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The Other Side of Agency

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 November 2007

Soran Reader
Durham University


In our philosophical tradition and our wider culture, we tend to think of persons as agents. This agential conception is flattering, but in this paper I will argue that it conceals a more complex truth about what persons are. In 1. I set the issues in context. In 2. I critically explore four features commonly presented as fundamental to personhood in versions of the agential conception: action, capability, choice and independence. In 3. I argue that each of these agential features presupposes a non-agential feature: agency presupposes patiency, capability presupposes incapability, choice presupposes necessity and independence presupposes dependency. In 4. I argue that such non-agential features, as well as being implicit within the agential conception, are as apt to be constitutive of personhood as agential features, and in 5. I conclude.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2007

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1 Taylor, C., Sources of the Self (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), 3Google Scholar.

2 See Warren, M-A., Moral Status (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar for a discussion of different forms this approach can take. See my Needs and Moral Necessity (London: Routledge, 2007) for criticism of the idea that personhood should define or limit moral significance.

3 See Rawls, J.Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 14, 227251Google Scholar; T. Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press); Nussbaum, M.The Future of Feminist Liberalism’, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, 74 (2000), 4779CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Rawls, op. cit. 240, fn.22.

5 Aristotle, Topics, 112a20; Politics, 1253a3.

6 Although I adopt Aristotle's usage and recommend it, sadly I must note that Aristotle himself was not immune from the agential bias. His treatment of form and matter reflects it, as does his insistence that God must be all action. Even the etymology of the Greek words shows a bias which was obviously entrenched even then: ‘pathos’ meant not just experience or suffering, but also misfortune or calamity; ‘pasko’, while it had the unbiased meaning of ‘to suffer or be affected by anything whether good or bad, as opposed to acting oneself’, also meant to be ailing, to suffer evil or to be mistreated. The contrasting terms are positive: ‘poeisis’ meant making, doing, shaping, creating, or begetting; ‘dunamis’ meant strength, might or power, and the human ‘ergon’ is understood as consisting of ‘actuality’, which Aristotle notes is etymologically linked to action (Metaphysics IX, 1050a20).

7 See Frankfurt, H., The Importance of What we Care About (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Thanks to Marilyn Friedman for pointing out that ‘agential conceptions’ of philosophers are more diverse than I seem to suggest, extending to features I do not discuss here, like consciousness and non-rational commitments.

8 Velleman, D., ‘What Happens when Someone Acts?’, in The Possibility of Practical Reason, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), 123–43Google Scholar.

9 Dretske, F., Explaining Behavior: Reasons in a World of Causes, (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988), 1Google Scholar; Karlsson, M., ‘Agency and Patiency: Back to Nature?’, Philosophical Explorations, 5 (2002), 5981CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Taylor, R., ‘Agent and Patient: is there a Distinction?’, Erkenntnis, 18 (1982), 223232CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Taylor reluctantly came to believe that analytic philosophy of action—a new and growing area, which continues to attract good philosophers—is riddled with mistakes.

11 Op. cit. 223. In this paper, for simplicity, I treat thinking, judging, intending and willing as kinds of action. They are things that agents do, indeed for Kant because willing is uncontaminated by the contingencies of the empirical world it is the person-defining action par excellance; similarly, for Aristotle, because it is unchangingly and perfectly active, thinking is the paradigmatic action. See Metaphysics XII 1072b14–31.

12 Op. cit. 223–4.

14 The locus classicus for Davidson's view is Davidson, D., ‘Actions, Reasons and Causes’, Journal of Philosophy, 60 (1973), 685700CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For Taylor's criticism, see op. cit. 229.

15 Locke, J., Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London: Thomas Tegg, 1846), Bk. 2, ch. 27, s. 9, 217; J. Rawls op. cit. 233 (my emphasis)Google Scholar.

16 Aristotle, De Anima 417b30.

17 Nussbaum, M., ‘Nature, Function and Capability: Aristotle on Political Distribution’, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, Supp. Vol. (1988), 145184, 160–168, esp. 167–8Google Scholar.

18 Kant, I., Critique of Practical Reason and Other Works on the Theory of Ethics, Kingsmill-Abbott, T. (trans.) (London: Longmans, 1889), 24Google Scholar.

19 See Urban Walker, M., Moral Understandings (New York: Routledge, 1998), 131152Google Scholar.

20 See Rawls, J., Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), 407416Google Scholar.

21 Walker op. cit. 137.

22 See Williams, B., ‘Persons, Character and Morality’, in Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 10CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Discussed at Walker op. cit. 138.

23 Op. cit. 141.

24 See Taylor, C., Sources of the Self (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989)Google Scholar. Discussed at Walker op. cit. 145.

25 Op. cit. 152.

26 This brief criticism of the idea that persons are ‘independent’ might lead readers to wonder whether the well-known ‘free will debate’ in analytic philosophy might be useful here. Although I cannot argue for this here, my view is that because the ‘debate’ is grounded in conceptions of nature and causation, my point about the inalienability of dependency cannot be captured or illuminated by it. For discussion of how our conception of nature has been distorted, see McDowell, J., ‘Two Sorts of Naturalism’, Virtues and Reasons, Hursthouse, R., Lawrence, G. and Quinn, W. (Eds.) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 149180Google Scholar.

27 Martin, C.B., ‘On the Need for Properties’, Synthese, 112 (1997), 204CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Thanks to Jonathan Lowe for drawing my attention to Martin's work on this topic.

28 Kittay, E., ‘At the Margins of Moral Personhood’, Ethics, 116 (2005), 100131, 123CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

29 See Wittgenstein's treatment of rule-following, and McDowell's discussion of its importance, for elaboration of this idea about the necessary and intrinsic limits to rationalism for ethics, in Wittgenstein, L., Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Blackwell, 1953)Google Scholar and J. McDowell, ‘Virtue and Reason’, Monist, 62 (1979).

30 Of course a defender of this aspect of the agential conception might say that an ideal is an essence. Aristotle did say this in the final book of the Nicomachean Ethics, where he recommended that everyone should aspire to the life of contemplation—that is, the constant pure exercise of rationality—because it is the highest thing in us. But we can question this, on Aristotelian grounds. If the aim of our philosophy is to tell the truth about human beings and decide how their lives should best be ordered, we should attend not just to what a small group of elite thinkers (sometimes—when their abilities are not exercised in corrupt ways, as for example Heidegger's and Althusser's were, not to mention Kittay's Nazi doctors) do, but as much to what ordinary people do in the course of living ordinary lives. For an example of making the ordinary central, see Das, V., Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinary (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007)Google Scholar.

31 Topics 112b20.

32 Thanks to Bill Pollard for suggesting that contrasting these two distinctions might be helpful.

33 Arendt, H., The Life of the Mind (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1971), esp. 185193Google Scholar.

34 Kant, I., Critique of Pure Reason, Kemp Smith, N. (trans.) (London: MacMillan, 1929), A51/B75Google Scholar. See also Aristotle, De Anima, 430a10–432a14.

35 See McDowell, J., Mind and World (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996Google Scholar.

36 See Reader, S. ‘After 9/11: Making Pacifism Plausible’, Pazifismus, Bleisch, B., Strub, J-D. (Eds.) (Bern: Haupt, 2006, 205221, esp. 205–210Google Scholar, for a sketch of the differences it might make if we instead of analysing moral contexts (for example harms caused by violence) from a ‘perpetrator-centred’, ‘bystander’ perspective, we approached them from a ‘patient-centred’ perspective.

37 A dramatic rhetorical way to draw attention to this issue, is simply to pose the question, ‘are women human?’ under the agential conception. See Mackinnon, C.Are Women Human? (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006)Google Scholar.

38 Wolf, N., Fire with Fire (New York: Fawcett, 1994)Google ScholarPubMed.

39 Vance, C., ‘Pleasure and Danger: Towards a Politics of Sexuality’, Pleasure and Danger (London: Pandora, 1992), 7Google Scholar.

40 Brison, S., Aftermath (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002)Google Scholar.

41 Das op. cit. 54–8, 101.

42 In this section I recall arguments from Reader, S., ‘Does a Basic Needs Approach Need Capabilities?’, Journal of Political Philosophy, 14 (2006), 337350, 343–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

43 Sen, A., Resources, Values and Development (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984), 514Google Scholar.

44 O'Neill, J., ‘Need, Humiliation and Independence’, The Philosophy of Need, Reader, S. (Ed.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 7398Google Scholar.

45 Walker, op. cit.

46 Op. cit. 196.

47 Kittay, E., Love's Labor (New York: Routledge, 1999)Google Scholar.

48 Kittay, 1999, op. cit. 25.

49 Kittay, 1999, op. cit. 107.

50 Nussbaum, op. cit. 64.

51 Kittay, 2005, op. cit. 123.

52 Nussbaum, op. cit. 65.

53 Thanks to Eva Kittay for thought-provoking discussion about this. Although Kittay and I agree dependency and care are neglected and important, we disagree about whether promotion of agency is a good remedy. In her unpublished response to this paper, Kittay argues it is only through attribution and recognition of their agency, that patients can gain equality as citizens, and that dominant agents can come to recognise their own passivity and vulnerability. This argument is important, and I hope to respond to it in future work.

54 Op. cit. 53–4; 62–3.

55 Thanks to Catriona Mackenzie, Susan Brison, John O'Neill and Christopher Rowe for the early conversations which led me to this topic. Thanks to the organisers of the American Philosophical Association Eastern Division conference in Washington DC in December 2006 for inviting me to present an earlier version of this paper in a symposium called ‘The Other Side of Agency’. Thanks to Eva Kittay and Marilyn Friedman for their thoughtful replies in that symposium. I learned much from their comments, and hope to take proper account of them in future work. Thanks also to Bill Pollard, Margaret Walker, Lorraine Code and Jonathan Lowe for helpful comments and suggestions.