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The Disputes on Human Agency: Implications for Politics and Law


Michał Rupniewski (Faculty of Law and Administration, the University of Lodz, Poland);

The aim of the workshop is to scrutinize human personhood, or human agency, with a view to its implications for politics and the law. Traditionally, the unique character of the human being, manifesting itself in human actions, was taken for granted. Recent decades have put this well-established picture into a serious doubt. On the one hand, human conduct has been subject to analyzes and explanations that may possibly replace the traditional metaphysical categories of free will or autonomy. On the other, the research on non-human animals shows their mutual relations as more complex, and more resembling human social morality, than traditionally conceived. While some are quite happy about it and prefer to “naturalize” our notions of human agency (and thus are likely to treat non-human animals or AIs as ‘agents’ to an extent similar to humans), some are still maintaining that the human being, with her unique personhood and dignity, is the primary focus and aim of legal and political systems. This dispute constitutes an opportunity for both sides to sharpen their arguments, and to establish a better understanding of their key claims. Once these refinements are made, the question must be asked: how the changes in conceiving of human agency influence the concepts and developments within political and legal institutions? The following particular issues appear particularly important in this regard:

  • Does the term “human action” signify something that is uniquely human—a free, reasoned activity, revealing the unique, “incommunicable” agent? Or, alternatively, the beliefs about distinctively personal character of human action should be abandoned, and nonhuman animals or robots should be regarded as capable of ‘rational agency’?
  • What are the implications of agency for human dignity in the law? Can we uphold human dignity as a meaningful legal and political value without assuming the unique character of human agency?
  • What kind of “free will” do we need? Can we “naturalize” free will as a psychological fact of a self-controlled behavior, or some deeper, metaphysical notion of free will is necessary to hold people legally and politically responsible for their deeds, and to make legal and political claims?
  • Does a theory of legal personhood need a theory of human agency? What elements of natural human agency, if any, are needed to construe a theory of the legal person? Is it the case that rights and duties are conditioned by agency in the metaphysical sense of the term, or they depend solely on folk beliefs and social conventions?
  • Is the idea of priority of persons still plausible in the modern world? If not, then what replaces it? And if yes, how should we accommodate that idea so that to respond to the contemporary scientific discoveries, and environmental challenges?

Contributions from political theorists, lawyers, ethicist, philosophers, and cognitive scientists are welcome. The workshop is indented to gather and confront divergent points of view on the issue.