Below you will find a list of puzzles or intuition-pumps relating to various problems in action theory:

You can also Participate in Joshua Knobe's (Princeton University) experiments on the Concept of Intentional Action


* 1. Causal Deviance

* 2. The Relation between Intentions and Intentional Actions

* 3. Reasons, Goals, Plans, Skills and Luck




This problem arises for any theory that identifies an action with part or whole of causal sequence. In a nutshell, despite being caused by seemingly appropriate mental antecedents, a piece of bodily behavior can fail to qualify as an intentional action or even as an action due to the deviant mode of causation.

Three kinds of causal deviance have been distinguished in the literature.

Antecedential deviance: when the causal connection between the antecedent mental events and the initiation of behavior is deviant.

Consequential deviance: when the consequences of the activity once begun are not as expected.

Tertiary deviance: when the etiology of (some element of) the plan component of an intention is deviant.


The Nervous Climber

A climber might want to rid himself of the weight and danger of holding another man on a rope, and he might know that by loosening his hold on the rope he could rid himself of the weight and danger. This belief and want might so unnerve him as to cause him to loosen his hold. (Davidson, 1980: 79)

The Inexperienced Criminal

Abel, who is attending a party, wants to spill his drink because he wants to signal to his confederates to begin the robbery and he believes, in virtue of their prearrangements, that spilling his drink will accomplish that. But Abel is inexperienced in crime and this leads him to be very anxious. His anxiety makes his hand tremble, and so his glass spills (Frankfurt, 1978: 157).

The Marriage Proposal

Suppose I want and intend to get down on my knees to propose marriage. Contemplating my plan, I am so overcome with emotion that I suddenly feel weak and sink to my knees. (Davis, 1994: 113)

A Philosopher's Worries

A philosopher intends to knock over his glass in order to distract his commentator. However, his intention so upsets him that his hand shakes uncontrollably, striking the glass and knocking it to the floor. (Mele, 1992: 182)


The Killer and the Wild Pigs

A man may try to kill someone by shooting at him. Suppose the killer misses his victim by a mile, but the shot stampedes a herd of wild pigs that trampled the intended victim to death. (Bennett, 1965; Davidson, 1980, Essay 4: 78)

The Sheriff and the Bank Robber

Dan, the sheriff, sees the bank robber riding down Mainstreet. He wants to shoot him and believes that by taking careful aim, the bullet from his gun will directly hit the robber. Dan, however, is a terrible shot. The bullet goes in the wrong direction; but as luck would have it, the bullet hits a spittoon and ricochets, hitting the bank robber. (Brand, 1984: 18)

The Murderous Nephew

Carl wants to kill his rich uncle because he wants to inherit his fortune. He believes that his uncle is home and drives towards his house. His desire to kill his uncle agitates him and he drives recklessly. On the way he hits and kills a pedestrian, who happens to be his uncle. (See Chisholm, 1966: 29-30 and Brand, 1984: 17-18).

Terciary waywardness

Of B's and Bees

Fred is taking a machine-readable multiple-choice test. His strategy is to circle on the question sheet the identifying letters next to the answers that he feels certain are correct and then, after all such circling is completed, to fill in the corresponding spaces on his answer sheet. At this point, he will take up the more difficult questions.

An hour has elapsed, and Fred is reading the forty-fifth question. He is confident that the answer is 'bee', which word appears next to the letter 'a' on his question sheet. However, as a result of an understandable momentary confusion, he circles the letter 'b'. As luck would have it, 'b' is the correct answer. Later, when filling in the answer sheet, Fred looks at the circled 'b' under question 45 and fills in the space under 'b' on his answer sheet intending thereby to provide the right answer. (Mele, 1987: 56).


Is it necessary the case that for me to intentionally A, I must intend to A? This conception of the relation between intentional action and intention is sometimes called the Simple View (Bratman, 1987). The following puzzles seem to present challenges for that view. These challenges are based on the idea that there are certain constraints on intentions that do not apply to intentional actions. Among these are:

The consistency requirement: one cannot rationally intend to A and intend to B, if these two intentions are not strongly consistent.

The strong belief requirement: If one intends to A, one must believe one will A.

The means-end requirement: For one to intend to A, A must either be an end one pursues or a means towards (or precondition for) such an end.

Video Games and strong consistency of intentions

Game 1: I am playing a video game in which I am to guide a 'missile' into a certain target. I am quite skilled at such things, but it is a difficult game and I am doubtful of success. Still, I aim at the target and try to hit it. As it happens, I succeed in just the way I was trying. My success was not merely a matter of luck; it depended heavily on my considerable skill at such games. Further, hitting the target was what I wanted to do; I was not just aiming at the target as a way of insuring that the 'missile' would go several inches to the right. (Bratman, 1987: 113)

Game 2: Suppose now a second game is added, a game which also involves guiding a 'missile' to a certain target. Since I am ambidextrous and can play one game with each hand, I decide to play both games simultaneously. As before, the games are difficult and I am doubtful of success at either of them. As it happens I miss target 2 but I do succeed in hitting target 1 in the way I was trying and in a way that depended on my relevant skills. (Ibid.: 114)

Game 3: Suppose that the two games are know to me to be so linked that it is impossible to hit both targets. If I hit one of the targets, both games are over. If both targets are about to be hit simultaneously, the machine just shuts down and I hit neither target. Both targets remain visible to me; so I can see which target I hit if I hit either one. And there is a reward for hitting either target. But I know that although I can hit each target, I cannot hit both targets. Still, I know it is difficult to hit either target, so I decide to play both games simultaneously; I see the risk of shutting down the machines as outweighed by the increase in my chances of hitting the target. I proceed to try to hit target 1 and also to try to hit target 2. I give a try at each game. Suppose I hit target 1 in just the way I was trying to hit it, and in a way which depends heavily on my considerable skill at such games.


Uncertainty of success and strong belief

Heavy typing

In writing heavily on a page a person may try hard to produce ten legible carbon copies while being sceptical of success. Nevertheless if this is what he wants to do and he does succeed in producing ten legible copies, he is certainly doing it intentionally. (Adapted from Davidson, 1980, Essay 5: 92)

The Sniper

A sniper shoots at a soldier from a distance, trying to kill him, knowing that the chances of success are slim. [] If he succeeds, despite the odds, the sniper kills the soldier intentionally and if he kills him intentionally, must he not intend to kill him? (Harman, 1976: 433)


Expected side-effects and the means-end requirement

Marathon Man

Suppose I intend to run the marathon and believe that I will thereby wear down my sneakers. Now it seems to me that it does not follow tht I intend to wear down my sneakers, and in the normal case I will not so intend. [] Even so, if I proceed to run the marathon and actually do weqr down my sneakers, then I might well do so intentionally. (Bratman, 1987: 123)

The Sniper Again

In firing his gun, the sniper knowingly alerts the enemy to his presence. He does this intentionally, thinking that the gain is worth the possible cost. But he certainly does not intend to alert the enemy to his presence. (Harman, 1976: 433)


3. Reasons, Goals, plans, skills and luck

Is it always the case that an agent who has reasons for A-ing, has A-ing as a goal, and has a plan for A-ing, A's intentionally when he or she succeeds in A-ing? Some philosophers think that some or all of these conditions are sufficient for the agent to A intentionally. Others maintain that it is required as well that the agent have sufficient control over the action, i. e. that he have a reliable plan for or sufficient skill at A-ing. In other words, his or her success should not depend too much on luck. Are there actions that cannot in principle be performed intentionally because they structurally involve an important element of luck? And how much luck is too much?

Nuclear Explosions

A nuclear reactor is in danger of exploding. Fred knows that its exploding can be prevented only by it shutting down, and that it can be shut down only by punching a certain ten-digit code into a certain computer. Fred is alone in the control room. Although he knows which computer to use, he has no idea what the code is. Fred needs to think fast. He decides that it would be better to type in ten digits than to do nothing. Vividly aware of the odds against typing in the correct code are astronomical. Fred decides to give it a try. He punches in the first ten digits that come into his head, in that order, believing of his so ding that he 'might thereby' shut down the reactor and prevent the explosion. What luck! He punched in the correct code, thereby preventing a nuclear explosion. (Mele and Moser, 1994)

Lisa and the Florida Instant Lottery

Lisa selects a sequence of six numbers to win a fair instant lottery. Upon punching her six numbers into the lottery computer, Lisa wins instantly. Did she intentionally win the lottery? (Mele and Moser, 1994)

Lydia and the Golfing Contest

Poor Lydia, who has only one dollar, would love to have a million. There are no lotteries in her state, but there is a weekly million-dollar contest for amateur golfers. Contestants pay a dollar for having the privilege of taking one shot at making a hole in one from a distance of 180 yards. Lydia has never hit a golf ball, but desperately wanting to become a millionaire and thinking that there is a remote chance that she will make a hole in one, she enters the contest. She has seen golf on television, and she estimates her chances of holing her shot at about one in a million. As Lydia eyes the ball, she deliberates about how she might achieve the goal or objective of making a hole in one, giving special attention to what club to use. She selects a three wood, lines up the shot, and then swings hard, with the goal or objective of making a hole in one. Lydia does not hit the ball just for the sake of hitting it. Nor is her objective in hitting it limited to something less than hitting a hole in one. Her goal is to hit in one, thereby winning a million dollar. Does she intend to hit a hole in one. Assuming she tries and succeeds, does she intentionally hit the hole in one? (Mele, 1997)

Connie Hits the Bull's-Eye

Connie, who has never fired a gun, is offered a large cash prize for hitting the bull's-eye on a distant target that even experts normally miss. She carefully aims and fires, hitting the target dead centre in just the (direct) way she hoped she would. [] Was Connie's hitting the target an intentional action? To simplify matters, suppose that Connie has no natural talent for marksmanship: she tries equally hard to win even larger prizes for duplicating the feat, fires five hundred rounds at the target, and does not even come close. (Mele, 1997)

Connie Hits the Bull's-Eye Again

Suppose, conversely, that unbeknownst to her, Connie has an extraordinary natural talent for marksmanship: she fires five hundred more rounds at the target and hits the bull's-eye 80% of the time. Was her hitting the bull's-eye the first time she did intentional action? Is it when she does it for the four-hundredth time? (Pacherie)