Autonomy, ethical

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L007-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 19, 2024, from

3. Contemporary accounts of the nature of personal autonomy

Some contemporary writers concerned with the nature of personal autonomy have distinguished between autonomy as a capacity for self-governance or self-determination, as the actual condition of self-governance, as a personal ideal, and as a right or a social value. (see Feinberg 1986; Hill 1991). Though these notions are defined and related in differing ways, the capacity for self-governance may be viewed as the basis of the other notions. An agent who exercises this capacity effectively is in the condition of autonomy. The personal ideal or virtue of autonomy would be the set of character traits associated with the complete development of the capacity, viewed as a component of the admirable or fulfilling life (see Eudaimonia; Virtues and vices §3). Autonomy viewed as a right is the general right to the unimpeded exercise of this capacity in matters concerning one’s own life. The next two sections will focus on contemporary accounts of the capacity for autonomy, and on autonomy as a value.

Self-governance intuitively requires that one have control over the psychological states that determine one’s actions, and that the desires and values that guide one’s choices be ‘truly one’s own’. One might hold that one’s desires and values are one’s own when one identifies with or endorses them as a result of critical reflection. Thus, autonomy may be defined as the capacity to assess critically one’s basic desires and values, to revise them if one judges that there is reason to, and to act on those that one identifies with or endorses upon critical reflection. This capacity enables one to take responsibility for one’s basic desires and values, and to shape the direction of one’s life.

This definition relies on a distinction between first-order desires (desires for certain objects or activities) and higher-order reflection about one’s first-order desires, and makes the capacity for higher-order critical reflection central to autonomy. Higher-order values may be viewed as judgments about which of one’s first-order desires and values one wants to be moved by; or alternatively, as evaluative judgments as to whether goals or activities towards which one is inclined are really worth pursuing, whether certain of one’s values or character traits are good, and so on. Take, for example, a person who cares greatly about material goods. Agents with autonomy can ask whether they want to be moved by materialistic desires to the extent they currently are, or whether it is good to care about material goods to that extent. Moreover, such agents can modify their values and conduct if they see reason to. Note that autonomy should not be interpreted as a capacity to create one’s desires and values ex nihilo. That would imply, implausibly, that no one possesses autonomy, since individuals are deeply influenced by social and cultural factors. Autonomy need not require that one be the ultimate source of one’s desires and values, but only that one have the capacity to assess them critically.

The capacity for critical higher-order reflection is a normal feature of rational agency which may be developed to differing degrees by different agents, and which can be interfered with by such factors as psychological disorder, external manipulation of an agent’s deliberative processes, and social conditioning. A full treatment of personal autonomy must spell out the kinds of influence that undermine autonomy. It must also provide some account of the process of critical reflection. Here several questions arise. What guides the formation of one’s higher-order values? While autonomy would seem to require some control over one’s higher-order values, even they are unavoidably shaped by upbringing, culture, and other factors beyond one’s control. Which forms of social and cultural influence at this level are consistent with autonomy? Some of these problems are illustrated by the following example. Imagine a woman who has been socialized to believe that women ought to be subordinate to men and who has internalized this social role. On conscious reflection she judges that she is leading a good life, identifying with her subservient social role and endorsing the character traits of submissiveness that enable her to fulfil the expectations imposed upon women in her society. This sort of example suggests that a capacity to apply critical reflection to one’s higher-order values – which appears lacking in this person – is necessary for autonomy. The question of when one’s values are ‘truly one’s own’ arises for higher-order values, just as it does for first-order desires and values. Should we then conclude that the higher-order values leading to endorsement of one’s first-order desires and values should themselves be accepted or endorsed through critical reflection? If so, how do we avoid ascending levels of higher-order evaluation continuing ad infinitum? The worry is that either critical reflection must continue indefinitely, or the point at which it terminates is arbitrary.

Most theorists would agree that a capacity for ongoing critical reflection about one’s higher-order values is necessary for autonomy; that there are empirical limitations on the level to which individuals can carry higher-order reflection, and that contingency is inevitable in the higher-order values that determine one’s first order identifications; and that higher-order reflection can be terminated in non-arbitrary ways. But there are different views about the resolution of higher-order reflection, which represent different views about the critical reflection needed for autonomy. One might hold that critical higher-order reflection, in principle, permits individuals to call into question any deeply held value. While never totally free of social and cultural influence, individuals can, either on their own or in dialogue with others, achieve sufficient distance from their basic values to view them critically. Eventually, one must decide which values to accept. But such a decision is not arbitrary when underwritten by the judgment that further reflection will confirm one’s present decision.

Other theorists have argued that the process of critical reflection must principally satisfy ‘conditions of procedural independence’: it must be free from such obstructions as internal obstacles (such as psychological disturbance), manipulation, coercion, and unacceptable social conditioning (Dworkin 1988). The burden on such a theory is to spell out these conditions of procedural independence. This approach places no constraints on the substantive values that an autonomous agent could accept. Any values are consistent with autonomy, as long as one accepts them on one’s own. A different approach holds that autonomy requires the capacity to modify one’s values in the light of objective or fully reasonable values. This theorist would take the failure of an agent’s reflective values to satisfy certain objective standards (for example, if one’s values are clearly detrimental to individual fulfilment, or are morally flawed) as indicating a lack of autonomy.

Citing this article:
Reath, Andrews. Contemporary accounts of the nature of personal autonomy. Autonomy, ethical, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L007-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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