Last night, I spoke of a holistic perspective, things viewed as integrated wholes rather than individual objects. This can have some profound implications for our notions of agency. One might simply say that, insofar as there is agency, it’s universal agency and not particular agency. This may sound like it’s consistent with determinism, but it’s more a sort of pantheism, with a guiding spirit for all things. There are, of course, even more interesting implications.
1) Choice Holism. Some antique Christian authors had a holistic perspective with regard to human choices. They thought we did not make daily choices, but rather that we made one choice in eternity – outside of time – and were simply playing it out within the time stream. In this sense, every person still has agency, but that agency all gets lumped into one giant existential dichotomy between good and evil. The notion largely disappeared in the Middle Ages, but was maintained for angels. Humans have a span of years, they said, in which to come to love God. Angels had one instant (the instant in which Satan fell). That moment was outside of time, so that one might think of the war between light and darkness as prehistory, continuous, and existing at the end of time without contradiction. One war, one moment. Victory concluded, assured, and not yet realized.
2) Choice Collectivism. We could take a slightly less extreme type of holism and say that groups make decisions. The most familiar example of this may be democracy. We can speak of the “will of the people,” the “consensus opinion,” or the “majority position” despite the fact that very few of us think of the collective as having any opinion, intention, or agency. What does it mean to speak of collective thought and collective choice? In our individualistic society, this is often construed to mean some sort of aggregate of personal thoughts and choices and yet we know that groups behave in ways that their individual elements never would – “group think” and “mob mentality” come to mind. If I’m at the scene of an emergency and yell “run for help,” a single onlooker will usually do so. A group of onlookers will generally all assume that someone else has run for help and do nothing. Sad, but true.
I fear that our society has lost something important when we stopped thinking about group choices as something other than the aggregate of individual choices. Group responsibility goes right out the window. I didn’t pollute the river. You didn’t pollute the river. And yet, somehow, between us the river got polluted. I have great respect for President Truman, who had a plaque on his desk saying, “The buck stops here.” Very seldom does anyone in the US these days take responsibility for collective action. The oil and engineering companies blame one another for the gulf oil spill. The bankers, investors, and regulators blame one another for the economic meltdown. The Democrats and Republicans each accuse the other of stopping vital legislation. And at the end of the day, nothing gets done. Nobody takes responsibility for fixing the problem we all caused.
This is why I’ve always been taken with the concept of communal sin. We generally only think of personal sin, but I think that groups can intend evil, cause harm, and stray from God just as easily as individuals. In the Episcopal Church, we take credit for individual sins, but we also say every week “We confess that we have sinned against [God] in thought word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” I wish we could take more individual responsibility for the trouble we cause in groups. Something to think about.