Sorites (Σωρίτης), ISSN 1135-1349
Issue # 20 -- March 2008. Pp. 74-79
Free Agency and Self-Esteem
Copyright © by Robert F. Allen and Sorites

Free Agency and Self-Esteem

by Robert F. Allen

The reflective acceptance approach (RAA) to free agency states that an agent has acted freely if and only if she would reflectively accept the process by which her motive was formed. Its adherents eschew the notion that the content of an agent's motive determines whether or not she acts freely, believing instead that any volition she forms, no matter how self-destructive or bizarre it seems to others, is an impetus to a free action just in case she would positively appraise its genesis.Foot note 1 Here, I define the role of self-esteem in promoting free agency, in order to meet the following objections to RAA's content neutrality.

The first objection, developed by Paul Benson,Foot note 2 is based on a case of «gaslighting,» that is, a case in which a person comes to mistakenly believe that she is unable to make socially acceptable decisions, others having misled her into thinking that she is mentally incompetent (657). The case of gaslighting presented in the 1944 film Gaslight is not a counterexample to RAA. There, a husband employs various machinations whose effect is his wife's belief that she is `losing her mind'. (This loss of self-confidence keeps her from realizing that he is after something valuable that is hidden in her house.) Benson, however, devises a case of this type for which RAA yields counterintuitive results. It involves inadvertent misleading. To wit, a respected Victorian psychologist attributes his wife's hysteria to cognitive deficiencies, rather than emotional trauma. Such a diagnosis being then generally accepted, the woman loses confidence in her decision-making. Feeling «unworthy» to act in the presence of others, she, then, avoids socializing (656). According to Benson, that the former case involves deception while the latter does not entails that the latter victim, but not the former, would reflectively accept the deliberations that proceeded her resolving to forego taking certain decisions. Thus, because of its content neutrality, RAA seems to produce the counterintuitive result that the woman in Benson's case acts freely, her false belief that she is cognitively deficient notwithstanding.

This argument, however, invites the following response. Would the woman in his example reflectively accept her deliberations were she made aware of the fact that she has been misdiagnosed? That her husband's misinforming was inadvertent, rather than intentional, does not seem to make her decision any less regrettable than the film victim's. In both cases, believing a falsehood leads to an unwarranted and severe loss of self-confidence. If a rational agent would disavow any instance of decision-making involving misinformation, then Benson's case of gaslighting is no more a counterexample to RAA than the film's version. In neither case would there be reflective acceptance of the process by which the victim's motive is determined.

This response, in turn, raises the following question. Does exercising one's deliberative skills upon falsehoods always entail a loss of liberty? That is, would a rational agent reject any set of deliberations that involved misinformation? Answering here in the affirmative yields counterintuitive results. One obviously does not suffer a loss of liberty merely because one decides to take an umbrella upon hearing an inaccurate weather forecast. At this point an epistemic constraint must be placed upon reflective acceptance that would provide for the above rebuttal without turning all decisions based upon misinformation into losses of liberty.

Benson would have us see the gaslighting victim losing freedom because of the content of her motive. The proponent of RAA, he contends, cannot offer her preferred explanation: a flaw in (the process of) decision-making the reflective realization of which would justify its being abjured. But if that process is supposed to occur under certain conditions, which are not met in a case of gaslighting, then there is a way of handling such a case that preserves RAA's content neutrality. The defender of RAA, I maintain, should distinguish here between an obstacle to the exercise of one's deliberative skills and their exercise upon misinformation. In general, one may distinguish between being unable to exercise skills under certain circumstances and exercising them under less than ideal circumstances. In a case of gaslighting, the victim's deliberative skills are virtually useless, insofar as their proper exercise, which requires a certain amount of self-confidence, is precluded by the impairment of that which generates it: «primary self-esteem» (PSE), that is, the ability to evaluate one's (other) abilities, character, and conduct.Foot note 3 The extreme mistrust that Benson describes seems best understood as stemming from the reluctance to `take a good look at oneself' -- that is, damage to one's PSE. This impairment means, on the view sketched above, that they will unfreely in foregoing certain choices, lacking enough self-confidence to gainfully deliberate. One remains a free agent, on the other hand, if one resolves upon a piece of misinformation whose reception leaves one's PSE intact, even if one would reflectively abdicate the reasons upon which the decision was taken. Authoritatively issued false statements to the effect that one is either emotionally disturbed or cognitively impaired might be expected to greatly lessen one's PSE. However, believing untruths of other sorts is not generally similarly deleterious. E.g., having one's job performance unfairly critiqued may cause a temporary loss of self-confidence. But, leaving one's PSE intact, it would not render one incapable of recovering from such a `blow to one's ego'.

Thus, there is a way of handling Benson's objection to RAA without establishing an excessively strict standard for free agency. The reflective acceptance in question must be understood as having been reached after one has been apprised of all the facts pertinent to the operation of one's deliberative skills. In particular, as highlighted by gaslighting cases, it is important that one be provided with the truth concerning the employment of one's PSE. Each gaslighting case involves an agent one of whose beliefs has diminished that ability whose exercise is a necessary pre-condition of gainful deliberation: one must realize that one is a skillful deliberator, capable of making sound decisions, before one is willing to engage in it. Upon realizing this impairment, each would reject the way in which her motive had been formed: seeing that the proper conditions for the exercise of her deliberative skills did not obtain. A person who had been misled by a weather forecast, on the other hand, would not reject the process by which her volition was formed, realizing that it was an application of those skills to the best available information. To reasonably disclaim the way in which a motive was formed, an agent would need evidence supporting either the belief that she lacked no such skills or the belief that their exercise was somehow impeded. A gaslighting victim apprised of her plight would be justified in believing the latter.

Benson responds here by contending that the victim in his gaslighting case does not suffer from an impairment the recognition of which would warrant renouncing the way in which she developed her attitude towards decision-making. Despite «ceas(ing) to trust herself to exercise (them) competently,» she retains deliberative skills.Foot note 4 His contention appears false, however, when we consider how PSE affects those skills. While it may be true that the now «isolated» wife is yet able to attend to her personal needs, there are many socially important decisions she is no longer willing to make, having lost not only her store of self-confidence, but the ability to regain it. She, thus, retains her deliberative skills, as Benson contends, but is incapable of exercising them in all but the most inconsequential situations. E.g., one can imagine her being unwilling to decide with whom to socialize. Being thus «disassociated,» (Benson's term) from her deliberative skills, they are less effectual than they would otherwise be: there are applications of them that she would be able to make but for her diminished PSE. Recognition of this fact would provide a good reason for rejecting the way in which her motive was formed. She would realize that she had given up on herself for no good reason.

Benson's other putative counterexamples to RAA may be similarly handled. Shame, he tells us, may «(undercut a) person's sense of self-worth (leaving) him wanting to hide, even to disappear, in order conceal his shameful weakness or inadequacy from view. ... (I)t tends to be disorienting, disrupting behavior and producing confusion in thought» (658). The loss of freedom here may again be seen as stemming from damaged PSE. I would argue that the «sense of being worthy to act,» which Benson posits as essential to free agency, is a part of self-confidence, and, as such, required to exercise one's practical reasoning skills. Regaining this sense is a function of one's PSE. Thus, as long as this capacity is left inoperable by shame, one is unable to act freely. How could shame have such an effect? As Benson notes, it makes one want to «hide,» presumably from oneself as well as others. That is, shame diminishes PSE by fostering the reluctance to exercise it.

It should be noted that feelings of shame do not always entail a loss of freedom. Benson should thus be taken to be commenting upon a «morbid» or unhealthy sense of failure, one that is disproportionate to the suspected offense. Indeed, self-abasement often expresses one's autonomy, as one realizes a difficult truth about oneself and sustains one's disapproval independently of how others may feel. Even the choice of a life of servitude, should it be reflectively accepted as one's calling -- as in the case of Jesus Christ and his followers -- must be taken as free.Foot note 5 Here we see a virtue of RAA: it does not force us to treat a person who has acted from such a motive, which is very difficult for some, maybe most, to understand, as no less unfree than those who are held against their will in bondage.

Slavery may also be seen as inimical to free agency because of its deleterious affect upon its victim's PSE. A slave, one imagines, would have a hard time retaining her sense of being a competent decision-maker, capable of directing her affairs, as the result of oppressive assaults upon her self-confidence. This loss is the (almost) predictable result of the dehumanizing treatment to which she is continuously subjected. That her humiliation keeps her estranged from her deliberative capacity is a sign of her debilitated PSE. For fear of viewing her degraded self-image, she cannot effect its rehabilitation and, thus, recover her sense of being able to determine how to act. It was only by overcoming fear of this sort that freed American slaves were able to become soldiers in the war against their former masters, leaving powerful testimony not just to their courage, but also to the indominability of their wills (as dramatically portrayed in the film Glory).

My rejection below of a «social component» of free agency, however, allows me to think of some slaves as having acted freely. Were not being enslaved a necessary condition of being a free agent, as Benson maintains, then no slave would be capable of acting freely. But some slaves did perform free acts: witness those who escaped along the Underground Railroad or Frederick Douglas turning on his master. Here we see examples of unbroken, nay, indomitable wills. Such cases, however, being rare, bondage can then be seen as evil precisely because it typically destroys a vital part of the slave's mind, leaving her incapable of deciding her own destiny.

Flattery or false praise, which Benson does not discuss, may also be seen as a potential threat to free agency for the same reason as are shame and humiliation: it can incapacitate one's PSE. The person `taken in' by flattery is convincingly misinformed concerning her character, appearance, or abilities. Part of her self-image then becomes based on the proffered untruths. So long as she remains capable of revising the resulting picture of herself her PSE is intact, and, thus, cæteris paribus, she can act freely. However, her dependency upon hearing the false praise may increase to the point where she becomes incapable of taking `a good hard look' at the misbegotten aspect of her self-image. One may speak then of the «atrophying» of her PSE (commonly known as smugness). Think of a supervisor who secures the performance of a menial task by regularly singling out a charge lacking in self-confidence as «the only member of the department who can do the job right.» The victim here, as in the gaslighting cases, would reflectively reject the process leading up to the carrying out of the misinformant's wishes, realizing that his misguidance had incapacitated a part of her will, making her unfree.

It should not be thought, however, that flattery immediately causes a complete loss of PSE. Rather, it initially deprives its victim of a prerequisite of that ability's exercise, viz., the desire to rethink one's self-image. Thus, flattery can leave one for a time virtually incapable of evaluating oneself. Moreover, as with any other capacity, prolonged lack of exercise of one's PSE spells it attenuation, if not complete diminishment. Therefore, being gaslit may be both a short-term and a long-term effect of flattery. Hubris, insofar as it stems from «self-flattery,» may, thus, be seen as a product of diminished PSE. It reflects the loss of the ability to correctly gauge one's self-worth, as that is determined by the extent to which one realizes one's ideals. Here it is one who is paying oneself false compliments. As long as one lacks the sense that such impairment exists, the desire to rehabilitate one's PSE will be lacking, perhaps leading to megalomania.

Finally, to close our discussion of the ways in which gaslighting is tied to impaired PSE, there is the case of someone being tormented with the truth. For it is not only misinformation concerning oneself that is potentially psychologically damaging but also undeniable faults, if they are presented as immutable, something over which one has no control. I can just as easily damage an agent's PSE by constantly pointing out the character flaws she herself acknowledges, suggesting that they are beyond repair, as I can by repeatedly boosting her ego. In either event, she may be left incapable of evaluating herself. I debilitate no less than does the cajoler and to the same effect.

As noted, Benson further contends that gaslighting cases demonstrate that freedom has a «social component»: that one must trust one's ability to publicly explain one's conduct in order to act freely (660-63). That is, were one to believe oneself incapable of giving an account of one's doings to others, one would cease to be a free agent. It was demonstrated above that free agency requires PSE. The question now becomes, does having PSE entail being confident of publicly explaining oneself?

It does not. Consider the case of Friedrich, who has come to believe that he is a hopeless misfit, unworthy of social interaction of any sort. Does he thereby suffer a loss of liberty in deciding to become a hermit? Is this a choice he would reflectively reject? Not unless he realized that the exercise of his deliberative skills whereby he arrived at that decision was in some way impaired. But his believing that he is incapable of explaining his decision to others would not necessarily have the same effect as gaslighting. He might yet retain his PSE. A victim of gaslighting is devoid of PSE, the loss of which renders her unable not only to respond to others' questioning of her conduct, but to also her own inquiries into her motives. Friedrich, on the other hand, might still possess the ability to measure his conduct/character against his ideals, despite being incapable of persuading others that he is acting rationally. Thus, this inability does not entail a loss of liberty on his part. No matter how low he thinks he has sunk in the eyes of others, it is, to modify Shakespeare's dictum, only to himself that he must be able to answer in order to exercise a free will. Thus, it has not been demonstrated that free agency has a social component.

In Friedrich's case, we need only imagine that he at one time disposed himself to withdraw from society should his mitwelt become intolerable. This rule may be something others cannot understand; they may deem his response to his situation to be wholly inappropriate. He himself may realize that no one could understand his decision, even if they appreciated his plight. The gap in others' understanding here does not entail, however, a lack of rationality on his part. As long as it has been true of him that he would have reacted to his present circumstances by completely avoiding contact with others, he is doing what he once meant to do in the event that they obtained. He is expressing himself, a part of his character, albeit in a way others find incomprehensible.Foot note 6


Proponents of RAA may allow that gaslighting, shame, oppression, flattery, and torment entail a loss of liberty without conceding that free agency involves more than the unimpeded exercise of deliberative skills. Given that PSE monitors this faculty, its diminishment by such affects renders it impaired. The motives formed under their influence would, thus, be reflectively rejected as the products of an unhealthy mind. Thus, Benson has failed to produce a counterexample to RAA. PSE, moreover, does not require the ability to explain one's actions to others. It is enough to be capable of evaluating oneself, assessing, according to one's personal standards, the reasoning behind one's choices. Freedom lacks a social component; an alienated person may yet be free.Foot note 7

Robert F. Allen
allen1rf [at]

[Foot Note 1]

This view is developed by John Christman's in «Autonomy and Personal History,» (Canadian Journal of Philosophy, XXI, 1, 1991, pp. 1-24).

[Foot Note 2]

Paul Benson, «Free Agency and Self-Worth,» The Journal of Philosophy 91: 650-668. Page numbers in the text and notes refer to this article.

[Foot Note 3]

Robert J. Yanal, «Self-Esteem,» Noûs 21, (1987): 363-79.

[Foot Note 4]

In correspondence.

[Foot Note 5]

Gerald Dworkin also discusses such a case in «Paternalism: Some Second Thoughts,» in Rolf Sartorius ed., Paternalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983) pp. 105-11.

[Foot Note 6]

This view, of course, conflicts with the conclusion of Wittgenstein's private language argument -- that it is impossible for an individual to follow a publicly inexplicable rule. (Cf. his Philosophical Investigations, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. 1968, pp. 80-2.) I would challenge, however, that argument's key premise, which states that within a private practice correctness must be subjective, it can be nothing more than what an individual thinks is correct. The antidote to such skepticism is the individual disposition theory. (Cf. my «Rule-following, Dispositions, and Infinity,» unpublished manuscript.) According to this view, one is following a rule iff one is applying it as one would have had one been asked when establishing it to extend it to the case at hand. Cf. Saul Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1982, pp. 23-37.

[Foot Note 7]

Thanks to Joel Anderson, Paul Benson, Jay Campbell, Joshua Gert, Drew Hinderer, Paul Hughes, Karen Jones, Robert Kane, Andrew Melnyk, Marina Oshana, John Pauley, Lawrence Powers, Michael Reed, Ralph Forsberg, and Bruce Umbaugh for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

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