« HS2: how to decide | Main | Syria, trust & knowledge »

August 27, 2013


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Limits to agency:


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Luis Enrique

accepting this, does it strengthen or weaken the case for criticizing their choices? If poor people are conditioned into making poor choices, perhaps Jamie needs to shout louder, to change those choices. Who says people should only be criticized for choices they make in some pure state of autonomous agency?

take a banker who has been socially conditioned into doing things like funding a leveraged buy-out without thought for the misery imposed on workers subsequently made redundant. You would not say the observation that this individual has been socially conditioned into that behaviour should lesson any criticism of it.

To my mind, the more we think people lack free will, the less the idea that we should only blame people who choose their actions make any sense. In the limit, suppose we are all machines with zero agency, in that case the objection "it's not their fault" would make no sense - and rather than jail bad people who had chosen to be criminals, we would just jail bad machines and we could still say things like "you are bad".

Peter Risdon

I agree with this, but can't see how it addresses the point I took issue with. The poor have agency, within constraints, like everybody else.

Having been poor myself, I'd add that when you're in that position there's an irrational desire to consume like people who are better-off and this should be viewed with some compassion. For me, this has relevance to the plasma TV crack.

But it's still wrong to say that no responsibility attaches to individuals who make bad decisions, whatever their circumstances, and there's a danger in treating some sections of society as though they lack agency completely and are just helpless subjects of other people's actions


Jamie Oliver did serve up a healthy portion of victim-blaming, which is why it was plastered all over the media. You'd think he had a TV show to promote, or something.

Luis Enrique

I have read the linked Telegraph bit. I can see him claim people make bad decisions, and say poorer people in other countries seem to eat better cheap food. I cannot see anything about who is to blame, social conditioning or agency


@ Peter - I fear this might be a glass half full/half empty matter. Yes,the poor have some agency, as do the rich. But whereas living well requires the poor to make some hard choices, doing so only requires easy choices by the rich.
@ Luis - Fair point. If you're poor, a bad choice can be disastrous - eg it can get you into onerous debt or prison - whereas if your rich it'll be only a minor setback which daddy can fix. One solution to this might be to stigmatize bad choices by the poor even more, to deter them. Perhaps there's a trade-ff between efficiency and justice or compassion.


Of course free will is an illusion. We have minds which like to construct retrospective narratives which create a sense of individual identity. 'Who we are' is literally a narrative of what we've done, based on genetic predisposition, sense experience and social conditioning.

There is no 'mini you' in your mind making choices. And there's no 'micro you' inside the 'mini you' either. Human beings make 'decisions' based on irrational factors such as hormone levels and routine, then their minds post-rationalise them.

'You' couldn't have done anything other than what you did. If you did, you wouldn't be 'you'. Your life is a process of self-discovery, of taking ownership of your actions and conveniently forgetting those which challenge the established narrative. [See Daniel Dennett for more on this stuff.]

Which is why poor British people find it difficult to incorporate a recipe of fresh mussels, cherry tomatoes and spaghetti into their identity-narratives. It doesn't tessellate with the rest of their experience.

If you discover you're someone who gets annoyed at other people's diets, the best way of influencing them is to surround them with the food you want them to eat, at a competitive price, and with plenty of related sense-experiences pretty much from birth.

However, I note that branches of Jamie's Italian tend to only open in posh and trendy parts of town, and charge you three times what Ronald McDonald does. Maybe he should open one in Hull, selling "spaghetti cozze alla pomodorini" for £2.88? After 25 years, it might have made a difference.

Steve Roth

If I had free will, I'd be shoot par golf!


Hang about; Under your points 2 and 3 (social roles et al and learned helplessness et al) isn't your pointing out the diminished agency of the poor exactly the social conditions that diminish their agency?

I'm not entirely sure what my point is here, save perhaps that one step towards bolstering the agency of the poor is to start from the assumption that they do have agency and then force them to live up to that lie?


Mat, the discussion effectively reduces to:

"You're poor but you don't have to act like it."


"You act poor because you're poor. This would change if we helped you become less poor."

Greg vP

Chris, you forgot a couple of strongly constraining factors.

Health (and age): how much cooking would Jamie Oliver do if he was unable to hold a knife and unable to stand? Poverty and ill health are correlated.

Time poverty: many poor people are also time poor. Travel to and from work and the shops takes longer, less can be transported. Poverty is correlated with having young dependents: they take a *lot* of time, especially if you have more than one. Some poor people are poor because they are caring for invalids or housebound people (relatives or not).


Erm, I'm afraid I don't grasp your point Staberinde.

On the one hand Chris' line of argument definitely suggests that helping the poor become less poor wouldn't necessarily aid them in making better decisions; peer effects, role models, priming, social roles.... all of those would (at least to some extent) persist. In fact the only "diminishing agency" factor that making the poor less poor would help alleviate is his first (poverty limiting options), and possibly the "bad incentives" one.

On the other, I am unconvinced that the counter veiling argument is "you're poor but you don't have to act like it" so much as it is "if we concede that poverty diminishes your agency, and use that to excuse "bad" choices, then we actually further diminish your agency".


'In the limit, suppose we are all machines with zero agency, in that case the objection "it's not their fault" would make no sense - and rather than jail bad people who had chosen to be criminals, we would just jail bad machines and we could still say things like "you are bad".'

It's not only this. If we all are machines with zero agency, this is a description of what actually does happen.

The ever popular "if there's no free will, it makes no sense to blame anyone for anything" argument applies to itself. If there's no free will, we cannot blame anyone for blaming anyone else.

Igor Belanov

Oliver is an utter hypocrite. He enjoys telling people how, what and where they should be eating. He makes a lot of money doing this. He also makes a lot of money advertising sausages and other 'unhealthy' foods for Sainsbury's. Get him off TV and washing pots in a Harvester.

Luis Enrique

I was reading the comments thread on the inevitable Guardian column having a crack at Jamie, and it struck me how close people were to taking a neoclassical-economics position, because their objection boils down to: these people are acting optimally, given constraints you don't understand

(although neoclassical economists aren't known for adding social conditioning etc. to the set of constraints, I don't think doing so violates the main idea of modelling rational utility maximizers and I think things like social norms do now appear in u-max models)


@Peter: "...Having been poor myself..."

"Being poor" isn't accomplished in a day or a summer, any more than a cake is baked by spending 5 minutes in an oven. At its worst it is accomplished over generations. Every summer, millions of Americans live for weeks in tents, cooking over fires of wood scavenged from their surroundings, but this doesn't make them refugees. They call it "camping" and do it for fun.

By economic standards, I am a poor person, with an annual after tax income of around $17,000. But I was raised upper middle class, well nourished, well educated and widely read, with emotional and intellectual resources that help keep me afloat with my limited income. To be a generational poor person, I would have had to be raised in poverty, badly taught and nourished, and bearing the emotional scars of a precarious or abusive upbringing.

As the writer says, agency or free will is not either there or not there, but is on a sliding scale depending on a host of factors. Those who surmount all their barriers are not proof the barriers don't exist, merely the rare examples of uncommon strength or unusual circumstances making their success possible.

"Fallacy of composition" -- thanks for reminding me what it's called.

Phil H

Chris mentions the fallacy of composition, and I think it might be useful to break this down into individuals vs. groups.
All of the constraints named have statistical effects over the group of people who experience them. Any individual can (and arguably should) buck their effects and choose a better lifestyle. And it might be a worthwhile exercise to direct some moral urging at individuals to try to get them to do so.
But the phenomenon named by Jamie Oliver is a group/statistical phenomenon. The problem is not that every poor person eats unhealthily, it is that a high percentage of poor people eat unhealthily. It's not clear that moral urging directed at a group is relevant or helpful in those circumstances.


Staberinde @ 0445 (27/08/13:
If free will is an illusion, then you did not right your comment freely. Your position therein was determined by your hormones, emotions, upbringing etc, and your arguments are mere post hoc rationalisations. Your position may be true or false (or meaningless); but you are not engaged in enquiry or argument as your position is pre-determined. Yet, in advancing arguments and evidence for your position, you are assuming that you are acting freely and that others can be freely persuaded. In other words, your view that no-one has free will is incoherent and self-refuting.


Sorry, 'write', not "right". It's been a long day...

Eric Riley

One aspect of those kinds of arguments is that they assume that advertising does not work at all. That no-one's decision to eat (say) McDonald's could be affected by the tens of millions of dollars spent advertising their product. So, deciding to eat fast food is entirely their free decision.

It is, however, evident that advertising does work and does affect people's decisions about all kinds of things - as well as their beliefs about self-worth and what our cultural norms are.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Why S&M?

Blog powered by Typepad