What is agency, and what implications does it have for liberty?

I have been reading Immanuel Kant’s works extensively for the past few months, and one of the more common threads that emerge from his writing is a concept of agency that is autonomous, unconditioned, and pure. Each of these terms has a perfectly suitable definition in the everyday world, but I ought to try and sketch out some philosophical definitions before I explore what these concepts actually mean.

1. Autonomous = the freedom that comes from dignity, which in turn comes from being the highest good. In the first formulation of the categorical imperative, Kant enjoins us to, in all of our moral calculations, to create maxims that can then be universalized for everyone. He requires us to think of a hypothetical world where everyone follows the maxim we are contemplating – say, that suicide is right – as if it were a law of nature and could not be disobeyed. Kant would then say that suicide is wrong, because the impulse to end life is against life itself. He gives a much fuller treatment of this example in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, but this will suffice for now. In the second formulation, Kant says that in all our actions, we must treat the humanity in a person, whether in ourselves or in others, as an end and never merely as a means. Understood in light of the first formulation, we are then required to always treat our fellow humans as ends, with humanity arrogated to the reasoning faculty that all fully developed people have. This reasoning faculty is the highest good, because all good and bad things are only such in so far as reason makes them so (Hamlet would be proud), and so all other things are conditioned by reason and thus are contingent upon it. Because reason is the highest good, those who possess it have the highest value, and this is a value beyond price, because reason is the only thing that sets prices – it cannot itself be evaluated in such a way. The definition of autonomy thus comes to mean that the inordinate value of a reasoning person is respected, and he is allowed to pursue his goals. This is all, of course, my own interpretation, and one that I would hesitate to declare as my final thought on the subject.

2. Unconditioned = in light of the above discourse, unconditioned here would mean something that has no outside influence upon it. This comes into play in the third definition:

3. Pure = unconditioned and beyond comprehension (I would think). In Critique of Pure Reason, this purity of thought is where the categorical imperative resides, in what Kant would perhaps call the “noumenon,” a realm beyond the grasp of our senses.

Those are just some brief, preliminary sketches of some definitions necessary to understand Kant’s idea of reason, and thus of agency. How then ought we to define agency, given these definitions? Agency, in its simplest Kantian terms, would be the exercise of the rational faculty – exercising reason towards the goals of pure reason, however, would be what is morally good, and the basis for the “good will” that underlines his conceptions of humanity. Agency seems to be monadic, meaning it is a single faculty that expresses itself in different ways in different situations – I cannot imagine Kant saying that this agency, which he so painstakingly constructed on a bedrock of pure reason, could admit of changes in its fundamental structure depending on the situation. My agency would remain the same whether I decide to buy a Toyota versus a Honda, or decide to enlist in the military, or decide to sell a product for more than it is worth, because my customer is ignorant of the true value of my product.

The first situation would be a hypothetical imperative according to Kant, because the decision and the outcome is contingent on my reason’s valuation of the Honda or the Toyota as better or worse. Choosing one or the other is irrelevant morally (unless a moral component was added), but it may be relevant to other aspects of my life – the better fuel economy of one or the other could, conceivably, alter life’s comforts if I had to spend a significantly larger or lesser sum on gasoline. The second situation seems to be mixed. The actual choice of enlisting in the military might have purely utilitarian undertones, for I could be considering a future career, my monthly salary, etc. It could also have moral grounds, for I would have to ask myself: do I believe in the cause of this war as just? Does it matter if I say yes or no? Am I prepared to kill another human being? Is it moral for me to do so in war? And other such concerns. In the third case, it is clearly a moral dilemma: I am asking myself whether it is morally right to cheat my customer by taking advantage of his ignorance.

In all of these cases, the methods of reasoning, and thus of agency, are the same: I envision a goal in my mind, I weigh the means to that goal, and I pick the one that is either the best suited to my material concerns, or best suited to the proper functioning of my good will.

There are, of course, other ways of looking at agency. I am in the middle of reading a book by philosopher Anthony Laden titled “Reasoning: A Social Picture,” which argues for a multiplicity of reasoning faculties, dependent on the situation at hand. Reasoning is not simply an internal, closed off process. Rather, it is something we engage in together. In this idea, “common sense” would be something we have all communally contributed to, a large web of interconnected reasoning systems that come together into a coherent, holistic whole.

Not to say that such a thing could not be provided for in a Kantian framework. Kant’s third formulation of the categorical imperative, a “kingdom of ends” in which we act as moral legislators together, seems to support this idea. However, whereas Laden would say that reasoning itself changes in such a system, each of Kant’s formulations only changes the wording of the imperative itself, not the underlying modalities of thinking – thus, when we are told to always universalize our maxims, we are simultaneously assenting to the idea of only treating human beings as ends, never merely as means. Kant simply thought that the second idea more closely approximated intuitive ideas of morality in human society.

Putting all the theory aside, I would like to explore in brief what this means in regards to liberty. In a monadic system, where agency is wholly internal, you can arrive at a Stoic conception of eudaimonia (ἡ εὐδαιμονίαfor those who know Greek), or human flourishing, where the liberty you have is entirely internal. In the idea of the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, you could be tortured on the rack, but your mind could be as happy and carefree as if you were in a field of wildflowers. Here, the liberty you have is in assenting to, or not assenting to, the appearances of torture and pain that your sensory faculties provide for you. If you choose not to rationally assent to them, your body will continue to feel the pain, but your mind will be free. For those who would like to read further, I recommend looking up the “dog and cart” example from Stoic philosophy.

Any material constraints on your agency would in no way impact it, because agency is an internal process. Part of the problem with this is that agency, in many ways, is not an internal process. One of the given reasons for affirmative action in college admissions is to take people whose agency has been hampered by racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc. and give them a leg up, so that they can compete at the level of broader society – whether this is a good reason, or a spurious one, I will not consider in this post. Agency is seen as something external, and when agency is seen to be stifled, the state needs to rectify this problem by giving help to those whose agency is not as free as everyone else’s.

Part of the problem with that “problem” is, where do you draw the line between achievable agency and unachievable agency? I cant reasonably claim that my agency is thwarted when, desiring to fly, gravity brings me down, even though this is strictly speaking a restriction of my agency. However, I do believe it is reasonable to say that, if certain laws exist that keep me from peaceably going about my business, those laws are legitimate violations of my agency. If I am a five year old entrepreneur selling lemonade, and the law comes to shut down my free enterprise because I do not have a food permit, then those laws would be infringing on my agency.

Multiple ideas of agency seem to be the way to go, then, for it is true that many things are wholly internally conditioned – my desire to eat chocolate versus vanilla ice cream, for example – but many other things are not. The question still remains whether the actual act of reasoning, and thus of agency, changes methodologically in these situations, but it seems to be the case that it is so, if there is to be any meaningful difference between monadic and non-monadic systems of thought.

NB: I am not an expert on Kant, and I fully realize that I could be misrepresenting certain aspects of his thought. Feel free to correct me in the comments.

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