Responsibility in the modern age: agency and change


Earlier I said that blogs can function to buffer moral agency against situational variation, if they are used in the right way (and receive the right uptake), and this could partially explain their popularity. Here, I want to examine specific social factors that could contribute to this explanation. Specifically, I am concerned with whether the social ecology is changing in such a way that blogs would be a particularly apt resource for agency cultivation.

I think that there are many good reasons to think that society is changing in just this kind of way. There is burgeoning popular discourse on the ‘information age’ and how modern technology has inaugurated an unprecedented rate of change for ‘Millenials,’ the generational cohort born after 1980. At the same time (and partly because of modern technology), the nature of interpersonal relationships and the workplace is changing. Millenials are less likely to marry than their parents(1), less likely to have children (2), and less likely to have traditional families (3) (which may or may not be a good thing – I will return to this point in a moment). Millenials also have less job security, and are more likely to have ‘casual’ jobs with part-time hours and no benefits (4). This is a familiar situation for many philosophy instructors, who are more likely than not to be adjuncts (5). The lack of full-time employment is more obviously morally problematic than the changing face of relationships, but we need to examine both fronts specifically from the perspective of responsibility. How do these shifting social trends affect responsible agency?

Arguably, social relationships are intimately connected with responsible agency, because relationships are either causally necessary for, or constitutive of, the (moral) self (see Baier 1986, Oshana 2006, respectively). We cannot become full-fledged moral agents, on this picture, without morally-conducive interpersonal relationships. Labour is similarly integral to responsible agency inasmuch as some jobs are conducive to agency while others are agency-undermining – the kinds of jobs that Marx described as alienating and objectifying. Such jobs can, in extreme cases, impair reflective agency by forcing people into time-consuming drudgery, and can by the same token prevent people from cultivating their moral personality. These loci are important for responsibility theorists, since they have implications for our capacity to hone responsible agency in our current climate.

We can consider this question from the perspective of the two theories described earlier (see previous posts): character theory and choice theory. I would say two things about these views before proceeding, to elaborate on their content. First, it is unlikely that many responsibility theorists in either camp subscribe to the idea that character and reasons-responsiveness must be situation-invariant, in light of the research in situationist psychology and cognitive science (on unconscious processes); and yet, theorists must surely be committed to some degree of evaluative congruence in an agent’s ‘moral personality,’ and to some degree of reflective independence from random situational elicitors. Otherwise, their views are not tenable, since they have no way of distinguishing between in-character/reasons-responsive behaviour, and recalcitrant behaviour, such as a psychotic break, which is patently non-responisble. Indeed, character theorists generally agree that character reflects the balance of a person’s morally-relevant psychological states, meaning that recalcitrant states/dispositions do not count. And control theorists typically think that reasons-responsiveness must exhibit a fairly predictable response pattern to relevant elicitors, ruling out random tics, blinks, and the like. So it is plausible to think that these theorists must be committed to some non-trivial degree of robustness in agent’s moral character/reasons-responsiveness. If this is right, and moral agency is deeply rooted in underlying social structures (as per situationist psychology), then it is a substantive question whether modern society supports the cultivation of moral agency. There is a viable case to be made that responsible agency is harder to cultivate in this climate.

We can also draw an analogy with situationist psychology experiments in another way. In these experiments, responsible agent was undermined because subjects went against their moral values or convictions. They were acting out-of-character and/or out-of-control, similar to the hypnosis victim (though to a lesser degree than this poor fellow). The experimental settings were radically different from the subjects’ familiar environments, and this ‘unfamiliarity’ prevented the majority of subjects from exercising reflective agency or acting on reliable dispositions for that type of context (depending on your interpretation). It is unlikely that Milgram’s subjects would have been successfully induced to shock a mock-victim to the hypothetical point of death twice. Unfamiliarity thus inhibits agency. Now, the modern era is analogous to situationist experiments in the following sense: things are changing. The familiar is no longer familiar. The nature of social relationships and of labour are different than they were for previous generations, and are constantly in flux. We have trouble predicting the future, and we can no longer rely on the wisdom of previous generations, as rapid social change makes much of that wisdom moot. So, modern society can be compared to a situationist psychology experiment, just in the sense that modern contexts are different from traditional social arrangements, i.e., unfamiliar. They are difficult to predict and, for this reason, difficult to navigate, and we do not have reliable guidance. Of course, living in modern society is different than suddenly confronting a researcher in a white lab coat who says, ‘the experiment must go on’; but there are, I think, relevant similarities, which suggest that the modern context impairs responsible agency, construed as either character or control. I do not mean to suggest that Millenials are not responsible agents tout court, but I believe that the decline of social stability in the last 30years had impaired their responsible agency relative to previous generations.


Against this analysis, one might object that Baby Boomers lived through the world wars, and these types of cataclysmic change are far more responsibility-impairing than the changes of the information age. But I would resist this conclusion because cataclysmic change is patently destabilizing, but also short-lived. So while the world wars surely did undermine responsible agency in the aggregate, they were succeeded by long periods of peace and financial revitalization. Modern change, by contrast, is never-ending and constantly accelerating. Without any horizon to the pace of change, Millenials cannot ‘put down roots,’ so to speak. They cannot build character and responsible agency so long as the social ecology is constantly evolving. And if relationships and work are precarious and ‘casual’ in the ways described above, Millenials lack resource for building robust moral agency. Accordingly, I would suggest that constant micro-changes are more responsibility-impairing than cataclysmic but short-term change, after which people can return to a relatively stable social environment. The Milgram subjects, after all, were quickly released back into their familiar contexts, and in spite of some emotional turmoil, apparently resumed their old lives fairly unproblematically. The point of the current analysis is that Milennials cannot return to the familiar, because the familiar no longer exists.



This is a preliminary analysis, and to be rigorous, we must also take into account the qualitative features of modern change. Although change in and of itself poses a threat to responsible agency, the face of modern change is not all bad. The decline of the traditional family and the traditional marriage, for example, are partly due to the rise of gender equality, including women’s newfound personal autonomy and sexual agency. Women are now better able to structure their lives and express their sexual agency according to their autonomous beliefs and values. And trans people have more freedom and social uptake than ever before in Western society. These changes have enhanced responsible agency for these groups, who are freed from the shackles of Patriarchal society and binary gender norms. So while change inherently poses a threat to responsible agency, the kinds of changes that have taken place on the relationship front have, in certain respects, been beneficial for historically oppressed groups, and this counterbalances some of the negative effects of social transformation. On the other hand, it is difficult to see how the global casualization of labour has conferred any agency-enhancing benefits, so this dimension of change can be regarded as uniformly negative. Altogether, while some aspects of recent change have been agency-enhancing, others have been harmful. On balance, we can tentatively suppose that the damage to responsible agency has been very substantial.

This is all I will say for now, except to make a quick methodological point. My recent posts have focused on the social conditions of responsible agency. Most theoretical work, by contrast, discusses the agential capacities required for responsible agency, and this work typically focuses on epistemic, psychological, and cognitive considerations. This is important research, but it is only half the story. It strikes me that very little work has been done on the social side of the equation, although responsibility theorists generally agree that responsibility is a function of the dynamic interplay between endogenous moral capacities and exogenous social factors. If this is right, then the social side of responsibility is just as ripe for analysis as the ‘internal’ side, though it receives less attention. But, not only is this aspect of responsible agency theoretically relevant, it is of interest to ordinary people, who want to know how their life will go, what kinds of people they are capable of being, and why. These are all reasons for us to do a little social anthropology.









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