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Autonomous Agent and Social Psychology

Eddy Nahmias debates in his article, Autonomous Agents and Social Psychology, the issues surrounding the question of free will and whether or not individuals are really autonomous agents free of any external forces. His investigation leads him to explore a variety of different experiments that have been conducted in the past in order to uncover the extent to which rational individuals exercise control over their actions and decisions.

He also explores the notion of determinism which has been posited by philosophers, who believe that every human act and thought is causally determined by external forces. Nahmias suggests that for the most part we “believe” ourselves to be autonomous and free from external manipulation (169). However, to what extent do we actually remain free from the causes and effects of daily occurrences? Is the idea of autonomy a reality or simply an illusion?

Nahmias states that in order to be considered an autonomous agent one requires “freedom of action, which is the ability to act on one’s desires without external constraints” (170). However, freedom of action on its own is not sufficient to guarantee that the individual will be autonomous in fact it requires that the individual also be free of any internal constraints or influences. These manipulative elements are usually generated by external factors such as addictions, phobias or even strong passions (170).

More importantly, Nahmias argues that in order to be considered an autonomous agent one “requires the ability to form and act on principle” (171). Hence the agent must be equipped with conditional reasoning which will enable the individual to act in a particular way in certain types of situation in order to remain consistent even in moments when the individual cannot consciously plan his actions (170-71). Nahmias argues that based on this description of the autonomous agent it is clear that several factors can arise to threaten the agent’s autonomy.

For example the individual may be ignorant of certain factors which may lead the agent to act in a manner that they would not normally. Similarly, rationalization may also threaten the autonomy of the agent; whereby the agent acts against his chosen principles and then comes up with reasons to justify his actions (171). In response to this dilemma, Nahmias argues that autonomy comes in various degrees. Autonomy then becomes dependent upon the fact that the agent is free provided that he is aware of the chosen principles which guide his actions (171).

Therefore, the lack of autonomy arises when an individual is unable to know his own motivations or reasons for committing an act or to know what situational factors are influencing him to act in conflict with the principles he adopted (172). Autonomy may also be compromised when the individual relies on such theories that one may predict behaviour based on specific character traits or even on mistaken folk theories or inaccurate introspections (172-73).

Experiments reviewed by Nahmias demonstrated that most, if not all individuals, who denied having been influenced by certain external factors in their decision making tended to be the ones who were influenced by the external factors the most. The research conducted through the experiments confirmed that most individuals are “ignorant of the influence of unnoticed situational influences” hence leading many to inaccurate and false conclusions concerning our understanding of both our own and other’s behaviour (176).

Revealing that the question of autonomy needs further investigation as it is clear that there are several important factors which limit greatly our autonomy as conscious and rational individuals. As Nahmias has demonstrated in his article, whether or not as mature individuals we are capable of being completely autonomous from certain influential factors is a question that can easily be debated.

Work Cited

Nahmias, Eddy. “Autonomous Agent and Social Psychology. ” Cartographies of the mind. Eds. Massimo Marraffa, Marios De Caro & Francesco Ferretti. Netherlands: Springer, 2007. 169-185.

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