But what happens when feminists become mothers? Is it still possible to promote individual autonomy as the highest good?
I wrote a post on this issue last month and found that feminist mothers underwent a significant change; despite still holding formally to an autonomist politics, they now considered the family to be a higher, outranking good than an absolute autonomy.
One feminist came across my post and declared at her own site that she "felt ill reading it". Curiously, though, her own outlook fits my analysis closely.
Does this feminist, stay at home mother still retain a formal allegiance to autonomy? I think this comment makes it clear that she does:
I refuse to define my Feminist Motherhood because as I learn about being a mother it is growing stronger and changing every day. I want my daughter to have a happy and successful life as an adult, which she will define individually. I will not confine my Feminist Motherhood by defining it.
This is quite a radical interpretation of the ideal of the self-defining individual. Even the act of attempting to define a category is held to be a possible impediment to our autonomy in fashioning our own self.
Our feminist contrasts her own non-defined motherhood with that of her mother:
That seems to be a big difference in "how things used to be". When talking to my own mother she seemed to have a concrete way of looking at what makes a good mom ... Hasn't feminism at least liberated us from that concrete vision?
So has family life had no effect on the politics of this particular feminist? Actually, it has. She writes:
And if we consider ourselves part of a family unit, won't we act in the best interest of it and not as an individual? My husband would love to be home with our child, but we decided that he will work to bring home a paycheck (for many reasons) and I will stay home. We made this decision TOGETHER not individually.
So now the family unit is being asserted as an important good, one which is certainly not inferior to that of individual autonomy. We are to consider ourselves not just individuals, but part of a family, and make decisions as part of a family unit and not just as an individual, and act in the interests of the family, and not just in the interests of our individual autonomy.
It would be very difficult to create a stable family life without effectively asserting the good of family life in this way. If individual autonomy remained the sole, overriding good, then it would be difficult to make commitments to or sacrifices for the family, or to see out difficult times, or not to pursue one's own perceived interests, even if these were harmful to your spouse or children.
Interestingly, the mother is emphasising something different for herself than for her daughter. She writes:
I want my daughter to have a happy and successful life as an adult, which she will define individually.
But of her own role in life she underlines the fact that:
We made this decision TOGETHER not individually.
Her daughter's life is to be defined individually; her own life in terms of the wider interests of the family.
The larger point, I think, is that it doesn't work to promote individual autonomy as the organising principle of society. Not only do you logically reach extreme positions, such as a rejection of any concrete notion of the good and a refusal to define important categories, it also becomes difficult to reconcile political principles with our real needs and interests as social beings.
This doesn't mean that autonomy is not a significant good. The task should be to balance a concern for autonomy with the conservation of other important goods, such as a stable family life.