From brownstone.org by Robin Koerner:
We live in an age of agendas.
In the pursuit of them, behaviors that are otherwise deemed unacceptable supposedly become acceptable or even necessary. Justified by them, what is otherwise deemed immoral supposedly becomes moral.
The champions of agendas make pariahs and even criminals of people who refuse to accept that the statement of a particular well-intended end can justify an otherwise harmful act just because it is claimed to be a means to that end.
A list of recent examples comes easily to mind.
During the COVID pandemic, the widely accepted right to bodily autonomy was effectively suspended as measures were put in place to coerce people to take an untested “vaccine,” consistent with a mass-“vaccination” agenda.
The First Amendment prohibition of government censorship of the media was effectively suspended as the state communicated directly and frequently with social media platforms to direct them to censor even true information, consistent with the same agenda.
The principle of Informed Consent was effectively suspended as untruths were told to get people to consent to a “vaccine.” First, our betters gave us such unqualified assurances that the “vaccine” was a vaccine. They had to change the definition of “vaccine” to make that claim. They assured us, again without qualification, that the “vaccine” “is safe and effective” (Anthony Fauci), and “You’re not going to get COVID if you get these vaccinations… We are in a pandemic of the unvaccinated.” (Joe Biden). Now the data tell us otherwise. Not only are the number and kind of vaccine injuries shocking: our clinicians and scientists are starting to work out what likely caused them (including, for example, DNA contamination from the bacteria used to manufacture the shot rapidly and at scale).
Thus also, the basic duty to tell the truth was suspended in the name of this same agenda.
Millions of people globally were involved in promoting, sourcing, distributing, and delivering a “vaccine” that not one of them knew to be safe in the long run to people who had insufficient accurate information to provide Informed Consent. Thus the basic duty to do no harm was also suspended in pursuit of the prevailing agenda.
The right to free association was suspended in pursuit of the same “public health” agenda, but in many places the suspension was itself suspended in pursuit of a “racial equality” agenda.
Relatedly, in some American cities, the government’s duty to enforce the law was weakened by the defunding of police without due diligence to predict – let alone protect people against – potential negative consequences for human safety. This, too, was justified by the racial equality agenda.
What about female genital mutilation (FGM), defined by the United Nations (UN) as “procedures that involve altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons and is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights, the health and the integrity of girls and women?” Until a few years ago, opposition to the practice was virtually ubiquitous across the developed world. The UN even has an international day of awareness (6 February) to help to stamp it out, and in 2020, published a report on the intensification of their efforts to do just that.
Now, however, female (and male) genital mutilation is promoted in about 300 gender clinics in the USA, where children are put on treatment pathways without a diagnosis to identify any medical reason for doing so. Once again, a justifying agenda makes this acceptable to the thousands of people who are involved. It is an agenda that justifies practices that arguably lead to even greater negative consequences for some children than the FGM that exercised the UN for so long. To those who take issue with the claim that the treatment pathway is absent a diagnosis, it suffices to point out that the diagnostic standards that are demanded and applied in all other areas of clinical practice, including psychotherapeutic, are absolutely not applied in pursuit of the new justifying agenda.
School administrators and teachers who would never have previously condoned boys in girls’ bathrooms, males in females’ sports teams, or the forcing of a child to say something he believes to be false, now do all of those things, driven by the same agenda.
Agendas tell people what to do, identifying moral rightness with compliance. Increasingly, they also punish non-compliance. In so doing, they deny conscience, agency, and thereby the essence of morality.
Agendas are characterized by demanding particular methods to reach general ends. They are set to put certain premises and preferred methods beyond question, such that no observation can be used to challenge the former and no output of conscience can challenge the latter. Their purpose is to constrain or replace human agency in a particular domain on the assumption that the factual and moral work has all been done and the matter settled.
But agendas cannot make morality or be moral: only human agency can do that.
As history attests, most of the greatest evils require that enough people give up enough of their agency in the name of an agenda.
Think of the number of individuals who had to go along with the Nazi agenda to murder all those Jews, the number of Communists who had to go along with Stalin’s agenda to murder all who disagreed with them, and the number of Chinese who had to go along with the Cultural Revolution to cause the death by famine of so many of their countrymen. (Perhaps the only thing as powerful as an agenda in suppressing conscience is greed: think of the institution of slavery but even that evil precisely is the denial of human agency taken to its furthest extreme.)
The word “agenda” can be traced back to the 1650s. Originally theological, it referred to “matters of practice,” in contrast to “credenda,” which referred to “things to be believed, matters of faith.” Its Latin root, “agenda,” literally means “things to be done.”
Going back further, we find its Proto-Indo-European root “ag-“ meaning “to drive, draw out or forth, move.” The word “agency,” which is also traceable to the 1650s has the same ultimate root. It originally meant “active operation;” by the 1670s it meant, “a mode of exerting power or producing effect.” Its Medieval Latin version, “agentia” is an abstract noun from the Latin “agens” meaning “effective, powerful,” being the present participle of agere, “to set in motion, drive forward; to do, perform,” figuratively “incite to action; keep in movement.”
While the words have the same root, one clearly precedes the other conceptually. One cannot “do things” or “practice matters” (agenda) without first “setting in motion” or “inciting to action” (agency). In simple terms, choosing to comply (or not to comply) with an agenda is itself an act of agency.
Agency is always prior. It is where morality and responsibility live.
And so it is agency – not agenda – that makes possible moral experience and moral action. For that reason, it is what makes possible humanity.
A person can be moral or immoral without an agenda, but without agency, she would not even have a sense of what those words “moral” and “immoral” mean. That is to say, she would not really be a person.
Without agency, we would not feel any difference between right and wrong; we would not have whatever it is that we mean by “conscience” because we would not have the will or capacity necessary to choose whether or not to act according to its outputs.
Indeed, agency can be broadly understood as willfulness allied with the capacity to identify one course of action as better than another; to knowingly and freely choose which to perform; and then to perform it.
The agendas of the aforementioned Nazis, Stalinists, and Maoists (like so many others) could only be realized because enough people were willing to harm others while going along with them. Most of those people, one supposes, were not evil. They were certainly as human as the rest of us. But they nevertheless paved their small part of the road to hell with the best of intentions, trusting those who had the political and cultural power to set the agendas and design the systems and pass down the instructions that advanced them.
To imagine that many, or even most, people are not doing exactly the same in our own time and country would be moral and historical hubris of fatal proportions.
Undoubtedly, there are always a proportion of the compliant who are not as naïve as the others: these are the people who are not entirely comfortable with the agenda to which they are daily contributing but they are not willing to pay the price of standing up against it. This is because the price of such resistance can be high – both psychologically (who wants to believe their world/country/community has gone mad/is engaged in mass murder/mutilates children/would knowingly tell lies that could result in medical injuries?) and materially (“It’s not worth losing my salary over this”).
They are the people who uncomfortably accept back as privileges for compliance the rights that have been removed from others for non-compliance. They are the people who go along with “small” lies that they would never have previously told because now there is a price for resisting them with truth.
Whenever justifying agendas direct an entire population or culture to the harming of others, the littlest fraction of people are those with the courage to stand up to what they perceive to be wrongdoing by either ignorance or design. They necessarily not only hold themselves to a high moral standard but accept that such a standard can be set only by their own conscience and integrity, rather than by an agenda backed by power, cultural norms, or the force of numbers.
Understanding the power and responsibility of agency, the morally courageous know that they are wholly responsible for all of their actions, independently of any agenda. They are the people for whom no external cause or abstract, general claim can make a wrong action right, justify a violation of conscience, or make a lie tellable.
It is worth noting how fundamental is the correlation between acting against conscience and speaking untruth: falsehood is wrongdoing’s greatest helper.
How so? Most of the time, as we go about our daily business, our conscience is not much engaged; most of our actions are benign – which is to say morally neutral. (Watching TV, eating dinner, going for a walk, chatting with a friend etc.)
We become aware of conscience only when we are facing a decision or having an idea that troubles it. At that point, conscience provides a sense that some way of proceeding would be right or wrong. When we choose to go against conscience, which is to do something that morally troubles us, in almost every case, we have a positive reason to do so that involves some benefit to ourselves. (Why else would we choose the discomfort of going against our conscience and potentially dealing with the complications that often follow from doing so?).
Gaining the intended benefit that motivated us to violate conscience often involves hiding the truth (in whole or part) about our actions or some related facts about the world.
First, if we were to be found out, we would be prevented from enjoying the benefit.
Second, violation of conscience is often followed by the need to avoid punishment or ostracization.
Third, and most powerfully of all, having done something we feel to be wrong, we are motivated to avoid cognitive dissonance and that requires telling ourselves and others that the world is other than it really is in such a way that would make what we had done not so wrong after all.
In short, the violation of conscience typically creates a motivation to hide the truth.
The avoidance of this dissonance often does not require an outright lie: the need for self-deceit is sublimated, causing a perpetrator or accomplice to see the world in a distorted way. That may involve seeing something that is not there (perhaps a certainty of safety in the case of vaccines) or being blind to something that very much is (perhaps a long-term harm in the case of the intervening in the natural development of children).
To see the world as other than it is, and to act accordingly, is to refuse one’s own agency because it necessarily leads to actions that neither produce the results you believe you desire nor manifest the values you believe you hold.
For example, if a vaccine is not entirely safe, then persuading people to take it does not serve a goal of equitable public health; rather, it makes you complicit in public harm.
If a boy cannot be a girl, then intervening in his life in a way that will destroy his ability to procreate and expose him to physical and psychological harms later in life does not serve a goal of protecting children; rather it makes you complicit in hurting them.
If a man cannot be a woman, then allowing a rapist to be incarcerated with women does not serve the goal of respecting the dignity and safety of women; rather, it makes you complicit in putting women at risk.
If the developmental damage to children of closing schools and locking down is not analyzed, then allowing your children to be targets of such a policy may be less an act of love than of negligence.
If Iraq is not responsible for 9/11 or threatening the West with weapons of mass destruction, then supporting an invasion of that country does not serve the goal of protecting innocent American lives; rather it makes you complicit in putting Americans in danger.
If Jews aren’t really vermin who are responsible for all of Germany’s ills, then working in concentration camps does not serve the goal of making the country happier and more prosperous; rather, it makes you complicit in murder.
If not all property is merely theft, then supporting expropriation does not serve your goal of equalizing the enjoyment of prosperity across society; rather, it makes you complicit in mass starvation.
And so on and so on and so on.
Of course, it is not just a lack of commitment to external truth about “what is” that enables people to be accomplices in harm; it is also a lack of commitment to their internal truth about “what ought to be.” This is the lack of commitment revealed by choices that were easier to make than the right choice.
The easy choice is the one that is promoted by a prevailing agenda backed by political, cultural or economic power whenever the right choice is to resist it.
Perhaps we understand why a German might have been an SS officer in the ‘40s; perhaps we would have been one too if we were there, but following orders does not absolve the officer of responsibility.
The Law has a simple test for identifying responsibility. It is called the “but for” test.
“But for” the officers’ participating in running concentration camps, there would be no concentration camps. The officers then have responsibility – even if they would be risking their lives to refuse to participate.
“But for” the doctor who injected a new technology into someone’s arm absent long-term testing, having given unqualified (and therefore inaccurate) assurances of its long-term safety to elicit consent, there could be no “vaccine” injuries.
“But for” the parent who sends her child to the local public school where she knows are taught unsettled doctrines that are significantly likely to lead to the psychological or physical harm of the children who are there, her child would come to no such harm.
We all have one very sensible reason to comply with prevailing agendas. The difference between taking the responsibilities of agency and complying with the demands of an agenda is the difference between suffering negative consequences and being responsible in part for causing negative consequences for others – which is to say, the difference between being harmed and doing harm.
Nevertheless, harms scale when enough people subordinate agency to agenda.
Thus, when the agenda is wrong, compliance is complicity.
We live at a time and a place in which many of us face choices between being harmed by the imposition of an agenda or contributing by compliance to the harm it creates. Such choices are binary. It is terrible that anyone has to make them. There is nothing “fair” about them. But facing them is part of the human condition. Perhaps, even, it is the most important thing that humans do?
The virtue that matters at times of such choices is moral courage. That is the quality exhibited by the person who chooses the right thing at a cost to herself because the only alternative is to choose the wrong thing at a cost to someone else. It is the quality of the person who asserts his agency against someone else’s agenda.
Not all agents with the courage to resist questionable agendas agree on everything or even on much. People with moral courage who take personal responsibility for their actions can have very different views from each other and so act very differently in similar situations.
People who speak according to their conscience and then act according to their speech even at a price to themselves have something called integrity. Those with integrity can recognize it even in others with whom they disagree about moral matters. For that reason, they sometimes say respectfully to each other, “You do what you must do, and I will do what I must do.”
Agenda does the opposite. Agenda identifies the good only with compliance, in the false certainty that it has nothing to learn from the consciences and truthfulness of those it seeks to direct.
To a first approximation, when enough people go along with a prevailing agenda in violation of conscience, things get worse; when enough people choose to go along with their conscience in violation of a prevailing agenda, things get better. It is only an approximation, though, because consciences become corrupted over time by compliance and the untruths told in its defense.
Agents are individuals. Only individuals make moral choices. You are one. Agendas are products of the agency of individuals other than you. For that reason, to choose compliance over conscience is simply to sacrifice your agency for someone else’s – and your morality, too.
What, then, are you living for?
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