I believe that next to life, the greatest gift we as humans have is the ability to choose for ourselves. We are agents, which means that when presented with options to choose from we are free to make a decision based upon what we feel is best for ourselves. This is referred to as individual or free will, also free or moral agency. Like life, agency is uniquely ours. Also like life, it can be interfered with by other people. Most of the time our agency is only limited by others, as we always have choice as far as how we will believe and what our attitude will be, but the limitations can be severe.
In some cases the limitation on agency imposed by one person on another is a restriction of access to resources, such as food or shelter. Limitations also appear in public displays of thought or belief. Happily, the United States of America has been founded with respect towards certain inalienable rights that preserve a great deal of agency. Still, there are times when agency is under attack. I would argue that most of the social issues currently under discussion or propaganda attack boil down to issues of exercise of agency. One side of each argument contends for the freedom to be agents while the other side contends for the restriction of agency in the interest of public welfare.
This is a generalized and simplistic observation, but I feel it is valid. One side always argues for more freedom in the interest of individual agency and the other side always argues for limited freedom in the interest of protection. Neither side has any political or thought affiliation. Each side of the argument shows up in every topic and is sometimes held by one faction and sometimes the other. What I’m saying is, there isn’t any marriage between conservatism or liberalism and either side. None of the man-made ideologies always fights for one or the other, in my opinion. But every topic has each side, as plain as black and white.
As in all things, extremism can take away from the goodness of an idea or effort by going too far beyond the mark. Absolute individual liberty, which is the extreme of individual agency, can lead towards anarchy. Absolute community control, which is the methodical restriction of individual agency, can lead to a totalitarian state. Each extreme poses dangers and each extreme shows up in nearly all topics and man-made ideologies.
I believe in order and the rule of law. I think it is necessary to have guidelines in order to maintain safety. I also believe in the sanctity of moral agency. There is a middle ground between the two where people will thrive. Individual agency needs to be encouraged. With proper education anyone can become a good decision maker and responsible user of their agency. Without proper education, well, just watch the news for a few minutes.
Where does the responsibility of society lie in the matter of individual agency? When, if at all, are restrictions on agency appropriate?