top of page

"Agency": An Essay by Elvira Basevich (Keywords: Liberalism; Nonideal Theory; W.E.B. Du Bois)


White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 3 ("The New Basics: Person").

If you enjoy reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.


What does it mean to be an agent? One important way that philosophers have attempted to answer this question is by proposing the idea of practical agency. On this view, we are practical agents because we can choose the ends of our actions, rather than act according to ends determined by instinct, emotion, or other people. In light of the link between practical agency and the freedom to choose ends, many philosophers argue that we ought to be in a position to decide for ourselves what to do, given sufficient reflections on the values and principles that we regard as most important. In conceiving of ourselves as practical agents, we come to appreciate the values that give our lives purpose. For example, we ought to acknowledge the freedom to make decisions for ourselves as essential for a flourishing moral and political life. That is, we should have the freedom to choose without having an external entity paternalistically deciding for us what we should do. Additionally, in thinking of ourselves as practical agents, we can plausibly say that we are – or should be, all things considered – responsible for our actions. If we freely choose our actions, we can be held accountable for our decisions and their consequences.


Furthermore, the exercise of practical agency gives us a sense of personal identity – it shows us the host of values that inform who we are and who we might yet become. In effect, we will ourselves into existence through our choices and actions. We can look back on our lives – our experiences, memories, and relationships – and, ideally, come to identify with the decisions that made our lives possible as who we are. In the best case scenario, we view our personal identity positively because we not only take full responsibility for our choices, but feel like the shape of our lives, more or less, reflects our values. To be sure, we can also feel guilt, shame, and anxiety as we reflect on the ways in which our decisions may have fallen short of the values that we have or think we should have. For this reason, some existentialist philosophers argue that in our reflections on our personal identity the anxiety-inducing feelings of fear, dread, and self-loathing are often more salient than those of joy and pride.


Only recently have liberal political philosophers begun to theorize practical agency under nonideal circumstances

This account of practical agency has serious limitations, however. For one thing, those liberal political philosophers who defend such an account have tended to assume that an agent’s decision-making occurs under more or less hospitable circumstances. From Immanuel Kant and John Rawls, liberal philosophers have imagined practical agents as embodied persons who meet both certain physical criteria, i.e., they are bathed, dressed, cis-gendered white males, as well as certain social criteria, i.e., their rights and well-being are not threatened or severely compromised, and there is little to distract them from their deliberations about what to do. Rather, under this idealized model of practical agency, the world appears as an inert tool awaiting the impregnation of ends. Save for a weak psychological constitution, the actual empirical conditions of the decision-making process offer no resistance. Only recently have liberal political philosophers begun to theorize practical agency under nonideal circumstances, in which an agent is a member of a vulnerable social group and, as a result, does not receive the kind of ongoing material or social support that encourages her to pursue actions that express her values. Rather, in nonideal circumstances, agents face significant obstacles that impact their choices from without. Below I present some of these new developments in the liberal theorizing of agency that map how membership of a vulnerable social group impacts the exercise of practical agency.


***


As we have seen, the idea of practical agency is attached to a theory of deliberative rationality, according to which agents can guide their decision-making by taking stock of their values, interests, and aspirations. The intuition behind this theory of deliberative rationality is simple: the fact that we can choose our ends must mean that we have a good (that is, rational) way to review possible reasons for our actions. A decision-making procedure should give us a way of identifying the best reasons of our action, given our values, interests, and aspirations. In nonideal circumstances, however, practical agents can find it hard to figure out what should count as a good call. There are a number of reasons why this may be the case.


There are many nonideal scenarios that can negatively impact upon one’s capacity for rational deliberation

First, consider that there are many nonideal scenarios that can negatively impact upon one’s capacity for rational deliberation, as one must contend with external forces beyond one’s control. A person may belong to a vulnerable social group whose living conditions undermine what they can hope to achieve. These conditions may include extreme poverty, de facto racial segregation, lack of access to basic resources and opportunities, and a system of social value and practices that denigrate their history and physiological features. Considering this nonideal scenario, the Africana philosopher W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that it can feel like the world stands as a “prison-house” whose walls appear “unscalable to sons of night who must plod darkly on in resignation.” A person might thus feel as if they are at the point of slipping into despair because over time they experience the viable scope of their capacity for practical agency narrow.


This narrowing may be related to the fact that they can control very little about their limited material reality. As a result, even meeting basic ends, such as obtaining food and shelter, can be a daily struggle. The world, then, appears impregnable to their chosen ends: it rebuffs rather than accepts them. Call this the nonideal condition of material deprivation. As one is deprived of the material resources to support one’s reasonable actions, such as finding nutrition, employment, and an education, one’s freedom is thereby materially hampered because one cannot actually pursue one’s chosen ends.


The inability to pursue one’s chosen ends also weakens one’s sense of personal identity. As we have seen, the successful exercise of practical agency encourages a person to identify with their choices as positive expressions of their values, interests, and aspirations. In other words, the successful exercise of practical agency encourages and strengthens one’s sense of personal identity. But if a person’s freedom is materially hampered, then they do not have the chance to build a life that reflects their chosen ends. They can then come to feel like their decisions – and the life that takes shape around them – is not a true expression of their personal identity. Call this the nonideal condition of symbolic deprivation.


This situation of material and symbolic deprivation is further intensified by a system of racialized or gendered norms that then attempts to rationalize why the options of vulnerable social groups are so limited. In other words, the members of a vulnerable social group must resist a system of social values that rationalizes material inequalities and seeks to get victims of oppression to accept those values. In the US or the UK, for example, an Afro-Caribbean immigrant woman is materially deprived if the only job available to her is to be a cleaner, but she is also symbolically deprived if in taking this job she fulfills a white supremacist societal expectation that black women are exploitable domestic appendages who are supposed to cater to the needs of wealthy whites. Du Bois describes this as the fight against what he calls “double consciousness.”


Even in circumstances where a social group might experience the bind of double consciousness, self-affirmation is still possible.

Philosophers like Charles Mills have tried to tease apart the nonideal conditions of material and symbolic by arguing that we could achieve a post-capitalist society that is materially egalitarian, while still continuing to struggle against the nonideal conditions of symbolic deprivation that denigrate black and brown communities. However, it remains overwhelmingly the case that the two reinforce each other in increasingly vicious circles: a limited material reality promotes demeaning views about how little some people ought to expect to achieve, while symbolic deprivation exacerbates material deprivation, as one comes to choose less ambitious goals because one sees their pursuit as pointless.


***


By way of conclusion, it is important to note that even in circumstances where a social group might experience the bind of double consciousness, self-affirmation is still possible. Informal sites of social and political solidarity can not only reject a dominant system of racialized or gendered norms but can also build an alternative system of values that rejects the oppressive status quo. This process of affirming the moral value of one’s self and group in social circumstances where few others view you as a moral equal can be understood as a collective exercise of practical agency. If self-affirmation is a condition of practical agency, and if dominant groups refuse to affirm the moral equality of marginalised groups, then the only viable option left to victims is to come together in intragroup solidarity in order to avoid hostile strangers and bolster their positive self-understanding in their local moral community.


Intragroup solidarity becomes increasingly vital the more irrational and hostile the world at large grows.

Seen in this light, we can better appreciate why Du Bois came to favour voluntary black separation in the Jim Crow era. For Du Bois, voluntary self-separation protects black self-respect in the context of systematic racial exclusion. For it is extremely difficult to build a moral community and exercise practical agency with strangers whom one should not trust and on whose de facto good will one cannot rely. In other words, Du Bois explicitly links black self-affirmation and self-respect with voluntary self-segregation inasmuch as black Americans more reliably reaffirm each other’s equal moral worth qua their shared racial identity. The power of Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness is that even the most resilient and courageous spirit can eventually be crushed by the unflagging hostility of the world, if they do not find a moral community to uplift and defend them.


Though the U.S. public today accepts myriad clubs and associations that nurture the bonds of vulnerable groups, we must remember that intragroup solidarity becomes increasingly vital the more irrational and hostile the world at large grows. In grassroots organizing today, self-segregation and the creation of “safe spaces” remain critical strategies for social and political mobilization in a toxic public sphere that still condones social values and practices that serve to diminish the cultivation of practical agency amongst members of the most vulnerable groups.


Elvira Basevich is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of California, Davis. Her first academic book, W.E.B. Du Bois: The Lost and the Found, was published in 2020 by Polity Press, while her first poetry book, How to Love the World, was shortlisted for the National Jewish Book Award in 2020. Website: elvirabasevich.com Twitter: @EBasevich

 

From The Philosopher, vol. 110, no. 3 ("The New Basics: Person").

If you enjoyed reading this, please consider becoming a patron or making a small donation.

We are unfunded and your support is greatly appreciated.

1 Comment


Ian Craib
Ian Craib
Dec 08, 2023

The charge against the so-called liberals Kant and Rawls does not make sense. Seeking universal principles of morality and justice necessarily ignores particularity of person situation, and certainly does not assume practical agents are rich white heterosexual males, even if the philosophers themselves were. I also think the significance of non-ideal conditions is overstated. Everyone lives in non-ideal conditions, and our application of universal principles is affected by personal factors. So what? This does not invalidate personal moral choices, nor the possibility of universal moral principles.

Like
bottom of page