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In this chapter, I articulate and defend several views that play important roles throughout the remainder of the book. First, I articulate the task of a metaphysical theory of action as that of providing an account of the distinction between actions and mere behaviours. I then distinguish two things we might mean to talk about when we talk about someone’s actions: the things they do; and their particular doings of those things. I argue that we are ontologically committed to entities of both types, and defend my preferred ontology, according to which particular doings are events, while the things we do are a kind of property we possess.
In this chapter, I introduce the topic of negative action. I provide a rough account of the distinction between positive and negative actions, of the distinction between two commonly-discussed kinds of negative behaviour (omitting and refraining), and of what distinguishes negative actions from mere failures to do something. Then, drawing on this discussion and the discussion of Chapter 1, I articulate the problem of negative action: negative actions seem to be genuine actions; actions seem to be events; but (at least some) negative actions seem to be, not events, but absences thereof. I trace the widespread acceptance of the latter claim to Deflationism, the view – often held only implicitly – that negative action sentences express negative existentials.
In this chapter, I provide two positive arguments in favour of my sophisticated Neo-Davidsonian treatment of negative action sentences and against the Deflationist alternative. I argue that my view can accommodate a range of data about the behaviour of adverbs in negative action sentences and their interaction with perceptual locutions, which Deflationism can’t. Thus, we can solve the problem of negative action by rejecting Deflationism, and with it the thought that (at least some) negative actions aren’t events. Instead, we should claim that negative actions are simply events which play the ensuring role. I close by comparing my view to two recent alternatives.
In this Introduction, I briefly sketch 'the problem of negative action', which I will be concerned, in the remainder of the book, to explore and to solve. I also provide a sketch of the book as a whole, and provide a brief defense of my methodology.
In this chapter, I consider whether we can solve the problem of negative action by insisting that intentional omissions, refrainments, and the like aren’t really actions at all, but ‘mere manifestations of agency’. I argue that the distinction between actions and mere manifestations of agency is more difficult to draw than it may appear, and that drawing such a distinction requires us to abandon plausible claims about the relations between powers and their manifestations, and between intentional behaviour and practical reasons. We must find some other solution to the problem.
In this chapter, I begin to develop my metaphysics of negative actions in more detail. I articulate a realizer-functionalist theory of negative actions: negative actions are events which play the ensuring role; ordinary, ‘positive’ events play this role; therefore, negative actions are identical to these ordinary, ‘positive’ events; we needn’t posit metaphysically negative entities such as absences. I show that this theory is prima facie incompatible with the popular property-exemplification theory of events, and that the latter theory fits better with a view in which negative actions are realized by positive events, but not identical to them. I articulate and defend a version of the property-exemplification theory which is compatible with realizer-functionalism.
I consider a range of objections to the identity of negative actions and positive events, which have appeared in the recent literature. Most of these objections are appeals to Leibniz’s Law: they attempt to show that a certain negative action can’t be identical to a certain positive event, because these entities have different properties (e.g. different spatiotemporal locations, modal profiles, or causal roles). I show that these objections rely on confusions (e.g. between the things we do and our particular doings of them, or between action sentences and nominals which purport to denote particular doings). Thus, we can (and in the light of the previous chapters, we should) identify negative actions with positive events.
In this chapter I introduce Neo-Davidsonian semantics as a general approach to the semantics of action sentences, and compare a simple Neo-Davidsonian treatment of negative action sentences to the Deflationist alternative sketched in Chapter 2. I then use this discussion to build a case on behalf of Deflationism, by showing that the simple Neo-Davidsonian treatment makes very bad predictions about the behaviour of adverbs, predictions which Deflationism avoids.
In this chapter, I develop a sophisticated Neo-Davidsonian approach to negative action sentences that can accommodate and explain the behaviour of adverbs discussed in Chapter 4, while still treating those sentences as quantifying over negative actions qua events. On this approach, negative action sentences quantify over events that play a certain role, which I call the ‘ensuring’ role: to say that x omits to φ, or refrains from φ-ing, is to say that some behaviour of hers ensures that she doesn’t φ (at the relevant time). I provide a detailed account of what this ensuring role is, and argue that it can be played by ordinary events. If this approach is correct, then we have the means to reject Deflationism, and with it the thought that (at least some) negative actions aren’t events.
Negative actions, like intentional omissions or refrainments, seem to be genuine actions. The standard metaphysical theories of action are event-based: they treat actions as events of a special kind. However, it seems that many (and perhaps all) negative actions are not events, but absences thereof. This is the first book-length treatment of the problem of negative action. It surveys the recent literature, and shows how the problem is rooted in interconnected issues in metaphysics, the philosophy of action, and the philosophy of language. In particular, it connects competing views of the ontology of negative actions to competing views of the semantics of 'negative action sentences', and develops unique ontological and semantic theories to solve the problem. It provides a comprehensive picture of the nature of negative actions, our thought and talk about them, and their place in a theory of action.
It is typically assumed that actions are events, but there is a growing consensus that negative actions, like omissions and refrainments, are not events, but absences thereof. If so, then we must either deny the obvious, that we can exercise our agency by omitting and refrainment, or give up on event-based theories of agency. I trace the consensus to the assumption that negative action sentences are negative-existentials, and argue that this is false. The best analysis of negative action sentences treats them as quantifying over omissions and refrainments, conceived of as events.
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