Identity and agency

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.


11 Responses to Identity and agency

  1. Steve says:

    Very interesting stuff. Well, I’ll throw a few undercooked and disjointed ideas out there just to get things started. I’m sure I’ll think of more as discussion gets rolling.

    The Jack/Jill case, as you described, sounds like it should be interpreted as a weakness of will case. Jack risks “losing Jill” if he doesn’t moderate his occupational will-to-power. Presumably, the contemplation of the possible situation (world) in which he gets that promotion but also loses Jill is unacceptable to him. So, in the cool hour, he values family over work. But when his career goals become salient (which may happen every day that he’s at work), the career desires flare up. (Do we say that, in those moments, he cares about his career desires more? I’d be inclined to say that.)

    Perhaps the possible-world contemplation is a way to argue that the case isn’t just one of competing patterns of salience. Whether at work or at home or anywhere else, the possible world in which he loses Jill in exchange for career success (no matter how great??) is frightful to him.

    But I guess it’s not quite akrasia of the ordinary brand. It’s almost like an akrasia of cares/desires. Jack has thoughts about what he should want but can’t bring himself to want this all the time (rather than having thoughts about what he should do and not able to bring himself to do it in temptation situations). That’s interesting.

    I wonder what happens to the case if you soften it a bit, say, by stipulating that he wouldn’t actually lose Jill. She’d be not quite as happy but he’d get the career satisfaction. But, maybe you’re wanting a more clean-cut case in which cool-hour Jack definitely puts Jill ahead of career goals.

    The short-term/long-term suggestion baffles me. I’m almost wondering if it should be the other way around, or if that dichotomy just doesn’t apply. But then again, I’m fuzzy on the concepts of identity and agency at the moment.

    Also, will identity just get you an account of what agency isn’t, or do you have the grander goal of providing an account of agency?

    Few, undercooked, and disjointed?
    What can I say…I’m a man of my word.

  2. Erica Lucast says:

    Thanks for the response, Steve. A few replies:

    1. The short-term/long-term point: I’m not sure what should be baffling about it. The sense of identity I have in mind here has a lot to do with long-term cares and goals. We persons tend to identify ourselves by things like roles and hobbies: I’m a teacher, a pianist, a writer, a philosopher, a daughter, a fiancee, etc. etc. These things define me in a kind of longer-term, overall way. They’re not always guiding my actions moment-to-moment. For instance, if I’m hungry, my identity as a philosopher, daughter, whatever, doesn’t generally come into play as I decide what to eat.

    But my agency will. I may have a desire for a big bowl of yummy, gooey macaroni and cheese, but I also have a desire to eat healthily, which maybe at the moment gives rise to a contrary desire for a salad. In whatever way the action theorists tell us agency works, I can exercise my agency by endorsing one or the other of these immediate desires.

    Now look at an addict of a sort. Let’s take a workaholic, so that a physical addiction doesn’t come into play here. Suppose for the moment that Jack decides his family is going to come first. So he’s going to have to change his long-term pattern of valuing/caring about his career to make more room for family activities. At first, he’ll still have the patterns of caring and behavior that drawing him toward work, but he can decide not to endorse these. So in a sense they’re “him,” but in a sense they’re not. They’re “him” in an identity sense, because that’s where his cares (which are distinguishable from immediate desires) as a matter of fact lie right now, but they’re not “him” in an agency sense because he makes an effort not to act on the immediate desires arising from them, rejecting those desires and their derivative motivations. If he succeeds in not acting on these cares, the hope is that eventually the cares will weaken and he’ll be less motivated to act according to his workaholic patterns.

    Does that clarify anything?

    2. So I don’t think Jack’s predicament can really be seen as a case of akrasia, even of the modified sort. Look at Jack at the moment he realizes his predicament (this will perhaps involve a softening such as you suggest): he cares quite a bit both about his career and about Jill & kids. These things make up an important part of his identity, the person he sees himself as. But he realizes he’s at a choice point, and has to take an action (or series of actions) that will, in fact, amount to a decision to make one or the other more important to him– i.e. for him to actively identify himself more with one than the other. This will involve an exercise of agency, but it will also have the result of affecting his identity.

    3. I’m not sure I understand your closing question. I’m not after an account of agency; my target has more to do with identity. But they’re obviously closely related, so I need to figure out just what the connection is. What do you have in mind with the thought that an account of identity would just be an account of “what agency isn’t”?

  3. Jon S. says:

    Hi Erica,

    I have one of the immediate reactions Steve had, but for the purposes of this paragraph I’m going to avoid the identity/agency terminology, which I’m sure to mix up, and talk about first- and second-order desires instead. The way you suggested setting things up, we describe “where the agent is” in the long-term on the basis of first-order desires, and “where the agent is” in the short-term on the basis of second-order desires. But it seems to me (and, I think, to Steve) that how I act in the short-term is much more a function of my first-order desires than it is of my second-order desires. It’s only in the long-term, by reshaping my first-order desires in accord with my second-order desires, that my actions are a really a function of my second-order desires.

    But I think I understand why you’ve set it up as you have. You can correct me if I’m wrong. I’ll try to use your terminology.

    I think the reason you want identity (in the relevant sense) to be a long-term version of “where the agent is” is that the first-order desires I have over the course of my life determine who I actually live my life as, and the reason you want agency (in the relevant sense) to be a short-term version of “where the agent is” is that my second-order desires operate on my first-order desires by reshaping them only from moment-to-moment. That seems alright, and probably resolves the worry that I (and possibly Steve) had.

    But the worry becomes, I think, whether you want to call this long-term version of who I live my life as “identity,” or whether you want to call it something else. I think it’s meant to work so that I can change my identity (in the relevant sense) through my agency. So my identity at time 1 and my identity at time 2 can differ. So we don’t want to say that my identity is “where the agent is” in the long-term, since my identity will change a lot in the long-term (since it’s being acted upon by my agency in the short-term). So, who I live my life as in the long-term seems like a union of the time-relative identities I bore over its course (but, really, only because I

  4. Jon S. says:

    JKon pointed out that the end of that comment got cut off. it said something like:

    (but, really, only because I

  5. Jon S. says:

    Sigh. (…I (heart) set theory.)

    And then something about how I’m well away from my fields of interest, so there could well be obvious responses to what I’ve said. That’s all I can remember, so hopefully nothing important got lost.

    I’ll whine at Sam about deleting that first failed attempt to say what got cut off. Html-enabled comments are evil.


  6. Erica Lucast says:

    Jon, these are helpful ideas, especially that first part about the first- and second-order desires. I see where things can sound confusing. Let me mull for a bit and I’ll see if I can put something together by way of clarification/reply.

  7. alex says:


    this is going to be short, because after reading your reply to steve i really really need some mac n’ cheese right now, but– it does seem to me like you are getting at a real distinction here. one thing that suggests an identity/agency distinction, to me at least, is thinking about cases where we would say someone isn’t acting as an agent, or their agency is suspended (i’m chairing a session at the pacific APA that, i think, will touch on this stuff). it seems like in cases like these, we nonetheless think that identity of some sort persists. i don’t know if i’m using the terms in exactly the way you are here (i think my sense of ‘identity’ is pretty thin), but it’s hard for me to think when i’m hungry!

    i could probably explain myself better in person; i could definitely try.

  8. Erica Lucast says:

    Alex, I think you’re right about this. I probably should have said something more clear in my original post. I definitely think (following Jaworska) that a person can have the kinds of cares that constitute identity without also having agency in the usual sense. Think of young children and demented adults (these are Jaworska’s examples). I guess what I’m trying to work out here is just what the differences are. I’d be happy to chat some if you have time…

  9. Erica Lucast says:

    Hi Jon,

    I think what would help here is a distinction between ‘cares’ and ‘desires.’ I take cares to be deeper than ordinary desires, involving a certain amount of emotional investment beyond what’s typically involved in desiring. Desires in this sense are often (but not always) fleeting, which is where the talk of short-term comes from. Cares take longer to generate and longer to undo. They can generate more specific and immediate desires. (For instance: my caring about my dissertation gave rise to a desire to answer your post.)

    Perhaps [plagiarizing myself, from an e-mail I just sent to Steve] I can identify a kind of syndrome that signals the deep importance of some of these desires, thus designating them ‘cares’ and differentiating them from more ordinary desires. Things that get listed here include things like: you fare well or poorly according to how the object of care fares, and these differences are important to you; it takes more time to get over losses (a signal that cares are deeper than likes); you construct the narrative of your life with the object as an element (this restricted to people who are good at self-reflection); you feel fear in anticipation of a threat to the object and relief at its deliverance; feelings of hope are answered by fulfillment or disappointment when some object-related event comes to pass; etc. (this is just a sample).

    I’m not positive that this definitively distinguishes desires and cares the way I mean to, but on the other hand there’s probably a fuzzy line between them.

    Let me assume there’s some such distinction, though, and try to re-characterize identity and agency. Identity is supposed to be based on cares, usually (but not restricted to) first-order ones. These will typically give rise to first-order desires from moment to moment, which are in fact what agency typically works on. I take this suggestion to square with most of what you’ve said up to the last paragraph. Does it help, or have I just made the waters muddier?

    As for your worry, the characterization of cares as longer-term, and of identity in terms of cares, should clear that up. If I’ve explained myself right.

  10. Jon S. says:

    Now I understand about identity. (It probably helps to distinguish between desires and cares when talking about this stuff, eh? Mea culpa.)

    I think I’m still confused about agency though. You said in the last comment that agency works on first-order desires, and that identity is longer-term because it’s about cares whereas agency is shorter-term because (presumably) it’s about desires. That leads me to believe that agency is based on second-order desires. But in the initial post, you said that you want agency to work on identity in order to change it, and mold it to the ideals we’ve adopted. That leads me to believe that agency is based on second-order cares. (Incidentally, I’m not sure I know what ideals are, although if I had to guess, I’d identify them with second-order cares.) I just noticed, though, that you say that agency involves “higher order desires/cares/ideals”–do you want agency to just be all of the second-order stuff? And if that’s the case, I might become confused again about why agency gets to be shorter-term. There’s room in logical space to claim that se
    cond-order desires/cares/ideals are more ephemeral than the first-order versions, but I’m not sure if I’d buy it, or at least I’d have to be convinced of it. You might be able to convince me, e.g., that my second-order desires and cares are to have my first-order desires and cares be the ones that will allow me to be happy and attain my various ends, in which case my second-order desires and cares undergo situational changes, whereas the first-order desires and cares that I actually have are more robust across situations, but (assuming you so desire) I’ll let you have another go at explaining the idea to me before I make things unnecessarily complicated.

    So, as promised, there’s my next set of questions :-) Back to Aristotle.


    PS If I were as good at being productive as I am at posting blog comments, I might have actually written this paper by now..

  11. Erica Lucast says:

    Hi Jon,

    You’re right about how I’d characterize ideals– as second-order cares.

    Actually, I don’t have an official position on what agency is. Action theory is hard. One popular line of reasoning about it does make agency (at least in part) a kind of second-order motivating-thing, but there are important difficulties with this characterization. At least in my current project, I’m not interested in working out a theory of agency. So the talk of agency as “higher-order desires/cares/ideals” was really just loose, leaving the door open for whatever a reasonable theory of agency would say about this. Agency doesn’t have to be a completely short-term thing; we often exercise agency across a wide span of time, e.g. when we make plans for non-immediate futures.

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