Hugh J. McCannHugh McCann is a libertarian philosopher who has formulated a "non-causal" theory of action that focuses on intentions and other mental states prior to action. He argues that our motivations and desires may be reasons for our actions, but they should not be called causes. Other philosophers with a non-causal theory of agency include Donald Davidson, Carl Ginet, Stewart Goetz, and David Widerker. In the context of deterministic events and indeterministic events, McCann does not want our actions to be uncaused in the sense of indeterministic. He just wants intermediate states between reasons and actions, like intentions, to not be pre-determined. And he wants our actions to not be "uncaused," with the implications that they are random. McCann makes the relation of intentions to actions a teleological relation, rather than a causal relation. Unfortunately, describing his theory as "non-causal" suggests something outside normal physical explanation. In his 1998 book The Works of Agency, McCann says:
The free will problem has to do with the pathway from reasons to action. If, following [Donald] Davidson,6 we think of a reason as a combination of a motive to achieve some end and a belief as to how that might be done, then the question is how reasons need to be related to actions in order for the latter to be free and responsible. But the path from reason to action is not simple: between the two there usually intervenes a state of intending, in which the agent has the settled purpose of performing the action his reasons call for. In such cases, intentions are formed by acts of decision and executed through the activity of volition. Both decision and volition are therefore important to freedom. Decision is important because it is the primary means by which we enshrine certain of our reasons in intentions for the future, thus selecting from among the actions available to us the one we will perform. But volition is important also — partly because we feel that our actions as well as our decisions are "up to us," but also because not all action arises out of a prior deliberation and decision. When that is the case, volition becomes our primary means of intention formation.There are, of course, divergent views about free will. Libertarians hold that decision and action are, at least usually, exempt from nomic causation, and that if this were not so we would not be free or responsible. Determinists, on the other hand, hold that a satisfying account of intentional action is not possible outside the context of nomic determination, and mostly seek an account of freedom that is compatible with determinism. By and large, determinist theories of action tend not to emphasize the concept of deciding, and they may seek to reduce intention to a combination of desire and belief. I think it is fair to say that through most of the twentieth century, determinism has been ascendant. One reason, no doubt, is that it appears more scientific. Libertarians have long faced the objection that an uncaused decision or action would violate sound principles of explanation, and so count as a kind of random event for which no one could be responsible. But there is another problem as well: it has been argued that apart from a causal account, we cannot even understand what it is to act for a given reason, or out of a certain intention.7 If this is right, then the problem for the libertarian is not just to explain action: it is to show how there can be a legitimate pathway from reasons to action that is not causal.I argue first that intention is a legitimate phenomenon in its own right. It cannot be reduced to a combination of the agent's motives and beliefs, nor to the (essentially cognitive) judgment that an act would be best overall. When an intention to A is present prior to action, its content provides a plan of action that is put into effect through the agent's volition. In such cases, action commences when the agent begins to will the sequence of exertional changes presented in his intention as appropriate for achieving A. But the intention does not cause the willing, nor is a prior intention necessary for willing to be intentional. Rather, willing is intrinsically intentional: it is not possible for me to will the sort of exertion necessary, say, to hitting a golf shot without intending to will it, and without intending thereby to set in motion the sequence of events to which I envision it leading. In the case of playing golf, the plan for making the shot is almost always presented in a prior intention. But even if it were not, simply to engage in volitional activity would be sufficient for my being in the state of intending to do so, and of intending to achieve the objectives to which it is directed. The intrinsic intentionality of volition is what accounts for our ability to perform intentional actions that are not preceded by deliberation or decision. Impulsive actions and acts performed in sudden emergencies may not be prompted by any prior intention. Still, they are intentional, because the volitional activity in which they are grounded is. All that is required for volition to occur is that a suitable objective be presented to the agent. That can occur with the onset of a sudden desire, or simply with the recognition that one's situation calls for a certain sort of action. Furthermore, even when volition is prompted by a prior intention to A, it should not be thought that the volitional activity must give rise to a second intention to A. It is not possible to have two intentions with exactly the same content. So when volition is prompted by a prior intention it only ratifies that intention; it does not create a second. If this is correct. we get a noncausal account of what it is to act out of a prior intention. The issue is not whether volition is caused by the prior intention, but whether it is directed at producing the goals that intention embodies. A similar account applies to the formation of intention. There, the question is whether, when an agent decides to A for a certain reason, We can give an account of the for without invoking nomic causation. I argue that this relation, too, is essentially teleological rather than causal. In general, one's reasons for deciding to A are just one's reasons for A-ing: if my desire to get my son an ice cream cone is a reason for taking him to Swensen's, then it is also a reason for deciding to take him there. Thus, if I decide to take my son to Swensen's for this reason, it will explain both the decision by which my intention is formed and the eventual act by which the intention is carried out. And the explanation will be teleological, not causal. When my "desire" to get my son an ice cream cone is cited as my reason for taking him to Swensen's, it is not my mental state of desiring that is invoked as explanatory, but rather its content—a thought, which might be expressed as, "Would that I by my son an ice cream cone." This is not an event or state, but a proposition-like entity, which cannot cause anything. Rather, it explains my action by exhibiting my practical reasoning, by displaying the perceived good at which my action was aimed. Furthermore, when we are uncertain what the reasons for an action may have been, we do not settle the question through considerations associated with nomic causation, such as the strength of motives or how uniformly they are followed. Rather, we focus on what motives were reflected in the agent's intention. The reason for this is that intentions always duplicate the reasons out of which they were formed: if we know the intention with which I took my son to Swensen's, we know what my reasons were; and if we know my reasons, we know my intention. And that is the clue to what decision is about. The functional role of deciding is to take the incipient action plans our reasons present to us and recast them into intentions. When I decide to take my son to Swensen's out of a desire to get him an ice cream cone, that desire is copied, as it were, into my intention: it becomes a settled objective of mine, an end I am committed to achieving. I resolve not just to take my son to Swensen's, but to do so for the sake of that objective. But I also decide for the sake of that objective. This is in part because, like volition, decision is intrinsically intentional. I cannot decide without intending to decide, and without intending to decide exactly as I do. But that is not all: because to decide is to adopt a commitment to action, to decide to A is actually to progress toward A-ing in a certain definitive way. Aing becomes a part of my agenda, along with whatever good and evil it may involve. To decide is, therefore, to take an intentional step toward the objectives my reasons for A-ing represent — which is, simply, to decide for the sake of those reasons. And of course there is nothing about nomic causation in any of this: nothing about there being causal laws afoot, nothing about the strength of my reasons, nothing to suggest I might not have decided differently in precisely the same circumstances. It does not follow that my decisions are not nomically caused. But whether they are caused or not, we do not have to invoke causation to provide an account of what it is to decide for a reason. If this position is correct, both the formation and execution of intention can be understood in noncausal terms, and the way to a libertarian account of the will is at least partially open. But there remains the traditional objection: that an uncaused act of will could only be a kind of accident, a violation of principles of rational explanation. Actually, there are two aspects to this complaint. One is that an uncaused act would be a practical accident — an occurrence which befalls the agent unforeseen and unchosen, in which he is passive, and for which he could not be responsible. But nothing like this follows from an act's not being caused. Moreover, this complaint is refuted by the intrinsically actional character of operations of the will. It is simply a part of the phenomenology of deciding and willing that they are experienced as exercises of intentional agency. If they are anything like what we take them to be, it is not even possible for them to be accidents in this sense. But — and this is the other aspect of the objection — such acts would still lack a deterministic explanation, and so might be viewed as anomalous, as ontological discontinuities in the world. I defend the view that responsible freedom requires alternative possibilities, that this idea cannot be done justice by a compatibilist analysis. Only operations of will that display libertarian freedom are free in any sense that matters. As for the complaint that they must count as explanatory anomalies, that has been overestimated. It is true that teleological explanation of actions must eventually give out. Once we have summed up all of an agent's reasons for A-ing, we can give no further answer if asked why he chose to A for those reasons, rather than do something else for some other set of reasons. But this defect afflicts any type of explanation. Even if the empirical world were deterministic through and through — which the evidence indicates it is not — nomic causation cannot explain why we have this world rather than some other, or no world at all. And unlike nomic explanation, teleological explanation does offer natural stopping points, in the ends an agent takes to be valuable for their own sake. That is much more satisfying than the situation that obtains in physics, where undetermined events have at best only statistical explanations. We need to be clear, furthermore, on just how it is that nomically determined events are explained. Natural causation is often viewed as a sort of process — which we take to be described by scientific laws — in which the events of the past either produce or necessitate future ones, so that once the past is in place, the existence of the future is guaranteed. And then it seems easy to fault free decisions and actions, because their existence comes with no similar guarantee. But this alleged contrast is entirely groundless. As Hume pointed out, there is no process by which past events confer existence on future ones, nor do we observe any form of "natural" necessitation.8 Moreover, scientific laws — classical ones, at least — do not even purport to describe such a process. In fact, they are not even diachronic: they describe simultaneous interactions in which dynamic properties such as energy and momentum, which the laws treat as conserved rather than created, are transferred from one entity to another. Assuming the world continues to exist, future events will then emerge naturally and predictably from those that went before. But they will not be produced by them. In that respect, the idea of natural causation is on the same footing as agent causation: neither is a process in its own right, and neither guarantees the existence of an thing. It turns out, then, that free exercises of the will differ from the rest of the world only in being nomically discontinuous with it. The problem of their provenance of a piece with that of the provenance of things in general.