Abilities, Agency, Freedom – notes from the conference

‘Abilities, Agency, Freedom’ was the topic of a two day conference of which I was a part, organised by Humbolt University in Berlin. Four papers were presented over the two days. Most papers focussed on abilities and agency, rather than on freedom.

Firstly, I must preface by saying that comparing to every other participant, I was completely out of my depth in understanding the names and theories of many more contemporary philosophers; but as sufficient explanations were given, or I was able to inference from people’s perspectives, I was able to follow all papers and discussions. These two days have given me a clearer perspective of philosophy as an academic discipline.

I will simply outline some of the questions and thoughts I had about the topics below.

– could will be seen as our capacity to choose?

– if we can be responsible or not responsible for our wrong-doing (for whatever reason) it would follow that the same is true of our right-doing. For example: one may become not responsible for certain actions learnt from their upbringing that hurt other people, but so is the same of polite behaviour. OR as in the case of Stockholm syndrome, a person may become sympathetic to the person who is mistreating them – they act with good, but this may be a self-preservatory response, or misplaced sympathy – perhaps in the case of Kant, they would be acting morally (out of a moral law of say, ‘do no harm others, but treat them kindly’). Another view might be that they act amorally as they should be working to defeat a person who is intent on hurting others or themselves. This obviously delves into morality rather than purely the metaphysics of responsibility.

– how can we gauge whether a human being has or has not a capacity? (For example the capacity to have empathy)

– is responsibility self-consciousness, capacity to choose or free will? How does one cultivate responsibility?

– I noticed that some of the speakers were unable to take into account human development (childhood and adult) is a force within an individual that promotes change and growth. This seems to me rather naive and also pedantic in the service of very limited metaphysics.

– this idea of ‘victim of compulsion’ as not being responsible for their actions

– abilities can be possessed even if not exercised.

– I think free will is a developed action or disposition of the individual. It is not desire or acting from moral law, but is moral in a conscious, contextual way (ethical individualism). Are we not simply trying to fulfil our needs in the best way we know how?

– with actions: an option has to do with current time (now) and are fragile as they depend on extrinsic context; abilities with future (later) and they are robust and intrinsic; and potentiality as the developing of potential (continuous)

– ‘ought’ is a choice between reasons rather than options

– one can not calculate the joint potential of two agents as the whole is often greater than the parts.

– Things that build from potential: abilities, dispositions, capacities, powers, tendencies, etc… In education we are required to isolate, assess and pass judgement on ‘potentialities’: what a child ‘is’ (physical), what they are ‘able to’ (skill), what they understand (and can apply) and that which they know (thinking).

I created this diagram to further illustrate the levels of what we are looking for in a child (it is only a preliminary sketch, comments are of course welcome).

Concepts I could not understand at the time:

– instrumental and non-instrumental desire. I assume instrumental desire is one that is instrumental in gaining another end, while non-instrumental is that which is desire for its own sake (and pleasure), though I am not sure. (I could not find an explanation online).

– compossible: things that can exist side by side. That is they are compatible in their simultaneous possibility.

– iff: if and only if

– epistemic: that which is compatible with our knowledge. That which references the nature of knowledge.

– veridical: truthful

– nisus : an impulse towards or striving after a goal

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One Response to Abilities, Agency, Freedom – notes from the conference

  1. John Taylor says:

    Yes, your assumption about instrumental and non instrumental desire is correct.

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