Agency and inner freedom

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Garnett, Michael (2017)

This paper concerns the relationship between two questions. The first is a question about inner freedom: What is it to be rendered unfree, not by external obstacles, but by aspects of oneself? The second is a question about agency: What is it to fail at being a thing that genuinely acts, and instead to be a thing that is merely acted upon, passive in relation to its own behaviour? It is widely believed that answers to the first question must rest on or be partly explained by answers to the second. Here I argue that this is a mistake: losses of inner freedom are not, after all, explicable in terms of failures of agency. To establish this conclusion, I consider three familiar lines of thought that appear to tie ideas about inner freedom to ideas about agency, each relating to a different conception of inner freedom: absence of inner constraint, self-government, and absence of determination by external forces. I argue that, in each case, any apparent conceptual reliance on a special conception of agency is merely illusory, the result being that we must allow clear water between our theories of inner freedom and our theories of agency. This conclusion is of significance for contemporary theories of agency and personal autonomy, as well as for ‘positive’ conceptions of political liberty.
  • References (4)

    Scanlon, Timothy M. (2002), 'Reasons and passions', in S. Buss and L. Overton (ed.), Contours of Agency: Essays on themes from Harry Frankfurt (Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press).

    Taylor, Charles (1979), 'What's Wrong with Negative Liberty', in A. Ryan (ed.), The Idea of Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

    Taylor, James Stacey (2009), Practical Autonomy and Bioethics (Routledge Annals of Bioethics; New York and London: Routledge).

    Velleman, J. David (1992), 'What Happens When Someone Acts?', Mind, 101, 461- 81.

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