In my last post I tried to explain the contradiction at the heart of liberal autonomy theory. In brief, autonomy theory requires two things. First, it requires that we be unimpeded in pursuing our life aims, setting our values and creating our identity. This aspect of autonomy theory leads to an insistence on neutrality, impartiality and non-coercion.
Second, we are considered human because of our status as an autonomous agent. Therefore, if a person leads a life which is thought to be less autonomous, he is no longer equally human: there is a serious breach of human equality. It is clear that liberals regard this as unacceptable, and so the response in practice is an interventionist, coercive one to remedy the situation.
I noted that when it comes to family arrangements the two requirements of autonomy theory come into conflict. According to the official government research body, women wish to organise family arrangements on motherhood principles, and they wish to be supported in doing so by their husbands. According to the first requirement of autonomy theory, they should be left alone to set these values and life aims.
However, the human rights agency believes that women, in choosing motherhood, are living a less autonomous life than men. Autonomy is to be measured through an independent careerism, and therefore the human rights agency believes that family arrangements should be judged in terms of female workforce participation rates and paid maternity schemes. The human rights arm of the government wants state intervention to change women's lives regardless of women's preferences.
Autonomy theory therefore generates a coercion which violates one of its own basic requirements: it generates its own significant impediment to autonomy.
But if autonomy theory doesn't work coherently, what is the alternative? There are two significant questions to consider here. First, it's important to reconsider one of the basic assumptions of autonomy theory, namely that our status as humans is contingent - that it depends on our enacting something, or being granted access to some kind of social condition.
Traditionally in the West, our humanity wasn't thought to be contingent at all. It was something we were invested with. We could represent this human status for better or worse, we could show different levels of personal character and achievement, but whether we were a wealthy aristocrat or a peasant, a man labouring in a factory or a woman working at home, didn't make us any more or less human.
Autonomy theory changes this. By defining our humanity in terms of our capacity for autonomous self-determination, it makes individuals more or less human, which then (understandably) creates feelings of guilt, resentment, illegitimacy and an unending drive to re-engineer the most basic forms of society.
It's difficult, once you accept a contingent humanity, to consider a range of human goods in balance with each other. Once you think of people as being made more or less human by social conditions, and by their own beliefs, values and identities, then addressing this "failing" of society will be given supreme moral status - it will override all other considerations.
Which then leads to a second major consideration. If we were to return to an "invested humanity" rather than a contingent one, then the logic of autonomy theory would be applied less intensely. Even so, autonomy would still be held to be a sole, overriding good: it would be used as the organising principle of society.
This too needs to be reconsidered. The counter-position is that there are, in reality, a number of possible goods to be weighed when thinking about issues. Autonomy can be one of these, but it shouldn't be singled out as the primary good.
For instance, when considering how family life might be arranged we might think about the following questions in terms of securing the good:
- What will help to perpetuate the distinctive community to which I belong, which forms the setting for an important aspect of my identity, and whose existence I take to be a good in itself?
- What will enable me to fulfil my identity/drives/instincts as a man or woman?
- What do I owe my spouse/children/community?
- What really furthers my sense of freedom and independence? (The answer won't always be a radical individualism.)
- What will serve the standard of what is objectively good, of what is virtuous in itself?
Often the answers we give to these questions will fit well together. If being a provider helps to fulfil one of my masculine drives, it can also reasonably be thought to fulfil a responsibility to my family and community.
It's possible, though, for the answers to be in conflict. In such cases, a community has to arrive at a balance of goods. This is where political debate, properly understood, has a significant role.
The nature of and opportunity for such discussion, though, is impoverished when there is held to be a sole primary good. The task becomes not to arrive at a balance of goods, but simply to manage and apply the one primary good. The emphasis shifts to politics as technique, to the process of managing and extending the primary good in society.