Positive Liberty An Essay In Normative Political Philosophy

1. Political Liberty as Non-Domination

Absolutely central to the contemporary civic republican program is the conception of political liberty as non-domination or independence from arbitrary power, and so it makes good sense to begin with an explication of this idea.

1.1 Political Liberty, Positive and Negative

It is notorious that there are several competing conceptions of political liberty. The now standard account was laid down most influentially by Isaiah Berlin in his famous lecture on “Two Concepts of Liberty” (Berlin 1969). According to the first, ‘negative’ conception of liberty, people are free simply to the extent that their choices are not interfered with. There are many variations on this conception, depending on how exactly one wants to define ‘interference’, but they all have in common the basic intuition that to be free is, more or less, to be left alone to do whatever one chooses. This idea of negative liberty Berlin associates especially with the classic English political philosophers Hobbes, Bentham, and J. S. Mill, and it is today probably the dominant conception of liberty, particularly among contemporary Anglo-American philosophers. In Mill's well-known words, “the only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs” (1859, 17).

The second, ‘positive’ conception of liberty is not quite so easy to define. Roughly speaking, a person or group is free in the positive sense to the extent that they exercise self-control or self-mastery. It is not agreed, however, what exactly constitutes this self-mastery in the relevant sense. According to one particularly influential account, to be free in the positive sense is to be able to act on one's second-order desires (Frankfurt 1982). For example, the addicted gambler may be free in the negative sense not to gamble—since no one actually forces him to—, but he is not free in the positive sense unless he can actually succeed in acting on his presumed second-order desire not to desire gambling. Berlin associates this second conception especially with such continental philosophers as Spinoza, Rousseau, and Hegel. Although it found some support among English Hegelians like T. H. Green, those who advocate the positive conception of liberty have generally been in the minority, particularly among contemporary Anglo-American philosophers.

The troubling implications of the positive conception of liberty are well-known, and need not be rehearsed here. For the most part, these stem from the problem that freedom in the positive sense would seem to license fairly extensive coercion on behalf of individuals’ allegedly ‘real’ interests—for example, coercively forcing the gambler to quit on the presumption that this is, in fact, what he really wants to do (even if he doesn’t say so). Regarding this danger, Berlin writes:

It is one thing to say that I may be coerced for my own good which I am too blind to see: this may, on occasion, be for my benefit … . [But] it is another to say that if it is my good, then I am not being coerced, for I have willed it, whether I know this or not, and am free (or ‘truly’ free) even when my poor earthly body and foolish mind bitterly reject it, and struggle against those who seek however benevolently to impose it … . (1969, 134)

Liberals like Berlin have thus understandably rejected the positive, and emphatically embraced the negative conception of liberty. The question remains, however, whether the received view of negative liberty as non-interference in particular adequately captures the political ideal we should be most interested in. Contemporary civic republicans argue that it does not.

1.2 Liberty as Non-Domination

By way of illustration, consider the following scenarios (both are standard examples in the republican literature). In the first, imagine a group of slaves with a generally well-meaning master. While the latter has an institutionally-protected right to treat his slaves more or less as he pleases (he might start whipping them just for the heck of it, say), let us suppose that this master in particular leaves his slaves for the most part alone. Now to the extent that he does not in fact interfere with his slaves on a day-to-day basis, we are committed to saying—on the non-interference view of liberty—that they enjoy some measure of freedom. Some find this conclusion deeply counterintuitive: if there is anything to the idea of political liberty, one might think, surely it cannot be found in the condition of slavery!

Even if we are willing to accept this conclusion, the non-interference view of liberty commits us to others that are perhaps even more paradoxical. For one thing, notice that we are committed to saying that the slaves of our well-meaning master enjoy greater freedom than the slaves of an abusive master down the road. Of course, the former slaves are better off in some respect than the latter, but do we really want to say that they are more free? For another, consider the slave who, over time, comes to understand his master’s psychological dispositions better and better. Taking advantage of this improved insight, he manages to keep on his master’s good side, and is consequently interfered with less and less. Thus, on the non-interference view of liberty, we are committed to say that his freedom is increasing over time. Again, while it is clear that the slave’s greater psychological insight improves his well-being in some respect, do we really want to say that it increases his freedom specifically?

Now consider a second scenario. Imagine the colony of a great imperial power. Suppose that the colonial subjects have no political rights, and thus that the imperial power governs them unilaterally. But further suppose that the imperial power, for one reason or another, chooses not to exercise the full measure of its authority—that its policy towards the colony is one of more or less benign neglect. From the point of view of liberty as non-interference, we must conclude that the colonial subjects enjoy considerable freedom with respect to their government for, on a day-to-day basis, their government hardly ever interferes with them. Next suppose that the colonial subjects revolt with success, and achieve political independence. The former colony is now self-governing. We may imagine, however, that the new government is somewhat more active than its imperial predecessor, passing laws and instituting policies that interfere with people’s lives to a greater extent than formerly was the case. On the view of liberty as non-interference, we must therefore say that there has been a decline in freedom with independence. As in the first scenario, many find this counterintuitive. Surely, a nation that has secured its independence from colonial rule must have increased its political liberty.

What these examples are driving at is that political liberty might best be understood as a sort of structural relationship that exists between persons or groups, rather than as a contingent event. Whether a master chooses to whip his slave on any given day, we might say, is a contingent event: it all depends on the master’s mood, the slave’s behavior, and so forth. What is not contingent (or at least not in the same way) is the broader configuration of laws, institutions, and norms that effectively allow masters to treat their slaves however they please. As the ex-slave Frederick Douglass said of his former condition, “it was slavery—not its mere incidents—that I hated” (1855, 161).

The republican conception of political liberty aims to capture this insight as directly as possible. It defines freedom as a sort of structural independence—as the condition of not being subject to the arbitrary or uncontrolled power of a master. Pettit, who has done more than anyone else to develop this republican conception of freedom philosophically, puts it thus: a person or group enjoys freedom to the extent that no other person or group has “the capacity to interfere in their affairs on an arbitrary basis” (1999, 165; cf. Pettit 1996, 1997, 2001, 2003, 2012). On a plausible rendering of the term ‘domination’ as, roughly speaking, arbitrary or uncontrolled power (see Wartenberg 1990; Pettit 1996, 1997, 2012; Lovett 2001, 2010a), we might equivalently say that freedom in the republican sense consists in the secure enjoyment of non-domination. This view has since been widely embraced by republican-minded authors such as Skinner (1998, 2008), Viroli (2002), Maynor (2003), Laborde (2008, 2010), and Costa (2009, 2013).

1.3 Republican versus Negative Liberty

Notice that the republican view of freedom is, at least in the broad sense, a negative conception of political liberty. One need not do or become anything in particular to enjoy political liberty in the republican sense; one need not exercise self-mastery, on any view of what that entails, nor succeed in acting on one’s second-order desires (Skinner 1984; Spitz 1993). Republican freedom merely requires the absence of something, namely, the absence of any structural dependence on arbitrary power or domination. (Also like non-interference, non-domination comes in degrees: on the civic republican view, one is not either free or unfree, but rather more or less free depending on the extent of non-domination one securely enjoys.)

Despite these similarities, however, republican freedom is not equivalent to the received view of negative liberty as non-interference. In contrast to the non-interference view, it easily accounts for our intuitions in the two scenarios described above. The slave lacks freedom because he is vulnerable to the arbitrary power of his master; whether his master happens to exercise that power is neither here nor there. Likewise, what matters with respect to political freedom on the republican view is not how much the imperial power chooses to govern its colony, but the fact that the former may choose to govern the latter as much and however it likes. Thus Joseph Priestley described the lightly-governed American colonies as nevertheless in a condition of servitude because “by the same power, by which the people of England can compel them to pay one penny, they may compel them to pay the last penny they have” (1769, 140).

Moreover, the republican conception captures in a more intuitively satisfying way what would improve either situation with respect to political liberty. Most people are not inclined to say that slaves enjoy increasing freedom just because, with experience, they improve their insight into their master’s psychological dispositions. But many would be inclined to say that their freedom is enhanced, other things being equal, if some effective reform in the laws, institutions, or norms sharply reduces their master’s authority over them. (This is not necessarily to say that the slaves will enjoy greater well-being, all things considered—only that because their domination is lessened, they enjoy greater freedom to that extent.) And of course, no matter how benevolent their particular master happens to be, no slave can be completely free until the institution of slavery itself is abolished.

Political freedom, in other words, is constituted by rightly-ordered laws, institutions, and norms: “to enjoy such non-domination, after all, is just to be in a position where no one can interfere arbitrarily in your affairs,” writes Pettit, “and you are in that position from the moment that the institutions are in place” inhibiting potential arbitrary interference (1997, 107). Political freedom is most fully realized, on this view, in a well-ordered self-governing republic of equal citizens under the rule of law, where no one citizen is the master of any other (Pettit 1989, 1997, 2003, 2012; Spitz 1993, 1995; Maynor 2003). In the classic expression of James Harrington, such a community would be an “empire of laws and not of men” (1656, 8).

2. Republican Liberty: Problems and Debates

The appeal of the republican conception of political liberty as independence from the arbitrary power of a master is perhaps understandable. This is not to say, however, that this conception is uncontroversial. Before discussing its role in developing contemporary civic republican arguments, we should consider various problems and debates surrounding the republican idea of freedom.

2.1 What about non-interference?

A common objection to the republican idea of freedom is that it fails to pick out an distinct conception at all. The suggestion here, first noted perhaps by Paley (1785), is that talking about non-domination is really just another (more obscure) way of talking about security of non-interference (Goodin 2003; Carter 2008; Kramer 2008). Contemporary civic republicans must reject this view. Pettit (1997, 73–4; 2008) observes that one might secure a low expected level of non-interference in more than one way, and the republican idea of freedom is by no means indifferent as to the method adopted. For example, to have a master with an exceptionally benevolent disposition is to be reasonably secure in one’s expectation that one will not often be adversely interfered with—but it is to have a master nonetheless. The republican idea of freedom specifically instructs us not to make our master a better person (the goal of the old ‘mirror for princes’ literature), but to render him less of a master (Lovett 2012b). This can only be done by curbing either his arbitrary power, or his subjects’ dependency on him.

Supposing then that non-domination and non-interference are indeed distinct ideas, one might wonder where this leaves the latter, on the civic republican view of things. Is obtaining freedom from arbitrary power the only thing we should care about? Roughly speaking, there are three possible answers civic republicans might give to this question.

The first is simply to answer yes. It was a mistake, one might argue, to ever think non-interference important or desirable in itself. Of course, as a contingent empirical fact, extensive arbitrary power often brings extensive interferences in train (slave masters and absolute monarchs just can’t help meddling in their subjects’ affairs, we might suppose), so it is understandable that our distaste for the former should influence our assessment of the latter. There are good reasons for rejecting this first answer, however. Imagine living in a community where our lives are regulated down to the tiniest detail, but always in strict accordance with commonly-known, non-arbitrary rules and procedures. Although we enjoy extensive freedom from arbitrary power, we have hardly any freedom of individual choice. Most would not want to live in such a community, and this suggests that we do indeed place some independent value on non-interference (cf. Wall 2001).

This leaves two other possible answers. On the one hand, we might try to incorporate some measure of non-interference into our idea of freedom as non-domination. Something like this approach was initially taken by Pettit (1997, 74–7): there he distinguished between factors that “compromise” liberty, and factors that “condition” it. Perhaps my republican freedom is compromised when someone gains arbitrary power over me, but it is merely conditioned when I lack the means or opportunities to make full use of it, and interferences might be one such conditioning factor. On the other hand, we might allow that republican freedom and non-interference are distinct goods, but hold that both are valuable in some degree. We might either regard them as having roughly equal value (Skinner 1998), or we might regard republican liberty as having greater importance than non-interference, other things being equal (Viroli 2002, Pettit 2012). Each of these options has its advantages and disadvantages, and there is no settled view in the contemporary civic republican literature on this point. 

2.2 What Counts as ‘Arbitrary’ Power?

A second major difficulty in developing the republican idea of freedom lies in giving precise meaning to the notion of arbitrariness. According to what criteria are we to consider power ‘arbitrary’? Not simply when its exercise is random or unpredictable. This view would undermine the whole point of the republican conception of political liberty. As discussed above, with long experience a slave is better able to predict his master’s behavior, and so it appears less random to him, but (the civic republican wants to argue) the slave does not enjoy greater freedom by that fact alone. Just because one is better able to cope with arbitrary power, it does not follow that one's domination is any less.

‘Discretionary’ is much closer to the relevant meaning of arbitrary, but it is not quite right either. Discretionary power might be delegated to a public agency with a view to advancing certain policy goals or ends—as for example Congress has delegated discretionary authority to the Federal Reserve—but we would not want to say that this reduces our freedom (or, at any rate, not so long as that discretionary authority is appropriately answerable to a common knowledge understanding of the goals or ends it is meant to serve and the means it is permitted to employ). For reasons explained in the fourth section of this entry, contemporary civic republicans must be able to offer an account of non-arbitrary, yet discretionary authority.

How then should we define arbitrary power? Broadly speaking, two answers have been proposed. The first defines it procedurally. Power is arbitrary, on this view, to the extent that it is not reliably constrained by effective rules, procedures, or goals that are common knowledge to all persons or groups concerned (Lovett 2001, 2010a). To be reliably effective, on this view, constraints must be resilient over a wide range of possible changes or modifications in the relevant circumstances (Lovett 2012c). Roughly speaking, the procedural view equates republican freedom with the traditional idea of the rule of law, provided we are willing to extend the latter idea considerably (List 2006).

Alternatively, we might define arbitrariness substantively: power is arbitrary, on this second view, when it fails to track the “welfare and world-view” of those affected (Pettit 1997, 56). This substantive definition, however, is open to at least three possible interpretations, depending on whether we interpret the welfare and world-view of those affected as (a) their objectively-defined interests, (b) their subjective preferences, or (c) their shared ideas as expressed through suitably-structured deliberative procedures. These might be called the common good, welfarist, and democratic interpretations, respectively (see Richardson 2002). The disadvantages of the welfarist interpretation are obvious in light of well-known preference aggregation problems. In earlier work, Pettit (1997) seemed to many readers inclined towards some version of the common good interpretation, but this too has significant drawbacks. In particular, it would seem to collapse our conception of republican freedom into a general account of the human good (Larmore 2004; Costa 2007; Carter 2008). Thus many contemporary civic republicans have followed Pettit’s lead in latching on to the democratic interpretation (Pettit 1999, 2001; Richardson 2002; Maynor 2003; Bellamy 2007; Bohman 2008).

In an effort to bypass this often confusing debate, however, Pettit has recently proposed dropping the traditional language of arbitrary power altogether: instead, we should properly concern ourselves with powers of interference that are “uncontrolled” (2012, 58). This would reorient discussion towards the issue of whether republican freedom requires that such powers be controlled by those persons affected specifically (the democratic view), or whether control by impersonal laws or norms might be sufficient (the procedural view). It remains to be seen how the literature will evolve from here.

2.3 Republican Freedom and the Human Good

So far we have assumed that, however ultimately defined, republican freedom is always a good thing. Some have wondered whether this is the case, however. This objection is most often expressed via the example of benevolent care-giving relationships. On the republican view that one enjoys freedom only to the extent that one is independent from arbitrary power, it would seem that children do not enjoy republican freedom with respect to their parents. But surely, one might suppose, the parent-child relationship is (in most cases) an extremely valuable one, and so we would not want greater republican freedom in such a context. Republican freedom is, perhaps, not always a good thing (Ferejohn 2001).

As stated, this objection rests on a conceptual error, though (as we shall see) it points to an important set of issues as yet under-developed in the contemporary civic republican literature. The error in the above example stems from our confusing an overall evaluation of a whole with an evaluation of its parts considered separately. It is undeniable that, at least in the ordinary course of things, parent-child relationships are extremely valuable, considered as a whole; it does not follow from this, however, that this relationship is necessarily valuable in each and every part. For the objection to hold, it must be the case—not only that the parent-child relationship is valuable overall—but further, that that it would actually be worse if, holding all its other features constant, it involved less arbitrary power. But this is highly doubtful. Clearly, the introduction of children’s rights into western law was a boon, precisely because it reduced the degree of arbitrary power to which children are inevitably subject (which is to say, because it increased their republican freedom). That their republican freedom cannot be increased still further, perhaps, without destroying family life altogether, and thus losing its many other benefits, is neither here nor there.

What consideration of this faulty objection does reveal, however, is that republican freedom is simply one good among others, with which it might come into conflict (Markell 2008). The challenge for contemporary civic republicans, therefore, is not to show why the freedom from dependence on arbitrary power is an important human good (for which there are plenty of good arguments in the literature: see Pettit 1997; Maynor 2003; Labourde 2008; Lovett 2010a), but rather to show how republican freedom fits into a broader conception of human flourishing, and specifically, the comparative weight we should assign to republican freedom vis-à-vis other important human goods in the achievement of human flourishing. Pettit (2005) sketches a case for the relative priority of republican liberty on more or less pragmatic grounds: roughly speaking, he argues that political doctrines will be most effective when they concentrate on as few core values as possible, and accordingly that the best values to concentrate on are those whose promotion will service as wide a range of needs as possible. Republican freedom is just such a good, he claims, insofar as our efforts to promote it will necessarily have far-reaching beneficial consequences. It will be more clear why this might be so in light of the discussion in part four below, but regardless there remains considerable work to be done developing the foundations of republican theory.

3. The Classical Republican Tradition

Contemporary civic republicans have drawn on insights from the classical republican tradition in developing their political doctrines. But their interpretation of this tradition is hardly uncontroversial. This section will discuss the relevant debates, and explain how they relate to the conception of political liberty outlined above.

3.1 The Neo-republican Revival

After long-standing neglect among historians of political thought, there has been a dramatic revival of interest in the classical republican tradition in the past fifty years or so. For the first few decades of this revival, a particular interpretation of that tradition prevailed. According to this view, the classical republicans held what would now be described as a perfectionist political philosophy—that is, a political philosophy centered on the idea of promoting a specific conception of the good life as consisting in active citizenship and healthy civic virtue on the one hand, while combating any sort of corruption that would undermine these values on the other. This distinctive vision of the good life is supposed to be rooted in the experience of the ancient Greek polis, especially as expressed in the writings of Aristotle. The goods of active political participation, civic virtue, and so on, are to be understood as intrinsically valuable components of human flourishing.

It is now standard to refer to this as the ‘civic humanist’ interpretation of the classical republican tradition. Major figures associated with this view include Arendt (1958, 1963, 1968), Wood (1969), Pocock (1975), Worden (1994), Rahe (1992), and Honohan (2002). The civic humanist program has left such an impression on political philosophers and theorists generally that it probably remains the more widespread view today, especially among those who are not themselves experts in the history of political thought. This no doubt largely accounts for the continuing confusion of civic republicanism with civic humanism.

Among the more specialized historians of political thought, however, civic humanism has largely, though not entirely, given way to civic republicanism. This has in large part been due to the path-breaking research of Skinner (1978, 1984, 1991). Following his lead, contemporary civic republicans have in recent years advanced revised interpretations of Machiavelli (Skinner 1981, 1983, 1984; Viroli 1990, 1998), the seventeenth-century English republicans (Skinner 1998, 2000; Dzelzainis 1995, 2001; Lovett 2005, 2012a), Rousseau (Viroli 1988; Spitz 1995), Wollstonecraft (Coffee 2012), and the Americans of the founding era (Sellers 1994), among others.

3.2 The Historiographical Debate

One relatively simple way to characterize the contemporary debate between civic humanists and civic republicans is as a debate regarding the meaning of political liberty in the classical republican tradition. If there is one overriding commitment shared by all the classical republicans, it is clearly their commitment to the paramount value of political liberty. This fact is obvious from even the most casual reading of the relevant texts and, naturally, is denied by no one; the question is only what to make of it.

As we have seen, civic humanists argue that the goods of active political participation, civic virtue, and so on, should be understood in the classical republican tradition as intrinsically valuable components of human flourishing. In order to reconcile this interpretation with the classical republican’s emphatic commitment to political liberty, however, one must interpret their view of freedom in a particular way. Specifically, freedom must be seen as consisting in an active participation in the political process of self-determination. In Arendt’s language, the polis is “a kind of theater where freedom could appear,” and the political sphere “is the realm where freedom is a worldly reality” (1968, 154). That is to say, to enjoy political freedom is to share in the good life, understood as active citizenship and civic virtue. Referring back to Berlin’s typology, this is clearly a sort of positive liberty.

It should come as no surprise that contemporary civic republicans interpret the classical tradition quite differently. A detailed examination of the source materials, in their view, illustrates that the classical republicans held a decidedly negative conception of political liberty—and indeed, the republican conception of freedom as independence from arbitrary or uncontrolled power in particular (see especially Skinner 1984, 1991, 1998, 2008; Spitz 1995; Pettit 1997; Viroli 2002). The idea of liberty in the classical republican tradition has its roots not in an Aristotelian vision of the ancient Greek polis, but rather in Roman jurisprudence with its fundamental and categorical distinction between free men and citizens on the one hand, and dependent slaves on the other (Skinner 1998, 2000).

Given the rhetorical prominence of liberty in the classical republican writings, it follows from their holding a negative conception of freedom that they cannot have been advancing a perfectionist political philosophy, as the civic humanists claim. This of course is not to deny the importance of active political participation, civic virtue, combating corruption, and so on to the classical republicans. But rather than viewing these as intrinsically valuable components of a particular vision of the good life, they must instead be viewed as instrumentally valuable for securing and preserving political liberty, understood as independence from arbitrary rule (Skinner 1984, 1991; Sunstein 1988; Spitz 1993; Maynor 2003; Lovett 2005; Costa 2009). Contemporary civic republicans argue that a careful reading of the classical republican texts firmly supports this instrumental view, rather than the intrinsic perfectionist view advanced by civic humanists.

3.3 Classical Republicanism and Liberalism

The contemporary civic republican interpretation carries with it what could be seen as an significant drawback, namely, it reduces dramatically the distance between classical republicanism and the mainstream liberal tradition. At one level, this should surprise no one. After all, classical republicans and classical liberals shared many political commitments (constitutionalism and the rule of law, for example), and many figures are regarded as central to both traditions (Montesquieu, for example). The difficulty arises, however, from the suggestion that on the new instrumental interpretation, republicanism for all intents and purposes collapses into liberalism (Herzog 1986; Haakonssen 1993; Patten 1996). Indeed, at one point in his Political Liberalism, Rawls explicitly states that his theory has “no fundamental opposition” with a non-perfectionist, instrumental interpretation of republicanism (1993, 205). What then could the advantage of civic republicanism over mainstream liberalism be?

The standard reply to this among contemporary civic republicans is to argue that there is indeed a connection between republicanism and liberalism, but that liberalism is “an impoverished or incoherent republicanism” (Viroli 2002, 61)—a bastard offshoot, so to speak, of what was originally a considerably more appealing political philosophy.

Republicanism does not collapse into liberalism if there is a real and substantial difference between the former’s view of liberty as independence from arbitrary or uncontrolled power, and the view of negative liberty as non-interference, generally embraced by the latter. Contemporary civic republicans, quite naturally, insist that there is. The significance of this difference will be easier to assess after the discussion below, but in the main it comes down to this: on the view of negative liberty as non-interference, any sort of public law or policy intervention counts by definition as an interference and, ergo, a reduction in freedom. Being committed to the received view of negative liberty, liberals thus tend to be overly hostile to government action (Pettit 1997, 2009).

On the republican view of political liberty, by contrast, public laws or policy interventions need not necessarily count as reductions in freedom. Provided that the law or policy is adopted and implemented in an appropriately non-arbitrary manner, the citizens’ freedom remains untouched. Indeed, if the law or policy ameliorates dependency, or curtails the arbitrary powers some exercise over others in the community, the freedom of citizens may be enhanced. In the classical tradition, this idea was often expressed as the idea that, as Blackstone for example puts it, “laws, when prudently framed, are by no means subversive but rather introductive of liberty” and thus “where there is no law, there is no freedom” (1765, 122). The grounds for this view will be explained further below.

4. The Contemporary Republican Program

However interesting the historiographical debates discussed in the previous section, one may still wonder whether republicanism has anything valuable to contribute to contemporary normative political theory and philosophy. One reason many people remain skeptical has to do with the fact that the classical republican writings often express views that are decidedly elitist, patriarchal, and militaristic. How could the basis for an appealing contemporary political program be found in such writings (Goldsmith 2000; Goodin 2003)?

That the classical republicans often expressed these very unappealing views is not disputed. But what are we to make of this fact? There are two possibilities. On the one hand, the parochialism of the classical republicans might reflect logical consequences of their core value commitments, in which case we cannot adopt the latter without taking on board the former. On the other hand, it might merely reflect the accidental prejudice of their day, in which case it can easily be dispensed with as we modernize the republican program. Now according to the civic humanist reading of the tradition, the classical republicans were committed to a perfectionist conception of the human good as active citizenship and civic virtue. On this view, it is clear that some individuals will be more successful than others in attaining the good so understood—some are more adept at politics than others, some are more capable of heroic displays of virtue than others, and so on. Indeed, political power and public honor are, to some extent, positional goods, meaning that their distribution among the members of a community will necessarily be unequal. It follows that, on the civic humanist reading of the tradition, the elitist bent of the classical republican writings is a consequence of their core values. As Arendt writes, it is “the sign of a well-ordered republic” that only the politically virtuous elite “would have the right to be heard in the conduct of the business of the republic” (1963, 279).

The civic republicans, naturally, reject this view. There is nothing inherently elitist about the ideal of freedom when this is understood negatively as independence from arbitrary or uncontrolled power. The classical republicans, to be sure, typically confined the extension of this ideal to a narrow range of propertied, native-born male citizens. But, on the civic republican reading of the tradition, this merely reflects an unnecessary prejudice we can easily dispense with. Suitably universalized, the classical republican ideal of freedom as non-domination is indeed a strikingly progressive political doctrine (Pettit 1997; Maynor 2003). Indeed, Pettit goes so far as to argue that the potentially radical nature of the ideal was itself partly the reason early liberals rejected it, in favor of a less demanding ideal of liberty as non-interference (1997, 49).

The remainder of this section will sketch some of the wide-ranging applications of a universalized republicanism, dedicated to the promotion of freedom as non-domination. Much of the contemporary republican program, as one would expect, bares some familial relationship with the political commitments of the classical republicans. There are also divergences, however. Contemporary civic republicans draw inspiration from the classical tradition, but they do not aim to anachronistically implement the republicanism of yore for its own sake.

4.1 Republican Public Policy

Contemporary civic republicans aim to promote freedom, understood as independence from arbitrary power. Roughly speaking, there are two directions from which republican freedom might be threatened. First, there is the obvious danger of an autocratic or despotic government assuming arbitrary powers over its subjects; this concern, and republican remedies for it, will be discussed below. But there is a second danger to republican freedom as well—one that concerns contemporary civic republicans just as much as the first. (Absent this second concern, republican policy would indeed often seem “indeterminate,” as observed by McMahon 2005 and Costa 2007.) This is the danger that some individuals or groups within civil society will succeed in assuming arbitrary or uncontrolled powers over others. A few examples will help clarify this second danger.

Imagine for a moment there were no system of domestic criminal and civil law. In this case, citizens would not know where they stood with one another; their interrelations would be governed simply by force—which is to say, by the arbitrary whim of the momentarily stronger party. In order to enjoy some degree of republican freedom, therefore, it is absolutely essential to introduce a domestic legal system so as to govern the citizens’ mutual relations. Notice that, on the republican view of freedom, the laws do not merely protect some freedoms at the expense of others (as on the non-interference view), but rather themselves actually introduce or enable that freedom. On this view, only when their interrelations are mutually governed by a system of commonly-known and stable rules is it possible for fellow citizens to enjoy some measure of independence from arbitrary rule (Pettit 1989, 1997, 2012; Viroli 2002; Dagger 2009).

This connection between the rule of law and freedom is a common theme in the classical republican literature. Contemporary civic republicans observe, however, that even when the rule of law is firmly established, there remain many other potential dangers of which the classical republicans were less well aware. For example, there is the danger that basic needs deprivations will place the least advantaged members of society in a position of economic vulnerability (Spitz 1993; Pettit 1997; Viroli 2002). In order to satisfy their basic needs, individuals may well submit themselves to the arbitrary power of exploitative employers or become dependent on the whims of voluntary charity (Dagger 2006; Lovett 2009, 2010a). Ensuring the enjoyment of republican freedom may therefore require some public provision for otherwise unmet basic needs.

Yet another danger to republican freedom arises in the context of family life and gender relations. Traditional family law subjected both wives and children to considerable arbitrary power: circumstances in the case of the latter, circumscribed opportunities in the case of the former, ensured the nearly complete dependency of both on the family they happened to be in. The contemporary civic republican program is thus congenial to both an expansion of children’s rights, and the elimination of sex domination (Pettit 1997; Phillips 2000; Costa 2013).

It is always important from a civic republican point of view to be on guard against the introduction of new forms of dependency and arbitrary power through those very laws and policies designed to enhance individual freedom, however. In the area of criminal and civil law, for example, freedom might be threatened by legal uncertainty or prosecutorial discretion; and, of course, there are grave republican concerns with respect to the existing system of punishment in many western nations (Braithwaite and Pettit 1990). These dangers might suggest the need for a more democratized system of criminal justice (Martí 2009). Similarly, in the public provision of basic needs, there are republican concerns with respect to dependence on government aid and arbitrariness in the distribution of benefits that might point to the introduction of an unconditional basic income (Lovett 2009, 2010a). In many of these areas, however, there remains considerable work for contemporary civic republicans in determining the appropriate public policy implications of a universalized concern for republican freedom.

4.2 Republican Political Institutions

Turning from questions of public policy to the form of government, we return to issues more familiar to the writers in the classical tradition. Protecting citizens from the arbitrary or uncontrolled power of their government through good institutional design represents perhaps the signature classical republican concern. Many of the standard devices for achieving this aim—the rule of law, the separation of powers, federalism, constitutionally entrenched basic rights, and so on—have been adopted by liberals and others. Contemporary civic republicans, naturally, remain committed to these institutional devices in some measure (Pettit 1997, 2001, 2012; Maynor 2003).

However, contemporary civic republicans also recognize that these sorts of devices can only go so far. The basic reason for this is that, no matter how carefully designed, the operation and functioning of government necessarily entails considerable discretion on the part of public authorities (Pettit 1997; Richardson 2002). There are two especially prominent instances of this. First, it is clear that no matter how detailed and carefully-crafted it is, no system of explicit rules and regulations can possibly cover all contingencies and circumstances. It follows that discretionary authority must inevitably be left in the hands of courts, public agencies, and administrative bureaucracies. Second, even apart from this, there remains extensive discretion in the hands of legislatures to set public law and policy in the first place. A daily-changing system of rules is no better than having no rules at all.  

The standard republican remedy for this problem is enhanced democracy. It must, however, be democracy of the right sort. Most contemporary civic republicans reject the populist model of democracy according to which all public laws and policies must express the collective will of the people in order to be considered legitimate. Instead, they generally endorse some form of “qualified populism” (Richardson 2002) or “contestatory democracy” (Pettit 1997, 1999, 2001, 2012; Maynor 2003). Roughly speaking, the idea is that properly-designed democratic institutions should give citizens the effective opportunity to contest the decisions of their representatives. This possibility of contestation will make government agents wielding discretionary authority answerable to a public understanding of the goals or ends they are meant to serve and the means they are permitted to employ. In this way, discretionary power can be rendered non-arbitrary in the sense required for the secure enjoyment of republican liberty.

Next, of course, we will want to know what, pragmatically speaking, the requirements of suitable democratic contestation turn out to be. These are commonly addressed under three headings, outlined by Pettit (1997). The first and most thoroughly discussed is the requirement that discretionary decision-making be guided by the norm of deliberative public reasoning. This means that the relevant decision-makers (legislatures, courts, bureaucrats, etc.) must be required to present reasons for their decisions, and those reasons must be subject to open public debate (see Sunstein 1988, 1993; Pettit 1997; Richardson 2002). So, for example, legislative processes should be designed so as to discourage back-room bargaining on the basis of sectional interests, and to encourage open public deliberation instead. Similarly, bureaucratic agencies should not be allowed to merely issue determinations on the basis of technocratic expertise without offering reasons for their decisions that are open to public challenge.

The other two requirements have not received as much attention as the first, perhaps because both are relatively obvious. The second is that of inclusiveness. Opportunities for democratic contestation must be equally open to all persons and groups in the society. This requirement follows naturally from a universalized concern for republican liberty, and it has implications for the design of representative institutions, campaign financing, and so on (Pettit 1997; Bellamy 2007). And the third requirement is that there exist institutionalized forums for contestation—impartial ‘courts of appeal,’ so to speak, where citizens can raise objections to public laws and policies (Pettit 1997, 1999, 2012). Whether these forums should include constitutional courts with strong powers of judicial review remains a subject of debate in the republican literature, however (Bellamy 2007; Honohan 2009).

4.3 Civic virtue and corruption

Among the more salient themes in the classical republican tradition are the importance of civic virtue and the dangers of corruption. We may understand the term ‘corruption’ simply to mean the advancement of personal or sectional interest at the expense of the public good, and ‘civic virtue’ as its opposite—that is, a willingness to do one’s part in supporting the public good. Critics of republicanism often fear that this implies extensive self-sacrifice and frugality, a renunciation of individuality and self-identification with the community (Goodin 2003). These fears are no doubt encouraged by the civic humanist reading of the classical tradition along perfectionist lines. Civic republicans accordingly have been at pains to show the contrary—that civic virtue should be understood as a strictly instrumental good, useful in establishing and maintaining republican liberty. Far from calling for the subjection of individual to collective aims, they argue, republican liberty is desirable in part because it enables citizens to pursue their private aims with assurances of security (Skinner 1984, 1991; Spitz 1993; Viroli 2002; Maynor 2003).

Broadly speaking, there are two topics to consider under the heading of civic virtue. On the one hand, there is the civic virtue and danger of its corruption on the part of public officials; on the other, there is the civic virtue and danger of its corruption on the part of citizens in general. With respect to the former, republicans typically reject the view (common in the liberal tradition) that public officials are by nature corrupt, and instead view individuals as potentially corruptible, but not necessarily corrupt (Pettit 1997). Working from this assumption, it is a strictly pragmatic and empirical question what configuration of public laws, institutions, and norms is most likely to minimize the danger of corruption, and enhance the civic virtue of public officials. Options here include screening procedures on the selection of officials, rules and norms keeping some policy options out of bounds, and both positive and negative sanctions. In designing such institutions, it is important not to assume the worst of people, for otherwise we might inadvertently encourage (through an evident lack of trust) the very corrupt behavior one aims to guard against.

Promoting civic virtue on the part of the citizens in general, however, is just as important from a republican point of view. There are a variety of possible reasons for this. For the most part, they stem from the observation that the widespread enjoyment of republican liberty is most likely to be maximized in a community where the citizens are committed to that ideal, and each is willing to do his or her part in realizing it. For example, through collective political action, citizens can bring instances of domination to public attention; they can support laws and policies that would expand republican freedom; and they can do their part in defending republican institutions when called upon to do so. Promoting this sort of commitment to republican ideals will require a fairly robust program of civics education, together with a culture that rewards virtue with public esteem (Dagger 1997; Pettit 1997; Brennan and Pettit 2003; Maynor 2003; Costa 2009). Again, it should be emphasized here that citizens do not enjoy republican freedom, on the civic republican view, by being virtuous. Indeed, this could not be the case since, as argued earlier, the degree of republican freedom enjoyed is rather a question of how the laws, institutions, and norms of the community are ordered. Civic virtue is, however, instrumentally useful both in bringing about the right sorts of laws, institutions, and norms, and in ensuring their durability and reliability on the other.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the connection between civic virtue (both on the part of public officials and citizens in general) and the rule of law. The significance of the rule of law for republican liberty was discussed above; in the classical republican tradition, this was expressed as the “empire of law” ideal—the notion that in a free republic laws, not men, rule. Of course this cannot ever be literally true, but it can be approximated in a sort of artificial way, so that life can be experienced as if it were true within a given community. This requires, however, that the law be widely regarded as clear, predictable, and legitimate, and this in turn is possible only when there is a generally high level of compliance and when legal rules are embedded in a shared network of informal social norms (Pettit 1997).

5. Conclusion

In many respects, civic republicanism remains a still underdeveloped political doctrine. Further work is required in all the areas discussed above, and there are many issues central to the concerns of contemporary political theorists and philosophers that civic republicans have only recently begun to examine. Among the latter, there are now at least initial treatments of multiculturalism (Laborde 2008; Lovett 2010; Bachvarova 2014), distributive justice (Dagger 2006; Lovett 2009), conservation and the environment (Slaughter 2008), and international relations and global justice (Bohman 2008; Laborde 2010; Pettit 2010; Lovett 2010b; Bachvarova 2013), though substantial work certainly remains to be done. Nevertheless, civic republicanism is a dynamic and growing field, which stands to make continuing positive contributions to debate in contemporary social and political theory.


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1. The Concept of Autonomy

In the western tradition, the view that individual autonomy is a basic moral and political value is very much a modern development. Putting moral weight on an individual's ability to govern herself, independent of her place in a metaphysical order or her role in social structures and political institutions is very much the product of the modernist humanism of which much contemporary moral and political philosophy is an offshoot. (For historical discussions of autonomy, see Schneewind 1988, Lindley 1986, Part I). As such, it bears the weight of the controversies that this legacy has attracted. The idea that moral principles and obligations, as well as the legitimacy of political authority, should be grounded in the self-governing individual, considered apart from various contingencies of place, culture, and social relations, invites skeptics from several quarters. Autonomy, then, is very much at the vortex of the complex (re)consideration of modernity.

Put most simply, to be autonomous is to be one's own person, to be directed by considerations, desires, conditions, and characteristics that are not simply imposed externally upon one, but are part of what can somehow be considered one's authentic self. Autonomy in this sense seems an irrefutable value, especially since its opposite — being guided by forces external to the self and which one cannot authentically embrace — seems to mark the height of oppression. But specifying more precisely the conditions of autonomy inevitably sparks controversy and invites skepticism about the claim that autonomy is an unqualified value for all individuals.

Autonomy plays various roles in theoretical accounts of persons, conceptions of moral obligation and responsibility, the justification of social policies and in numerous aspects of political theory. It forms the core of the Kantian conception of practical reason (see, e.g, Korsgaard 1996, Hill 1989) and, relatedly, connects to questions of moral responsibility (see Wolff 1970, 12–19). It is also seen as the aspect of persons that prevents or ought to prevent paternalistic interventions in their lives (Dworkin 1988, 121–29). It plays a role in education theory and policy, on some views specifying the core goal of liberal education generally (Gutmann 1987, Cuypers and Haji 2008; for discussion, see Brighouse 2000, 65–111). Also, despite many feminists' reservations concerning the ideal of autonomy, it is sometimes seen as a valuable conceptual element in some feminist ideals, such as the identification and elimination of social conditions that victimize women and other (potentially) vulnerable people (Friedman 1997, Meyers 1987, Christman 1995).

1.1 Basic Distinctions

Several distinctions must be made to zero in on the kind of autonomy that is of greatest interest to moral and political theory. “Moral autonomy” refers to the capacity to impose the (putatively objective) moral law on oneself, and, following Kant, it is claimed as a fundamental organizing principle of all morality (Hill 1989). On the other hand, what can be called “personal autonomy” is meant as a trait that individuals can exhibit relative to any aspects of their lives, not limited to questions of moral obligation (Dworkin 1988, 34–47).

Personal (or individual) autonomy should also be distinguished from freedom, although again, there are many renderings of these concepts, and certainly some conceptions of positive freedom will be equivalent to what is often meant by autonomy (Berlin 1969, 131–34). Generally, one can distinguish autonomy from freedom in that the latter concerns the ability to act, without external or internal constraints and also (on some conceptions) with sufficient resources and power to make one's desires effective (Berlin 1969, Crocker 1980, MacCallum 1967). Autonomy concerns the independence and authenticity of the desires (values, emotions, etc.) that move one to act in the first place. Some distinguish autonomy from freedom by insisting that freedom concerns particular acts while autonomy is a more global notion, referring to states of a person (Dworkin 1988, 13–15, 19–20). But autonomy can be used to refer both to the global condition (autonomous personhood) and as a more local notion (autonomous relative to a particular trait, motive, value, or social condition). Addicted smokers for example are autonomous persons in a general sense but (for some) helplessly unable to control their behavior regarding this one activity (Christman 1989, 13–14).

In addition, we must keep separate the idea of basic autonomy, the minimal status of being responsible, independent and able to speak for oneself, from ideal autonomy, an achievement that serves as a goal to which we might aspire and according to which a person is maximally authentic and free of manipulative, self-distorting influences. Any plausible conceptualization of basic autonomy must, among other things, imply that most adults who are not suffering from debilitating pathologies or are under oppressive and constricting conditions count as autonomous. Autonomy as an ideal, on the other hand, may well be enjoyed by very few if any individuals, for it functions as a goal to be attained.

The reason to construe basic autonomy broadly enough to include most adults is that autonomy connects with other status designators which apply (or, it is claimed, should apply) in this sweeping manner. Autonomy is connected, for example, to moral and legal responsibility, on some views (e.g., Ripstein 1999); it is considered a criterion of political status, in that autonomous agency is seen as necessary (and for some sufficient) for the condition of equal political standing; moreover, being autonomous stands as a barrier to unchecked paternalism, both in the personal, informal spheres and in legal arenas (Feinberg 1986). Lacking autonomy, as young children do, is a condition which allows or invites sympathy, care, paternalism and possibly pity. Therefore, a guiding consideration in evaluating particular conceptions of autonomy (though hardly a hard and fast test) will be whether it connects properly to these ancillary judgments (for discussion of “formal conditions” of a concept of autonomy, see Dworkin 1988, 7–10).

1.2 Conceptual Variations

The variety of contexts in which the concept of autonomy functions has suggested to many that there are simply a number of different conceptions, and that the word simply refers to different elements in each of those contexts (Arpaly 2004). Feinberg has claimed that there are at least four different meanings of “autonomy” in moral and political philosophy: the capacity to govern oneself, the actual condition of self-government, a personal ideal, and a set of rights expressive of one's sovereignty over oneself (Feinberg 1989). One might argue that central to all of these uses is a conception of the person able to act, reflect, and choose on the basis of factors that are somehow her own (authentic in some sense). Nevertheless, it is clear that formulating a “theory” of the concept will involve more than merely uncovering the obscure details of the idea's essence, for autonomy, like many concepts central to contentious moral or political debate is itself essentially contested. So a theory of autonomy is simply a construction of a concept aimed at capturing the general sense of “self-rule” or “self-government” (ideas which obviously admit of their own vagaries) and which can be used to support principles or policies the theory attempts to justify.

The idea of self-rule contains two components: the independence of one's deliberation and choice from manipulation by others, and the capacity to rule oneself (see Dworkin 1989, 61f and Arneson 1991). However, the ability to rule oneself will lie at the core of the concept, since a full account of that capability will surely entail the freedom from external manipulation characteristic of independence. Indeed, it could be claimed that independence per se has no fixed meaning or necessary connection with self-government unless we know what kinds of independence is required for self-rule (cf., however Raz 1986, 373-78).

Focusing, then, on the requirements of self rule, it can be claimed that to govern oneself one must be in a position to act competently based on desires (values, conditions, etc.) that are in some sense one's own. This picks out the two families of conditions often proffered in conceptions of autonomy: competency conditions and authenticity conditions. Competency includes various capacities for rational thought, self-control, and freedom from debilitating pathologies, systematic self-deception, and so on. (Different accounts include different conditions: see, for example, Berofsky 1995, R. Young 1991, Haworth 1986, Meyers 1989.)

Authenticity conditions often include the capacity to reflect upon and endorse (or identify with) one's desires, values, and so on. The most influential models of authenticity in this vein claim that autonomy requires second-order identification with first order desires. For Frankfurt, for instance, such second-order desires must actually have the structure of a volition: wanting that the first order desires issue in action, that they comprise one's will. Moreover, such identification, on his view, must be “wholehearted” for the resulting action to count as free (autonomous).[1]

This overall approach to autonomy has been very influential, and several writers have developed variations of it and defended it against objections. The most prominent objections concern, on the one hand, the fatal ambiguities of the concept of “identification” and, on the other, the threat of an infinite regress of conditions. The first problem surrounds the different ways that one can be said to “identify” with a desire, each of which render the view conceptually suspect. Either one identifies with an aspect of oneself in the sense of simply acknowledging it (without judgment) or one identifies with a desire in an aspirational, approving sense of that term. In the first case, however, identification would clearly not be a consistent mark of autonomy, for one could easily identify as part of oneself any manner of addictive, constricting, or imposed aspects of one's make-up. But approving of a trait is also problematic as a requirement of autonomy, for there are many perfectly authentic aspects of myself (ones for which I can and should be held fully responsible for example) which I do not fully approve of. I'm not perfect, but does that mean that I am thereby not autonomous? (Cf. Watson 1989, Berofsky 1995, 99–102).[2]

This model stresses internal self-reflection and procedural independence. However, the view includes no stipulations about the content of the desires, values, and so on, in virtue of which one is considered autonomous, specifically there is no requirement that one act from desires independently of others. Were there to be such a requirement, it would involve what is called “substantive independence”. Some writers have insisted that the autonomous person must enjoy substantive independence as well as procedural independence (e.g., Stoljar 2000, Benson 1987, 2005, Oshana 2006). The motivation for such a position is that autonomy should not be understood as consistent with certain constrained life situations no matter how the person came to choose such a situation (cf. Meyers 2000). This claim, however, threatens to rob the attribution of autonomy of any claim to value neutrality it may otherwise carry, for if, conceptually, one is not autonomous when one (freely, rationally, without manipulation) chooses to enter conditions of severely limited choice, then the concept is reserved to only those lifestyles and value pursuits that are seen as acceptable from a particular political or theoretical point of view. I will return to this line of thought in a moment.

One variation on the internal self-reflection model focuses on the importance of the personal history of the agent as an element of her autonomy (Christman 1991, Mele 1993; cf. Fisher & Ravizza 1998; cf. also Raz 1986, 371). On these views, the question of whether a person is autonomous at a time depends on the processes by which she came to be the way she is. It is not clear that such a focus will be able to avoid the problems raised about internal reflection models (see Mele 1991, Mackenzie & Stoljar 2000b, 16–17), but such a move attempts to embrace a conception of the self of self-government which is not only social but diachronically structured (see, e.g., Atkins 2008, Cuypers 2001).

For those who are wary of the postulate of reflective self endorsement, an alternative approach is to equate autonomy with simply a set of competences, such as the capacity to choose deliberatively, rationally, and, as Berofsky claims, “objectively” (see Berofsky 1995, Meyers 1989). This locates autonomy in the general capacity to respond to reasons, and not, for example, in acts of internal self-identification. However, even in these accounts, the capacity to think critically and reflectively is necessary for autonomy as one of the competences in question, even though the reflective thought required need not refer to external values or ideals (Berofsky 1995, ch. 5).

Further difficulties have been raised with the requirement of second order self-appraisal for autonomy. For it is unclear that such higher level judgments have any greater claim to authenticity than their first order cousins. Clearly if a person is manipulated or oppressed (and hence non-autonomous), it could well be that the reflective judgments she makes about herself are just as tainted by that oppression as are her ground-level decisions (Thalberg 1989, Friedman 1986, Meyers 1989, 25–41, Noggle 2005), and often our second order reflective voices are merely rationalizations and acts of self-deception rather than true and settled aspects of our character (for general discussion see the essays in Veltman and Piper 2014). This has led to the charge that models of autonomy which demand second-order endorsement merely introduce an infinite regress: for second-level judgments must be tested for their authenticity in the same way as first order desires are, but if that is so, then ever higher levels of endorsement would be called for. Various responses to this problem have been made, for the most part involving the addition of conditions concerning the manner in which such reflection must be made, for example that it must be free of certain distorting factors itself, it must reflect an adequate causal history, and the like (Christman 1991, Mele 1995).

Other aspects of the inner reflection model should be noted. As just mentioned, this view of autonomy is often stated as requiring critical self reflection (see, e.g., Haworth 1986). This has been understood as involving a rational appraisal of one's desires, testing them for internal consistency, their relation to reliable beliefs, and the like. But an overly narrow concentration on rational assessment exposes such conceptions to charges of hyper intellectualism, painting a picture of the autonomous person as a cold, detached calculator (see Meyers 2004, 111–37). Connections to values, desires, and personal traits are often grounded in emotional and affective responses, ones connected with care, commitment, and relations to others (see Friedman 1998, MacKenzie & Stoljar 2000b, Meyers 1989). For parallel reasons, some theorists have noted that concentration on only desires as the focal point of autonomy is overly narrow, as people can (fail to) exhibit self-government relative to a wide range of personal characteristics, such as values, physical traits, relations to others, and so on (see Double 1992, 66).

2. Autonomy in Moral Philosophy

Autonomy is central in certain moral frameworks, both as a model of the moral person — the feature of the person by virtue of which she is morally obligated — and as the aspect of persons which ground others' obligations to her or him. For Kant, the self-imposition of universal moral law is the ground of both moral obligation generally and the respect others owe to us (and we owe ourselves). In short, practical reason — our ability to use reasons to choose our own actions — presupposes that we understand ourselves as free. Freedom means lacking barriers to our action that are in any way external to our will, though it also requires that we utilize a law to guide our decisions, a law that can come to us only by an act of our own will (for further discussion see Hill 1989). This self-imposition of the moral law is autonomy. And since this law must have no content provided by sense or desire, or any other contingent aspect of our situation, it must be universal. Hence we have the (first formulation of the) Categorical Imperative, that by virtue of our being autonomous we must act only on those maxims that we can consistently will as a universal law.

The story continues, however: for the claim is that this capacity (to impose upon ourselves the moral law) is the ultimate source of all moral value — for to value anything (instrumentally or intrinsically) implies the ability to make value judgments generally, the most fundamental of which is the determination of what is morally valuable. Some theorists who are not (self-described) Kantians have made this inference central to their views of autonomy. Paul Benson, for example, has argued that being autonomous implies a measure of self-worth in that we must be in a position to trust our decision-making capacities to put ourselves in a position of responsibility (Benson 1994; cf. also Grovier 1993, Lehrer 1997, and Westlund 2014). But the Kantian position is that such self-regard is not a contingent psychological fact about us, but an unavoidable implication of the exercise of practical reason (cf. Taylor 2005).

So we owe to ourselves moral respect in virtue of our autonomy. But insofar as this capacity depends in no way on anything particular or contingent about ourselves, we owe similar respect to all other persons in virtue of their capacity. Hence (via the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative), we are obliged to act out of fundamental respect for other persons in virtue of their autonomy. In this way, autonomy serves as both a model of practical reason in the determination of moral obligation and as the feature of other persons deserving moral respect from us. (For further discussion, see Immanual Kant and moral philosophy.)

Recent discussions of Kantian autonomy have downplayed the transcendental nature of practical reason in this account (see, for example, Herman 1993 and Hill 1991). For example, Christine Korsgaard follows Kant in seeing our capacity for self-reflection as both the object of respect and the seat of normativity generally. On her view, we are all guided by what she calls a “practical identity”, a point of view which orients reflection on values and manifests an aspect of our self concept. But unlike Kant, Korsgaard argues that we have different practical identities that are the source of our normative commitments, and not all of them are of fundamental moral worth. But the most general of such identities — that which makes us members of a kingdom of ends — is our moral identity, which yields universal duties and obligations independent of contingent factors. Autonomy is the source of all obligations, whether moral or non-moral, since it is the capacity to impose upon ourselves, by virtue of our practical identities, obligations to act (Korsgaard 1996).

Traditional critiques of autonomy-based moral views, and Kant's in particular, have been mounted along various lines. I mention two here, as they connect with issues concerning autonomy in social and political theory. The first concerns the way in which autonomy-based moral theory grounds obligation in our cognitive abilities rather than in our emotions and affective connections (see, e.g., Williams 1985, Stocker 1976). The claim is that Kantian morality leaves too little room for the kinds of emotional reactions that are constitutive of moral response in many situations: the obligations of parents for example concern not only what they do but the passions and care they bring forth in doing it. To view obligation as arising from autonomy but understanding autonomy in a purely cognitive manner makes such an account vulnerable to this kind of charge.

The difficulty this criticism points to resides in the ambiguities of the self-description that we might utilize in valuing our “humanity” — our capacity to obligate ourselves. For we can reflect upon our decision-making capacities and value this positively (and fundamentally) but regard that “self” engaging the capacity in different ways. The Kantian model of such a self is of a pure cognizer — a reflective agent engaged in practical reason. But also involved in decision-making are our passions — emotions, desires, felt commitments, senses of attraction and aversion, alienation and comfort. These are both the objects of our judgement and partly constitutive of them — to passionately embrace an option is different from cooly determining it to be best. Judgment is involved with all such passions when decisions are made. And it (judgment) need not be understood apart from them, but as an ability to engage in those actions whose passionate and reasoned support we muster up. So when the optimal decision for me is an impassioned one, I must value my ability to engage in the right passions, not merely in the ability to cold-heartedly reflect and choose. Putting the passions outside the scope of reasoned reflection, as merely an ancillary quality of the action — to consider how to do something not merely what we are doing — is to make one kind of decision. Putting passions inside that scope — saying that what it is right to do now is to act with a certain affect or passion — is another. When we generalize from our ability to make the latter sort of decisions, we must value not only the ability to weigh options and universalize them but also the ability to engage the right affect, emotion, etc. Therefore, we value ourselves and others as passionate reasoners not merely reasoners per se.

The implications of this observation is that in generalizing our judgments in the manner Korsgaard (following Kant) says we must, we need not commit ourselves to valuing only the cognitive capacities of humanity but also its (relatively) subjective elements. This directly relates to the nature of autonomy, for the question of whether moral obligation rests upon and contains affective elements depends on the conception of autonomy at work and whether affective elements are included in the types of reflective judgments that form its core.

A second question is this: since the reflection that is involved in autonomy (and which, according to this view, is the source of normativity) need only be hypothetical reflection upon one's desires and mental capacities, then the question arises: under what conditions is this hypothetical reflection meant to take place? If the capacity for reflection is the seat of obligation, then we must ask if the conditions under which such hypothetical reflection takes place are idealized in any sense — if they are assumed to be reasonable for example. Are we considering merely the reflections the (actual) person would make were she to turn her attention to the question, no matter how unreasonable such reflections might be? If so, why should we think this grounds obligations? If we assume they are reasonable, then under some conditions moral obligations are not imposed by the actual self but rather by an idealized, more rational self. This implies that morality is not literally self-imposed if by “self” one means the actual set of judgments made by the agent in question. Indeed, a Platonist/realist about moral value could claim that the objective values which (according to the theory) apply to all agents independent of choice are in fact “self-imposed” in this idealized sense: they would be imposed were the person to reflect on the matter, acting as a perfectly reasonable agent. This shows the complex and potentially problematic implications of this ambiguity.

This points to the question of whether autonomy can be the seat of moral obligation and respect if autonomy is conceived in a purely procedural manner. If no substantive commitments or value orientations are included in the conceptual specification of autonomy, then it is unclear how this capacity grounds any particular substantive value commitments. On the other hand, if autonomy includes a specification of particular values in its conditions — that the autonomous person must value her own freedom for example — then it turns out that moral obligation (and respect) attaches only to those already committed in this way, and not more generally to all rational agents as such (as traditionally advertised by the view). This echoes, of course, Hegel's critique of Kant.

These difficulties point to ambiguities in autonomy-based moral views, ones which may well be clarified in further developments of those theories. They also pick up on traditional problems with Kantian ethics (though there are many other such difficulties not mentioned here). Before leaving moral philosophy, we should consider ethical views which focus on autonomy but which do not depend directly on a Kantian framework.

2.1 Autonomy as an Object of Value

Autonomy can play a role in moral theory without that theory being fully Kantian in structure. For example, it is possible to argue that personal autonomy has intrinsic value independent of a fully worked out view of practical reason. Following John Stuart Mill, for example, one can claim that autonomy is “one of the elements of well-being” (Mill 1859/1975, ch. III). Viewing autonomy as an intrinsic value or as a constitutive element in personal well-being in this way opens the door to a generally consequentialist moral framework while paying heed to the importance of self-government to a fulfilling life (for discussion see Sumner 1996).

It may also be unclear why autonomy — viewed here as the capacity to reflect on and endorse one's values, character and commitments — should have value independent of the results of exercising that capacity. Why is one person's autonomy intrinsically valuable when she uses it to, say, harm herself or make rash or morally skewed choices? More generally, how can we take account of the systematic biases and distortions that plague typical human reasoning in valuing people's capacity to make decisions for themselves (see, e.g., Conly 2013)? This question becomes more acute as we consider ways that autonomy can obtain in degrees, for then it is unclear why personal autonomy should be seen as equally valuable in persons who display different levels of it (or different levels of those abilities that are its conditions, such as rationality).

Indeed, autonomy is often cited as the ground of treating all individuals equally from a moral point of view. But if autonomy is not an all-or-nothing characteristic, this commitment to moral equality becomes problematic (Arneson 1999). It can be argued that insofar as the abilities required for autonomy, such as rational reflectiveness, competences in carrying out one's decisions, and the like, vary across individuals (within or between species as well), then it is difficult to maintain that all autonomous beings have equal moral status or that their interests deserve the same weight in considering decisions that affect them.

The move that must be made here, I think, picks up on Korsgaard's gloss on Kantianism and the argument that our reflective capacities ultimately ground our obligations to others and, in turn, others' obligations to regard us as moral equals. Arneson argues, however, that people surely vary in this capacity as well — the ability to reflectively consider options and choose sensibly from among them. Recall what we said above concerning the ambiguities of Korsgaard's account concerning the degree to which the self-reflection that grounds obligation is idealized at all. If it is, then it is not the everyday capacity to look within ourselves and make a choice that gives us moral status but the more rarified ability to do so rationally, in some full sense. But we surely vary in our ability to reach that ideal, so why should our autonomy be regarded as equally worthy?

The answer may be that our normative commitments do not arise from our actual capacities to reflect and to choose (though we must have such capacities to some minimal degree), but rather from the way in which we must view ourselves as having these capacities. We give special weight to our own present and past decisions, so that we continue on with projects and plans we make because (all other things being equal) we made them, they are ours, at least when we do them after some reflective deliberation. The pull that our own decisions have on our ongoing projects and actions can only be explained by the assumption that we confer status and value on decisions simply because we reflectively made them (perhaps, though, in light of external, objective considerations). This is an all-or-nothing capacity and hence may be enough to ground our equal status even if perhaps, in real life, we exercise this capacity to varying degrees.[3] Much has been written about conceptions of well being that rehearse these worries (see Sumner 1996, Griffin 1988). Such a view might be buttressed with the idea that the attribution of autonomous agency, and the respect that purportedly goes with it, is itself a normative stance, not a mere observation of how a person actually thinks and acts (for discussion of this position see Christman 2005 and Korsgaard 2014)

2.2 Autonomy and Paternalism

Autonomy is the aspect of persons that undue paternalism offends against. Paternalistic interventions can be both interpersonal (governed by social and moral norms) and a matter of policy (mediated by formal or legal rules). Such interventions are identified not by the kind of acts they involve but by the justification given for them, so that paternalism involves interference with a person's actions or knowledge against that person's will for the purpose of advancing that person's good. Respect for autonomy is meant to prohibit such interventions because they involve a judgment that the person is not able to decide for herself how best to pursue her own good. Autonomy is the ability to so decide, so for the autonomous subject of such interventions paternalism involves a lack of respect for autonomy. See also Paternalism.

But as our discussion of the nature of autonomy indicated, it is often unclear exactly what that characteristic involves. Important in this context is whether autonomy can be manifested in degrees — whether the abilities and capacities that constitute autonomy obtain all at once or progressively. If the latter is the case, then it is unclear that a blanket prohibition against paternalism is warranted. Some people will be less able to judge for themselves what their own good is and hence be more susceptible to (justified) paternalistic intervention (Conly 2013).

Often such an obligation toward another person requires us to treat her as autonomous, independent of the extent to which she is so concerning the choice in question. At least this is the case when a person is autonomous above a certain threshold: she is an adult, not under the influence of debilitating factors, and so on. I might know that a person is to some degree under the sway of external pressures that are severely limiting her ability to govern her life and make independent choices. But as long as she has not lost the basic ability to reflectively consider her options and make choices, if I intervene against her will (for her own good), I show less respect for her as a person than if I allow her to make her own mistakes. (Which is not to say, of course, that intervention in such cases might not, in the end, be justified; only that something is lost when it is engaged in, and what is lost is a degree of interpersonal respect we owe each other.)

However, as we saw in the last section, this move depends on the determination of basic autonomy and an argument that such a threshold is non-arbitrary. Also relevant here is the question of procedural versus substantive autonomy as the ground of the prohibition of paternalism. For if by “autonomy” we mean the ability to govern oneself no matter how depraved or morally worthless are the options being exercised, it is unclear that the bar to paternalism (and respect for persons generally) retains its normative force. As I mentioned above, the response to this challenge must be that the decision making capacity itself is of non-derivative value, independent of the content of those decisions, at least if one wishes to avoid the difficulties of positing a substantive (and hence non-neutral) conception of autonomy as the basis for interpersonal respect.

This is merely a sampling of some of the central ways that the idea of autonomy figures in moral philosophy. Not discussed here are areas of applied ethics, for example in medical ethics, where respect for autonomy grounds such principles as that of informed consent. Such contexts illustrate the fundamental value that autonomy generally is thought to represent as expressive of one of the fundamentals of moral personhood.

3. Autonomy in Social and Political Philosophy

3.1 Autonomy and the Foundations of Liberalism

The conception of the autonomous person plays a variety of roles in various constructions of liberal political theory (for recent discussion, see, e.g., Coburn 2010 and the essays in Christman and Anderson, eds. 2005). Principally, it serves as the model of the person whose perspective is used to formulate and justify political principles, as in social contract models of principles of justice (Rawls 1971). Also (and correspondingly) it serves as the model of the citizen whose basic interests are reflected in those principles, such as in the claim that basic liberties, opportunities, and other primary goods are fundamental to flourishing lives no matter what moral commitments, life plans, or other particulars of the person might obtain (Kymlicka 1989, 10–19, Waldron 1993: 155–6).[4] Moreover, autonomy is ascribed to persons (or projected as an ideal) in order to delineate and critique oppressive social conditions, liberation from which is considered a fundamental goal of justice (whether or not those critiques are described as within the liberal tradition or as a specific alternative to it) (cf. Keornahan 1999, Cornell 1998, Young 1990, Gould 1988; cf. also Hirschmann 2002, 1–29).

For our purposes here, liberalism refers generally to that approach to political power and social justice that determines principles of right (justice) prior to, and largely independent of, determination of conceptions of the good (though see Liberalism; see also Christman 2002, ch. 4). This implies that the liberal conception of justice, and the legitimation of political power more generally, can be specified and justified without crucial reference to controversial conceptions of value and moral principles (what Rawls calls “comprehensive moral conceptions” (Rawls 1993, 13–15). The fact of permanent pluralism of such moral conceptions is therefore central to liberalism.[5]

One manner in which debates concerning autonomy directly connect to controversies within and about liberalism concerns the role that state neutrality is to play in the justification and application of principles of justice. Neutrality is a controversial standard, of course, and the precise way in which liberal theory is committed to a requirement of neutrality is complex and controversial (see Raz 1986, 110–64, Waldron 1993, 143–67). The question to be asked here is whether the conception of autonomy utilized in liberal theories must itself attempt to be neutral concerning various conceptions of morality and value, or, alternatively, does the reliance on autonomy in the justification and specification of liberal theories of justice render them non-neutral simply because of this reliance (no matter how “neutral” the conception of autonomy utilized turns out to be).

Let us consider this first question and in so doing revisit the issue of whether the independence implicit in autonomy should best be conceived in a purely “procedural” manner or more substantively. Recall that some theorists view autonomy as requiring minimal competence (or rationality) along with authenticity, where the latter condition is fleshed out in terms of the capacity to reflectively endorse (or not be alienated from) aspects of oneself. This view can be called “proceduralist” because it demands that the procedure by which a person comes to identify a desire (or trait) as her own is what is crucial in the determination of its authenticity and hence autonomy. This conception of autonomy is adopted, according to its defenders, because doing so is the only way to ensure that autonomy is neutral toward all conceptions of value and the good that reasonable adults may come to internalize (Dworkin 1989).

Critics of this view have pointed to cases where it is imagined that persons adopt what we all would call oppressive and overly restrictive life situations but in a way that meets the minimal conditions of autonomy on proceduralist accounts, so that on such accounts they count as autonomous because of the self-governing processes by which they entered such oppressive conditions. These critics argue that any conception of autonomy that ascribes that trait to such people is wrongly conceived (Benson 1987, MacKenzie & Stoljar 2001b, Waller 1993, Oshana 1998, Stoljar 2000). On the basis of such a judgment, they argue that normatively substantive conditions should be added to the requirements of autonomy, conditions such as the ability to recognize and follow certain moral or political norms (See Benson 1987, Wolf 1980; for criticism, see Berofsky 1995, ch. 7). This criticism suggests that considerations concerning the autonomous self cannot avoid questions of identity and hence whether the self of self-government can be understood independently of the (perhaps socially defined) values in terms of which people conceive of themselves; this is a subject to which we now turn.

3.2 Identity and Conceptions of the Self

Autonomy, as we have been describing it, certainly attaches paradigmatically to individual persons; it is not (in this usage) a property of groups or peoples. So the autonomy that grounds basic rights and which connects to moral responsibility, as this concept is thought to do, is assigned to persons without essential reference to other people, institutions, or traditions within which they may live and act. Critics claim, however, that such a view runs counter to the manner in which most of us (or all of us in some ways) define ourselves, and hence diverges problematically from the aspects of identity that motivate action, ground moral commitments, and by which people formulate life plans. Autonomy, it is argued, implies the ability to reflect wholly on oneself, to accept or reject one's values, connections, and self-defining features, and change such elements of one's life at will. But we are all not only deeply enmeshed in social relations and cultural patterns, we are also defined by such relations, some claim(Sandel 1982, 15–65). For example, we use language to engage in reflection but language is itself a social product and deeply tied to various cultural forms. In any number of ways we are constituted by factors that lie beyond our reflective control but which nonetheless structure our values, thoughts, and motivations (Taylor 1991, 33f; for discussion see Bell 1993, 24–54). To say that we are autonomous (and hence morally responsible, bear moral rights, etc.) only when we can step back from all such connections and critically appraise and possibly alter them flies in the face of these psychological and metaphysical realities.[6]

In a different manner, critics have claimed that the liberal conception of the person, reflected in standard models of autonomy, under-emphasizes the deep identity-constituting connections we have with gender, race, culture, and religion, among other things. Such “thick” identities are not central to the understanding of the self-governing person who, according to standard liberal models, is fully able to abstract from such elements of her self-concept and to either identify with or to reject such them. But such an ideal too narrowly valorizes the life of the cosmopolitan “man” — the world traveler who freely chooses whether to settle into this or that community, identify with this or that group, and so on (see Young 1991, Alcoff 2006 and Appiah 2010; for discussion, see Meyers, 2000b).

These challenges have also focused on the relation of the self to its culture (Margalit and Raz, 1990, Tamir 1993). What is at issue from a policy perspective is that emphasis on the individual's self-government, with the cosmopolitan perspective that this entails, makes it difficult if not impossible to ground rights to the protection and internal self- government of traditional cultures themselves (Kymlicka, 1995). This is problematic in that it excludes from the direct protection of liberal policies those individuals and groups whose self-conceptions and value commitments are deeply constituted by cultural factors. Or, conversely, the assumption that the autonomous person is able to separate himself from all cultural commitments forestalls moves to provide state protection for cultural forms themselves, insofar as such state policies rest on the value of autonomy.

There have been many responses to these charges on behalf of a liberal outlook (e.g., Kymlicka, 1989, Gutman, 1985, Appiah 2005; for a general response to question of cultural identities see Kymlicka 1997). The most powerful response is that autonomy need not require that people be in a position to step away from all of their connections and values and to critically appraise them. Mere piecemeal reflection is all that is required. As Kymlicka puts it: “No particular task is set for us by society, and no particular cultural practice has authority that is beyond individual judgement and possible rejection” (Kymlicka, 1989:, 50).

There is a clarification that is needed in this exchange, however. For insofar as defenders of liberal principles (based on the value of autonomy) claim that all aspects of a person's self-concept be subject to alteration in order to manifest autonomy, they needlessly exaggerate the commitments of the liberal position. For such a view is open to the charge that liberal conceptions fail to take seriously the permanent and unalterable aspects of the self and its social position (Young, 1990, 46). Our embodiment, for example, is often not something which we can alter other than marginally, and numerous other self-defining factors such as sexual orientation (for some), native language, culture and race, are not readily subject to our manipulation and transformation, even in a piecemeal manner. To say that we are heteronomous because of this is therefore deeply problematic. What must be claimed by the defender of autonomy-based liberalism is that the ability in question is to change those aspects of oneself from which one is deeply alienated (or with which one does not identify, etc.). For in those cases where, upon reflection, one experiences one's body, culture, race, or sexuality as an external burden constricting one's more settled and authentic nature, and still one cannot alter that factor, then one lacks autonomy relative to it (see Christman, 2001, 2009 ch. 6). But if one feels fully at home within those unalterable parameters one does not lack autonomy because of that unalterability

3.3 Relational Autonomy

Several writers have claimed that proceduralist accounts of autonomy would wrongly attribute autonomy to those whose restricted socialization and stultifying life conditions pressure them into internalizing opressive values and norms, for example women who have internalized the belief in the social authority of husbands, or that only by having and raising children are their lives truly complete, and the like. If such women reflect on these values they may well endorse them, even if doing so is free of any specific reflection-inhibiting conditions. But such women surely lack autonomy, it is claimed; so only if autonomy includes a requirement that one be able to recognize basic value claims (such as the person's own equal moral standing) will that concept be useful in describing the oppressive conditions of a patriarchal society (see, e.g., Oshana, 1998, Stoljar, 2000; for discussion see Christman 1995, Benson, 1990, Friedman, 2000, Meyers, 1987, 1989).[7]

These and related considerations have sparked some to develop an alternative conception of autonomy meant to replace allegedly overly individualistic notions. This replacement has been called “relational autonomy” (MacKenzie and Stoljar, 2000a). Spurred by feminist critiques of traditional conceptions of autonomy and rights (Nedelsky, 1989, Code, 1991), relational conceptions of autonomy stress the ineliminable role that relatedness plays in both persons' self- conceptions, relative to which autonomy must be defined, and the dynamics of deliberation and reasoning. These views offer a provocative alternative to traditional models of the autonomous individual, but it must be made clear what position is being taken on the issue: on the one hand, relational accounts can be taken as resting on a non-individualist conception of the person and then claim that insofar as autonomy is self-government and the self is constituted by relations with others, then autonomy is relational; or these accounts may be understood as claiming that whatever selves turn out to be, autonomy fundamentally involves social relations rather than individual traits (Oshana, 2006). Some such views also waiver between claiming that social and personal relations play a crucial causal role in the development and enjoyment of autonomy and claiming that such relations constitute autonomy (for discussion see Mackenzie and Stoljar, 2000b, 21–26; for a recent overview, see Mackenzie 2014).

Another relational element to autonomy that has been developed connects social support and recognition of the person's status to her capacities for self-trust, self-esteem, and self-respect. The core argument in these approaches is that autonomy requires the ability to act effectively on one's own values (either as an individual or member of a social group), but that oppressive social conditions of various kinds threaten those abilities by removing one's sense of self-confidence required for effective agency. Social recognition and/or support for this self-trusting status is required for the full enjoyment of these abilities (see Anderson and Honneth 2005, Grovier 1993, Benson 2005, McCleod and Sherwin 2005, and Westlund 2014).

These claims often are accompanied with a rejection of purportedly value-neutral, proceduralist accounts of autonomy, even those that attempt to accommodate a fully social conception of the self. One question that arises with relational views connected to self-trust in this way, is why, exactly such relations are seen as conceptually constitutive of autonomy rather than contributory to it (and its development), where the self-confidence or self-trust in question is the core element to which these sorts of social relations are an important (albeit contingent) contributor. Another question to be considered arises from those cases where self-trust is established despite lack of social recognition, as when runaway slaves manage to heroically push on with their quest for freedom while facing violent denials from surrounding others (and surrounding social structures) that they enjoy the status of a full human being capable of authentic decision making. Finally, self-trust is not always merited: consider the brash teenager who insists on exercising social independence based on her unwarranted confidence in her abilities to make good judgments (see Mackenzie 2008, n. 36).

Nevertheless, these approaches have all importantly shifted philosophical attention concerning autonomy to the social and interpersonal dynamics that shape its enjoyment, connecting ideas about autonomy with broader issues of social justice, recognition, and social practices. This brings us back, then, to considerations of the liberal project and its potential limitations, where autonomy remains central.

3.4 Autonomy, Liberalism, and Perfectionism

As noted earlier, there are various versions of liberal political philosophy. All of them, however, are committed to a conception of political legitimacy in which political power and authority is justified only if such authority is acceptable to all citizens bound by it (see Rawls 1993, 144–50). This connects to a broader view of the foundations of value that at least some liberal theorists present as central to that tradition. That is the claim that values are valid for a person only if those values are or can be reasonably endorsed by the person in question. By extension, principles guiding the operation of institutions of social and political power — what Rawls calls the institutions of the basic structure (Rawls 1993, 258) — are legitimate only if they can be endorsed in this way by those subject to them. In this way, liberalism (in most of its forms) is committed to what some have called the “endorsement constraint” (Kymlicka 1989, 12f, R. Dworkin 2000, 216–18).

Models of autonomy considered above include a condition that mirrors this constraint, in that a person is autonomous relative to some action-guiding norm or value only if, upon critical reflection of that value, she identifies with it, approves of it, or does not feel deeply alienated from it. Combining this view with the endorsement constraint, liberalism carries the implication that autonomy is respected only when guiding values or principles in a society can be embraced in some way by those governed by them. This will connect directly to the liberal theory of legitimacy to be discussed below.

Perfectionists reject this set of claims. Perfectionism is the view that there are values valid for an individual or a population even when, from the subjective point of view of those agents or groups, that value is not endorsed or accepted (Wall 1998, Sumner 1996, 45–80, Hurka 1993, Sher 1997; see also Perfectionism). In short, it is the view that there are entirely objective values. While there are perfectionist liberals, this view generally resists the liberal claim that the autonomous acceptance of the central components of political principles is a necessary condition for the legitimacy of those principles. Moreover, perfectionists question the liberal commitment to neutrality in the formulation and application of political principles (Hurka 1993, 158–60).

Perfectionists specifically target the liberal connection between respect for autonomy and neutrality of political principles (Wall 1998, 125–204). For many, liberalism rests on the value of individual autonomy, but this reliance either assumes that respect for autonomy is merely one value among others in the liberal view, or autonomy has overriding value. In either case, however, neutrality is not supported. If autonomy is merely one value among others, for example, then there will clearly be times when state support of those other values will override respect for autonomy (paternalistic restrictions imposed to promote citizen safety, for example) (Sher 1997, 45–105, Hurka 1993, 158–60). On the other hand, autonomy could be seen as an absolute constraint on the promotion of values, or, more plausibly, as a constitutive condition of the validity of all values for a person, as the endorsement constraint implies. Perfectionists reply, however, that this is itself a controversial value position, one that may not find unqualified general support (Hurka 1993, 148–52, Sher 1997, 58–60, Sumner 1996, 174–83; cf. Griffin 1986, 135– 36). To answer these objections, one must turn to consideration of the liberal principle of legitimacy. For the claim that liberals make concerning the limits of state promotion of the good — a limit set by respect for autonomy — depends heavily on their view about the ultimate ground of political power.

3.5 Autonomy and Political Liberalism

Liberalism is generally understood to arise historically out of the social contract tradition of political philosophy and hence rests on the idea of popular sovereignty. The concept of autonomy, then, figures centrally in at least one dominant strand in this tradition, the strand the runs through the work of Kant. The major alternative version of the liberal tradition sees popular sovereignty as basically a collective expression of rational choice and that the principles of the basic institutions of political power are merely instrumental in the maximization of aggregate citizen welfare (or, as with Mill, a constitutive element of welfare broadly considered).

But it is the Kantian brand of liberalism that places autonomy of persons at center stage. Rawls's Theory of Justice was seen as the contemporary manifestation of this Kantian approach to justice, where justice was conceived as those principles that would be chosen under conditions of unbiased rational decision-making (from behind the veil of ignorance). The original position where such principles would be chosen was said by Rawls to mirror Kant's Categorical Imperative. That is, it is a device in which persons can choose principles to impose upon themselves in a way which is independent of contingencies of social position, race, sex, or conception of the good (Rawls 1971, 221–27). But as is well known, the Kantian foundations of Rawls's theory of justice rendered it vulnerable to the charge that it was inapplicable to those populations (all modern populations in fact) where deep moral pluralism abounds. For under such conditions, no theory of justice which rests on a metaphysically grounded conception of the person could claim full allegiance from members of a population whose deep diversity causes them to disagree about metaphysics itself, as well as about moral frameworks and conceptions of value related to it. For this reason, Rawls developed a new (or further developed) understanding of the foundations of his version of liberalism, a political conception (Rawls 1993).

Under political liberalism, autonomy of persons is postulated, not as a metaphysically grounded “fact” about moral personality or practical reason as such, but rather as one of several “device[s] of representation” under which diverse citizens can focus on the methods of derivation (such as the original position) for substantive principles of justice (Rawls 1999, 303–58). Justice is achieved only when an overlapping consensus among people moved by deeply divergent but reasonable comprehensive moral views can be attained, a consensus in which such citizens can affirm principles of justice from within those comprehensive views.

Political Liberalism shifts the focus from a philosophical conception of justice, formulated abstractly and meant to apply universally, to a practical conception of legitimacy where consensus is reached without pretension of deep metaphysical roots for the principles in question. More than merely a “modus vivendi” for the participating parties, justice must be affirmed in a way that finds a moral basis for all participating citizens, albeit from different frameworks of value and moral obligation. The operation of public reason and deliberation, then, serves as the means by which such a consensus might be established, and hence public discussion and democratic institutions must be seen as a constitutive part of the justification of principles of justice rather than merely a mechanism for collective determination of the social good.

But the role of autonomy in the specification of this picture should not be under- emphasized (or the controversies it invites ignored). For such a consensus counts as legitimate only when achieved under conditions of free and authentic affirmation of shared principles. Only if the citizens see themselves as fully able to reflectively endorse or reject such shared principles, and to do so competently and with adequate information and range of options, can the overlapping political consensus step beyond the purely strategic dynamics of a modus vivendi and ground legitimate institutions of political power.

Therefore, social conditions that hamper the equal enjoyment of capacities to reflectively consider and (if necessary) reject principles of social justice, due, say, to extreme poverty, disability, ongoing injustice and inequality, or the like, restrict the establishment of just principles. Autonomy, then, insofar as that concept picks out the free reflective choice operating in the establishment of legitimacy, is basic to, and presupposed by, even such non-foundational (political) conceptions of justice.

Critics of political liberalism arise from several quarters. However, among the objections to it that focus on autonomy are those that question whether a political conception of legitimacy that rests on shared values can be sustained without the validity of those values being seen as somehow objective or fundamental, a position that clashes with the purported pluralism of political liberalism. Otherwise, citizens with deeply conflicting worldviews could not be expected to affirm the value of autonomy except as a mere modus vivendi (see, e.g., Wall 2009; cf. also Larmore 2008, 146–6). A line of response to this worry that could be pursued would be one that claimed that values that amount to autonomy (in some conceptualization of that idea) are already functional in the social structures and cultural practices of otherwise defensible democratic practices (as well as some critical projects that emphasize oppression and domination, as we saw above). This point raises the issue, to which we now turn, of the connection between autonomy, political liberalism, and democracy.

3.6 Autonomy, Justice and Democracy

In closing, we should add a word about the implications of political liberalism for the traditional division between liberal justice and democratic theory. I say “division” here, but different views of justice and democracy will convey very different conceptions of the relation between the two (see Christiano 1996, Lakoff 1996). But traditionally, liberal conceptions of justice have viewed democratic mechanisms of collective choice as essential but highly circumscribed by the constitutional provisions that principles of justice support. Individual rights and freedoms, equality before the law, and various privileges and protections associated with citizen autonomy are protected by principles of justice and hence not subject to democratic review, on this approach (Gutmann 1993).

However, liberal conceptions of justice have themselves evolved (in some strains at least) to include reference to collective discussion and debate (public reason) among the constitutive conditions of legitimacy. It could be claimed, then, that basic assumptions about citizens' capacities for reflective deliberation and choice — autonomy — must be part of the background conditions against which an overlapping consensus or other sort of political agreement concerning principles of justice is to operate.

Some thinkers have made the connection between individual or “private” autonomy and collective or “public” legitimacy — prominent, most notably Habermas (Habermas 1994). On this view, legitimacy and justice cannot be established in advance through philosophical construction and argument, as was thought to be the case in natural law traditions in which classical social contract theory flourished and which is inherited (in different form) in contemporary perfectionist liberal views. Rather, justice amounts to that set of principles that are established in practice and rendered legitimate by the actual support of affected citizens (and their representatives) in a process of collective discourse and deliberation (see e.g., Fraser 1997, 11–40 and Young 2000). Systems of rights and protections (private, individual autonomy) will necessarily be protected in order to institutionalize frameworks of public deliberation (and, more specifically, legislation and constitutional interpretation) that render principles of social justice acceptable to all affected (in consultation with others) (Habermas 1994, 111).

This view of justice, if at all acceptable, provides an indirect defense of the protection of autonomy and, in particular, conceptualizing autonomy in a way that assumes reflective self- evaluation. For only if citizen participants in the public discourse that underlies justice are assumed to have (and provided the basic resources for having) capacities for competent self- reflection, can the public defense and discussion of competing conceptions of justice take place (cf. Gaus 1996, Parts II and III, Gaus 2011). Insofar as autonomy is necessary for a functioning democracy (considered very broadly), and the latter is a constitutive element of just political institutions, then autonomy must be seen as reflective self-appraisal (and, I would add, non-alienation from central aspects of one's person) (see Cohen 2002, Richardson 2003).

This approach to justice and autonomy, spelled out here in rough and general form, has certainly faced criticism. In particular, those theorists concerned with the multi-dimensional nature of social and cultural “difference” have stressed how the conception of the autonomous person assumed in such principles (as well as criteria for rational discourse and public deliberation) is a contestable ideal not internalized by all participants in contemporary political life (see, e.g., Brown 1995, Benhabib 1992). Others motivated by post-modern considerations concerning the nature of the self, rationality, language, and identity, are also suspicious of the manner in which the basic concepts operative in liberal theories of justice (“autonomy” for example) are understood as fixed, transparent, and without their own political presuppositions (see, e.g., Butler 1990; for general discussion see White 1990).

These charges are stated here much too generally to give an adequate response in this context. But the challenge remains for any theory of justice which rests on a presumption of the normative centrality of autonomy. To be plausible in a variously pluralistic social setting, such a view must avoid the twin evils of forcibly imposing a (reasonably) contested value on resistant citizens, on the one hand, and simply abandoning all normative conceptions of social order in favor of open ended struggle for power on the other. The view that individuals ought to be treated as, and given the resources to become, autonomous in one of the minimal senses outlined here will, I submit, be a central element in any political view that steers between the Scylla of oppressive forms of perfectionism and the Charybdis of interest-group power politics.


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