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Autonomy and the Challenges to LiberalismReview - Autonomy and the Challenges to Liberalism
New Essays
by John Christman and Joel Anderson (Editors)
Cambridge University Press, 2005
Review by Neil Levy, Ph.D.
Aug 15th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 33)

There are at least two autonomy debates. There is a debate in social philosophy, about the conditions under which an agent's preferences are authentically her own [rather than the product of, variously, ideology, false consciousness or adaptive preference formation], and a debate in political philosophy over the extent to which the state ought to reflect and respect the uncoerced preferences of its members. These two debates share a great many concepts, and refer to some of the same seminal texts [by Kant, Locke and Mill, among others]. Yet they have for the most part proceeded independently of each other. This volume aims to bring them together, to see to what extent the considerations that figure in each can illuminate the other. The contributors are many of the major figures in each debate. I cannot touch on all the contributions in this brief review. Here I shall simply mention some of the highlights, and try to suggest how they contribute to the central issues around which the volume is focused.

Much of the debate over what might be called the authenticity question has centered around whether autonomy ought to be understood procedurally or substantively: that is, whether any set of preferences can count as autonomous, if they are acquired or maintained in the appropriate manner, or whether instead there are restrictions on the content of preferences that can count as autonomous. This is a question with immediate relevance to the debate over liberalism. Rawls famously distinguished between political liberalism and metaphysical liberalism. Metaphysical liberalism promotes a particular conception of the good, maximizing the substantively conceived autonomy of citizens, while political liberalism merely seeks an overlapping consensus on principles of non-interferences already implicit in a political culture. In the political debate, it has been the value-neutral conception that has been dominant; in the individually-focused debate neither has clearly dominated.

Among the most influential value-neutral approaches have been those hierarchical conceptions to autonomy, associated especially with Harry Frankfurt and Gerald Dworkin. On these approaches, an agent is autonomous, roughly, if she endorses the desires that issue in her actions. Several of the essays here take issue with the hierarchical approach. Meyers gives several examples of apparently autonomous actions that do not fit neatly into the hierarchical, or indeed any individual, framework. In a similar vein, Benson's emphasis on accountability to others, and Anderson and Honneth's emphasis upon recognition by others, as necessary conditions of autonomy, lead them to think of individual autonomy as essentially involving social conditions. This suggests a neat way of moving beyond the question of whether autonomy is unacceptably individualist: properly understood, autonomy as an individual ideal has social conditions. In the political realm, this has been an idea pursued most forcefully by communitarians; unfortunately the communitarianism/liberalism debate goes largely unaddressed here.

Though the emphasis on the social is a necessary condition to a debate too frequently centered on the individual conceived as a social atom, Marilyn Friedman's essay sounds a note of caution. She suggests that though autonomy indeed has social conditions, there is a risk of over-emphasizing the social. The individual may need protection from the values that are extant in her society, rather than the opportunity to express them unhindered -- especially in the context of ongoing gender discrimination. We need to retain a conception of autonomous preferences where autonomy is opposed to adaptive preferences, and therefore to socially constituted preferences.

Rather than focus on the question of the extent to which liberalism is unacceptably individualist, the more politically minded contributors draw upon other strands of the communitarian critique of liberalism: the question of the extent to which disengagement from the political process threatened the viability of liberal states, and the extent to which the liberal polity ought to be neutral between conceptions of the good. Richard Dagger, continuing his reflections on the relationship between liberalism and republicanism, addresses the first question. A more republican liberalism will require greater civic involvement in politics, he suggests, rather than the non-interferences coupled with opportunities for involvement characteristic of traditional liberalism.

Waldron and van den Brink pursue the question whether a Rawlsian overlapping consensus on principles of justice can reasonably be expected under contemporary conditions. Waldron suggests that the distinction between conceptions of the good, which can be allowed to vary across a society, and principles of justice, upon which all reasonable people can be expected to agree, cannot sustain the weight placed on it by Rawls. In a diverse society we ought to expect fundamental disagreement upon principles of justice, and therefore cannot hope for a thoroughgoing, overlapping consensus. If this is true, political liberalism may not be able to avoid the substantive questions which have been at the forefront of the moral debate. Van den Brink also suggests that the diversity of liberal societies precludes any kind of substantial agreement on principles, and instead requires acceptance of deep disagreement as a normal feature of political life.

Does this volume succeed in its aim of bringing these overlapping debates fruitfully to bear on one another? My sense is that it does not: most of the contributors simply continue to pursue the debate in which they are interested, with hardly a bow in the direction of the other autonomy issue. Perhaps this is inevitable: liberalism in the political sphere is, as Rawls argued, founded on the need to find a modus vivendi to accommodate a diversity of conceptions of the good, and ways of life. Attempting to impose substantive criteria in the political sphere therefore risks the stability of the liberal order. Hence the political philosopher's interest in how the tyranny of the majority can be ameliorated, a concern predicated on a procedural view of liberalism. The moral philosopher, whose concern is more focused on the individual than on society, is free of these constraints, and can pursue substantive conceptions of autonomy without restraint. However, if philosophers like Waldron and van den Brink (and, in a different way, Dagger and Gaus) are correct, this may be a debate in which political philosophy cannot avoid engaging. In a world in which deep diversity is characteristic of societies, debates over the correct conception of the good may be unavoidable. If that's correct, another volume, in which the mutual engagement is deeper, may soon be required. In the meantime, even if Autonomy and the Challenges to Liberalism does not really succeed in bringing these two debates together, it contains many significant contributions to each.

 

2006 Neil Levy

 

Neil Levy is a research fellow at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, University of Melbourne, Australia and is author of Being Up-To-Date: Foucault, Sartre, and Postmodernity (Peter Lang, 2001), Moral Relativism: A Short Introduction (Oneworld, 2002), Sartre (Oneworld, 2002), and What Makes Us Moral?: Crossing the Boundaries of Biology (Oneworld, 2004).


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