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A thought inspired by Wednesday’s Daf (page) in the Talmud, Nedarim 43

A thought inspired by Wednesday’s Daf (page) in the Talmud, Nedarim 43

Agency is up-to-me-ness.

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This post presents a philosophical idea inspired by the text of today’s Daf. The Daf is one page in the Talmud that tens of thousands of people study each day. I explain the connection to the text in a comment below. My purpose is to show that there are underlying philosophical assumptions in the Talmud that can have great significance for anybody today trying to understand our complex reality.

What does it mean when I say that you did something? In what way was it you who did that “something”? Was it really you or were you just the tool of other people, non-human forces, determinism or just fate?

If you answer, “Yes, it was me”, then you are asserting that you see yourself as the “agent”; that you were the force who decided that it should happen and who made it happen.

Agency is a matter of how you look at the world. An attitude of agency consists in the belief that you had more than one choice, that it was you who selected one of those choices and that it was your decision to do what you did. Agency is the feeling that what happened and what will happen is up to me.

There are two major classes of alternatives to agency. One alternative is chronological. That is normally a factual situation, where the last step in the action was taken by another free agent. If you, say, bring a hammer to someone and they decide to hammer in the nail, then I could argue that you were not the agent in this case. The last free decision maker in the chain is the agent. On the other hand, if the guy who hammered in the nail was your subordinate who would lose their job or go hungry if they refused, then I might argue that you are still the agent.

The second alternative is mostly psychological. If you take an action but feel that nothing in this world is ever your choice, then even if I think that you are the agent, you yourself might deny this. You do not feel like it was your decision. Nothing ever is. You do not have an attitude of agency. Another, broader, aspect of this problem is that sometimes people don’t believe that the direction of their life is up to them. They blame everybody else for their troubles. They don’t believe that is up to them to fix up their life, because they don’t believe that any of their own decisions could ever fix it.

Till now I have been describing individual agency. There is also an attitude of group agency. If you and I are playing on the same team and you pass the ball to me, and I score a goal, then our team is the agent that scored the goal. In this case, even though I was the last free decision maker, it would not be correct to see me as the sole agent. If we see ourselves as part of a team, then together we are the agent.

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Source: Reditt

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