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Essays Concerning the Social Dimensions of Human Agency

  • Author(s): Story, Daniel Ervin
  • Advisor(s): Falvey, Kevin
  • Hanser, Matthew
  • et al.

My dissertation concerns the social dimensions of human agency. I reject the common and often unstated presupposition that agents have clear boundaries separating one agent from another. In my view, it often becomes strained to think of interacting agents as functionally discrete spheres of intentional activity. This is because agents regularly act on one another’s intentions and for one another’s reasons. When your intentions and reasons guide and sustain my activities, there is an important sense in which some of my practical mental states and actions are attributable to you as well as to me, and there is no way to sharply distinguish what you are up to from what I am up to without distortion. My agency and yours have become intertwined.

Consider a simple example. Suppose my colleague phones me and asks me to find a document in our shared office. I have no idea where the document is, so my colleague actively directs my search. First, she tells me to check the filing cabinet. Then, she has me check the bookshelf. Finally, she tells me to check her desk, wherein I find the document. She then asks me to scan and email her the document, which I do after hanging up.

My colleague and I jointly searched for the document. But we played very different roles in that search. My colleague was deliberating and directing; I was acting at my colleague’s direction and was guided by my colleague’s intentions and goal. There is a sense in which my actions were an expression of not just my agency, but of my colleague’s as well. It is as if my colleague’s sphere of intentional activity was interpersonally extended such that it overlapped with or twisted around my own intentional activity. We were agentially intertwined.

The first part of my dissertation is dedicated to defending these ideas. After surveying some of the leading accounts of joint/collective action in Chapter II, I argue in Chapters III and IV that directives are ubiquitous and integral to good social functioning in joint actions. Most contemporary philosophers who have written about directives have thought of them as tools for giving others reasons. But this approach fails to capture the distinctive ways that directives and interpersonal authority characteristically shape practical thought. I argue that directing another is a way of communicating one’s intentions for them, and typically when one complies with a directive, one adopts that intention without independent deliberation about what to do, leading to the sort of agential overlap just described.

In Chapter V, I apply some of these ideas to a problem in developmental psychology. Psychologists hold that joint action is developmentally prior to robust theory of mind. Yet leading philosophical accounts of joint action presuppose that participants have robust theory of mind. I argue that even without a robust theory of mind young children can and often do share intentions and participate in joint action by adopting the communicated intentions of more competent partners who structure and manage interactions for them.

In Chapter VI, I turn to purely moral matters. I introduce interpersonal moral luck, which occurs whenever another’s action, qua action, affects one’s moral status in a way that is outside of one’s capacity to control. I then argue that agents who are susceptible to interpersonal moral luck often for that reason enjoy special claims against those who are the source of that luck. I call this normative entanglement. I suggest that if my views about agency are correct, both phenomena are widespread in human life. This has important implications for our thinking about the nature of moral responsibility and the norms that govern agents in collective contexts.

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