December 21, 2014

History of the Concept of Autonomy: Part 1.

[source: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

Autonomy is an individual’s capacity for self-determination or self-governance. Beyond that, it is a much-contested concept that comes up in a number of different arenas. For example, there is the folk concept of autonomy, which usually operates as an inchoate desire for freedom in some area of one’s life, and which may or may not be connected with the agent’s idea of the moral good. This folk concept of autonomy blurs the distinctions that philosophers draw among personal autonomy, moral autonomy, and political autonomy. Moral autonomy, usually traced back to Kant, is the capacity to deliberate and to give oneself the moral law, rather than merely heeding the injunctions of others. Personal autonomy is the capacity to decide for oneself and pursue a course of action in one’s life, often regardless of any particular moral content. Political autonomy is the property of having one’s decisions respected, honored, and heeded within a political context.

Another distinction that can be made is between autonomy as a bare capacity to make decisions and of autonomy as an ideal. When autonomy functions as an ideal, agents who do not meet certain criteria in having reached a decision are deemed non-autonomous with respect to that decision. This can function both locally, in terms of particular actions, and globally, in terms of agents as a whole. For instance, children, agents with cognitive disabilities of a certain kind, or members of oppressed groups have been deemed non-autonomous because of their inability to fulfill certain criteria of autonomous agency, due to individual or social constraints.

There is debate over whether autonomy needs to be representative of a kind of “authentic” or “true” self. This debate is often connected to whether the autonomy theorist believes that an “authentic” or “true” self exists. In fact, conceptions of autonomy are often connected to conceptions of the nature of the self and its constitution. Theorists who hold a socially constituted view of the self will have a different idea of autonomy (sometimes even denying its existence altogether) than theorists who think that there can be some sort of core “true” self, or that selves as agents can be considered in abstraction from relational and social commitments and contexts.

Finally, autonomy has been criticized as being a bad ideal, for promoting a pernicious model of human individuality that overlooks the importance of social relationships and dependency. Responses to these criticisms have come in various forms, but for the most part philosophers of autonomy have striven to express the compatibility of the social aspects of human action within their conceptions of self-determination, arguing that there need not necessarily be an antagonism between social and relational ties, and our ability to decide our own course of action.

This article will focus primarily on autonomy at the level of the individual and the work being done on personal autonomy, but will also address the connection of autonomy to issues in bioethics and political theory.

1. The History of Autonomy

a. Before Kant

The roots of autonomy as self-determination can be found in ancient Greek philosophy, in the idea of self-mastery. For both Plato and Aristotle, the most essentially human part of the soul is the rational part, illustrated by Plato’s representation of this part as a human, rather than a lion or many-headed beast, in his description of the tripartite soul in the Republic. A just soul, for Plato, is one in which this rational human part governs over the two others. Aristotle identifies the rational part of the soul as most truly a person’s own in the Nicomachean Ethics (1166a17-19).

Plato and Aristotle also both associate the ideal for humanity with self-sufficiency and a lack of dependency on others. For Aristotle, self-sufficiency, or autarkeia, is an essential ingredient of happiness, and involves a lack of dependence upon external conditions for happiness. The best human will be one who is ruled by reason, and is not dependent upon others for his or her happiness.

This ideal continues through Stoic philosophy and can be seen in the early modern philosophy of Spinoza. The concept of autonomy itself continued to develop in the modern period with the decrease of religious authority and the increase of political liberty and emphasis on individual reason. Rousseau’s idea of moral liberty, as mastery over oneself, is connected with civil liberty and the ability to participate in legislation.

b. Kant

Kant further developed the idea of moral autonomy as having authority over one’s actions. Rather than letting the principles by which we make decisions be determined by our political leaders, pastors, or society, Kant called upon the will to determine its guiding principles for itself, thus connecting the idea of self-government to morality; instead of being obedient to an externally imposed law or religious precept, one should be obedient to one’s own self-imposed law. The former he called heteronomy; the latter autonomy. In his “What is Enlightenment” essay, he described enlightenment as “the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority” and called on his readers to have the courage to use their own understanding “without direction from another” (Kant 1996, 17). This description is close to what we might acknowledge today as personal autonomy, but Kant’s account is firmly located within his moral philosophy.

In acting we are guided by maxims, which are the subjective principles by which we might personally choose to abide. If these maxims can be deemed universal, such that they would be assented to and willed by any rational being, and thus not rooted in any individual’s particular contingent experience, then they may gain the status of objective laws of morality. Each moral agent, then, is to be seen as a lawgiver in a community where others are also lawgivers in their own right, and hence are to be respected as ends in themselves; Kant calls this community the kingdom of ends.

While the will is supposed to be autonomous, for Kant, it is also not supposed to be arbitrary or particularistic in its determinations. He sees our inclinations and emotional responses as external to the process of the will’s self-legislation; consequently, letting them determine our actions is heteronomous rather than autonomous. Feelings, emotions, habits, and other non-intellectual factors are excluded from autonomous decision-making. Any circumstances that particularize us are also excluded from autonomous decision-making.

The reason for Kant’s exclusion of feelings, inclinations, and other particular aspects of our lives from the structure of autonomy is rooted in his metaphysical account of the human being, which radically separates the phenomenal human self from the noumenal human self. All empirical aspects of our selfhood — all aspects of our experience — are part of the phenomenal self, and subject to the deterministic laws of natural causality. Our freedom, on the other hand, cannot be perceived or understood; rather we must posit the freedom of the will as the basis for our ability to act morally.

Contemporary Kantians within moral theory do not adhere to Kant’s metaphysics, but seek to understand how something like Kant’s conception of autonomy can still stand today. Thomas Hill suggests, for example, that the separation of our free will from our empirical selfhood be taken less as a metaphysical idea but as a normative claim about what ought to count as reasons for acting (Hill 1989, 96-97)

There are significant differences between Kant’s conception of moral autonomy and the conceptions of personal autonomy developed within the last thirty years, which attempt to articulate how social and cultural influences can be compatible with autonomous decision-making. Further, the majority of contemporary theories of personal autonomy are content-neutral accounts of autonomy which are unconcerned with whether or not a person is acting according to moral laws; they focus more on determining whether or not a person is acting for his or her own reasons than on putting any restrictions on autonomous action.

c. The Development of Individualism in Autonomy

Between Kant’s description of moral autonomy and the recent scholarship on personal autonomy, however, there was a process of individualizing the idea of autonomy. The Romantics, reacting against the emphasis on the universality of reason put forth by the Enlightenment, of which Kant’s philosophy was a part, prized particularity and individuality. They highlighted the role of the passions and emotions over reason, and the importance of developing one's own unique self. John Stuart Mill also praised and defended the development and cultivation of individuality as worthwhile in itself, writing that “A person whose desires and impulses are his own – are the expression of his own nature, as it has been developed and modified by his own culture – is said to have a character. One whose desires and impulses are not his own has no character, no more than a steam engine has a character” (Mill 1956, 73).

The Romantic conception of individuality was then echoed within the conception of authenticity that runs through phenomenological and existential philosophy. Heidegger posits an inner call of conscience summoning us away from ‘das Man’: in order to be authentic, we need to heed this inner call and break away from inauthentically following the crowd. This conception of authenticity became intertwined with the idea of autonomy: both involve a call to think for oneself and contain a streak of individualism (see Hinchman 1996).

Unlike the universalism espoused by Kantian autonomy, however, authenticity, like the Romantic view, involves a call to be one’s own person, not merely to think for oneself. For Kant, thinking for oneself would, if undertaken properly, lead to universalizing one’s maxims; for both the Romantics and the Existentialists, as well as for Mill, there is no such expectation. This division is still present in the contrast between conceiving of autonomy as a key feature of moral motivation, and autonomy as self-expression and development of individual practical identity.

The emphasis on autonomy within this strain of philosophy was criticized by Emmanuel Lévinas, who sees autonomy as part of our selfish and close-minded desire to strive toward our own fulfillment and self-gratification rather than being open to the disruptive call of the other’s needs (Lévinas 1969). He argues for the value of heteronomy over autonomy. For Lévinas, in heteronomy, the transcendent face of the other calls the ego into question, and the self realizes its unchosen responsibility and obligation to the other. The self is hence not self-legislating, but is determined by the call of the other. This criticism of the basic structure of autonomy has been taken up within continental ethics, which attempts to determine how or whether a practical, normative ethics could be developed within this framework (see for example Critchley 2007).

d. Autonomy and Psychological Development

The connection between autonomy and the ideal of developing one’s own individual self was adopted within the humanistic psychologies of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, who saw the goal of human development as “self-actualization” and “becoming a person,” respectively. For Maslow and Rogers, the most developed person is the most autonomous, and autonomy is explicitly associated with not being dependent on others.

More recently Lawrence Kohlberg developed an account of moral psychological development, in which more developed agents display a greater amount of moral autonomy and independence in their judgments. The highest level bears a great resemblance to the Kantian moral ideal, in its reference to adopting universal values and standards as one’s own.

Kohlberg’s work was criticized by Carol Gilligan, who argued that this pattern reflected male development, but not female. Instead of taking “steps toward autonomy and independence,” in which “separation itself becomes the model and the measure of growth,” “for women, identity has as much to do with intimacy as with separation” (Gilligan 1982, 98). The trajectory is thus less about individualization and independence than toward ultimately balancing and harmonizing an agent’s interests with those of others.

Gilligan does not entirely repudiate autonomy itself as a value, but she also does not suggest how it can be distinguished from the ideals of independence and separation from others. Her critiques have been widely influential and have played a major role in provoking work on feminist ethics and, despite her criticism of the ideal of autonomy, conceptions of “relational autonomy.”

The contemporary literature on personal autonomy within philosophy tends to avoid these psychological ideas of individual development and self-actualization. For the most part, it adopts a content-neutral approach that rejects any particular developmental criteria for autonomous action, and is more concerned with articulating the structure by which particular actions can be deemed autonomous (or, conversely, the structure by which an agent can be deemed autonomous with respect to particular actions).

2. Personal Autonomy

The contemporary discussion of personal autonomy can primarily be distinguished from Kantian moral autonomy through its commitment to metaphysical neutrality. Related to this is the adherence to at least a procedural individualism: within contemporary personal autonomy accounts, an action is not judged to be autonomous because of its rootedness in universal principles, but based on features of the action and decision-making process purely internal and particular to the individual agent.

The main distinction within personal autonomy is that between content-neutral accounts, which do not specify any particular values or principles that must be endorsed by the autonomous agent, and substantive accounts which specify some particular value or values that must be included within autonomous decision-making.
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