Agency and deliberation

People act as a result of a great variety of mental influences: instincts, emotions, impulses, loyalties, norms, as well as reasons, intentions, and plans. A subset of this cacaphony is “rational-intentional action”: actions that are the result of deliberation about ends and means, and choice among the set of available options for action. How does this sub-system of action fit into the larger swirl of psychological causes within the actor’s mental system? The photo to the right is relevant; it is an image of a demonstration at Berkeley in the 1960s, in which the motives of the participants were surely a mix of rational, ethical, emotional, and collective impulses.

One picture that philosophers of action have used is the idea of “higher” and “lower” faculties of motivation and choice. This is an Aristotelian model of practical reason. The higher system is the rational process of deliberation; the lower system is the range of emotions and impulses; and the point of the picture is that the rational component should govern the workings of the lower faculties.

How does this construction work as an empirical theory of human behavior (even if an idealized and simplified one)? It could prove faulty in several different ways: The emotions could turn out to be the more important cause, with rational deliberation a weak and tardy late arrival. Or it could turn out that the system of action is a more integrated process in which “emotion” and “deliberation” play a more equal and interactive role. Or it could turn out that these two realms really can’t be separated at all, and reason and emotion are comingled. We might find that it is possible to deliberate and reason about emotions, and it is possible for some emotions to push the deliberative process one way rather than another. And, most radically, it could be argued that these categories of introspection and folk psychology don’t explain behavior at all; instead, we need a more scientific and non-mentalistic foundation for explanation of behavior.

There are a few basic facts about action that constrain any proposed theory:

(a) actions are influenced by the goals that people have, so deliberation must be a part of the story. Whatever else we observe, it is certainly true that people are sometimes goal-directed and calculating.

(b) We can provide clear and important examples of actions provoked by emotion or passion, so means-end rationality isn’t the whole story.

(c) People often give reasons for actions that do serve to motivate their actions, but that are not framed as “means-end” reasoning. (For example, acting out of fairness.) So there are instances of action that are reasoned but not utility-maximizing.

What these points seem to demonstrate is that the mental system underlying behavior and choice is complex. No simple theory — Markov mechanisms, operant conditioning, maximization, or rule-following–captures the full range of behavior.

These questions are important for several reasons. First, we need some indication of an answer to the question if we are to have confidence in rational choice theory at any level. Second, our ability to explain a wide range of human behavior depends on our having better ideas about how reasons, emotions, and norms play out to create behaviors such as extreme altruism, hate crimes, suicide attacks, or indifference to the suffering of others. So social science needs to have a credible theory of human agency and choice.

Who has the right kind of expertise to attempt to theorize in this area? Philosophers, to start; this discipline has devoted a lot of rigorous effort towards creating a framework for talking about the mind, intentionality, and action. Second, psychologists have some powerful theoretical tools for conceptualizing and investigating behavior. Here I think of the example of cognitive psychology and its paradigm of trying to devise theories that would represent a psychological process that possesses a given set of cognitive capacities (memory, pattern recognition, speech). And, conceivably, it might be that the discipline and methods of neurophysiology and brain science can shed light on action and mentation as well.


One response

  1. The question of agency is a very interesting one. Too interesting to be left to cognitive psychology, neuropsychology or brain sciences. Comming from social anthropology, I can say that this question is gaining a lot of interest in the discipline and there are very interesting case studies being conducted to interrogate these questions. Saba Mahmood’s 2001 ethnography of muslim women’s motivations behind their religious activism articulates Butler’s reading of Foucault’s subjectivation with a cultural sensitivity that partially informs agency. Her basic statement is that agency is formed by a given structure of subjectivation without which agency cannot be conceived. So before trying to see how or brain intervenes in the process, we must be able to circumscribe a culturally informed comprehension of agency, that is what does a particular socio-cultural situation permit and constrain. Certain actions which we find abvious may be totally improbable in another setting. And this is not just a question of peer pressure. Another social anthropologist, Sherry B. Ortner, develops on practice theory and proposes what she calls «serious games». That is, that we use our capacity for action in order to advance certain projects which are culturally informed. We may thus use our ressources to become a successful trader our a successful «big man», all depending on where we are and what values have infused our surounding communities. Both these approaches pretty much amount to the same thing. They are slight variations on a basic argument to take into account the socially constructed possibility of action, without which no theory of agency is sustainable. Once we set these foundations we can go ahead with psychological (either the cognitive or the neuro variant) investigation. Or else we’re still stuck with the methodological individualism that blinds us to the forest of which the trees a but a part.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: