“The mature agent… will recognize his relation to his acts in their undeliberated, and also in their unforeseen and unintended aspects. He recognizes that his identity as an agent is constituted by more than his deliberative self.” (Williams 1995, 32)
Bernard Williams clearly thought that the unforeseen and unintended aspects of our actions were important. The child lays dead in the road, the driver killed him—but all the driver intended to do was get to the depot, and he was driving safely and attentively. I want to sketch an account of agency that, I hope, helps to make sense of the way in which the driver was an agent and was responsible for the child’s death.
It’s obvious that none of us have complete control over what we do, we can never set ourselves to do something and guarantee that it comes about. One response to this is the scepticism we get in Nagel’s “Moral Luck” (Nagel 1979), but I’m more drawn to Raz’s response: even though everything that we do depends to some extent on matters beyond our control, we need to distinguish between gambles and purposive action (Raz 2011). For a very inexperienced fisherperson, catching a trout is perhaps out of their control and a total matter of luck; but if they are a competent chef then cooking the trout is not out of their control—even though particular elements, like the oven working properly, are out of their control. Why? Because they are skilled as a chef, and the reason why they succeed is that they have these skills.
Raz thinks the skills that allow us to be responsible for actions or outcomes are skills that are almost-guaranteed to work, those which we can rely on to work out. So, I can be responsible for cooking the trout (alternatively, I can be responsible for the delicious meal). But I’m not so sure that this is the right approach. When David Beckham scores a free kick, he has, say, a 1-in-7 chance of scoring (and I’m being generous), but still he scored, and we need to recognise that. (In American Football, we might not want to say the QB is responsible for the success of a “Hail Mary” pass, but he is for an ambitious pass).
This gives us something of a fallibilist picture of intentional action: you are responsible for an outcome/action if it came about due to your intentional exercise of a skill where this skill has some decent chance of success but might be moderately fallible. I stated this in terms of intention, but really I think this is just an all-round good picture of authorship. In order to author anything, you need more than just an intention—authorship involves manifesting your intention (or values, character, reasoning, etc.)—and this is a picture of how we can manifest these intentions in the world.
There’s something important about the ways in which we reflect our values (reasoning, character… however we construe it) in the world. There is something important about the way in which actions “were someway or other intended [or] show some agreeable or disagreeable quality in the intention of the heart” (Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments II.iii.intro.3). Yet a comprehensive account of agency also has to make sense of the other things we do—not just the times we manifest our values, but the times our abilities misfire or fail. Even if the only things that are attributable to us as moral agents are the things we author, there are other things that are attributable to us as agents that do not manifest our values.
When, for instance, David Beckham tries to score but the ball flies a mile wide of the target, we can’t just put that down to luck. It was because he tried to score that the ball flew wide. Likewise, it was because the driver set off for a drive that the child died. It wasn’t because the driver was speeding or drunk, but it was because he was driving. This is not mere causal responsibility, it’s agential: the driver is responsible in virtue of something he did as an agent, namely intentionally trying to achieve something. The driver can escape blame, he can escape any criticism of his conduct, but what the driver can’t escape is that he killed the child.
What I’m getting at is this: in order to be authors, people who can make an impact on the world in line with our values, we must use these fallible abilities. But how we act as agents doesn’t depend on what we intend to bring about; rather, it depends only on the fact that we intend to bring about something (see Davidson, but Williams also subscribes to this) and that something—perhaps something else entirely—gets brought about.
Williams doesn’t say much about the mature agent. But it seems that the mature agent has a proper understanding of her role in the world, and of the ways in which she might, sometimes unintentionally, impact others. If I’m right: we are agents when we make an unintended impact on the world and the mature agent realises this. And the mature agent also realises that this might leave her with a burden to bear, it might force her to make amends and blemish her life in a variety of ways (see John Gardner’s From Personal Life…). The importance of the things we cause as agents but not as authors needs more exploration. If we focus on morality and authorship we run the risk of ignoring the important ways that agential responsibility matters and of neglecting what it means to be responsible as an agent.
There’s much more to say, but I hope this is an interesting start and helps to shed some light on an area of Williams that has been underexplored—not moral judgment, but action. I’d like to hear what you think!