Saturday, May 19, 2007

A balance of goods

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.


  1. "What will serve the standard of what is objectively good, of what is virtuous in itself?"

    Plato tried to address this in his Phaedrus dialogue and made a complete hash of it. The topic is both maddening and mine-strewn because it's an examination of that which is metaphysically given about human nature -- and the radical autonomists start to froth at the mouth at the mere sound of that term.

    Individualism as an ethical principle, subject to certain constraints, is a fine thing. Individualism as a guide to living with and among others is not.

  2. human nature ... the radical autonomists start to froth at the mouth at the mere sound of that term.

    That they do.

  3. I must say, I have been reading this blog for a while now, it is a pleasure to read it and always informative.


  4. Some fascinating ideas, Mark.
    I was unaware that there was such a coherent strand of traditionalist conservative thinking in Australia. And though we disagree on various things, we seem to converge on some aspects such as the significance of human nature and the value of some traditional ideas on community. I think you woudl find my book BeyondRight and Left: New Politics adn the Culture War, a useful read. Esp the chapter which discusses traditionalist conservatism versus neo-liberalism and libertarianism (which I presume is what you mean by autonomy theory)

    “What will enable me to fulfil my identity/drives/instincts as a man or woman? What do I owe my spouse/children/community?”

    These are fine & noble notions that our society used to adhere to. But, the problem I see (and have experienced), is that no sane man can ‘practice’ these notions as long as feminism has a strangle-hold (socially & legally) on the nature & rules by which men-women must conduct themselves in our culture.

    Put another way: There is little chance for the ‘right thing’ to be done (Morally - in terms of society & family), when the preceding steps to it, amount to little more than going to the casino & letting it all ‘ride on black’ – with the hopes that you won’t loose everything you have.


  6. These are fine & noble notions that our society used to adhere to. But, the problem I see (and have experienced), is that no sane man can ‘practice’ these notions as long as feminism has a strangle-hold (socially & legally) on the nature & rules by which men-women must conduct themselves in our culture.

    I'd submit that it is certainly possible, if the Lord Jesus Christ is King of the Home. Not easy, but possible.

    Just my 2 cents'.

  7. Lyl,

    There is no place for feminism "if the Lord Jesus Christ is King of the Home".

    Unless by feminism you mean the Vatican approved variety:

    1. Catholic Pages Directory - Feminism ( (@ 22 May 2007)

    ... which includes a list of excellent links to follow for more information on the subject.

    2. Mary Ann Glendon, 'The Pope's New Feminism' Crisis 15:3 (1997) pp 28-31.

    ... a short dissertation about the role of the Church in promoting Women's true sense of freedom.

    3. Doris E. Buss, 'Robes, Relics and Rights: the Vatican and the Beijing Conference On Women' Social & Legal Studies 7:3 (1998) pp 339-363.

    ... an abstract of a critical essay on the subject.

    4. Women Living Under Muslim Laws, News, 'Vatican: Vatican denounces feminism for threatening families' (5 August 2004) (

    ... critical news piece.

    5. Association for Women's Rights in Development, News, 'Holy Office Attacks Feminism' (24 September 2004) (

    ... critical news piece.

    I hope that provides some "food for thought".

  8. There is no place for feminism "if the Lord Jesus Christ is King of the Home".
    Did I say there were?

    My point was simply that as far as a particular couple goes, if their marriage is based upon the teachings of the Church, and they are willing to bear with one another's faults, they will eventually come to a place where their marriage becomes more as it should be and less as the feminists and secularists in general say it should be. And hence, it will have a much greater chance of success, and something more like real love in it.

    I don't have the time right now to look at the links, but will do so, when I have the opportunity.

  9. Hello Lyl,

    Reading over the thread, this is how I understood the logic of it to have progressed through the entries:

    Bobby N stated that "the problem I see [...] is that no sane man can ‘practice’ these ["fine & noble notions"] as long as feminism has a strangle-hold on the nature & rules by which men-women must conduct themselves in our culture," (the "fine & noble notions" referring to what Mark Richardson addressed when rhetorically asking "[w]hat will enable me to fulfil my identity/drives/instincts as a man or woman? What do I owe my spouse/children/community?"

    Thus, Bobby N claimed that the "noble notions" cannot be practiced as long as feminism maintains a "stranglehold" on modern culture's perceptions of family.

    Your reply to that claim was that "[...] it is certainly possible [...]" (my emphasis added)

    That is what I was speaking to. Perhaps you misrepresented your view or misunderstood Bobby N. In any case, I think we are ultimately in agreement; I share Bobby' N's views to no less degree, and cannot find anything to object to in the substance to your most recent entry.

    The links I provided were the result of a quick Google Search - There is, I'm sure, better literature out there on the topic. Feel free to post it here when and if you have a chance in the future.



  10. Yes, Kilroy, I thought we may have had some wires crossed - not surprisingly, given that my initial comment was very short.

    I certainly agree that our current laws (eg no-fault divorce) and societal values (eg It's all about me) make marriage virtually impossible, though it has never been easy.

    But while we can and should strive to make our society a better place, the obstacles we face should not make us think we can always blame others. For example, I *could* let the lack of support for marriage (through the active undermining of it by no-fault divorce) be an excuse not to bother trying hard to have a good marriage. Fortunately for me, however, my own parents' divorce has helped me to see that such things merely spread the misery around, rather than confining it to the couple. The kids certainly suffer,as does society. The Church rightly calls divorce "a plague." (In the 1994 Catechism)

    Because the Gospel is so powerful, it can enable frail human beings to achieve at least some success in our marriages. Even non-religious marriages which work tend to be those which are more like the Gospel value of serving one another, for example.

    Something you may be interested in reading yourself (if you are so inclined) is JP2's "Love and Responsibility" which I think explains very well the Church's understanding of sexuality and the responsible use of it. Although his writing style can be very dense for those who are not used to it.

    For final clarification, I make the distinction (as did many Catholics in the first half of the twentieth century) between Christian and unChristian feminism. The former has led to the kind of things you have linked to and the latter has become what we now recognise as feminism proper. To the point where I would now not use the term "Christian feminism" at all, but simply "the Gospel," or the Social Teaching of the Church.

  11. Ha! From your fourth link, Kilroy:

    "The demonization of feminism is most disturbing," said Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, an advocacy group for abortion rights, who said her blood pressure "shot up 20 points" when she read the letter.

    Like feminism *needs* demonising! (Seems to do a pretty good job of undermining itself wherever it goes).

    Frances Kissling: "I am woman, hear me roar! And I will damn well kill my own baby if I want to, so there."

  12. Indeed.

    The fourth and fifth links are certainly not friendly to our position.

    I included them in the interests of debate and impartiality (an attitude of generosity that too often distinguishes us from the Left).

    What many post-structuralist and post-modern feminists don’t realise is how incredibly mysoginistic they have become in denying a woman’s true nature.

    It’s never popular to hear a man criticise them however, so I’m ‘fraid society will depend on people like yourself to stand up against them.

    We need more women in dissent.

  13. Nah, they don't listen to me either, Kilroy!

    For all their blather about dialogue, "open-mindedness" and such, it's not often you get to have anything that resembles it.