Tag: Gary Watson

Agency and Responsibility: a shift in perspective


Is human agency, in some qualitative sense, different from the agency of other organisms? If it is, can we view the relationship between humans and other living systems from the perspective of agency? If we can, do we need to take more than one perspective, and also be prepared to view the relationship from the perspective of humans as living things, or even as simple elements (or relationships, energy flows, matter cycles) of a larger, more comprehensive whole (the universe, the planet, the ecosphere)?

Secondly, what kind of degree of agency might we, humans (or rather, persons), be said to have? How might we be said to be able to respond to the situation within which we find ourselves? We can wonder what we might be doing in three weeks’ time (and this seems a capacity unique to the species, or at least some members of it) and we feel as though we might be able to decide, to some degree, what we might do in three weeks time. However, can we really weigh up between plans? In anticipating, can we avoid?

Linked to this degree of agency is the notion that we have a certain amount of responsibility for our situation. If we have avoided the demise of our own species, for instance, it has been at the cost of biodiversity loss, pollution, species extinction, climate change and other human-induced changes to the biosphere. Yet much of this destruction has come about through either ignorance, or through an attitude which justified the exploitation of the environment as ‘other’.

What would it mean to respond from within a different framework to the one we now operate in? What would it mean to act in acknowledgement both of the constraints under which we operate (the realisation that natural laws apply to us just as firmly as they do to all other forms of existence) and of the ability we have to reflectively consider our situation, to the degree that this consideration itself emerges as a feedback process that influences which possibilities open as potential actions?

Paul Taylor’s thesis is a clear example of a fundamental quest for a re-examination1 of the origins of our attitudes. He addresses a major problem that continues to haunt the predominant cultural attitudes of the global North and, by extension, that dominates as an impetus for action globally: the vast majority of the values and beliefs held by human individuals still echo pre-Darwinian understandings of ourselves and our relationships with other living existence. Considering ourselves as agents whose agency lies in our self-awareness requires us radically to expand the framework of the scientific revolution, the ‘paradigm … of discrete, individual events obeying absolute, universal laws.’ (Alexander: 373)

Interestingly, the notion that we are agents in this way is, empirical evidence suggests, more enabling of that concept than the notion that there is no such thing as agency2. Moreover, accepting just this degree of freedom in action implies accepting a corresponding degree of responsibility for that action. The rational argument concludes that this limited level of choice – the choice to actively self-reflect – is free, and therefore that conscious awareness does allow for some deliberation over how to weigh up certain interests. If, in the past, we have, as a species, failed to take into account interests beyond those of our immediate human ‘clans’ or communities, it is because we have not been in a position to realise, or wake up to an awareness of, this degree of choice. Many of the myths that have dominated our cultural thinking have been precisely those that have, by accident or by design, described a different kind of freedom, one that applied, first, only to human activities vis-a-vis other humans, and second, one that required more than any individual could possibly give in terms of autonomy, since no individual is autonomous to the degree required by the former myths.

This work is worth doing precisely because the research suggests a re-examination of who or what is taken into account when interests are being weighed up. If the range of systems that demand our response is much broader than we had previously realised, and yet our own voluntary activity is constrained to self-reflection, or reflection on the process of conscious activity, then it might be argued that we have no freedom to do what needs to be done. However, a little effort will show that this cannot be the right conclusion: all the freedom that we require is contained in the activity of realisation, of self-reflection, of awareness of the state that we are in. It is precisely this activity that loosens the inevitability of our reactions and gives space in which are created other possibilities. Both a recognition of our interconnected interdependence, and an acknowledgement of the role of conscious activity in shaping our responses, is required for us to open up to the altered potential that exists within a meditative awareness. This can then form a highly comprehensive basis for a strategy to tackle our ecological emergency.

1A second problem is that those of us prepared to take Evolutionary Theory seriously are not necessarily in a majority. Even if a reasonable case is made for a change of attitude, those whose beliefs are informed by their faith will still outnumber those who might be prepared to consider a shift in perspective.

2See for instance Robert Kane, who makes a slightly different but nevertheless related point in his Chapter in Gary Watson’s Free Will: ‘Yet if you concentrate and solve the problem nonetheless, I think we can say that you did it and are responsible for doing it even though it was undetermined whether you would succeed. The indeterministic noise would have been an obstacle to your solving the problem which you nevertheless overcame by your effort.’ (Kane: 308) And Susan Wolf, in the same volume, argues that all that is needed for responsible agency is that our ‘deep self’ be ‘sane’ (see Wolf in Watson, Free Will: 382)