Monday, March 16, 2009

On the death of the agent

In the past months, the world has watched as people from all walks of life, all socio-economic levels, all ethnic and moral and religious backgrounds have positioned themselves as so much flotsam and jetsam tossed around by forces wholly unrelated to themselves.
"I took the loan because it was offered to me."
"We sold the derivatives because someone wanted them."
"I encouraged people to look at financial markets as get-rich schemes because there was a market for what I was selling and the market demands satisfaction."
"We paid massive bonuses because that is what is required by the system."
The "because" is taken not as a reason but as a real cause.
These kinds of moves have caused a lot of people to talk about responsibility. I think this is right, though I suspect that many of those calling for responsibility are really calling for someone to be punished. While I respect this call, it doesn't, I think, get to the more basic issue: we have ceased to think of ourselves as agents in any meaningful way.
There was talk, most of it from fairly nasty sorts, in the Eighties and Nineties about cultures of victimhood and poverty. While those enamoured of such terminology were generally using it to absolve themselves of any responsibility towards the suffering other, they were also pointing to something real.
There is a disturbing tendency in America and perhaps in the rest of the world to paint ourselves as the products of our neuroses, of our childhoods, of our situations, of world forces, of our addictions, of our relationships, in such a way that what happens, happens, but we don't do it. Chris Brown beats Rihanna because he grew up in a home and a culture of abuse, friends of mine end up in hospitals because they are addicts, their relationships tumble because of their psychological hangups, and no where at all is there anyone doing anything.
I don't want to discount the way in which our choices are constrained by forces outside our control, certainly almost every thinking person from the ancients with their belief in Fate to even the Existentialists have recognized that, but if there is to be any meaningful sense in which I exist, in which there is an I, it had better mean that I take my decisions as my own, that I endorse them and stop seeing myself as a victim of the world.
This means, among other things, that I have to see myself as much uglier than I would like, since my bad actions are not just psychoses or addictions or what have you, they are things that I do. But if I cannot do this, then I cannot see a point of any sort in living.

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