Saturday, April 03, 2010

More on liberalism & autonomy

I haven't read (yet) The Morality of Freedom by Oxford professor Joseph Raz. So this isn't a review. I just want to demonstrate how important the concept of autonomy is to liberal political philosophy by quoting some of the chapter summaries:

This book explores, within a liberal framework, the nature, significance, and justification of political freedom or liberty ... What underlies rights, and the value of freedom, is a concern with autonomy.

Central to liberalism is the concept of political freedom.

The doctrine of liberty is underpinned by the ideal of autonomy.

Autonomy is an ideal of self-creation, or self-authorship

Autonomy should be distinguished from self-realization, as autonomous persons may choose not to realize their capacities. Autonomy itself, in an environment that supports autonomy, is not similarly optional, as living autonomously is the only way of flourishing within an autonomy-supporting environment.

The ideal of autonomy, together with pluralism, underlies the doctrine of political freedom. Autonomy underlies both positive and negative freedom.

It's interesting that my own analysis of liberalism is condensed here in three brief sentences:

i) Central to liberalism is the concept of political freedom.

ii) The doctrine of liberty is underpinned by the ideal of autonomy.

iii) Autonomy is an ideal of self-creation, or self-authorship

It's gratifying that my own view should parallel that of a major authority on liberalism like Raz. Of course, Raz as a liberal thinks that the logic of liberal belief summarised above leads to positive outcomes, whereas I see it as having created, in practice, highly destructive outcomes.

If the most important good is to be free, and freedom is understood in terms of autonomy, and autonomy is an ideal of self-creation or self-authorship, then the important thing is to be liberated by the removal of impediments to our own self-creation.

We do not self-create those things which we receive as part of a tradition, as part of the embedded nature of reality, or as part of our biology. We don't self-create our sex, our ethnicity, our nationality, the traditional family, inherited moral codes and so on.

We can, on the other hand, self-create our careers, our consumer choices, our travel destinations, our personal amusements, our casual sexual and romantic liaisons etc.

Care to guess then which set of goods is emphasised within liberal society? Obviously, it's the latter. Liberal society does the latter set of goods reasonably well. But it mostly closes off the former set of goods. And the former set of goods are amongst the most significant in life.

It's in this sense that liberalism, despite its intentions, tends to narrow or limit the range of options available to people. Or, more exactly, it trivialises the range of available options. You can choose between dozens of different varieties of iced tea, but you don't get a culture that supports the expression of masculinity, or which upholds the deeper forms of communal identity.


  1. You are going to find the Raz book quite interesting. Although remaining a liberal, Raz acknowledges that there are many forms of human flourishing that are not highly autonomous. And he sees that autonomy is not meaningful without a society that provides a wide range of options.

    Another interesting point is that liberal neutrality is seen as incoherent, because liberal values must take their meaning from some conception of the good life.

    I will look forward to your comments after you have had a chance to read this book. Thanks for your great work. - Thucydides

  2. "Central to liberalism is the concept of political freedom."

    I'd be curious to know how Raz squares this with liberal efforts to deny political freedom to its opponents, for example by demonizing (and often criminalizing) their words as "hate".

    Does Raz draw any connection between political freedom and economic freedom? The more state control over the economic life of the individual, the less meaningful that individual's political freedom will be, if it is even possible at all. If the state provides your job and your health insurance, how will you dare oppose it?

  3. But Agrarianism teaches corporate effort. Xenophon.

    Second, Liberty requires defense. How does an individual defend himself from a group? What is the state of Nature?

    Plato begins his magnus opus, The Laws, with the Doric Cretan cognition that "Life is War". If that is what reality is--how does the individual autonomy work? I thought Aristotle said, "Man is a SOCIAL animal" more than the bee is.

    Are you feeding on the trough of human ideology? Or shouldn't you be knowledgeable about the Natural Law. Individualism gets you killed.

    The idea of "freedom" is a Masonic/Enlightenment teaching.

  4. Liberal individual autonomy tends to discount the value of corporal institutional authority. And historical tradition, the wisdom incorporated in the myriad of practices and principles handed down by ancestors.

    Modernist liberals such as Hobbes, Hume, Burke and Hayek at least had the sense to recognise the complementarity between autonomy and authority.

    But post-modernist liberals have completely lost the plot.