1. Sam, is there any way to get a log-in thingy on this page rather than having to go to the wordpress home page?
2. Scarily, I woke up this morning and the first thing I thought of was something that might help me solve a problem in my dissertation. I’m wondering whether this idea can fly.
How far can I go with a distinction between “identity” and “agency”? I mean ‘identity’ in the sense of who you live your life as (not yet sure if this is the best formulation for my purposes)—intended to be something related to but not completely conceptually identified with the usual metaphysical sense of personal identity. And I mean ‘agency’ as the thing the action theorists are after. These two things have in common the possibility of describing “where the agent really is”, but I think this phrase is ambiguous and I’m exploring whether it can be disambiguated.
Background: A central problem of action theory has been to find “where the agent really is” in a sea of psychic happenings. The task is to find some attitude or set of attitudes (‘attitude’ used loosely to include things like beliefs) that “speak for” the agent as she goes about her daily life. Agency in this sense is the authoritative attitude by which the agent guides her action—and it distinguishes true actions from mere acts, making them fully the agent’s own. This is the classic problem that has troubled the likes of Frankfurt, Watson, Bratman, and Velleman.
Identity in the sense I have in mind might be impossible to distinguish from agency in this sense, but I want to see how far I can get. Imagine Jack, who finds himself really caring about one thing (perhaps his career), but wanting to care about something else more (perhaps his family). [I’ll leave the sense of ‘care’ here vague for now—I think it should be sufficiently intuitive for the purpose.] Jack is such a workaholic that we, his friends, might say that his job is “who he is.” We still like him, but we can see that things have gotten out of hand lately as he competes with a colleague for some juicy promotion, and it’s taking its toll on his wife Jill, who has been struggling to manage the household chores and kids’ schedule without his help. Jill has always been a pillar of support, happily making many small sacrifices for Jack, but since we’re friends with her too we can see the signs that she’s beginning to crack under the strain. Jack knows that he’d be nowhere without her, so he doesn’t want to lose her. But at the moment, as things stand, his career is really the most important thing to him. It’s what he cares most about. He lives his life as the guy who lives for his work.
Because Jack knows he’d be nowhere without Jill, however, he wants to change this. He wants to care more about his family than he does currently; he doesn’t want his job to be the single central thing in his life anymore. I think he could effect a change, though it would take time and patience. But it would involve the exercise of agency (on some higher-order level of desires/cares/ideals) to effect a change in his identity, which I suggest is made up of his first-order cares—the things he actually cares about as he currently is. In order to exercise this kind of agency, he’s going to have to take seriously (e.g. not be in denial about) the fact that he actually currently cares most about his career. I think you could say he needs to respect himself the way he is, even though he aims to change that. (The first step is admitting the problem, right? That’s the only way you can come to terms with it and thus fix it.)
So identity in the sense I have in mind is distinguishable from agency in at least a couple of ways.
First, it’s the set of cares you exercise your agency (whatever action theory decides it is) to shape your actions around/in light of.
Second, agency can operate on identity in order to shape it—i.e. change first-order cares to match up to ideals you have adopted.
Third, maybe we could describe agency as “where the agent is” on a “short-term” level, as where the agent is moment-to-moment, and identity is “where the agent is” on a longer-term level.
A lot needs to be said about the differences between cares and ideals, and how one could adopt new ideals, because no doubt part of adopting an ideal will be caring about it, and isn’t that just another care? Yes, but it’s a higher-order care. Still, I don’t think this resolves the worry, and this question will have all of the complications that we see in the literature on agency. But could I at least have the seed of something here?
*Note: These thoughts are inspired by some work of Agnieszka Jaworska.