Agency -- the idea that humans can cause and take responsibility for their own behaviour -- is an incredibly central concept in contemporary ethics (where it is usually referred to as autonomy). It also has deep roots in the natural world, even though the question of just how deep is as urgent today as it was for Aristotle or Kant. Many are skeptical, believing it "merely" a heuristic and that what really matters is sentience or consciousness.

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Organismic Agency: a Kantian Approach

Is organismic agency genuinely ‘real’ or just a useful fiction? There can be a third way: agency is an inevitable consequence of our own rational capacity. As long as we are rational agents ourselves, we cannot avoid seeing agency in organisms. Published in In Natural Born Monads: On the Metaphysics of Organisms and Human Individuals, edited by Andrea Altobrando and Pierfrancesco Biasetti. Berlin: De Gruyter.


Both natural selection and agency produce adaptive behaviour. Under what circumstances should we judge an agential explanation to be appropriate? In this paper I argue that, if an organism produces an adaptive behavior in a novel selective environment, then this must be explained as an agential behavior.

©2020 by Hugh Desmond.