Feinberg's Accordion Effect has already been mentioned, so I will not repeat it. His view, in short, seems to amount to this:
A’s y-ing causes x = A does x
I am not too familiar with the literature, but Elizabeth Anscombe advocated a similar idea before Feinberg, and I think her image is more subtle:
“Are we to say that the man who (intentionally) moves his arm,
operates the pump, replenishes the water supply, poisons the
inhabitants, is performing four actions? Or only one? The answer that
we imagined to the question ‘Why?’ brings it out that the four
descriptions form a series, A–B–C–D, in which each description is
introduced as dependent on the previous one, though independent of the
following one. […] In short, the only distinct action of his that is
in question is this one, A. For moving his arm up and down with his
fingers round the pump handle is, in these circumstances, operating
the pump; and, in these circumstances, it is replenishing the house
water supply; and, in these circumstances, it is poisoning the
household. So there is one action with four descriptions, each
dependent on wider circumstances, and each related to the next as
description of means to end […].” (§26 in "Intention", 1957)
First, the man is engaged in moving his arm up and down, and second, by doing so he intends (anticipating the circumstances) to operate a pump etc. … while in order to operate a pump etc., third, (if the circumstances cooperate) there is nothing required of him other than this, moving his arm up and down. Every sequence in Anscombe’s series A–B–C–D thus refers to one action only (or so she argues), by virtue of the fact that going from A up to D answers to ‘Why?’, whereas going from D down to A answers to ‘How?’
This limits the Accordion Effect:
(1) causal responsibility and agency may diverge on occasion.
Feinberg does not pick out the correct individual as agent in cases where it is true that ‘A’s y-ing causes x’, but someone else, B, happens to do the the x-ing. Consider an example due to J.E. Atwell: “For quite possibly little Billy got someone else to break [the window] (e.g. by threat); in all likelihood everyone would then agree that Billy is ‘the cause’ of the broken window, yet no one would say that he broke it.” (p. 338) Agency requires activity, then, such that ‘A’s y-ing causes x’ = ‘A does x’ only if by doing y, A (under certain circumstances) is actively x-ing.
(2) Activity and agency may diverge on occasion.
Feinberg wrongly ascribes agency in cases where it is true that by doing y, A (under certain circumstances) is actively x-ing and yet, A does not intend to x. So consider a movie-example due to A.C. Khoury: Some guy called Ender, attending a military school, “plays a video game that simulates a large battle. Ender’s ships are greatly outnumbered”, which is why he is resorting to weapons of mass destruction. Yet it turns out “that the game was not a mere simulation, but that his actions actually controlled the movement of troops and that the ‘simulated’ events actually took place culminating in […] genocide.” (p198) Ender’s gaming caused death on a large scale, to be sure, but he is not is not accurately described as having been engaged with mass-killing. Agency requires intention, then, such that ‘A’s y-ing causes x’ = ‘A does x’ only if by doing y, A (under certain circumstances) intends to x. I shall leave it with this.
This prompts the following revision of Feinberg’s thesis:
‘A’s y-ing causes x’ = ‘A does x’ if, and only if, under certain
- by doing y, A intends to x, and
- in order to do x, nothing is required of A but to y.
So we may not freely redescribe some action in terms of whatever happened after the fact; only those events will do that causally trace back to an agent’s being active in some way, and which the agent intended to bring about by so behaving.
This is still highly controversial, but perhaps someone else can point out different criticisms.