Section Ten: Agency


The British biologist and Humanist, Julian Huxley, wrote that the humanity is “evolution becoming self conscious.”  With that phrase, he identified the emerging role of the human species, the powers and responsibilities of the human being.  With it too, he denied that natural selection, Charles Darwin’s engine of evolution, was but a synonym for fate.  Of course, our genes allow some possibilities, physical and mental, and block others.  In most instances, however, it is the interaction of genes and environment – biology and culture – that account for what we are and that enable what we can become.  Height and stature, for example, change over time with changes in diet.  “IQ” changes with access to health care, a stimuli-rich environment, and resources like books and paintings.  Imagine, by way of contrast, the chaos that would result if we couldn’t rely on continuities and memories, say if language was reinvented by each of us every moment or pregnancy produced oak trees rather than babies.  In fact, biology and culture make freedom possible.  Above all, they make intentionality – choosing, aiming, acting and reconstructing – possible.

Another way of putting Huxley’s insight is to notice that human beings defeat natural processes by using natural processes.  For example, we fly by using gravity – to defeat gravity.  This is, after all, what technology is all about.  We formulate possibilities and plans, most of them involving some form of social relationship.  We create tools so that possibilities and plans can leave our imagination and enter our environment.  To this we add time and history – the memory supplied us by biology in one way – genes do just that – and by culture in another.  Today’s plan becomes tomorrow’s action and the day after tomorrow’s precedent.  The Enlightenment speaks here too.  Diderot’s Encyclopedia, for example was a revolutionary document.  Describing the sciences and technologies of its day, it invited the distribution of power.  Knowledge was no longer to be a privilege of class and caste.  As Condorcet, another philosopher of the French Revolution, put it, widely shared and reliable knowledge assures the “progress” of the human race.  The theme appears today in the Humanist’s commitment to social reconstruction and social reform.

But, progress is not inevitable.  Despite all we know – sometimes because of it – we are no strangers to failure and frustration and to horrors like genocide and nuclear bombs made possible by our knowledge.  In the name of realism then, we are tempted to oppose optimism with pessimism, to turn from Humanist faith to Calvinist sin or existentialist notions of pointlessness.  But this either/or misses Huxley’s evolutionary point.  Humanism, drawing on it classical and Renaissance traditions, moves from Enlightenment’s optimism to tragic sensibility – the satisfactions of choosing and doing and resisting, i.e. the myth of Prometheus brought up to date.  The satisfaction of the game is in the playing and not only in the winning.

We could read Huxley to be saying that we are intruders in the natural world.  Alternatively, we could interpret him to mean that human beings are partners with the rest of the world.  These two formulations of the same phenomena pose the metaphysical problem of our place in the universe and the ethical/political problem of environmentalism.  In fact, we are both intruders and partners.  Our history tells of a continuing tension between the two.

Human beings, organized into societies, have, as it were, created a third nature, a chosen nature to apply Huxley’s idea.  Its values are freedom and responsibility, and its focus is agency.  The idea of agency is traditional in ethics.  It names the beings who make choices, act on them, accept responsibility for what happens and are judged by how well or poorly they accept that responsibility.  Ordinarily, we assign agency to individuals, the moral animal on his or her own, as it were.  But that is the mistake of individualism.  For example, we know that science is a communal activity, that ethics without politics is helpless.  In short, agency – the moral role of beings that choose, act, take responsibility, and evaluate – is a shared venture.

Reflection: Even when we are alone we are not really alone. Is this an accurate statement? Why, why not? What experience and what evidence support your answer.

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