Paul Russell (Lund University)

This week we are continuing our mini-interview series with the answers of Prof Paul Russell. Prof Russell works at Lund University and is the Director of the Lund|Gothenburg Responsibility Project (LGRP). His work is focused on action theory and ethics – with free will weighing heavily –, early modern philosophy, and philosophy of religion. His selected essays with the title The Limits of Free Will has been published just last year. Enjoy!


1. How did you first become interested in Philosophy of Action?


My interest in the philosophy of action developed very largely through the free will issue. Early on, as an undergraduate, I had strong incompatibilist intuitions and I was sympathetic to Kant’s dismissal of compatibilist accounts as a “wretched subterfuge” but this changed over time. Related to all this, during my final years as an undergraduate, I developed a strong interest in the philosophy of history and in issues relating to the explanation of human action that arise from that. When I began my PhD studies I planned to write about the implications of the Marxist theory of history for our understanding of human freedom and moral responsibility. As my work in this area developed, it became clear that I had more to contribute on the subject of Hume’s compatibilism and P.F. Strawson’s account of moral responsibility. This was the topic of my first book, Freedom and Moral Sentiment.


2. What are you working on at the moment?


My major project at the present time is a book on what I call “Free Will Pessimism”. Free will pessimism is not the same as free will scepticism. On the contrary, free will pessimism turns on denying scepticism about free will and moral responsibility. What I argue is that all the parties in the traditional free will debate – including sceptics – assume that any defensible account of conditions of freedom and moral responsibility must exclude conditions of fate and moral luck. Against this view, I maintain that a truthful account of our human ethical predicament must reject any such assumption. Moreover, recognizing this shows that we need to acknowledge a real source of pessimism (features that we find disturbing and disenchanting) about our situation as ethical agents in the world.


3. What is your 5-15 sentence account of what an action is?


There are, of course, many technical and subtle distinctions that should be drawn for a formal statement about the nature of action – not to mention any number of difficult problems and issues to be addressed. Informally stated, however, action should be understood as a sub-category of activity and processes of change that take place in the world. What makes action distinct from mere change and natural activity is that action has its source in a (conscious) agent, who guides and directs processes and activities of this kind. In this sense, there is an “inside” to action that requires interpretation and understanding. The agents involved need not be either human (e.g. God, angels, etc.) or rational (e.g. children, animals, etc.) and to this extent we may consider action that is not narrowly understood as brought about by rational, adult human agents. Nevertheless, the paradigm case of action that we generally focus on is behaviour and conduct brought about by rational human agents. Action in this narrower sense involves norms of rationality and deliberation, which both expands and contracts the range of issues that may fall under this heading. Among the core questions we face in this area is what is the relationship between agents and their actions (e.g. is it a causal relationship?); what sort of activities and processes constitute the boundaries of action (e.g. are there mental actions?; are actions willings that bring about bodily movement?; and so on); and, finally, what is the relationship between intelligence/rationality and agency (e.g. can unintelligent beings be genuine agents?). These various questions point us in the direction of an understanding of what action is and is not, while at the same time they make clear that the category of “action” is itself highly problematic and contested.


4. In your view, what were the three most important recent developments in philosophy of action?


There can be no doubt that over the past half-century the most fundamental issue arising in the “philosophy of action” concerns the prospects of a causal theory of action. I can remember the period in the 1970s and early 1980s when there was a dramatic shift away from non-causal theories to causal views – much of this being propelled by Donald Davidson’s work. While I think this has moved the subject in a generally positive direction, it could be argued that many interesting issues and problems have simply been dropped or set aside as a result of these developments (e.g. a whole range of issues relating to the “autonomy of the human sciences” are now, it seems to me, largely neglected in the contemporary climate). In my own end of things, concerning problems of freedom and responsibility, I would mention the challenge of scepticism about free will and pluralism about moral responsibility as major developments that are still providing stimulus and producing significant insights into the problems we face in these areas.


5. What direction would you like to see the field go in?


The field of philosophy of action is broad and has various components and aspects to it. Throughout all of philosophy, however, there is now much greater emphasis on the importance of empirical evidence and investigations as a basis for philosophical understanding of these matters. It is a positive feature of the philosophy of action over the past half-century that it is no longer restricted to “conceptual” or “linguistic” investigations and analysis. Having said this, it is also possible for this process to go too far and to adopt a set of assumptions and aims that are excessively “scientistic” in character. One dimension of this is a suspicion or lack of respect for methods and findings coming from outside the natural sciences. These attitudes can take the form of hostility to historical and literary sensibilities. We need these broader interests and concerns to make sense of our ethical lives, particularly as this concerns issues of freedom and moral responsibility. In general, genealogical techniques and sensibilities are no less important than those of the natural sciences when it comes to acquiring an adequate philosophical understanding of human action and agency. The philosophy of action is a key point where issues of naturalism and normativity come together and intersect and we need more than the methods and findings of the natural sciences to understand these matters in their full complexity.


Many thanks to Prof Russell for his answers!

2018 November 17


We are looking forward to welcome you back next week