FSPB: Hi, John, thank you for joining us. Congratulations to you and to UC-Riverside on being ranked, along with Florida State, as the top program in the nation for Philosophy of Action.
Let’s start with a note of clarification. For those who don’t know, what exactly is Philosophy of Action, or Action Theory?
JMF: As usual in philosophy, it is not straightforward to define “Action Theory” or “Philosophy of Action.” I like to think of it broadly as including issues about what actions are and how to individuate them, the structure of practical reasoning, free will, weakness of the will, moral responsibility, and intention (intending to act, acting intentionally, and so forth). Thus we are kind of “in between” philosophy of mind/metaphysics, on the one hand, and ethics/moral philosophy, on the other.
Twenty or thirty years ago there was a lot of interest in the ontology and individuation of actions. Although there is still interest in this set of subjects, the focus has shifted a bit to intention, free will, weakness of the will, self-deception, the nature and role of the will, and moral responsibility.
FSPB: You defend a position known as ‘semi-compatibilism’. What is semi-compatibilism, and how does it differ from compatibilism?
JMF: Semicompatibilism is the doctrine that causal determinism is compatible with moral responsibility, quite apart from whether causal determinism rules out freedom of the will in the sense that requires metaphysical access to alternative possibilities. Traditional compatibilism holds that causal determinism is compatible with freedom of the will (in a sense that involves access to alternative possibilities) as well as with moral responsibility.
FSPB: Why would one, or perhaps better, why do you think that determinism could be compatible with moral responsibility?
JMF: A desirable feature of compatibilism is that our status as moral agents – our moral responsibility – does not “hang on a thread” – it does not depend on the falsity of a presumably empirical theory in physics (causal determinism). A big advantage of compatibilism, as opposed to libertarianism, is that we compatibilists do not need to say that we can know from our armchairs (as it were) that causal determinism is false. Additionally, we wouldn’t have to go back and revise our basic metaphysical principles if we were convinced that causal determinism is true.
FSPB: What, in your opinion, is some of the more intriguing, recent work in Action Theory, besides your own, of course?
JMF: There is no intriguing work besides my own. (Ha! Just kidding…) Now I’ll get into trouble, because the people I don’t mention will be angry. So I’ll just mention, off the top of my head, some fairly recent stuff that I find illuminating and helpful, admitting that I’m probably going to leave lots of good material off the list. I’ve read with interest Al Mele’s recent book with OUP, Free Will and Luck. Also, I greatly admire some recent articles by Angela Smith, although she takes a very different line from my own. Randy Clarke’s book with OUP on libertarian views is outstanding. Also, I’ve found the recent articles by Ish Haji and Michael McKenna in the Journal of Philosophy (on Frankfurt examples) helpful. Peter Van Inwagen’s An Essay on Free Will is a contemporary classic, as are the relevant articles by Harry Frankfurt. Gary Watson’s recent collection with OUP Agency and Answerability is highly worthwhile. Robert Kane’s The Significance of Free Will is an important book, and his OUP introductory book on free will – in the Fundamentals of Philosophy Series – is a great introductory book. I find David Velleman’s work incredibly creative and suggestive. And, last but not least, Michael Bratman’s monograph with Harvard Press on intention is also a contemporary classic.
Ok, friends I’ve left out: Sue me!!
FSPB: If students are interested in doing research in Action Theory, where would you suggest they begin?
JMF: I would begin with a recent Oxford Readings in Philosophy anthology on action theory – I believe it is edited by Al Mele. Also, I’d recommend Robert Kane’s introductory free will book (mentioned above). Then perhaps I’d recommend Gary Watson’s Oxford Readings in Philosophy anthology, Free Will (second edition).
FSPB: Before I let you go, let me ask you a blogging question. The Garden of Forking Paths has been a very successful blog and a great resource for those interested in Action Theory. Do you have any advice for the students who are running the Florida Student Philosophy Blog?
JMF: I think blogs have good and also unfortunate features. Blogging can definitely get you in trouble with your spouse or significant other, so be careful not to return from a romantic evening and dart immediately to the computer… The good things are that we create communities, blogs are very democratic, they get information and ideas out quickly, and so forth. One of the bad things is that they are very democratic, and thus sometimes people with not much experience or knowledge but with a strong agenda can exert inappropriate influence, or perhaps clutter up the blog. Also, blogs can (but need not) encourage quick and superficial thinking, which surely is the antithesis of good philosophy. I would recommend staying with “content” as much as possible, and not descending into “gossip” or related things. So, for example, I would avoid “ranking” articles, books, and so forth – or philosophers for that matter. Posts such as “What is the best article on free will this year?”, although perhaps well-intentioned and all in fun, can produce hard feelings. I think it is healthier to stay with philosophical conversations as much as possible (although announcements of awards, talks, books, and so forth are fine and helpful). I’m not saying that blogs shouldn’t be informal, fun, spontaneous, or provocative. That’s all great. But as a general tendency I’d stay away from the “personal” and “gossipy” stuff. Also, at the Garden of Forking Paths, we have a strong policy of encouraging respectful and courteous disagreement; we have a zero-tolerance policy for hostility. (Of course, by “hostile” we mean anyone who is not a compatibilist – na, just kidding again.) Good luck, and welcome to the blogosphere!!!
FSPB: Thanks, John.
John Martin Fischer is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside. His most recently published book, My Way: Essays on Moral Responsibility, is available from Oxford University Press. If you’d like to see or hear more about John’s work, we encourage you to check out either the current issue of the Journal of Ethics (which is dedicated to his work) or his interview with “Philosophy Talk.”
– Rico Vitz