy of action. However, while the directness with which the author plunges into these debates is refreshing, it also means that the book will be hard to access for those without a background in philosophy of action, as Sandis’ discussion presupposes some familiarity with the relevant authors and positions.

The Things We Do and Why We Do Them

By Constantine Sandis

Palgrave Macmillan, 248pp, £55.00

ISBN 9780230522121

Published 26 January 2012

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