The hare and the tortoise: the problems with the notion of action in ethics
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Wittgenstein once asked, "What is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?" What would be left is, presumably, the quality of 'agency,' which differentiates between legitimate actions and mere behaviors. In my dissertation I investigate the way we conceive of this quality and recommend a change of the prevalent model for one that is developed in a more empirically informed way. Most current work in ethics employs a historically acquired and folk-psychology approved notion of agency. On this view, the distinction between actions and behaviors is fairly clear-cut. Actions proper are characteristic of human beings. They are 'rational' in either the deliberative process that preceded it or in terms of their efficacy; they are launched `autonomously' by the agent's self rather than influenced by context, emotion or habit. These, and a few other conditions have to be fulfilled for an act to earn the badge of an action; falling short of that standard disqualifies it, or, at the very least renders it an imperfect, faulty instance of agency. An agent is thus typically viewed as a disembodied, rational source of conduct, who can withhold her desires and choose between different courses of action using some form of deliberation. I submit that this model survives neither due to its empirical adequacy nor because it is otherwise valuable for ethics (or, more generally, for understanding human behavior). Rather, there is (I argue), a certain widespread philosophical attitude that determines its persistence--a general longing for the stability of the self and an orderly, controllable relationship between the agent and the world. I call the proponents of this attitude "tortoises" and offer a critique of their main claims. I conclude that we must alter this model. The empirical results from psychology and neuroscience suggest that an agent is best viewed as a bundle of modules that are governed by different rules. None of them is "more" the agent than another, but all operate to achieve a state of homeostasis between so the different processes within the agent and the environment.