Saturday, August 21, 2010

Chapter 2: Autonomy theory

So what is liberalism? A key principle or aim of liberalism is individual autonomy. According to Professor John Kekes,

the true core of liberalism, the inner citadel for whose protection all the liberal battles are waged [is] autonomy … Autonomy is what the basic political principles of liberalism are intended to foster and protect. [1]

Professor Joseph Raz explains that,

One common strand in liberal thought regards the promotion and protection of personal autonomy as the core of the liberal concern. [2]

Similarly, Professor Bruce Ackerman writes of liberalism that,

The core of this tradition is an insistence that the forms of social life be rooted in the self-conscious value affirmations of autonomous individuals. [3]

And Professor Kok-Chor Tan defines liberalism as,

an individualistic political morality...concerned primarily with protecting and promoting the autonomy of individuals. [4]

But this then raises another question. What do liberals understand by the idea of individual autonomy?

According to liberal autonomy theory, a fully human life is one that is self-determined. What matters therefore is that individuals have a life and a self which are variously described as self-created, self-defined, self-authored, self-chosen or self-directed.

Here, for instance, is how Professor Raz defines liberal autonomy:

A person is autonomous if he can become the author of his own life.[5]

From a chapter description of the same work we get the following definition:

Autonomy is an ideal of self-creation, or self-authorship [6]

Professor Alan Ryan defines liberal autonomy in a similar way,

The essence [of liberalism] is that individuals are self-creating... [7]

As a final example, Professor Wayne Sumner connects the "traditional liberal value of autonomy" to the,

liberal conception of the person as self-determining and self-making [8]

Let’s say that you are a liberal who believes in this. What then becomes your political aim?

Your aim will be to remove impediments to individual autonomy. Whatever defines us in important ways that we do not choose for ourselves will be thought of negatively as something limiting and oppressive that we must be liberated from.

Liberals therefore have a strong motivation to launch campaigns to “reform” society. Over time the influence of liberalism on Western societies has been radical, arguably more radical than anything that has gone before.

This transforming effect on society has been presented to the general public by liberals in the most positive terms, as a progress toward freedom, equality and justice. When put this way, liberalism can seem difficult to challenge, even by those who sense that something is wrong with the direction of modern Western societies.

But if we go back to liberal autonomy theory, and look in detail at what it logically requires, then a more obviously negative picture emerges, one that is very much open to criticism.

What, after all, are the impediments to autonomy which liberalism seeks to abolish? They are those aspects of our own self and existence which we do not get to self-determine. And there is a lot that we don’t get to self-determine, including what we inherit as part of a tradition and what is given to us as part of an inborn human nature.

What is most significant to us as individuals has often survived over time as aspects of a tradition or of human nature. Therefore, liberalism has often found itself having to make what matters most not matter.

In this way liberalism has diminished our lives rather than liberated them.

But what exactly does liberalism not allow to matter? This is what now needs to be looked at more closely.


Next chapter: Sex distinctions


[1] John Kekes, Against Liberalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), 14-15.

[2] Joseph Raz, The Morality of Freedom (Oxford: Clarendon, 1986), 203, quoted in Kekes, 217.

[3] Bruce Ackerman, Social Justice and the Liberal State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 196, quoted in Kekes, 217.

[4] Kok-Chor Tan, Toleration, Diversity, and Global Justice (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), p.2 (location 62)

[5] Raz, 204.

[6] Oxford Scholarship Online, The Morality of Freedom, 14 Autonomy and Pluralism, Abstract, http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/oso/public/content/philosophy/9780198248071/acprof-9780198248071-chapter-14.html (August 2010)

[7] Alan Ryan, “Liberalism” in Goodin and Pettit, A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell), quoted in Kekes, 217.

[8] Wayne Sumner, Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 218-219, quoted in Kok-Chor Tan, Toleration, Diversity, and Global Justice (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000), 49.

26 comments:

  1. Well done, Mark.

    I would say that the way that liberalism gets to do that is two-fold.

    First, it denies that such a thing as "human nature" exists -- hence the blank slate theory. Everything is "socially constructed", and therefore malleable and subject to change. That is now coming under some pressure in the academy, but the blank slatists remain adamantly in favor of their view, precisely because they know that it's a critical aspect of the liberal project -- in other words, their science is informed by their politics. People like Stephen Pinker have pointed this out numerous times, but the liberal "scientists" remain entrenched -- so far, at least.

    Second, it looks at "tradition" from the perspective of the values of autonomy, absolute freedom, objective/public equality and so on, and portrays it as lacking, oppressive, one-sided, domineering, partriarchal, sexist, racist, and so on. In other words, it constructs a narrative of those "oppressed" and "victimized" by tradition and concludes that this is the main story to tell, and that any supposed "benefits" of tradition are outweighed by its shortcomings when measured against an agenda of radical autonomy, radical freedom, and radical public equality.

    Most people now buy into both the blank slate theory *and* the metanarrative about tradition. Liberalism has been spectacularly successful at peddling these things to the general public, really.

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    1. Basically it's an obsolete superstition. Science has proven that we each have different DNA, different DNA makes for different hormonal action, both determining for a large part who and what we are; how we think and how we feel...
      We couldn't be the author of our lives! Could you be a famous opera singer just by wanting to? Even if you were talented, would circumstances permit? We can't decide where we were born, in what family, whether we will experience disasters or not... We can only attempt to remain clearheaded and kindheartedly assume responsibility for ourselves and our environment.

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  2. Thank you! This is being emailed to a friend.

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  3. Self-determined, radically autonomous, atomical feminist Julia Gillard has mortifyingly lost Labor their majority after a single term.

    This is a debacle for the Australian Left - the sole boon for native Australians, and our constitution, is that the three old communal Tory independents (Windsor, Katter, Oakeshott) shall in all probability support the relative majority attained by the Coalition and retard the onslaught of globalism.

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  4. Novaseeker, that's an excellent extension of the argument.

    Liberals have often framed the discussion of political philosophy in their own favour by taking, as a starting point, the existence of an abstracted, asocial (or presocial), atomised individual. It was on this artificial basis that many of the seminal works of liberalism were written.

    And you're right - liberals in recent decades have justified their efforts to abolish important aspects of identity and behaviour by claiming that they are socially constructed.

    Unhappily for liberals, science reached a point at exactly this time of finding a hardwired basis for some of these behaviours and identities.

    The liberal response has varied. Some liberals have straight out denied the science or sought to suppress it (e.g. the findings of neuroscience on sex distinctions in Sweden).

    More commonly liberals have made small concessions to the science whilst maintaining their original positions.

    Occasionally you read of liberals who accept the science, admit that the blank slatism and social constructionism is false, but then insist that the identity or behaviour has to be coercively made not to matter anyway.

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  5. Anon, thanks for the encouragement.

    Hesper, I do hope the election result ends up with the more right-leaning independents holding the balance of power. That would be the best possible outcome for us. It would make it at least a little more difficult for the government to ignore public opinion in its policy making.

    However, I'd throw in a caution here: rural independents don't always make the best conservatives. They are often highly unprincipled, basing their politics on little more than "development at any cost".

    Tony Windsor, for instance, wants his part of Australia to have higher levels of immigration. He wants some of the migrants now populating Sydney to come out to New England instead in order to "develop" the region.

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  6. Raz:

    "A person is autonomous if he can become the author of his own life."

    Author, perhaps, but neither publisher nor reader.

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  7. "Liberals have often framed the discussion of political philosophy in their own favour by taking, as a starting point, the existence of an abstracted, asocial (or presocial), atomised individual."

    The pre-social individual is clearly seen in the thinking of Locke and Hobbes. Locke sees society as emerging from individuals agreeing to a social contract, while Hobbes sees individuals submitting to a strong central authority to save themselves from each other.

    However, Giambattista Vico, criticised this approach as historically inplausible. Having painstakingly studied the founding myths of the classical states, he concluded society emerged from extended families, with the stronger, better organised families forming the basis for the aristocracy. The individual at this stage only existed as a member of the family and a servant of the patriarch.
    The state basically emerged to protect the aristocratic families from outlaws (those rejected by the families or unable to abide by their rules) and competing foreign clans or armies, not to protect the individual.

    The Greeks never believed everyone should vote, because the aristocratic patriarchs were seen as representing all other members of society.

    As we can see in countries where government and other organs of society are weak, strong extended families fill in the vacuum and provide safety, welfare etc.

    A case can be made that modern society is becoming imbalanced because the state is now so powerful it is destroying even the minimal nuclear family.

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  8. Mike Courtman-

    Interesting comment. Can you provide any links to Giambattista's writings?

    Somewhere I read recently about the difference between extended families, which are the norm in most parts of the world, and the nuclear family, which was cited as a uniquely British/Dutch/?Danish model. The latter innovation ushered in a global transformation via the Industrial Revolution and other ideas related to property and wealth that tend not to manifest in societies built upon the arguably more natural extended family model.

    The same article pointed out the vulnerability of such a successful system to forces like modern liberalism and concepts rooted in autonomy that Mark elucidates here. The nuclear family is "automatically" weaker than the extended one because of the draw of energy away from the family itself. Ties between families are also weakened as emphasis shifts toward ensuring the success of fewer, more independent offspring. This can be good for building wealth but in time such societies become vulnerable to ideologies based on radical autonomy and other antidotes to guilt.

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  9. leadpb wrote,

    "Somewhere I read recently about the difference between extended families, which are the norm in most parts of the world, and the nuclear family, which was cited as a uniquely British/Dutch/?Danish model."

    You read that here, I think: http://isteve.blogspot.com/2010/05/pinch-by-david-willetts.html

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  10. Clear, lucid explanation, Mr. Richardson. Thank you very much.

    Have you ever thought about making a Youtube "translation"?

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  11. Vdare blog posted a snippet on the Ozzie Election

    http://blog.vdare.com/archives/2010/08/22/election-2010-the-end-of-big-high-immigration-australia/

    "As the results were coming in, an Australia-watching VDARE.COM friend pointed out that the swing against Labour vote is directly proportional to proportion of nonwhites in the local population:"

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  12. Lead ph,

    No not really, for some reason their is very little accessible stuff about Vico's political philosophy on the net, and there aren't even many accessible books in English.

    The little that I know about him I found in a university library. I looked him up because I was interested in finding out his theory of the rise and fall of states, and how is compared with Spengler's theories about the fall of the West.

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  13. The enlightnement writers from whom all modern liberal thinkers take their cue believed in the "noble savage" myth. The idea that before all the "bad" institutions came along [capitalism, organised religion] we all lived in a communal paradise where everything was shared equally.

    Of course this is insane, most of the french writers who came up with these theories had never left europe.

    It is interesting that in the 21st century people can believe these same myths. Watch the religious righteousness of left wingers talking about Aboriginals and how with so much solemnity they practice the silly little "welcome to country" ceremonies.

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  14. Didn't Sir Isaiah Berlin write a famous essay about Giambattista Vico? It was through learning about that essay that I first discovered Vico's existence.

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  15. Excellent post, Mark, and it has drawn some excellent comments. Another way to put this is that liberals are committed to the notion of normative or moral individualism, the idea that what is of ultimate importance is individual states of mind or feelings, and not any external or transcendent idea of the good.

    A solicitous concern about others' "autonomy" is one form of the ostentatious benevolence of liberals, which gives license for endless meddling in their lives.

    There is however an irony here. The "most vulnerable in society" who are the objects of this solicitude are not seen in any way as responsible for their condition. They are thus deprived of moral agency, i.e., of autonomy.

    Another irony is that the liberal who supposedly prizes autonomy turns out to live in abject conformity to the deliverances of bien pensant opinion. One's autonomy it seems is only good for subscription to conventional pieties.

    -Thucydides

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  16. Mark Richardson:
    Liberals have often framed the discussion of political philosophy in their own favour by taking, as a starting point, the existence of an abstracted, asocial (or presocial), atomised individual. It was on this artificial basis that many of the seminal works of liberalism were written.

    In fact this is the main theme of Rousseau; the "noble savage", the tabla rasa, who is corrupted by civilization, can somehow be made into a perfect being by taking away all "bad" influences upon him and replacing them with "good" influences. In the United States this was the justification for the prohibition of alcohol, among other things, over 100 years ago during the first era of "Progressivism".

    This Rousseauian notion is the foundational cornerstone of liberalism, it is what the entire edifice of radical autonomy rests upon. For if the individual is not born an innocent, perfect being and corrupted by society, if in fact behavior is in any detectable way attributable to genetics, then out goes the "noble savage", out goes "nature is nothing, nurture is all". Out goes the entire rotting edifice.

    How could one justify firing Larry Summers from Harvard, for example, if recent and not so recent neuroscience studying the differences between men and women in the act of thinking were widely known? Worse yet, the entire legal regime of forcing equal outcomes rests on the notion of "disparate impact"; the idea that if green-skinned Martians made up 10% of the population, but only 8% of doctors were green-skinned Martians this factoid alone would prove in a court of law that medical schools actively discriminate against the green-skinned. This actually is policy in the United States. It's the reason why there are limiting quotas on medical schools for East Asian and white applicants.

    Novaseeker:

    Second, it looks at "tradition" from the perspective of the values of autonomy, absolute freedom, objective/public equality and so on, and portrays it as lacking, oppressive, one-sided, domineering, partriarchal, sexist, racist, and so on. In other words, it constructs a narrative of those "oppressed" and "victimized" by tradition and concludes that this is the main story to tell, and that any supposed "benefits" of tradition are outweighed by its shortcomings when measured against an agenda of radical autonomy, radical freedom, and radical public equality.

    The oppressor/oppressed dichotomy is pure Marxism, and it can readily be shown that Marxism derives from Rousseau.

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  17. Bartholomew-

    Thanks, that's the one. Here is a quote from Willetts therein:

    “A small, simple family structure not driven by the need to pass on an inheritance or to sustain ties with brothers and cousins in a clan can be more personal, intense, and emotional—a clue to England’s Romantic tradition.”

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  18. I concur with the above professions of esteem for Vico's theory, far more credible and less faulty than the pastoral figment of Locke's Social Contract or Hobbes' overlaboured monarchism.

    But, by a strange paradox, it was actually Vico, with his illustration of the ferocity and permanance of divisions in social class, rather than Rousseau's extolment of the untaught innocent in nature, which greater influenced the Marxists. Needless to say, the Left since the Revolution of 1968 has not been Marxist but far worse.

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  19. Mr. Richardson, thank you for the information. I hadn't yet been fully apprised of Mr Windsor's sunken state as an inconsiderate, mercenary commercialist with no regard for the harmony and character of his electorate.

    I must wonder though, if his constituents know his wish for Tamworth and Armidale to become the Khartoum of the South Pacific, as the lavish refuge of idle Sudanese.

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  20. Novaseeker--

    Liberalism or modern Marxist theory? It's a big stretch to say that 17th, 18th and early 19th century Liberal philosophers believed in egalitarianism when they were, largely, arguing against the entrenched caste systems of feudalism. Most of the lingo you use in your 2nd paragraph are an outgrowth of Marxian dialectical materialism.

    It was the French revolution that brought us the idea of egalitarianism, not the Founding Fathers (who abhorred the mobocracy of the 1st French Republic) who used the French Revolution as justification for the Republican form of government they established.

    While one could draw a line from say, Mills to modern progressive liberalism, it is really more accurate to say that the line is between Marx and progressivism. Marx himself, in my opinion, merely wanted to role the clock back five hundred years or so to get rid of the obnoxious Bourgeois--i.e., Communism is really a cleverly hidden revanchist form of Feudalism.

    I think the problem here is trying to draw a line that connects them, instead of seeing it as a radical revolution in thinking.

    Mike Courtman--

    Modern day progressivism does not think of the individual at all, it thinks of what is best for the collective--and in that sense, it grants rights and privileges to groups, not individuals. An individual with rights cannot have them removed because it interferes with someone else's ability to gain something in society, i.e. because I am not able to provide shelter for my self, the state steals your wealth and gives it to me. But, it doesn't just give it to me as an individual, it gives it to me as a member of a class or group of people who have "suffered historic wrongs".

    Do you really think Locke had that in mind? I don't think so, but Karl Marx did. It was the pastime of the ancient nobility to tax middle classes and then give some to the poor. Under classical Liberalism, the individual chose to give this money to charity--or not. But it was not forced to do so.

    This is akin to making the claim that Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor, when in fact, Robin Hood was stealing from the State and giving back to the tax payers.

    Modern Liberals want to establish a connection between Classical Liberalism and themselves, but it is merely a canard, since they know most people shun Communism.

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  21. Let’s say that you are a liberal who believes in this. What then becomes your political aim?

    Your aim will be to remove impediments to individual autonomy. Whatever defines us in important ways that we do not choose for ourselves will be thought of negatively as something limiting and oppressive that we must be liberated from.


    Yes, if you are a liberal that might well be your political aim. However, suppose you are a conservative who believes in autonomy? Remember that Western tradition has always held personal autonomy in high regard in comparison with Ancient Egypt or China.

    In that case, your political aim would be to inculcate practices, skills and knowledge that best enable people (one's own) to achieve autonomy, to the extent they can, in spite of obstacles and circumstances. This is what I stand for. Do you have an objection? I'm open to debate.

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  22. However, suppose you are a conservative who believes in autonomy?

    The correct name for this phenomenon, as pointed out by Mark Richardson, is right-liberalism along with terms like neoconservatism and libertarianism.

    Left-Liberal = Fiscal Liberal/Social Liberal = "Pure Liberal" = Socialist/Communist Social Liberal

    Right-Liberal = Fiscal Conservative/Social Liberal = "Liberal Conservative" = Capitalist/Free Market Social Liberal

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  23. Basically a social liberal whom calls himself a 'conservative' for whichever reason.

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  24. In that case, your political aim would be to inculcate practices, skills and knowledge that best enable people (one's own) to achieve autonomy, to the extent they can, in spite of obstacles and circumstances. This is what I stand for. Do you have an objection? I'm open to debate.

    Back then Western society used to be a fusion of liberalism with traditional conservatism (while having higher regard for autnomy than China and Egypt it was NEVER fully autonomous). For a couple of centuries now liberalism is all that is left in the academia in terms of influence and power.

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  25. Hey mark, here's a youtube video that I think you'd get a kick out of, he seriously tries to say that sex!=gender and that gender is self-determined.

    youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=xXAoG8vAyzI

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