Review of Philosophy and Psychology

, Volume 3, Issue 2, pp 249–262 | Cite as

Act Individuation: An Experimental Approach



Accounts of act individuation have attempted to capture peoples’ pre-theoretic intuitions. Donald Davidson has argued that a multitude of action descriptions designate only one act, while Alvin Goldman has averred that each action description refers to a distinct act. Following on recent empirical studies, I subject these accounts of act individuation to experimentation. The data indicate that people distinguish between actions differently depending upon the moral valence of the outcomes. Thus, the assumption that a single account of act individuation applies invariantly seems mistaken.



I would like to thank Eric Amsel, Adam Feltz, Joshua Knobe, Ron Mallon, Shaun Nichols, Sarah Paul, Bill Ramsey, and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, as well as audience members at the 2008 MidSouth Philosophy Conference, the 2010 Joint Meeting of the North Carolina Philosophical Society and South Carolina Society for Philosophy, and the 2010 Southern Society for Philosophy and Psychology for helpful suggestions and comments on earlier drafts of this paper. I am also grateful for two anonymous referees employed by the Review of Philosophy and Psychology who were instrumental in helping improve the quality of this paper.


  1. Adams, F., and A. Steadman. 2004a. Intentional action in ordinary language: Core concept or pragmatic understanding. Analysis 74: 173–181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Adams, F., and A. Steadman. 2004b. Intentional actions and moral considerations: Still pragmatic. Analysis 74: 264–267.Google Scholar
  3. Anscombe, G.E.M. 2001. Intention. Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Cushman, F., and A. Mele. 2008. Intentional action: Two-and-a-half folk concepts? In Experimental philosophy, ed. J. Knobe and S. Nichols. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Davidson, D. 1963. Actions, reasons, and causes. Reprinted in Davidson 2001: 3–19.Google Scholar
  6. Davidson, D. 1969. The individuation of events. Reprinted in Davidson 2001: 163–180.Google Scholar
  7. Davidson, D. 1971. Agency. Reprinted in Davidson 2001: 43–61.Google Scholar
  8. Davidson, D. 2001. Essays on action and events. Oxford: Clarendon.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Feltz, A., and E. Cokely. 2007. An anomaly in intentional action ascription: More evidence of folk diversity. In Proceedings of the 29th annual meeting of cognitive science society, ed. D.S. McNamara and G. Trafton. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  10. Goldman, A. 1970. A theory of human action. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc.Google Scholar
  11. Goldman, A. 1971. The individuation of action. Journal of Philosophy 68: 761–774.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Goldman, A. 2007. A program for “naturalizing” metaphysics, with application to the ontology of events. The Monist 90: 457–479.Google Scholar
  13. Hindriks, F. 2008. Intentional action and the praise-blame asymmetry. The Philosophical Quarterly 58: 630–641.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Hornsby, J. 1979. Actions and identities. Analysis 39: 195–201.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Jones, O.R. 1964. Identity and countability. Analysis 24: 201–206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Kim, J. 1969. Events and their descriptions: Some considerations. In Essays in honor of Carl G. Hempel, ed. N. Rescher, 198–215. Dordrecht: Reidel.Google Scholar
  17. Kim, J. 1976. Events as property exemplifications. In Action theory, ed. M. Brand and D. Walton, 159–177. Dordrecht: Reidel.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Knobe, J. 2003. Intentional action and side-effects in ordinary language. Analysis 63: 190–193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Leslie, A., J. Knobe, and A. Cohen. 2006. Acting intentionally and the side-effect effect: ‘Theory of mind’ and moral judgment. Psychological Science 17: 421–427.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Machery, E. 2008. The folk concept of intentional action: Philosophical and experimental issues. Mind and Language 23: 165–189.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Malle, B. 2001. Folk explanations of intentional action. In Intentions and intentionality: Foundations of social cognition, eds. B.F. Malle, L.J. Moses, and D.A. Baldwin, 265-286. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  22. Malle, B. 2006. The relation between judgments of intentionality and morality. Journal of Cognition and Culture 6: 61–86.Google Scholar
  23. Malle, B., and J. Knobe. 1997. The folk concept of intentionality. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 33: 101–121.Google Scholar
  24. Mallon, R. 2008. Knobe vs Machery: Testing the trade-off hypothesis. Mind and Language 23: 247–255.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. McCann, H. 2005. Intentional action and intending: Recent empirical studies. Philosophical Psychology 18: 737–748.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. McCullagh, C. 1976. The individuation of actions and acts. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 54: 133–139.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Meeks, R. 2004. Unintentionally biasing the data: Reply to Knobe. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology 24: 220–223.Google Scholar
  28. Nadelhoffer, T. 2004a. The Butler problem revisited. Analysis 64: 277–284.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Nadelhoffer, T. 2004b. Praise, side effects, and intentional action. The Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology 24: 196–213.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Nadelhoffer, T. 2004c. Blame, badness, and intentional action: A reply to Knobe and Mendlow. The Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology 24: 259–269.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Nado, J. 2008. Effects of moral cognition on judgments of intentionality. The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 59: 709–731.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Nanay, B. 2010. Morality or modality? What does the attribution of intentionality depend on? Canadian Journal of Philosophy 40: 28–40.Google Scholar
  33. Nichols, S., and J. Ulatowski. 2007. Intuitions and individual differences: The Knobe effect revisited. Mind and Language 22: 346–365.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Phelan, M., and H. Sarkissian. 2008. The folk strike back: Or, why you don’t do it intentionally, though it was bad and you knew it. Philosophical Studies 138: 291–298.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Phelan, M., and H. Sarkissian. 2009. Is the ‘trade-off hypothesis’ worth trading for? Mind and Language 24: 164–180.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Sripada, C. 2010. The deep self model and asymmetries in folk judgments about intentional action. Philosophical Studies 151: 159–176.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Turner, J. 2004. Folk intuitions, asymmetry, and intentional side effects. The Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology 24: 214–219.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Wiggins, D. 2001. Sameness and substance renewed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Wiland, E. 2007. Intentional action and ‘in order to’. The Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology 27: 113–118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Wright, J., and J. Bengson. 2009. Asymmetries in folk judgments of responsibility and intentional action. Mind and Language 24: 24–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Young, L., F. Cushman, R. Adolphs, D. Tranel, and M. Hauser. 2006. Does emotion mediate the relationship between an action’s moral status and its intentional status? Neuropsychological evidence. Journal of Cognition and Culture 6: 291–304.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of WyomingLaramieUSA

Personalised recommendations