“Ulysses without the Ties: Intentional omissions, willpower, and collective actions”

Defended at New York University, New York, in September 2014. Dissertation committee: Ned Block (chair), Michael Strevens, David Velleman. Additional members of the defense committee: David Chalmers, James Pryor.


Agency goes beyond the capacity to produce changes in our bodies and minds. We also intuitively think that we have a capacity to refrain from acting in various ways, and a capacity to act with others. The philosophy of action has paid less attention to these actions, and empirical psychology has often concentrated on short-term small-scale examples that fit in the lab. When philosophers have turned to intentional omissions, they have often thought to understand them all on the model of Ulysses' having himself tied to the mast — the production of a change intended to cause the right omission. When looking at collective actions, they have emphasized very demanding forms of coordination, like collective intentions.

In the dissertation, I explore agency beyond these examples, with theories of regulative actions — actions at the root of many intentional omissions — and collective actions. I argue that our naïve distinctions and judgments about these acts are amenable to naturalized understandings, which make the kind of empirical claims we find in the natural sciences, and I argue that, given the current state of observational and scientific evidence, we can reasonably hope for their empirical vindication.

Ch. 1: regulative agency

Chapter 1 proposes and defends a concept of regulative action to account for the many intentional omissions we cannot trace back to the kind of clever trick Ulysses devised. Agents regulatively act when their intentions control for their omissions — and we can cash out control in terms of counterfactual causal relations.

Ch. 2: the willpower role of intentions

Chapter 2 looks at scientific evidence to defend a key empirical commitment of the view — the role of negative intentions in altering the course of subsequent behavior, at least in some circumstances.

Ch. 3: control explanations

Chapter 3 explores in more details the relation of control essential to regulative actions, and argues for a place for control explanations within the recent literature in the philosophy of explanation.

Ch. 4: a foray into collective agency

Finally, chapter 4 turns to a defense of a wide-ranging concept of collective action — agents act together when they all act on the same multi-agent plan, be it a collective intention, the individual intention of a leader, or, at least in part, a written recipe.

Overall, the dissertation presents a more complex naturalized picture of agency and decision-making than the dominant causal theory of action, able to encompass a broader range of actions, and perhaps to allay some of the doubts about the naturalization of agents and what they do.