Version: v1, Published online: 1998
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2. Freedom as autonomy
Judgments of freedom are made not only about individual persons but also about their political communities. Many nation states at some point in their histories have had occasion to declare their independence or, what amounts to the same thing, their sovereignty or status as free states. At the same time, other countries may have lost their freedom (independence) and become mere colonies of stronger nation states. When a political state becomes unfree in this way, each citizen can think of themselves as also deprived of the same kind of freedom, or something analogous to it, for few of them remain entirely self-governed when their own country is governed from afar by masters who simply impose their directives by force. ‘None of us are truly free so long as our nation is not’, a local patriot might say, even while conceding that the colonial power that governs them has treated them decently, allowing them many freedoms. The question of who rightly governs them, as Sir Isaiah Berlin puts it, is logically distinct from the question of how their governors – foreign or domestic, legitimate or not – protect their liberties (Berlin 1958). The first question concerns autonomy; the second concerns optionality.
Autonomy and optionality also can vary independently. National autonomy can produce its own tyranny, as when a newly independent nation, free of its colonial repressors, refuses to govern democratically and recognizes no civil rights in its subjects. In such a case the native populace may feel as badly mistreated, if not worse, by their own government as before by the colonizers.
Autonomy or self-government can consist of sharing with one’s fellow citizens political independence, or can consist of self-direction by that element of the self authorized by nature to rule (often identified with reason). To be self-governed requires that we not be governed by illegitimate outsiders and equally not by alien forces from within.
Note the close analogy to slavery. One slave owner, A, is very severe with his only slave, S1, permitting him only minimal free movement, no choice in deciding what his off-duty conduct shall be, or what he shall read, how he dresses and so on. Another slave-owner, B, is very easy-going. He treats his only slave, S2, as if he were a valued friend, and allows him to do anything short of harming others or leaving the plantation. It is clearly understood that S2 may do all these things only because B permits him to, not as a matter of right. The only rights in this situation are B’s property rights. The rules of property ownership permit B to be as tough with S2 as he wishes, but he prefers to be kind. So there is in S2’s situation a predominance of heteronomy (government by others) conjoined with high optionality (de facto freedom). It seems clear then that one can have little or no autonomy, and yet live a contented life with a high standard of living, something resembling friendship and respect, and most important – options left open for one’s own choice to exercise, though not as a matter of right.
Suppose that in respect to a certain choice there are two possibilities left open for S2. His master can restore his autonomy and turn him loose into an unfriendly world where other human beings, even though they lack authority over him, treat him badly, effectively closing many key options that would have been left open for him by his earlier beneficent master. Should he accept this offer at the expense of much de facto freedom? If the question is a difficult one, it shows that it is not clear to which of the two contending values, independence or optionality, he attaches the greater importance (see Autonomy, ethical).
Feinberg, Joel. Freedom as autonomy. Freedom and liberty, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S026-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/freedom-and-liberty/v-1/sections/freedom-as-autonomy.
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