Extended Agency and the Problem of Diachronic Autonomy

In Time in Action: The Temporal Structure of Rational Agency and Practical Thought. Routledge. pp. 173 - 195 (2022)
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It seems to be a humdrum fact of human agency that we act on intentions or decisions that we have made at an earlier time. At breakfast, you look at the Taco Hut menu online and decide that later today you’ll have one of their avocado burritos for lunch. You’re at your desk and you hear the church bells ring the noon hour. You get up, walk to Taco Hut, and order the burrito as planned. As mundane as this sort of scenario might seem to be, philosophers have raised a problem in understanding it. If you are simply abiding by this morning’s decision, how are you acting autonomously? Your earlier self seems to be calling the shots; if you are just acting accordingly, without thinking through it or in some other way trying to ensure that the past decision conforms to your present standpoint, it is not clear how this amounts to an exercise of your present autonomous agency. It seems, rather, that your earlier self has succeeded in slaving you to her own purposes. She was the one who wanted (intended, judged it to be good, etc.) to have an avocado burrito. In simply following through, your current self seems to be just an automaton performing the commands left behind by your former self. Of course, you might not allow yourself to be shackled by your earlier self. You might refuse to follow anything but your own present judgments: you will only go to Taco Hut if this is what you judge you should do right now, and once at Taco Hut you will only eat the avocado burrito if that is what you want to eat once there. But if this is the way you generally operate, this seems to block your ability to make effective future-directed decisions. The puzzle, then, is one of explaining how the future self can do the bidding of her past self without losing her autonomy. We call this “the Problem of Diachronic Autonomy.” Philosophers raising this problem take it to show that there must be reasons or rational requirements to follow-through with our past decisions. According to these philosophers, we can only make sense of our diachronic autonomy if our past decisions put rational pressure on us to follow through. We argue that there is no Problem of Diachronic Autonomy. There is, in other words, no puzzling situation that needs explaining. Consequently, there is no need coming from this purported puzzle to think that our future-directed decisions generate reasons or rational requirements to follow through. The correct view of our diachronic autonomy is the “naïve” one: the “future self” can do the bidding of the “past self” without giving up its autonomy because, very simply, the past self is the same agent as the future self. I am acting autonomously when I get the avocado burrito, because I was the one who decided to get the burrito. I am acting on my own freely-formed decision.

Author Profiles

Julia Nefsky
University of Toronto at Scarborough
Sergio Tenenbaum
University of Toronto, Mississauga


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