Ethicality of Denying Agency

If your 5-year-old seems to have an unhealthy appetite for chocolate, you’d routinely take measures to prevent them from eating it. Any time they’d ask you to buy them some, you’d probably refuse their request, even if they begged. You might make sure that any chocolate in the house is well-hidden and out of their reach. You might even confiscate chocolate they already have, like if you forced them to throw out half their Halloween candy. You’d almost certainly trigger a temper tantrum and considerably worsen their mood. But no one would label you an unrelenting tyrant. Instead, you’d be labeled a good parent.

Your 5-year-old isn’t expected to have the capacity to understand the consequences to their actions, let alone have the efficacy to accomplish the actions they know are right. That’s why you’re a good parent when you force them to do the right actions, even against their explicit desires.

You know chocolate is a superstimulus and that 5-year-olds have underdeveloped mental executive functions. You have good reasons to believe that your child’s chocolate obsession isn’t caused by their agency, and instead caused by an obsolete evolutionary adaptation. But from your child’s perspective, desiring and eating chocolate is an exercise in agency. They’re just unaware of how their behaviors and desires are suboptimal. So by removing their ability to act upon their explicit desires, you’re denying their agency.

So far, denying agency doesn’t seem so bad. You have good reason to believe your child isn’t capable of acting rationally and you’re only helping them in the long run. But the ethicality gets murky when your assessment of their rationality is questionable.

Imagine you and your mother have an important flight to catch 2 hours from now. You realize that you have to leave to the airport now in order to make it on time. As you’re about to leave, you recalled the 2 beers you recently consumed. But you feel the alcohol left in your system will barely affect your driving, if at all. The problem is that if your mother found out about your beer consumption, she’d refuse to be your passenger until you completely sobered up – as she’s done in the past. You know this would cause you to miss your flight because she can’t drive and there are no other means of transportation.

A close family member died in a drunk driving accident several years ago and, ever since, she overreacts to drinking and driving risks. You think her reaction is irrational and reveals she has non-transitive preferences. For example, one time she was content on being your passenger after you warned her you were sleep deprived and your driving might be affected. Another time she refused to be your passenger after finding out you had one cocktail that hardly affected you. She’s generally a rational person, but with the recent incident and her past behavior, you deem her incapable of having a calibrated reaction. With all this in mind, you contemplate the ethicality of denying her agency by not telling her about your beer drinking.

Similar to the scenario with your 5-year-old, your intention is to ultimately help the person whose agency you’re denying. But in the scenario with your mother, it’s less clear whether you have enough information or are rational enough yourself to assess your mother’s capacity to act within her preferences. Humans are notoriously good at self-deception and rationalizing their actions. Your motivation to catch your flight might be making you irrational about how much alcohol affects your driving. Or maybe the evidence you collected against her rationality is skewed by confirmation bias. If you’re wrong about your assessment, you’d be disrespecting her wishes.

I can modify the scenario to make its ethicality even murkier. Imagine your mother wasn’t catching the plane with you. Instead, you promised to drive her back to her retirement home before your flight. You don’t want to break your promise nor miss your flight, so you contemplate not telling her about your beer consumption.

In this modified version, you’re not actually making your mother better off by denying her agency – you’re only benefiting yourself. You just believe her reaction to your beer consumption isn’t calibrated, and it would cause you to miss your flight. Even if you had plenty of evidence to back up your assessment of her rationality, would it be ethical to deny her agency when it’s only benefiting you?

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