On Human Agency, Part 1: Why common ideas about choice-making don’t work

I think pretty much everyone has some notion of there being things one does “freely” or voluntarily, and things one does against one’s will. Unfortunately, people tend to have very divergent (and just as unfortunately, very vague) notions of what behaviors and actions fall into which category. The vagueness has consequences in regard to the way in which we see people as responsible for their actions (both in terms of blame for negative actions and credit for positive ones), and in regard to the degree in which we consider these actions legitimate; the divergence creates problems with communication, and ultimately with attempting to solve social issues without throwing anyone under the bus in the process.

In my experience, the vast majority of the issues revolve around the attempts at reconciling two notions about people’s behavior with each other: people’s ability to make their own choices on the one hand, and the existence of (sometimes very rigid) social structures on the other. The ability to make one’s own choices according to one’s own will is generally labeled “free will”; in social justice circles which tend to have some knowledge of theory, sometimes the concept is instead sometimes labeled “agency” (because social theory splits society into the macro-level of structures and micro-level of agents). As far as I can tell, when not specifically used for theory, the terms are use equally vaguely, with equally idiosyncratic definitions that are more often implied than defined; which works well enough in casual conversation, but not when trying to model social reality, and not when trying to affect social change. Working with unstated assumptions tends to run people into problems, which is why uncovering the meanings behind common terms is important, and why creating stable jargon is, as well.

Hence this two-part essay, in which I’ll try to first pick apart how people tend to understand human choice-making, and then present a more realistic and more practical model.

* * *

One common idea described by the term “free will” is the notion of the ability to have chosen otherwise. This means the ability, when faced with the precise same series of events and the same circumstances, a person is able to wilfully make a different choice than the one they did make. In other words, the choice is not caused by external factors and also that it isn’t uncaused (i.e. random); rather, the cause of a choice is located entirely within the will of a person. Free will, in that sense, is its own uncaused cause. For the purposes of further discussion, this version will be referred from now on as “pure free will”.

Another common idea described by the term “free will” is the ability to pursue one’s own goals without constraint. This version does not require that a person be able to have chosen otherwise in exactly the same circumstances; only that a person is not artificially constrained in their ability to act in accordance with their own will. And if neither the available options, their consequences, nor one’s own will (i.e. one’s preferences, beliefs, desires, etc.) are altered, then the action will in fact be the same. This version will be referred here as “agency”.

To my knowledge, most people operate with an understanding of free will that is combination of these two, or some sort of muddled notion that they are synonymous. Most people believe that people have the ability to have chosen otherwise in the same circumstances, but at the same time believe that external forces do affect choices. The question tends to be about the degree of influence.

At the extreme end is “libertarian free will”, i.e. the notion that people have pure free will but are constrained in the exercise thereof by (threats of) physical violence (for a libertarian definition of the term violence), if only because people have a strong will to live and remain uninjured, and will therefore tend to alter their choices to avoid options that will cause violence against themselves. Aside from violence however, libertarians believe people themselves consciously cause the choices in their lives, and could at any point make any number of these choices. Consequently, both the credit and the responsibility for all choices not done under the threat of violence lies entirely with the individual who made them. In this model, social structures are pretty much limited to laws (interpreted as codified threats of violence), and as such the very concept of social justice becomes impossible; either something is just (meaning legally so), or it is not. Given the mountains of evidence of social and cultural pressures, patterns, etc. beyond there merely legal, this model of human decision-making erases too many influences to be of any genuine use in changing toxic patterns. Where these patterns express themselves in what appear to be “bad” or at least less-than-optimal” choice-making, the libertarian can only shrug and punish those who have made decisions that were also harmful to others. This model perpetuates inequality by the sheer refusal to acknowledge its existence, which manifests in inaction on the one hand, and in active interference with others’ actions on the basis that treating people’s decisions as anything other than purely derived from their own minds is unethical.

Many people are (luckily) not libertarians, even in current American culture where these ideas of “individual responsibility” and denial of the existence of the whole matrix of oppression (especially classism, but other axes as well) are most widespread and apparently inherent in America’s self-identity as a culture. Not being libertarian, or not wholly so, people acknowledge influence on decisions even beyond physical force (or the codified threat thereof). Even people not deeply involved in social activism or social research of any sort are generally aware of social structures that are not threats of violence but which affect human behavior so thoroughly that these behaviors become predictable to some degree. From this, what often emerges is a graduated understanding of a free will that’s still its own cause, but that can be bent by things other than physical force into more or less un-free choices. One of the most toxic versions of this conditional free will is the notion of the “true self”: the true self has pure free will, but it is very susceptible to outside manipulation (or assorted forms of brain malfunction)which adulterates the self into a damaged or “brainwashed” self that makes choices that are shaped by forces other than one’s genuine will. The “true self” is credited as the source of its choices; the adulterated self however is considered to be unable to make genuinely free decisions (and the more adulterated, the less capable of making them), and consequently the choices of the damaged or adulterated will are seen as less legitimate.

There are two main reasons for why this model perpetuates oppressive social patterns: the first is the fact that whether something is done by the “true self” or by a “brainwashed” or “damaged” self is determined in entirely different ways in regards to oneself (and by extension people like oneself), and other people (especially those unlike oneself): the former tends to be evaluated on a micro-level, analyzing choices in terms of individual preferences in the face of a very long list of situation-specific variables (referred to as idiographic model in sociology); when alternative choices can be imagined but discarded as less-preferable and/or less in alignment with one’s goals, the perception of the choice tends to be of one made freely, meaning by one’s true self, regardless of how it stands in relation to any social patterns. The latter tends to be evaluated by how closely it aligns with recognized oppressive social patterns, more in line with nomothetic explanatory models (i.e. ones that usually provide probabilistic explanations focused on a small number of general variables). This is more common the more the people and the patterns lie far outside one’s own experience, because the information required for a micro-level, ideographic explanation of a choice is less available, and because the foreignness of the experience renders attempts to “try to imagine oneself in their place” increasingly result in projection rather than empathy. Consequently, choices far from one’s personal experience tend to be identified as being shaped largely or even entirely by social structures and therefore considered inauthentic, belonging not to the true self but to the adulterated self.

The second reason for why the model of the corruptible true self leads to perpetuation of oppressive social patterns is what could be called normalized or invisible social structures. This is what social theorists in the ’30′s referred to as “total ideology”, a term that now is only going to make people think of totalitarian dogma even though it had nothing to do with that, making it somewhat less-than-useful jargon in non-specialized discussions. What the term refers to is the complete set of world-view-creating structures of a particular era, group, society, class, etc. that are so pervasive and all-encompassing that they become invisible to the people operating within these structures (think of it as somewhat analogous to air: the Earth’s atmosphere as measurable and perceptible qualities, but being ever-present and so basic to our existence, most of the time we do not perceive it: it feels like nothing, tastes like nothing, smells like nothing, and is invisible). In our society, this invisibilized structure is the one shaping a heteronormative, Christianity-based, capitalist and middle-class, white and usually male existence as default-existence. That is “normal”; deviation from this normal is socially visible, but it itself is not. Unfortunately, this pattern is perpetuated quite often within social science and theory as well (and by extension, social activism of certain types), when it analyses the structures of the “deviant” before it ever gets around to recognizing that the “normal” requires analysis, too, because it too is shaped by (often the very same) structures (e.g. the large gap between recognizing the necessity of studying the structures underlying femininity and social construction of woman, and recognizing that masculinity and social construction of man is also a necessary part of gender analysis). As a consequence, a student of society might learn a lot about the social structures affecting the life trajectories of poor people, women, racial minorities, etc. but never hear a peep about those structures affecting the life trajectories of middle-class people, men, whites, etc. In the context of determining whether someone is making choices in agreement with their “true self” or if they’ve been “brainwashed” by social structures, that invisibility of the structures shaping dominant patterns leads to declaring the mindsets of the white, straight, christian-ish, middle-class men as their “true selves” for lack of visible structures that might constrain them, but the mindsets of other classes as adulterated by the very visible social structures oppressing them.

It is extremely likely that this is how the “white saviour” complex among individuals and groups with a lot of social privilege (and therefore the least visible constraining structures) gets created: the unadulterated, non-brainwashed, rational members of the default category take pity with the poor brainwashed masses and decide that it becomes their job to un-brainwash them and protect them from the choices that are clearly not the result of their real selves, but only results of brainwashing AKA “false consciousness”. Something similar also applies to non-neurotypicality, mental illness, or addiction: the person is perceived to have a damaged “real self” and therefore make choices that aren’t “really” their free, voluntary choices. Consequently, they need to be protected from choices that the obviously more rational, less “damaged” neurotypical/mentally healthy individuals perceive as harmful or wrong or simply inappropriate.

These toxic outcomes of the two most widespread models of choice making (the libertarian model and the “true self” model) are why I think we need a new model which manages to treat people as equal agents without denying the effects of social structures and culture. We need a model that discards the notion that there’s such a thing as a platonic “true self” formed independently from the world as if it were secular versions of the soul. At the same time that model needs to incorporate the existence of social structures and cultural patterns in their entirely, acknowledging that all people are fully situated within the matrix of oppression, and that they are situated there for the entirety of their lives. Such a model, in other words, would need to treat all choices as acts of navigating the matrix of oppression, and all wills as shaped by that very same matrix. And it needs to do so without descending into micro-level-erasing degrees of social determinism.

* * *

I will discuss what such a model might look like based on what we know about people and how it can form the basis of better, less oppressive and paternalistic activism in the second part of this essay.

Karolina “Jadehawk” Lewis is an intersectional social justice writer and a student of environmental sociology and social theory. She blogs semi-regularly at http://jadehawks.wordpress.com/

Comments are closed.

Post Navigation