The Concept of Agency in an Increasingly Rational World

Osonde A. Osoba, Information Scientist, RAND Corporation


Suppose we start from the perspective that the meaning of a concept is closely tied to its use. I argue that a salient use of the concept of agency is as a useful fiction for rooting moral responsibility for the effects an entity has on it environment(s). I explore the implications of this conception and draw connections to historical thoughts on theodicy. As our rational understanding of the world improves, the assignment of moral responsibility may track causal responsibility more closely. What happens to our ability to allocate responsibility as our understanding of causal influences on an agent’s behaviors begins to reach past traditional boundaries of individual agency? Can the concept of agency survive the routine complete causal rationalization of observable agent actions?


Let us concede that different traditions of thought have different definitions and perspectives on what it means to be an agent or to have agency. There are some common threads that may be useful to highlight. I will focus on one. Most conceptions of Agency are rooted in action, in doing, in affecting a substrate environment. 

A working definition for the purposes of this discussion could go thus:

An agent is an entity that is capable of causing or effecting change in its world in pursuit of private (personal) goals.

This definition has a couple of features worth highlighting:

The primacy of causality: We focus on the idea of causal influence as a defining characteristic. An entity whose whole existence consists of internal ruminations (e.g. Ibn Tufayl’s floating man) does not meet our criteria. However much sophisticated intelligence it applies to its sense perceptions, it has no influence over its environment. It can achieve no goals in its world no matter how intensely it wills them. 

Contextual worlds: Context determines the relevant world over which the agent aims to  exert influence. Entities can be part of numerous worlds or environments. An entity’s agency in each of these worlds is determined by how much causal influence it can exert in each one. We can imagine a measure of power based on what fraction of an agent’s environment it can influence.

Private goals: Private goals may be related to Aristotle’s idea of a “final cause,” the reason for which a thing exists. The capacity for pure action without goals requires no planning, interiority, or intentionality. We will argue that tracking that sort of capacity is not useful.

The concept of agency has proven useful for rooting responsibility and/or liability in entities capable of modifying their actions in response to external influence. Such a capacity for redress or accountability can arguably only be supported by entities capable of goal-oriented behavior. Responsibility can be moral or legal (more coercive/backed by institutional power). Agency  likely serves other important functions. But the responsibility-rooting function of agency is crucial for influencing or controlling behavior in social structures. 

This view of agency is explicitly not about independence or autonomy. Agency, in this conception, is closer to a useful fiction that enables the clean assignment of responsibility and dessert. And the default assumption is that agents exist within networks of influence. A degree of external manipulation of agents is the norm, not a novel pattern.

Historically, the use of agency for allocating moral responsibility has been a useful but imperfect device: the assignment of moral responsibility has not always tracked causal responsibility. The long tradition of arguments for the justice of gods (theodicies) is a case in point. If evil befalls a person, it must be because that person has misused his agency (“sinned”) and therefore deserves or is morally responsible for his lot. Some superstitions may also be construed to serve a similar function. These failures in causal attribution happen because the world is complex, causal attribution is notoriously difficult, & causal influences can be very subtle when they exist. By contrast, gods are simpler, more convenient causal explanations.

Our modern conception of moral responsibility is becoming more rational, more scientific. Part of the goal of rational thought is to focus on the true causes of observed phenomena. Weber goes so far as to argue that scientific inquiry is just a rational incarnation of theodicy. We have moved from agency based on imperfect beliefs towards a more causal conception of responsibility.

But what happens when our rational understanding of reality expands to the point where we are able to track causal influences as finely as possible? E.g. recent literature has begun to undermine agency-based explanations of individual behavior in favor of longer chains of causal influence that reach past the mask of more person-focused conceptions of agency. How do we ground responsibility and liability when large swathes of action can be explained away via causal factors outside the individual (e.g. the larger explaining value of social influence or manipulation, genetics, environmental factors etc.). 

Does the concept of agency survive this trend?