When does the charge of “undermining agency” rest on a mistake?

Nick Geiser
4 min readJul 22, 2020

There is a familiar dialectic in debates over “individual responsibility” in politics, and which has become salient in the recent debate about racial inequality in America. This dialectic goes something like this. Someone asserts that members of some social group should take responsibility for their situation. In response, someone objects that this amounts to “blaming the victims” of injustice and ignores the responsibility of institutions, rules, or policies that caused the situation. Then, the first person says that shifting the focus to institutions, rules, or policies “undermines the agency” of individuals in the social group.

The idea behind this last charge is that attributing responsibility to institutions, rules, policies, or other background factors that are not themselves under the control of someone turns that person into a marionette of outside forces. It implies that someone is powerless to change her situation and denies their capacity to act freely.

There is are two problems with this dialectic, however, and it begins with a failure to distinguish causal and moral responsibility. Causal responsibility is neither necessary nor sufficient for moral responsibility. It’s not necessary, meaning the absence of causal responsibility doesn’t entail the absence of moral responsibility. This is clear in cases of “vicarious liability,” in which a third-party to a relationship can be held responsible for the actions of one side in a relationship. It’s not sufficient because causing an outcome doesn’t entail moral responsibility for it. If a mountaineer dies in an avalanche, we don’t blame the avalanche (in a moral sense) for the mountaineer’s death.

Second, we need to distinguish between freedom of action and freedom of the will. Some writers of course have thought that the two are the same thing Hobbes for example thought that “freedom,” whether predicated of an action or the will, was the absence of external impediments to motion. Hobbes aside, I argue that freedom differs with respect to acting and willing. For example, someone can be unfree to act even if, we suppose, they have free will. Someone in a locked cell is unfree to leave even if he can freely will to leave. Freedom of action is primarily determined by the alternatives available to you that you *could* bring about, were you to choose that alternative. “Could” is a weasel word there, admittedly. Freedom of the will is a matter of how or why you choose among the available alternatives, or perhaps a matter of other people’s attitudes toward how or why you choose. This distinction makes clear why moral responsibility is primarily a matter of one’s will and not one’s actions. Sometimes of course we make inferences from how free one’s action was to the freedom of her will, such as in cases of decisions under duress. But in these cases it’s the quality of will that grounds our judgment to exculpate or excuse someone.

Failuire to distinguish between free action and freedom of the will is one way this dialectic can rest on a mistake. If the argument is that institutions/policies/rules make it difficult for people in disadvantaged groups to improve their own circumstances, then the argument is that they lack freedom of action. However, the response that this argument “undermines people’s agency” treats it as an argument that they lack freedom of the will. However, saying someone can’t act freely, or is less free to act, doesn’t “undermine their agency” or reduce them to the status of a marionette.

There is also a second problem with the view that a deterministic view of people’s circumstances undermines their agency. This mistake involves a basic issue in the relationship between determinism and free will. There are great articles all over the web explaining this debate much better than a short post like this one can. For my purposes, here, all I need to note is the role of one thesis in this debate:

(I) If determinism is true, then free will is impossible

Views that affirm (I) are called incompatibilist views, while those that reject (I) are compatibilist views. Compatibilist views hold that even if determinism is true, it doesn’t follow that we lack free will. For example, a compatibilist might say that freedom of the will is a matter of a particular class of causes determining our will, or determining them in a specific way. For example, A.J. Ayer argues that a free agent is someone whose will, rather than other causes such as pathological desires, determines one’s behavior:

A kleptomaniac is not a free agent, in respect of his stealing, because he does not go through any process of deciding whether or not to steal. Or rather, if he does go through such a process, it is irrelevant to his behavior. Whatever he resolved to do, he would steal all the same. And it is this that distinguishes him from the ordinary thief. (from A.J. Ayer, “Freedom and Necessity”)

One reason for this second mistake may be a common confusion between determinism and fatalism, where fatalism is the view that some state of affairs will persist regardless of the actions particular individuals take. This is a far stronger view than determinism. Determinism says that, roughly, for any intitial state of a system, there is a particular subsequent state of that system toward which the system will evolve. Fatalism, by contrast, says that there is a particular state of the system toward which the system will evolve, regardless of its initial state.

The second mistake in the dialectic about “undermining agency,” then, is that those who claim that a view of institutions/policies/rules as determining social conditions accept, without argument, something like (I). They assume that if background conditions do in fact determine people’s circumstances , that this is itself inconsistent with regarding people as active agents in their own lives. This overlooks the compatibilist alternative.



Nick Geiser

Political theory PhD. I write about politics and (social) science.