he first definition of the word “agent” in the Oxford online dictionary reads, “A person who acts on behalf of another [my emphasis].” By this definition, the term self-agency that I’ve just coined makes no sense. “A person who acts on behalf of herself” is not an agent. She’s just a person. For the sake of argument, though, I wish to momentarily entertain a dualistic concept of the self: there is the self who acts and the self who benefits from actions. I know these are not distinct organisms and when the argument is done and my point is made I’ll thereafter dispense with the dualism.
The foundation of this system of ethics is that we wish to provide equal consideration to the interests of others, and not put the self above or below anybody else.
If you look at each person as both an actor and a beneficiary of actions, then an interesting possibility arises. One way to achieve equity would be for each of us to act as an agent for the interests of one other person, with the expectation that each of us would in return receive our own agent. The assignments would be chosen by lottery.
Daydream about this scenario for a minute or two, and it will quickly become obvious what a horrible idea it is!
Who is in a better position to know my needs and desires than I am? Who can know my mood better than I can? My agent would have to constantly poll me for this information, and would ever be feeding me food I don’t want to eat, driving me places that don’t interest me, handing me books I don’t feel like reading, buying me gifts I can’t use, and so on. There’d also be the problem of my agent’s agent getting in the way of things, and my agent’s agent’s agent, ad infinitum.
On top of dealing with my clumsy agent and the bevy of agent’s agent’s agent’s agents, I’d also have to attend to my own duties as agent to somebody else, my client. I’d invest countless hours learning the appropriate feeding schedule, the most pleasurable masturbation techniques (I hope my client is female, but chances are only 50-50), and how best to wipe my client’s ass.
It would be a disaster.
Reciprocation is fine and well for things I can’t do proficiently myself, like scratch my own back. I’ll gladly act as back-scratching agent for a friend, knowing the time will come when I’ll require the same service. For nose scratching, though, it would be inconvenient to instruct an agent: “A little to the left… no, too far; back a smidgeon to the right… up slightly… a bit harder, please… now inside the nostril.” It makes far more sense if we just scratch our own noses.
The principle of self-agency might be summarized as, “I’ll scratch my nose; you scratch yours.” It is simply the idea that I am responsible for my own interests, and so most of the time I think about myself and act on behalf of myself. Self-agency is distinct from selfishness, if we define selfishness as pursuing one’s own interests with utter disregard for the interests of others. Self-agency is pursuing one’s own interests with complete regard for the interests of others.
I am the agent responsible for placing my own needs and desires on an equal footing (not above or below) the needs and desires of other beings. And because I value the autonomy of others, and also because individuals with able bodies and minds are in the best position to look after their own needs, I shall respect the self-agency of others.
This means that, although I value the good of others, generally speaking I am not responsible for securing the good of others. I am responsible, though, for my own actions (or inactions) that might cause harm to befall others. And if another is in need of help and I am in a position to lend assistance, and if their self-agency has been compromised or I’ve been explicitly asked for help, then I ought to engage in other-agency.
And now my point is made, but though I promised to dispense with the dualism, I cannot think of a better term than “self-agency,” so I’ll stick with it.