This is a problem when it comes to ethnicity. Ethnicity appears to be inherited as a tradition rather than being self-determined. Therefore, if I want to be autonomous I have to either "liberate" myself from the "prison" of ethnicity; or else I have to think of ethnicity as being something that I myself might construct - as something individual and subjective, a "personal narrative".
But is ethnicity really experienced by individuals as something negative, as an impediment to freedom? And is it really experienced as a self-constructed narrative, rather than as a real, objective tradition?
If the answer to both questions is yes, then how do we explain the case of Nirpal Dhaliwal. He is a man of Indian descent raised in Great Britain. He stayed away from India for many years due to its economic backwardness. But now that it is more economically advanced, he believes he can enjoy there both the modern lifestyle trappings as well as the sense of ethnic attachment:
So many Indians like me, born and raised in the West, are returning, wanting to reconnect with their motherland as much as seek their fortunes ...
It is now a society where we can be as modern and cosmopolitan as we want while immersing ourselves in its ancient culture.
India wields an irresistible ancestral pull - and is now the place where we can most truly be ourselves.
If autonomy theory were right, then Dhaliwal would experience India's ancient culture and ancestral pull as an oppression. He would feel burdened. Instead, Dhaliwal feels most true to himself when connected to his ethnic homeland.
Then there is the case of Melbourne artist Michael Peck. In a recent newspaper article, Peck explained the inspiration for his paintings:
Peck said he wanted his work to convey the experience of refugees and migrants trying to fit into a new culture.
"The figures in my paintings are there, but they always seem out of place ..."
Peck began exploring the idea after a difficult year in London. While there he taught art to underprivileged migrant children and found many were "lost" because they lacked a connection to their cultural roots ...
"Most of my work focuses on the idea of cultural displacement or dislocation, the concept of identity and how our identity is formed ..." (Diamond Valley Leader, June 18, 2008)
Again, if autonomy theory were right, then refugees ought not to feel lost at all, but unburdened. They should either experience a liberation from their cultural roots, or else control the process in terms of their personal narrative.
Instead, we are told that the refugees feel disconnected, lost and out of place.
Shouldn't then the aim be to enable people, as far as possible, to continue to enjoy a connection to their own ethnic tradition?
This requires a rethink of autonomy theory. It doesn't work to make autonomy an overriding principle in life; this doesn't bring either freedom or authenticity, but rather loss and displacement. A better option would be to think of autonomy as one good in life, to be balanced intelligently with other goods.