I was wondering about the individuation of actions; in particular, it appears to me that we cannot distinguish an action from its consequences.

(1) Peter pulls a trigger (2) Peter fires a gun (3) Peter kills Bob

(2) is a consequence of (1), and (3) is a consequence of (2) ... yet it doesn't feel natural to say that (1-3) are distinct events, and I'd rather say that they describe the same action differently.

How exactly do (1-3) hang together? Is this a problem that is discussed in philosophy, and what's the state of research?

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3 Answers 3


Welcome, rikuwang.

For any action and any consequence it is always possible to redesribe the action so as to include the consequence. Joel Feinberg made this point in referring to what he called 'the accordion effect'. He talks of 'effects' but his point is readily applicable to conseqence(s).

We can, if we wish, inflate our conception of an action to include one of its effects ['consequences'], and more often than not our language obliges us by providing a relatively complex word for the purpose. Instead of saying that Peter did A (a relatively simple act) and thereby caused X in Y, we might say something of the form "Peter X-ed Y"; in stead of "Peter opened the door causing Paul to be startled," "Peter startled Paul."

Joel Feinberg, Doing and Deserving (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), pp. 119-15: 134.


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 circumstances

  • 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.


Short Answer

While Geoffrey Thomas and Turtur have spoken to a specific philosophical theory, one can also view this question by generalizing action to causality. Causality is largely viewed through the lens of events. That is, it is possible to group human action and its consequences as events. When two people choose to participate in the rite (action) and consequences of marriage, we subsume that under the events 'wedding' and 'matrimony'.

Long Answer

Please note that your selection of the word 'action' in philosophy is related to the notion of agency which is of great interest in both ethics and philosophy of law where human culpability is a primary concern. The invocation of the work of Joel Feinberg speaks to action theory which according to WP:

Action theory (or theory of action) is an area in philosophy concerned with theories about the processes causing willful human bodily movements of a more or less complex kind. This area of thought involves epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, jurisprudence, and philosophy of mind, and has attracted the strong interest of philosophers ever since Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (Third Book). With the advent of psychology and later neuroscience, many theories of action are now subject to empirical testing.

A different way to view your question is through the lens of cause and effect, and how the human mind organizes these into events. From SEP:

Indeed, there is little question that human perception, action, language, and thought manifest at least a prima facie commitment to [events]:

  1. Pre-linguistic infants appear to be able to discriminate and “count” events, and the content of adult perception, especially in the auditory realm, endorses the discrimination and recognition as events of some aspects of the perceived scene.
  2. Humans (and, presumably, other animals) appear to form intentions to plan and execute actions, and to bring about changes in the world.
  3. Dedicated linguistic devices (such as verb tenses and aspects, nominalization of some verbs, certain proper names) are tuned to events and event structures, as opposed to entities and structures of other sorts.
  4. Thinking about the temporal and causal aspects of the world seems to require parsing those aspects in terms of events and their descriptions.

What exactly constitutes an event is a deep metaphysical question which SEP covers in detail. However, the common metaphysical notion that relates action and consequence, cause and effect, and events is time which the SEP also treats thoroughly. Not only does analytical philosophy deal with events broadly, but physicist's notion of relativistic event captures "dilating" periods of time that delimit action and consequence that lead to strange thought experiments like the twin paradox. Given the modern notion of the proof-theoretic scientific theory, the details of causality can be given a highly complex mathematized causal structure.

In summary, 'action and consequence' are generally subsumed under the notion of 'event'.

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