Agency in the Age of Covid
Somewhere in between being locked down due to the Covid-19 outbreak and consequentially spending more time online, the idea of agency has arisen as one of increasing importance. Agency is defined as the capacity of a person to act within the context of a given environment. Our given environments are — at the time of writing — simpler than usual, with many spending all their time at home, so this allows an opportunity to examine this topic.
According to Donald Davidson, who authored a classic text on the subject, “Some causes have no agents.” (Davidson, 1963: 700). A more common way to express this is the phrase ‘that’s the way the cookie crumbles,’ of even just simply ‘shit happens.’ There are events that lie beyond our control, indeed most events are as such. Things just happen, like when a meteorite hit the earth causing a mass extinction (the Cretaceous-Tertiary Event 65.5m years ago). But we cannot generalise this. We cannot extrapolate it and then superimpose it upon our actions. ‘Shit happens’ does explain an awful lot in terms of agency, but we can’t use it to explain away our own unethical actions as agents ourselves.
Neither can we be fatalistic. There are some causes that are within an individual’s sphere of control, even if that is very small given the scheme of things. And these are important as it’s our agency, our potential to affect the world around us. The idea of agency, and debates around it fall precariously between philosophy of mind and political philosophy. The former relates to it via questions regarding free will, thought, and consciousness. This field is increasingly being informed by neuroscientific experiments and their steep curve of new information. Phenomena which damage ideas of free will include Libet’s Delay, a roughly 500 millisecond delay between the occurrence of an intention and the reported experience of it. Benjamin Libet discovered that his subjects reported the intention after its execution. Although it may not sound it, and similar to a week in politics, 500 milliseconds (half a second) is a long time in neuroscience.
Even if free will is just a dreamt up non-reality, we still feel it. Just as solipsism (the idea that we can only rely on the existence of our minds, all other things being unreal) can be taken as a point of view and argued for, nobody could genuinely believe it. This was pointed out wonderfully by John Searle by way of an anecdote of a friend telling him that solipsism is an idea sure to catch on. Similarly, we feel that free will makes part of our lived experience, and we reap the consequences of what we cause to change as individuals. Free will is part of our reality, even if the objective existence of that reality cannot be rhetorically proven. For this reason agency bears more effective relations with political philosophy and ethics. The ‘given environment’ of agency is not imagined free will, but our societies in which we act.
Agency, even as an idea, is something that’s fallen by the wayside in this present generation of consumerism. Although this economic model has brought a rise in living standards, there has been a corresponding fall in purchasing power and real wages since the late 1970s. In the neo-liberal political economy, agency comes along with high unemployment, and even for those who do have work, the hierarchy of the company structure is one which diminishes agency even further. We compliantly fall in under our superiors, never being allowed to call into question the ethical practices of the companies we work for.
Increasing in scale, upwards from company superiors, there are some with more agency than others, despite all living in a democracy and voting equally (at least in theory). The President of the United States, for example, has far more reach than I do, his actions having greater consequences. Politically, at the bottom of the scale there are the voters who are freely apathetic, leaving a gap where a significant chunk of the pie is left open and can even swing an election. Thus, they don’t merely give their agency away, but it’s taken and used by others. Indeed in both US presidential elections of 2000 and 2016 the candidate with fewer national votes went on to office, thanks to the college electoral system. Tiny numbers of the most relevant people can be swayed to swing elections, giving those individuals more agency, meaning that a voter in Florida or Ohio has more affect than one in California or Texas. These swing voters are the most vulnerable in terms of agency because of their being targeted, but strangely also have more of it than others.
The existence of a democracy therefore depends on the exercising of agency. The question to ask, then, is are we losing agency today? The world increasingly presents itself as one where the individual is losing potency. Why is this? Is it caused by the rat race? Is it caused by people seeing problems of unsolvable scale in their daily newsfeed? Is it due to the hierarchical nature of workplaces? Is it related to the sedentary nature of our lifestyles? or all of the above?
Looking from the consequential point of view, the apathetic voter example is one where agency is essentially stolen and then amplified by the thief. There are more poignant examples from Hungary and Poland where authoritarian politicians come out the other end of stolen agency. Another example is neo-liberalist consumerism which flaunts an ethical view that consequences are not to be considered. In terms of ideas, it is a curious blend of apathy and supply-side economics. One’s agency in this context is subverted by inevitable external forces, and acts against one’s own needs in what Marx would label as false consciousness. The agent is divorced from his agency, making agency itself a commodity. The natural owners of agency consume ‘influence’ and through that are stripped of their potential to affect a given situation by the environment itself.
As a commodity, there is no prerequisite for agency to be conscious. We can say that information has agency, as it may directly cause a person to act in one or another way. It is more than mere cause, as information is the product of curation. The information contained in a newspaper, say, is a curated distillation of reality or experience, not to say of objectivity. It’s in this curation where agency takes place, but that is embedded then in the information itself. Daily, we are ‘influenced’ via social media. But we tend to see information simply as an event without causation — just events following each other. Our influencers ‘nudge’ us, as if we are on a tipping point and need only the lightest of pressure to fall in their desired way (Wilk, 1999; Thaler and Sunstein, 2008). The sweets placed by the checkout of a supermarket, or a pre-selected shipping option online are examples of a nudge.
Social media influencers are the Frankenstein’s monster child of reality TV. It is the extended transformation from that — the most boring of apathy-producing entertainment — to something with genuine affect. The stratum of people known as ‘famous for being famous’ are now replaced with those who are instrumental in taking ungiven agency through nudges. Social media being addictive means that as time goes on the impotency of the agent only increases. It is therefore far more potent than earlier manifestations such as product placement in the film industry.
Human agency in the modern world often comes from information-based decisions. And with our information being corrupted to the point that we can never trust it, how can we make a well-informed decision? Strong arguments, say scientific proofs, simply now feed into the narrative of one side of a predetermined political bias, rather than settle a doubt.
The more this trend continues, the more obvious it becomes, the less we can trust what we read online, and the more we tire of it. The theft of agency eventually becomes its own antithesis, making us more aware of agency than if it were not there. One of the catalysts for this is the situation of the coronavirus lockdown, during which I’m writing these words. There are three reasons for this: firstly the simple manner by which the virus travels being directly related to how we act. This brings about a need for a mindful awareness, a minute-to-minute attention to our physical actions, in tandem with broader awareness of the possible consequences to those actions. The second reason is the rapid spread of mis-information on social media such as conspiracy theories. Many of these falsely paint a picture of deliberate planning of the virus’ spread through the world, devaluing the medium itself. And the third is the nature of the virus itself. It is partly beyond our control, but the spread of it in part comes under the sphere of the individual’s influence.
At the beginning of this article I defined agency with regard to our ability to act in a given environment. There is a distinctly Darwinian favor to this, in that certain physiological traits are selected by environment. This triangular relationship between an individual, her actions, and environment is of key importance, and is so on a level touching our deepest human nature, given the bio-ontological connection with evolution.
As a social species, we may find a higher awareness of agency building to a system of consequentialist ethics (i.e., decisions based on the imagined consequences of actions). The contrarian system of authoritarian ethics (acting because of authority, say, like the commandments of the Judeo-Christian tradition) can be seen as having evolved simply as a glue to a functioning society. Indeed this would be supported by our prehistory and arising of religion during the neolithic revolution, a time of differing consciousness and zeitgeist. Either way, I suspect that the given situations of today shall give rise to a greater concern for the porousness of how we integrate with and affect the immediate world around us.
It is in the present environment of internet literacy, after the Enlightenment, and during the Covid-19 pandemic where we can see afresh the simple fact that the actions of an individual have consequences. It is under the light of this undeniable fact, where an individual must make his or her mindful decision. This was a founding stone of the democracies of the 18th century, and one which hopefully we shall see resurrected, a circular or global structure of consequentialist interconnection rather than a linear one of ethical decision making. The feeling of agency, choice, and affect that is present in our experience ought to be enough to make the leap from the theoretical plane onto one where we can apply ethical decisions and actions.
In today’s multicultural and mixed-belief democracies, an ethical code of consequentialism is needed so as not to rely on outside forces for a system of understanding to hold together. In short, it doesn’t need a god, nor does it preclude there being one. Having a less relevant authority empowers — indeed liberates — the individual in their actions.
Donald Davidson, ‘Actions, Reasons, and Causes,’ in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 60/23, (1963), 685–700.
Richard H. Thaler & Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).
James Wilk, ‘Mind, nature and the emerging science of change: An introduction to Metamorphology,’ in G. Cornelis; S. Smets; J. Van Bendegem (eds.), Metadebates on Science: The Blue Book Of “Einstein Meets Magritte” (Einstein Meets Magritte: An Interdisciplinary Reflection On Science, Nature, Art, Human Action And Society), Book 6 (Brussels: Springer, 1999), 71–87.