Agents of Change: scientific and philosophical perspectives
Grand challenges like structural racism, climate change, gender oppression, and global poverty have to be solved by individual people, acting together, often through institutions. This means that we need good agents of change to address the challenges we face. What does it mean to be a ‘good agent’? What are the best ways to think about this kind of agency? And how can we foster more of it in ourselves, our friends, our children, and our fellow citizens?
This course is taught by a philosopher and a psychologist, and we approach questions like these from both perspectives. Traditionally, many philosophers have thought that we need to cultivate virtues such as compassion and open-mindedness in order to be good people. Some recent psychological work casts doubt on this picture: the social and environmental forces that influence our behavior cannot be overcome with virtuous character! On the other hand, psychological research also shows that some of the good traits we have are ones that develop reliably, from early childhood. Which perspective offers more opportunities for progress? Should we foster good agency by working on individual character or by changing social circumstances? Or, if both are important, what would a combined approach look like?
The ultimate goal of the course is to encourage students to apply the theoretical and scientific ideas about improving agency to specific grand challenges. How do philosophy and psychology help us to define and resolve the challenges that confront people who want to make a difference? To provide a model for this kind of research, we focus on structural racism and white supremacy to expose the ways in which individual and structural forces can impede epistemic and moral agency. Course requirements include active class participation, group projects, and writing assignments designed to foster creative engagement across different fields.