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Personal Autonomy in SocietyReview - Personal Autonomy in Society
by Marina Oshana
Ashgate, 2006
Review by Robert L. Muhlnickel, MSW
Jan 29th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 5)

1. Introduction

Oshana's Personal Autonomy in Society is a worthwhile but incomplete defense of the claim that the concept of social-relational autonomy (hereafter SR autonomy) is the concept of personal autonomy that best suits our pre-theoretical intuitions and our explicit beliefs and values regarding autonomy.

Notice right off that Oshana aims to explicate and defend a conception of personal autonomy, the sort of autonomy often thought necessary to the concept of an agent who is able to initiate action, be held accountable for her actions, and choose what action to perform. This conception of autonomy is often said to be equivalent to self-governance, self-determination, or self-direction. Oshana is not directly concerned with political autonomy, the status of an individual relative to the state that gets determined by constitutional founding, legislative enactment, or executive decree. But the effort to incorporate social conditions into our conception of personal autonomy seems to lead to obviating the distinction between personal and political autonomy, at least to me. Let me first review this valuable study before registering my doubts and what I think is an important implication of SR autonomy.

2. Arguing for SR Autonomy against the Alternatives

A common view about personal autonomy is that an agent has authority over herself, regardless of political status, customary social role, or legally authorization, merely because an agent can initiate action of her own. I shall refer to any of these statuses, relations, or roles as a 'social fact,' without using 'fact' to make any claim about the ontology of social entities, merely as a general term for the class of things under consideration. The common view often gets explicated in theories of personal autonomy that conceive of personal autonomy solely in terms of psychological authenticity.  Oshana argues that psychological authenticity is necessary for personal autonomy but is alone inadequate, and that particular social conditions are necessary for an adequate conception of personal autonomy. Oshana seeks to develop a conception of autonomy in which the individual's social status, social relations, and socially determined powers are necessary for an individual to be a self-directing agent.

Oshana briskly sets aside the main contenders for explicating the concept of autonomy as psychological authenticity, the structural and historical views. These views, associated with Harry Frankfurt, Gerald Dworkin, and John Christman have been the main contenders and the arguments and objections have been with us awhile. We can set aside the distinctions within and developments of these views for purposes of this review. Oshana's central claim is that theories that psychological authenticity is sufficient for personal autonomy fail and require supplement by social-relational condition of some sort. The central claim for SR autonomy gets stated in different ways. Sometimes she says that autonomy is "constituted in large part by the social relations people find themselves in and by the absence of other social relations" (p. 50). Other times, some social fact is claimed to be an "inherent part of what it means to be self-directed," or autonomous (p. 50). Alternatively, a social fact is said to be "essential" for autonomy.

The claim that a social fact is constitutive of autonomy implies at minimum that some social fact is necessary for autonomy. The intent might also be stronger, meaning that some social fact is essential for a person to be autonomous. 'Inherent' primarily means being an essential part but sometimes means 'necessary' or 'essential.' The use of near-synonyms leaves me uncertain at times of the logical or conceptual relationship claimed for social facts in SR autonomy theory. It is clear that SR autonomy denies that the level of individual autonomy is merely increased or decreased by social facts and that social facts are mere causal factors affecting an individual's particular exercise of autonomy but not necessarily or conceptually intrinsic to autonomy. The level of autonomy claim and the causal claim are compatible with plausible psychological authenticity theories. Oshana clearly intends something conceptual or necessary rather than contingent or empirical.

Oshana argues for SR autonomy by presenting a series of cases in which persons choose particular lives that satisfy the conditions of psychological authenticity theories but arguably are instances in which the person is not autonomous. A case entitled 'The Angel in the House,' inspired by Virginia Woolf's "Professions for Women," gets to the essential point. The angel Harriet chooses a life of subservience to other's needs, wants, and life-plans because she prefers such a life. Harriet deliberates appropriately on her choices, she evaluates her motives with as much insight as she can muster, and she has no desires to live another sort of life. Harriet is not anxious, conflicted in her will, or dissatisfied with her life. Harriet's choice is not constrained by a history in which support for alternatives is absent. Harriet's choice satisfies the conditions of the two primary psychological authenticity theories: self-endorsement by the agent and a history of choice absent interference from others (pp. 58-9).

Oshana argues that Harriet is not autonomous. "[S]he fails to be autonomous--not because she wants to be subservient but because she is subservient. Her lack of autonomy is due to her personal relations with others and to the social institutions of her society" (Italics are Oshana's; p. 59). The reasons for judging Harriet not to be autonomous are social facts. In contrast, Wilma makes the same choices as Harriet, has the same features of psychological authenticity and same lack of historical distortion of origins of her choice, and lives in a society where social facts are otherwise. Wilma chooses her life from among options that would bring personal growth, economic independence, and respect from others. Wilma's dedication to others is consistent with SR autonomy but Harriet's subservience is not.

Oshana gives us other cases such as 'Taliban Woman,' 'Voluntary Slavery, 'The Monk,' and 'The Would-Be Surrendered Woman' that incorporate the contrast between agents whose choices satisfy the conditions of psychological authenticity theories but fail to satisfy the SR claim that social facts are necessary for an agent to be autonomous. The last case presents a woman of whom it is true to assert all the social facts that we might think necessary for autonomy: she is financially independent, vocationally successful, respected professionally. But absent from her life is what she most wants, "surrender to the strong direction, or at least the strong arms, of a loving man" (or loving woman, we might add) so that the Would-Be Surrendered Woman does not realize her life plan. She has what the persons in the other cases lack but "her self-conception is unrealized" (p. 64). If the Would-Be Surrendered Woman is not autonomous, then either SR autonomy is not sufficient for autonomy, or social facts do not have priority over psychological facts among the conditions of autonomy, since social facts obtain but the psychological facts do not.

The psychological authenticity theorist could argue that agents such as Would-Be Surrendered Woman lack autonomy due to the agent's unhappiness with herself and the failure to fulfill her desire to for what she most wants, and Oshana cites Diana Meyers as one holder of this view (pp. 65-66). Oshana argues, however, that it is just as implausible to deny autonomy of an agent "simply because the person cannot configure her desires to her situation just as it is implausible to claim autonomy for a person who simply configures her desires to suit an unpalatable situation" (p. 66). The Would-Be Surrendered Woman is unable to eliminate her desire for a strong pair of arms but that is not reason to claim lacks autonomy. In the other cases agents shape their desires to circumstances in which the social facts claimed to be necessary for autonomy by the SR theorist         do not obtain, so they are not autonomous. Oshana here claims that some degree of psychological dissatisfaction with one's life is consistent with being autonomous. This case is the basis for Oshana's denial of one alternative to SR autonomy. If SR theory is correct, then psychological authenticity in the sense of unambivalent endorsement of one's life is not a necessary condition for autonomy (p. 69).

Oshana develops the theory of SR autonomy when she describes the conditions for autonomy that she accepts: epistemic competence, rationality, procedural independence, self-respect, control, access to a range of relevant options, and social-relational properties. She also calls the latter "substantive independence" and I have referred to these properties as social facts (pp. 76-90). Social-Relational properties necessary for autonomy are:

(a)  social institutions that provide minimal social and psychological security while the agent pursues his goals;

(b)  the freedom to pursue goals and interests different from those in positions of authority and influence over the agent;

(c)   the individual is required to take responsibility for another's needs only when doing so is related to a particular function;

(d)   financial self-sufficiency adequate for material independence; and

(e)  accurate information about what the agent is able to do.

Explaining, conceptualizing, and determining empirical criteria for these conditions would provide for many future research projects if other scholars want to follow through.

Of the several objections to the SR autonomy account to which Oshana responds, I shall comment on one aspect of one objection, the objection that SR autonomy is perfectionist and thus incompatible with the inclusiveness of liberal theory. The objection trades on the understanding of autonomy as a particular good that contributes to individual well-being. Liberal theories of autonomy are widely accepted and, by denying that any agent except ones who fail to satisfy minimal competency conditions are excluded from enjoying autonomous status, assert that maximal inclusiveness if a virtue of liberal theories. SR autonomy is exclusive; it says that an agent of whom one of the social-relational properties does not obtain is not autonomous. Oshana accepts that the SR autonomy theory is perfectionist and adopts the defense of perfectionist theories of autonomy developed by Thomas Hurka and Steven Wall. In Hurka's view, autonomy is a  perfection that contributes to individual well-being but it is not an overriding value as it is for some liberal theorists. In responding Oshana claims that the liberal who makes this objection has conflated personal autonomy and political autonomy, which she claims to treat separately in her account. In my view, Oshana's account also conflates personal and political autonomy, which I discuss below.

3. Discussion

Although I find parts of this study less clear than it could be, it is well-constructed and presents a valuable alternative to psychological theories of personal autonomy. I shall discuss its broadly feminist character, the risks of conflating personal and political autonomy, and one application of SR autonomy that Oshana does not mention.

Oshana's study is what I call broadly feminist in character. It is not focused on feminist issues or methods -- autonomy is of concern to many philosophers besides feminists and her methodology is typical of analytic philosophy, consisting of conceptual analysis, consideration of cases, counter-examples, and response to objections by clarifying distinctions. However, one mark of feminist thought is that the personal is the political. If we rephrase this slogan as the personal is the social, then the feminist character of this study is apparent. Tellingly, most of Oshana's examples are cases of women. I am not objecting to Oshana's account -- merely noting that the defense of SR autonomy is one of several areas where social facts seem as relevant as psychological facts for determining whether a person merits a specific status and that there is apparently no general method of resolving the dispute which of personal or social facts is more basic in every area.

I am in sympathy with several elements in Oshana's account of SR autonomy. Individual social standing seems to be necessary to a complete account of autonomy and psychological theories of autonomy give less attention to social facts than they should. Two points are worrying. First, I think many will find it hard to accept that unambivalent endorsement of one's life and whether the circumstances of one's life satisfy one's desires is not necessary to personal autonomy. There is something intuitive about the claim that what an agent endorses unreservedly for her life is necessary for it to be autonomous that I think is not shaken by Oshana's argument. The second worry is that if social-relational properties are necessary for personal autonomy or more central to the concept of personal autonomy than the alternatives to SR theory would hold, then it seems we are well along toward conflating personal and political autonomy. Again, this is unwelcome only if there are other reasons for thinking the two are utterly distinct.

The broadly feminist character of Oshana's account pushes it in the direction of conflating the concepts of personal and political autonomy if I am correct. Other liberatory movements, including movements of interest to readers of this service, that should welcome Oshana's account. There has been a widespread movement for several decades, though it is of uncertain depth, demanding greater autonomy for persons diagnosed with severe mental disorders and cognitive disabilities. Most state mental health and mental retardation systems have responded by giving some support to systems of treatment and care, rehabilitation, and financing that partially satisfy the social-relational properties Oshana lists as necessary for SR autonomy. This is a large-scale social experiment in which persons who often, on minimal evidence, superficial consideration, and motivated by prevailing theories, were judged to lack autonomy. Many have limited capacities for reflective endorsement thought essential by psychological theories. But in many cases treatment systems, fallibly, in small ways, and with the blunt instruments typical of bureaucracies, have moved toward creating the social facts necessary for SR autonomy theories.

Despite the conceptual clutter of Oshana's book, the unclarity of some conceptual analysis, and the unanswered questions about the relative importance of social and the psychological facts, it makes the case that social facts are necessary for personal autonomy. It is worth considering the issues it raises more deeply and more broadly.

         

© 2008 Robert L. Muhlnickel

Robert L. Muhlnickel, MSW, has been a clinician and teacher in the University of Rcohester Department of Psychiatry and is completing his Ph.D. dissertation in Philosophy at the University of Rochester. He also works on a grant training clinicians in evidence-based family practices for people with serious and persistent mental illness, co-sponsored by the NYS Office of Mental Health and University of Rochester Medical Center.

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