Human Agency

Open House Presentation

Meghan Griffith, Philosophy, Davidson College

Human persons are unique in many ways. But perhaps one of the most important ways in which we are distinguished from our animal brethren is through our capacity for intentional action: we are able to set goals, evaluate them, deliberate, formulate intentions, make decisions, and follow through with behavior. One of the consequences of having such abilities is that it then seems appropriate, if the conditions are right, to hold each other morally responsible for these actions.

There are a number of complex philosophical issues that arise in the context of human action. Many are questions about ‘free will’: what causes my actions (my reasons? My desires? Environmental triggers? Some combination? A long chain of causes? Nothing?)? If my actions are caused, am I still free with respect to them (in other words, if my action resulted from a long chain of causes beginning well before my birth, how can it have been up to me to perform it or not perform it)? But if my actions are not caused, then aren’t they just random and not under my control? Has modern science and/or psychology ruled out the idea of free will in any case (e.g., the famous experiments undertaken by neuroscientist Benjamin Libet, supposedly showing that we start down the path of performing an action before we even realize we are doing so; psychology experiments that purport to show that our feelings of control over our actions are just illusory; psychology experiments that purport to show that our decisions are all caused by unconscious environmental stimuli)?

Related questions center on moral responsibility: If I am not free, can I ever be morally praised or blamed for what I do? Are there any other kinds of excusing conditions, like ignorance (e.g., Oedipus didn’t know it was his mother so perhaps he’s not blameworthy for committing incest)? Or coercion? Can I be morally praised or blamed even if I could not have done otherwise than to do what I did? Am I, as the existentialists assert, always morally responsible because I must always choose, regardless of what else is true? How (and when) does one become a moral agent?

Other issues that arise concerning agency include (but are not limited to) the following: must I always act on my strongest motive? What role do decisions play in the formation of who I am? Is there such a thing as weakness of will (can we really ever act against what we think is the best thing to do at the time)? Can I really perform an action for no reason? What is an intention? What is an action? What is a decision?

As indicated above, there are a number of ways to approach the broad topic of human agency and a number of reasons that one might be interested in studying it. Some might be interested in understanding the philosophical implications of our latest scientific theories and experiments (from quantum physics to neuroscience and psychology). Some might be interested in thinking about the implications for science-fictional possibilities, such as time travel. Those who study literature may be interested in analyzing characters and story in light of philosophical theorizing about agency and responsibility (from children’s literature like Harry Potter, to Sophocles, Shakespeare, and many others).

In general, I think there are many benefits in presenting such issues to students of all levels. Thinking about these questions not only sharpens their critical thinking skills, it also causes them to reflect on their own behavior, motivations, and judgments of others. In a culture that is at once too willing to blame and to excuse (usually others and oneself respectively), it seems worth analyzing and evaluating our intuitions about the conditions of agency and responsibility. Furthermore, thinking about issues of agency provides insight into what it means to be a human person.

Explore curriculum units developed by Fellows in this seminar here.