Fall 2012

What Happens When Someone Acts?

Listed in: Philosophy, as PHIL-474

Moodle site: Course (Guest Accessible)


Karin E. Boxer (Section 01)


In a seminal article with the same title, David Velleman poses the question “What Happens When Someone Acts?”. The goal of this seminar will be to answer to this question. It is only once we have answered it that we can tackle some of the most fundamental issues in moral philosophy — including issues concerning moral motivation, the possibility of unconditional moral requirements, the extent of moral responsibility, and the nature of virtue. We shall begin the seminar by examining Velleman's claim that the standard causal theory of action omits agents from the picture. A central issue to be explored is whether the "problem of the disappearing agent" represents a genuine problem or whether it is an artifact of certain assumptions Velleman makes concerning the nature of beliefs, desires, and mental states, more generally. As we shall see, Velleman, like many other contemporary philosophers of action, thinks of beliefs and desires as internal, causally interacting, entities or token states that rationalize the actions they cause. Our task will be to examine this and other assumptions underlying Velleman’s account of what happens when someone acts and to fill in the details of an alternative account based on a different way of understanding beliefs and desires. Anscombe was right: moral philosophy must await an adequate philosophy of psychology (philosophy of action). And, as the seminar will emphasize, an adequate philosophy of action depends on an adequate philosophy of mind.

Other issues we shall discuss include the role of desire versus belief in motivating human action — whether every action must be motivated by a desire, as Hume insists, or whether beliefs (e.g., about what is morally required) are capable of motivating on their own, as Kant maintains; whether it is possible for an agent freely and knowingly to act contrary to what, even at the time, she judges it would be best for her to do; how to understand psychologically compelled action. 

Required reading will include works by Velleman, Davidson, Nagel, Hornsby, Wallace, Watson, and others.

Requisite: Two courses in Philosophy or consent of the instructor. Limited to 15 students. Fall semester.  Visiting Professor Boxer.


2016-17: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2012, Fall 2013