Autonomy, Normativity and Dependence

Autonomy is a kind of independence through self-governance. Kant was the most famous advocate of autonomy, thinking that it held the key to morality, though scores of other philosophers have thought it to be vitally important. It's one of those essentially contested concepts, though. People mean many different things by it — and this diversity seems not merely to be a product of linguistic dispute, but arguments over what sort of life is most worth living.

My conception of autonomy takes it to consist in being responsive to rationally authoritative norms. In short, we exercise an important sort of independence insofar as we manage to act upon reasons rather than any other contingent motivations we happen to be struck by. Here, what reasons we have are understood widely, and are not limited to the results of reflective inquiry: any rational actions could count, insofar as we've grasped what, if anything, we ought to do.

Constructivism about norms thinks that normative authority comes from correctly following procedures of practical reason. What we should do, ultimately, results from the structure of reason itself. Constructivists, taking their cue from a reading of Kant, also think that autonomy is important. Indeed, they think that autonomy somehow grounds normativity, providing internal criteria which broadly determine what we ought to do. This too involves the claim that freedom involves a kind of responsiveness to norms — those prescribed by the very structure of agents' practical reasoning and thus ones which are not externally imposed on the agent, and thus fit for expressing the agent's own autonomy. This is a sophisticated and ambitious kind of 'bootstrapping' strategy, as it is often called.

On the surface, it can seem that the shared commitment of myself and various constructivists to the idea that freedom is a form of normative responsiveness means that our views are substantively similar. However, my position with respect to normativity is a modest form of realism, whereby there is a kind of irreducibly normative authority of which people can become aware. In contrast, constructivism is a proceduralism which models normativity on the structures of a conception of democratic public reason. This is not what I want.

Instead, my variety of freedom as a kind of normative responsiveness is not one wherein we follow structural rules in order to achieve a legitimate outcome, but rather one in which we have a normative vision. (Ocular imagery is now deeply unfashionable in philosophy, but I think it ought to be reclaimed.) The point of the visual metaphor here is to emphasise that there is something there to be discovered, and its revelation to ourselves provides the backdrop against which we can act freely. So understood, being free requires us to see the world aright — understanding the significance of some situation which we are in, the requirements which it imposes upon us, whether or not we recognise them as ours. Acting upon this basis and within these bounds, with our eyes open and the particulars of the situation clear, including the nature of currents of motivation and the virtue and vices of different responses, provides us with a kind of autonomy. This is an ability to avoid being pushed around by brute forces and act with some purchase over ourselves. We thereby avoid being merely determined — the alternative is being influenced by factors whose significance is unclear, such that we have little basis for orienting ourselves and knowing what to pursue.

We may be unable, or just plainly fail, to resist unfavourable motivations or influences upon us. Even when fully aware of them and their true significance, this may still be so — the lure of the seedy desire, the satisfactions of high-handed moralism, may be too great — but this points to another sort of freedom: autocracy. This is the strength, favourable make-up, acuity or psychological agility to manage one’s psychology so as to execute a sense of what ought to be done. Autonomy and autocracy form a distinction but not a dualism: often knowing what to do is best conceived as a hands-on practical activity, where we are not guided by a clear intention nor criteria reflectively arrived at.

Autonomous agency, especially when put forward as an ideal, has often seemed retrograde though. It seems to hark back to the patriarchal ideals of the eighteenth century bourgeois: the rugged individual, independent and beholden to no-one who he does not choose to contract with in his own self-interest. Obviously, this is an ideological fiction: as a description of the conditions of any recognisably human life, which are ineliminably social, and always contain some moments of radical dependence, such as in childhood, sickness and infirmity; and as an ideal, with its autistic disregard for genuine communication, non-self-interested openness to the needs of others, and so on.

In implicitly endorsing autonomy then, it must be recalled that this is balanced through its entwinement with a conception of normative vision. So, we are not faced with egoism, and certainly not as an ideal. All sorts of things, people and situations make demands upon us and otherwise bend normative space in ways that we ought to respond to beyond our self-interest. On my conception of autonomy, failure to see this is a paradigmatic abrogation of freedom: fully free acts are those taken in as much awareness of their significance as possible.

Still, isn’t autonomy taken as an ideal in a problematic way? Egoism may fall by the wayside, but don’t other types of independence enter here as putatively valuable without justification? For example, it can seem that the influence of institutions, traditions and our peers are hastily too disdained, whereby it is ourselves who must pronounce upon right and wrong, whereby they are treated as mere interference. However, this charge would neglect two further features of my view.

Firstly, there is a role for second nature, as the training and conditioning which we all acquire in our development. In other words, we need to understand normativity in the context of the educative formation of people. This will involve acquiring and then being able to refine the skills of language use, empirical perception, coalescing of an emotional character and cognitive inquiry which are vital to being able to make the kinds of discriminations necessary to see the world in its full normative significance. Fully formed human agents are not possible without the nurtured and guided development which social forms such as institutions and traditions enable.

Secondly, often it will be difficult or impossible to exercise such skills without the concrete help or input of others. There may be more or less empirical cases of this. For example, there are inquiries so big as to be impractical if undertaken alone, as with many scientific projects. Or else, loneliness may retard our emotional health, leaving us unable to calibrate and hone our reactions. There are also cases where dialogical interaction seems integral. For example: intervening in an academic debate, in the humanities, say, where it is important that you are responding to ways of looking at the world which conflict with your own conception, going beyond your own horizons and ‘prejudices’. So, there may be various kinds of prompting from others which the social world affords us, and which enable us to get a better grip on the world, including its normative significance. This helps realise and sustain the skills which socially-mediated Bildung endows.

So, I think it is possible to advocate autonomy without falling into the ideological traps which have doubtless motivated many of its champions. We can accomodate varieties of dependence within the normative landscape which autonomy, as I conceive it, must be parasitic on. In this way, dependence becomes a condition of independence. The lesson here is that any attempt to think of autonomy as an ‘inner citadel’, an existentialist leap of willing, or an egoistic rugged individualism, ought to be challenged by the advocate of autonomy themselves.