Agency as rational deliberation treats agency as the process by which we weigh two alternatives and study out the consequences (i.e., the likely costs and benefits) of our choices. We are agents to the extent that we stop and think about our actions, rationally considering them in a reflective and detached manner. Agency as concernful involvement, in contrast, assumes that agentic activity is an expression of what we care about, whether or not we stop and think about our choices, or carefully deliberate about them before acting. Most of human agency is non-deliberative, expressed in practical action.

The Hidden Worldview: Agency as Rational Deliberation

To have agency means to be able to rationally weigh alternative actions.

We often use deliberate, rational choice as our “test case” for understanding agency. Consider, for example, when we are trying to choose between two different outfits when getting dressed in the morning: making the “right” choice depends on properly accounting for a host of considerations, such as the weather, the appropriateness of each for the events of the day, the expectations of others within one’s culture, our personal preferences, and many other factors. Most days, we spend little time deliberating on the matter, but on some days (such as when we have a job interview or some special event), we can spend a great deal of time debating the merits of each option. The rational deliberation that takes place in those moments — that is, the capacity to weigh the merits of multiple options and to decide which to take — is what we sometimes assume is the essence of our agency.

The vast majority of practical life is full of activity about which we engage in no deliberation or rational analysis whatsoever. We spend our lives doing far more than we think about what we are doing. From the “rational deliberation” view, this means agency is something that we use only occasionally, on those rare moments that we engage in conscious reflection on our choices. This would imply, then, that during those moments where we are not reflective about our choices, we are not fully moral agents; we are merely acting on instinct, habit, or other forms of mere reactive (rather than proactive) activity.

If agency is intrinsically tied to moral accountability, this might imply that we are less accountable for daily, practical action that we might describe as habitual or non-deliberated. Instinct and unconscious action are not seen as things over which we had conscious control, and therefore are not things for which we can be held to account. Agency, in this view, is asserted when we impress our independent will upon the daily flow of practical action through deliberation and reflection. When we engage in unreflective action, we are merely being acted upon by our environments, habits, or instincts. It is only when we “stop” and consciously choose that we become creatures who act instead of creatures who are acted upon. The existential psychologist Rollo May, for example, wrote:

Human freedom involves our capacity to pause between stimulus and response and, in that pause, to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight. The capacity to create ourselves, based upon this freedom, is inseparable from consciousness or self-awareness.[1]

This implies further that to become more fully moral agents, we need to engage in reflective deliberation about our activities.[2] We would need to spend less time engaged in unthinking action, and more time thinking about what we do — in this view, this is the essence of human freedom (agency). Consider, for example, the writings of Stephen Covey (which are thought to be inspired by Rollo May). When discussing the idea of agency, he centered the idea of agency on reflective deliberation:

Animals do not possess … “self-awareness” or the ability to think about your very thought process. This is the reason why man has dominion over all things in the world and why he can make advances from generation to generation. … Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose. Within the freedom to choose are those endowments that make us uniquely human. … And we have independent will — the ability to act based on our self-awareness, free of all other influences.[3]

Here, Stephen Covey is making an argument that we also make in another installment in this series: human beings are more than mere meat machines, programmed by our biology, upbringing, or environment. Our lives are full of possibility, as are our responses to the world we encounter. We have no wish to disparage or even critique this central message, because we agree with it. Our argument, however, is that by centering agency on those moments in which we “pause” and reflect on our actions, we treat agency as something separate and distinct from the ongoing flow of daily practical activity about which we engage in little reflection at all. Unreflective action is not fully agentive action, in this view.

Many psychological theories describe unreflective action as instinct — merely a reaction to the world at hand, rather than a proactive expression of deliberately chosen priorities. Other psychological theories treat unreflective action as the product of unconscious cognitive processes. In this view, human beings come equipped with a complex cognitive system, the major portion of which operates outside of our awareness or active participation but which nonetheless influence our behavior, thoughts, and feelings. In either view (animalistic instinct, or unconscious cognitive processes), unreflective action — action that takes place without conscious deliberation — is thought to be automatic, mechanical, and unconscious, such as the programming of a computer. The more agents we are, the less of this sort of action we will see.

An Alternative: Agency as Concernful Involvement

Agency involves our practical engagement in the mundane affairs of life, which express what we most care about.

In contrast with the “agency as deliberation” model above, we argue that we are moral agents even in the vast majority of day-to-day practical action that involves no reflection or deliberation whatsoever. This involves reframing how we think about agency. What if we didn’t use “deliberate choice” as a test case for — or only way to understand the meaning of — agency? After all, we don’t deliberate every time we hold the door open for a coworker, or say “please” and “thank you” in polite company, or smile at a stranger. But are these actions not morally praiseworthy?

Similarly, we seldom stop to consciously deliberate each word we’re going to say in a sentence when we are talking with a friend. But, even when we get wrapped up in the conversation, and maybe even lose track of time, we are still using our agency. Certainly we can be held accountable for the things we say, and the way we participate in the conversation, even if we aren’t actively deliberating along the way.  True, there may be moments in a conversation where we “stand back,” so to speak, and carefully weigh our words before speaking, but for the most part such “standing back” is unusual and represents a sort of break down in the unfolding flow of conversation. Thus, rather than revealing the essence of speaking and conversing with another, this sort of deliberation represents a sort of interruption of what is normal.

We would argue that something similar is true of agency. The moments in which we take a step back and reflect upon our choices do not demonstrate the essence of agency; they in fact represent an interruption of what is normal about agency. In the example of the ongoing, meaningful and purposive flow of conversation, we can clearly see agency not as detached, rational deliberation, but as engaged immersion in the practical matters of daily life. In this way, we can think of agency is as concernful involvement in the world.

The term “concern” in concernful involvement refers not just to the “thoughtful consideration” one might have for another, but rather “to the general sense in which the projects, events, and relationships of life matter to agents.”[4] Stephen Yanchar, a BYU professor, argues that from this perspective, “one does not proceed from the analysis of ‘I think’ … but rather from ‘I care.’”[5] We act in ways that express what we care about, even when we aren’t always thinking about it.

This perspective assumes that the situations and contexts in which persons act are “encountered as mattering” to us, even when they are mundane or routine. When we buckle our children’s seatbelts before a drive, this is an expression of ongoing concern for their safety — even when it becomes so habitual we do not remember doing it. It is often only in moments of breakdown — when the seatbelt won’t fasten, or the child won’t cooperate — that these concerns become matters of explicit analysis and deliberation.

A number of philosophers (Heidegger, Dreyfus, and others) argue that there are two “ways of being” in relation to the world, and “active deliberation” is found in only one of them. We can use an example from Dreyfus to illustrate this:

We hand the blind man a cane and ask him to tell us what properties it has. After hefting and feeling it, he tells us that it is light, smooth, about three feet long, and so on; it is occurrent for him. But when the man starts to manipulate the cane, he loses his awareness of the cane itself; he is aware only of the curb (or whatever object the cane touches) or, if all is going well, he is not even aware of that, but of his freedom to walk, or perhaps only what he is talking about with his friend.[6]

In this example, the blind man illustrates two modes of engaging with the world, different comportments that an individual can have with respect to their surroundings. The first can be roughly described by the term “present-at-hand” (a term borrowed from Heidegger), which can be roughly compared to reflective action with regards to the cane. In this mode, the cane is disclosed to the blind man as an object with properties, something that can be broken, repaired, improved upon, discussed, and analyzed in the abstract, etc. In other words, the cane is an object that is just there, “present” before the man, a thing to be contemplated, analyzed, identified, and categorized in one way or another.

The second way of approaching the tool is one in which the blind man is hardly aware of the cane (as an independent object) at all, but rather is using the cane to extend his awareness of the world around him. This comportment can perhaps termed “ready-to-hand” (another Heideggerian term). In this mode of engagement, “one is involved in everyday practical activity and the phenomenon is transparent.” The distinction between “present-at-hand” and “ready-to-hand” is sometimes referred to as the distinction between the world of abstract things and ideas and the world of concrete, meaningful things and purposes.

These two comportments or ways-of-being are found in every aspect of human life. A mechanic who is trying to identify a mysterious problem with the steering apparatus of a car is likely treating the vehicle’s steering wheel and apparatus in a way that abstracts them from their ordinary functions and meanings — i.e., as objects possessing certain abstract characteristics and features, as faulty instances of some universal ideal of the perfect or proper steering apparatus. In contrast, someone driving the vehicle would be engaging the same objects in very concrete, purposive, and concernfully involved ways — such a person does not treat the steering wheel as an object she is moving in a circle in order to exert an influence on a vehicle by means of a steering mechanism and drive train.  Rather, she is merely turning left onto the street where her dearest and oldest friend lives, in a quaint red house at the end of the block.

Similarly, someone learning a new language might treat every sentence as an object of explicit concern, words that must be put together in specific order and arrangement with deliberation and care, while someone more fluent might merely be asking for lunch. Someone visiting a distant relative and helping to prepare breakfast might need to find the eggs, locate a whisk, figure out the mechanics of the stove; whereas the same person at home in their familiar kitchen might be merely making eggs, with none of those intervening steps disclosing themselves as distinct activities of explicit concern.

As it is with the blind man’s cane above, the steering wheel, or cooking breakfast, so it is with our choices:  while it’s possible to examine our choices as explicit objects of concern (e.g., deliberation), most often they are invisible to us as we engage in practical action of the ready-to-hand variety. One might say that agency might be more readily expressed while puttering around the garage working on a project, than in careful lists of pros and cons and rational deliberation. While agency is certainly involved in the latter case, we choose far more often than we treat our choices as explicit objects of analysis.

Let us illustrate this with an example: in a previous installment, we argued that human beings have the innate capacity for moral responsiveness to the Other(s) in our lives. We have a moral sense that invites us to treat others with consideration and respect, and at each moral prompting or invitation, we can respond or resist. In this view, our responsiveness or resistance to this moral sense is not something that we usually deliberate. Rarely is this moral responsiveness a matter of rational analysis.

In fact, the moment we move into a more “rational” or “deliberative” mode, we are usually already responding or resisting. For example, we can respond to a prompting to reach out to a friend by rationally evaluating different ways of doing so. We might ask, “Would it be better to call, or to visit?” That is a choice that merits rational deliberation. But this deliberation is happening downstream from the initial act of moral agency. By even asking the question, we are already responding to the prompting; deliberating about how we will respond is a form of practical action that is itself a response.

Similarly, we might resist by rationalizing away the summons to reach out. We might tell ourselves, “I’m busy, and he hasn’t called me in forever.” In fact, deliberating whether to reach out to the friend may just be a way of “resisting” the summons:  by making it a matter worthy of deliberation instead of simply responding to the prompting, we imply that the visit is burdensome. We make it into something to be weighed against competing concerns, such as convenience or pride. Again, such deliberation occurs downstream from the initial act of moral agency; we are already resisting.

In other words, we can compare our choice to respond or resist to our moral sense to the blind man’s cane above; the choice itself is seldom a matter of explicit concern or analysis, but just as the cane discloses the surrounding world to the blind man, so do our moral choices disclose the world to us. As we respond to that moral sense, the choice discloses to us the humanity of others and ways to serve them; as we resist that moral sense, the choice discloses others to us as enemies, obstacles, or instruments to our own ends. In those moments of practical action, the choice itself becomes invisible to us, just as the blind man becomes unaware of the cane (as opposed to the world it reveals to him).

Further, in all of these examples, we engage in practical action that reveals or expresses what we care about, what we are concerned for:  when puttering around the garage, we are expressing our concern for cleanliness (if cleaning), for our hobbies (if idling time away by building something), or our family members (if searching for a lost toy). By deliberating whether to visit a friend or call them instead, we enacting our concern for our friend; by deliberating whether to reach out at all, we are enacting our concern for ourselves.

In the “rational deliberation” model of agency, to become moral agents, we must step back from our practical, ongoing engagement with the world, and engage in abstract reflection about our lives and activities. We must step into a comportment with respect to our lives and actions, in which our choices are “present-at-hand” (to use Heidegger’s term). However, this view highlights only a small subset of our agency. Just because our concernful involvement and moral responsiveness are non-deliberated or habitual, does not mean we any less moral agents for it.

In our view — agency as concernful involvement — our daily practical action is every bit an expression of our ongoing cares and concerns, even if our moment-to-moment acts of agency rarely reveal themselves as explicit objects of analysis. Our ongoing response to our moral sense is every bit as much a product of agency as our deliberated choices, even if that agency is expressed in ongoing action of the “ready-to-hand” variety. In other words, we are never not being an agent, merely because we don’t step back and critically reflect on our choices. Agency extends far, far deeper than the rare moments where we treat our choices as matters of deliberation.

References   [ + ]

1. May, Rollo. The courage to create. WW Norton & Company, 1994.
2. We want to note that we do not intend this as a critique of Rollo May’s excellent work, who is one of the few psychologists to acknowledge the centrality of human agency in psychological theory.
3. Covey, Stephen R. The seven habits of highly effective people. London: Simon and Schuster, 1992.
4. Yanchar, Stephen C., Jonathan S. Spackman, and James E. Faulconer. “Learning as embodied familiarization.” Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology 33, no. 4 (2013): 216.
5. Yanchar, Stephen C. “Truth and disclosure in qualitative research: Implications of hermeneutic realism.” Qualitative Research in Psychology 12, no. 2 (2015): 107-124.
6. Dreyfus, Hubert L. Being-in-the-world: A commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I. Mit Press, 1991.