The agency trap
By personal agency, I mean a person’s ability to make decisions independent of their biological or social conditioning.
Agency, in the sense I mean it, is roughly equivalent to free will.
I believe that adults have a small amount of agency, that babies have none, and children have none for all practical purposes.
Almost everything that adults do is conditioned, and 100% of what babies and children do is conditioned.
This belief has practical implications.
I believe that it changes the way that I operate in the world—and I think for the better.
The agency thought experiment
I’m an ethical individual, and I want to do what’s best for the people I care about and me and the world as I understand it. I spend time researching and thinking about what’s best.
I assume the same is true for you.
Suppose I tell someone that something that they contemplate doing will cause harm. The harm might be to other people or institutions that I care about or to me.
I carefully explain my reasoning.
They don’t accept it.
They do what I believe will cause harm.
The agency knob
Imagine that people have an agency knob that goes from zero (no agency) to 100 (full agency).
At zero, everything that a person does is the result of conditioning. Given a set of circumstances, they have no choice: they can only do what they’ve been conditioned to do.
At 100, a person can do anything that they have the resources, knowledge, and skill to do.
Everything a person does is a free choice.
They could always have done something else.
If I turn the agency knob to 100, then they could have understood my reasoning, but have chosen not to. Fuck them.
They could have chosen to trust me rather than themselves but have chosen not to. Fuck them more.
They could have done something that avoided harm but they have chosen not to. Fuck them completely.
If I turn the knob to zero, then I can see that they have no choice. Their training and the knowledge they have keeps them from seeing the correctness of my arguments. Too bad.
Their conditioning makes them incapable of deferring to my analysis rather than using their own. Their loss.
Their conditioning means that they cannot do other than they’ve done. Sucks to be them.
So how can I be angry at them?
I’ve been convinced that I was right and later discovered that I was wrong.
It’s happened often enough that even when I think that I’m right, I can entertain a strong possibility that I am wrong.
If I turn my agency knob toward zero, then it’s possible that my conditioning has convinced me that my arguments are correct, when in fact, they are flawed.
I can be wrong. So how can I be self-righteous and condemn someone else when I might be the one at fault?
The paradox of agency
It makes sense for me to treat people as though they have more agency than I believe they do.
Treating people as though they have agency can often cause them to change their behavior so that they do more pro-social things.
But that power needs to be used carefully.
Treating people as though they have agency in conflict situations, causes emotional pain—to me, to them, to both.
If that changes nothing—other than causing emotional pain—then why not treat them as though they have little or none?
Turn the agency down, and It’s easy to forgive self and others.
We know not what we do.
I don’t think I have a lot of agency, but I have some.
And one of the things I’ve decided to do (I can—because I have agency) is to assume that when someone I love does something that might piss me off, it’s because they had no choice.
I don’t get pissed off.
And I know that if I thought that they had a choice, then I’d be the one who had no choice.
I’d have to be pissed off.
Who needs that?