Understanding Autonomy, As it Should Be

A proper conception of autonomy is a rich picture of someone standing back from his contingent preferences and seeing that the attainment of his own good is inseparable from the maintenance of the common good.

October 10 th 2012

In our increasingly marketised society, the best way to win a public argument is to enlist the language of "increasing choice." This is as true for popsicle flavours as it is for more serious matters. Take, for instance, prostitution.

Recently, an organization called "Sex Professionals of Canada" baldy declared that "one's decision to be a sex worker is equally and unequivocally as valid of a choice as is the decision to be in any other legal occupation." The criminal law should not even "treat and view sex work as different from other work." Otherwise, it might be distracted from its primary task of enhancing autonomy, tempted to take up again its once noble undertaking of serving the common good, as Thomas Aquinas described the purpose of law long ago. Even as they cite greater protection for prostitutes as the main reason in their case, proponents of decriminalization understand very well that in our market-driven society the operative word is really "choice."

Prostitution may be the oldest profession, yet the sale of depersonalized sex is hardly the only example of the modern tendency to reduce all values to a single denominator, that of price. In his recently published What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Michael Sandel lists some products that we would have balked at sticking a price tag on a few generations ago: American couples hiring surrogate mothers from India at less than one third the going rate back home, an on-line casino paying a single mother in Utah $10,000 to tattoo the establishment's URL on her forehead (she had auctioned the "space" on eBay, to raise funds in support of her son's education), private military contractors employing mercenaries to fight or guard in war-torn states like Afghanistan and Somalia. In another era, the womb, the face, and the willingness to die for a cause were considered dimensions of our embodiment, revealing a rational being in the flesh. Today, they are just as often treated as mere body parts, liquefiable and fungible wherever there is a demand.

What is distorted with this picture? Do we really understand choice? Although many conservatives, liberals, and progressives alike are discomforted by the ruthless drive of market forces to commodify nearly everything in sight, they do not go far enough in diagnosing the matter. Sandel himself raises two considerations in opposition to contemporary marketisation, one focused on inequality, the other concerned with corruption. First, poor people can become even more vulnerable in a society where everything is up for sale. For instance, once a market for kidneys opens up, a peasant might part with an organ to feed her starving family, feeling compelled by dire necessity. Second, the exchange of certain goods and services can have a corrupting effect on the things themselves, by altering our attitudes toward their significance. Hiring mercenaries, for example, might spare the lives of our soldiers, but can also degrade our understanding of civic virtue. Both of Sandel's objections, while rightly capturing the (perhaps) unintended repercussions of such exchanges, fall short of targeting the regulative assumption at the heart of today's market reasoning, one nearly every economic textbook takes for granted: that our autonomy is inherently valuable, or good without qualification.

Not to be confused with liberty, which is just the absence of external constraint, autonomy has had a pre-eminent status in the dominant philosophy of Western liberalism, ever since the time of Immanuel Kant. While Kant took this good to be the ability to impose on oneself a moral law that is at once universal and self-originated, those who defend autonomy as intrinsically valuable today prefer to speak of the priority of self-constitution and integrity. Our decisions and plans are the very building-blocks of our identity, making us "who we are." These identity-defining projects also need to cohere with one another for us to enjoy any concord. Now this self-constitution and integrity can only be actualized if we have a maximum of space to select and harmonize those goals we deem the most fulfilling. Autonomy can thus be said to add value to a person's pursuits, even reckless ones, because it fits them into his narrative. That narrative is a series of life-creating choices, manifest in one's "freedom of the will."

This construal of autonomy as an unqualified value-creator has some unsettling consequences, however. If autonomy is inherently good, then every free choice has some merit, regardless of whether or not the object desired is itself worthwhile. On this view, we would have to concede that someone's decision to live a life of vice is valuable, even though vice itself is not, simply because that person's choice was self-constituted and made with integrity. As the reasoning goes, someone cannot genuinely establish "who I am" unless she has enough breathing room, a space that includes the possibility for preferring vice over virtue. Many even go so far as to extend this logic to defend the paradoxical permissibility of extinguishing one's autonomy through suicide or euthanasia. Yet how could the value-creator that is autonomy be a condition of an intention to dissolve that very value? Freedom of the will just lapses into paramountcy of the will, the supposed power of the self to roam unimpeded over any and all ends considered integral to its personal satisfaction, including "the end" itself.

There is a way to avoid these implications. Properly understood, autonomy has a prerequisite status, akin to passing the first-year calculus class deemed mandatory in a science program. Within that program, the course is not so much essential in its own right but as a threshold enabling the pursuit of other goals. Likewise, freedom of will is not genuinely valuable until the self affixes on things that are worth obtaining and maintaining in and of themselves. These are what natural law thinkers call "basic goods," such as health, knowledge, family, friendship, beauty, and excellence in work and play. They provide us with fundamental reasons for action, which we appeal to for determining whether our projects are worth fulfilling. When one aims at a goal, one chooses it for a reason. That objective may be a way of achieving some further aim, and the latter may be a means to another, and so on. This chain of instrumental goods cannot be infinite, though. It must terminate in a genuine end, one yielding an ultimate reason. Certainly, it is through autonomous choice that the significance of the basic goods is mostly fully appreciated. For one's life is best lived "from the inside," as it were. Yet this freedom of the will only becomes valuable in light of the basic goods themselves. It is the latter, not the former, that are the objects of human flourishing. (See Body-Self Dualism in Contemporary Ethics and Politics by Patrick Lee and Robert P. George for further explication of this approach to goods.)

Once autonomy has been properly conceived—as an extrinsic, not intrinsic, good—then the self-constituting and integrity-concerned actor can be situated in the wider context in which it actually deliberates and operates. Part of the problem of marketisation today lies in the background belief that we have a primordial right to accept and relinquish commitments as we please, such that all our obligations are founded on consent. This view of the individual is deeply atomistic, failing to account for all the aspects of human well-being evident from conception until death. "Who I am" is determined by free choices, certainly, but it is also framed by the relationships we have with others, not all of whom we have "contracted" with. We have obligations towards our parents and siblings, for example, despite not having selected them. In a like manner, we owe to our communities a moral debt that cannot be delimited in advance. The social-contract view of the self hardly captures these experiences.

This point has been brought home most cogently in Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues by Alasdair Macintyre, who takes Aristotle and Aquinas as guides. As "rational but dependant" subjects, we ascertain what to feel and how to act (practical reasoning) only by participating in networks of giving and receiving. Having received from parents, teachers, and mentors when we were young, and expecting to receive from children, neighbours, and caregivers when we become old (or ill, injured, or destitute), we ought to help meet the needs of others in turn. Sometimes those others are the very people from whom we have received help, while sometimes those others are different people altogether, ones we are called upon to give to even if we will acquire nothing in return. A free but responsible agent recognizes the mutual dependency of everyone, even those he did not elect to be associated with. Why? Because he acknowledges his own reliance; without the nurture and education afforded by others, he could not have matured into a practical reasoner himself, capable of autonomous engagement.

The very possibility of contracting with others, then, presupposes a minimally adequate order of reciprocity, outside of which autonomy cannot really get off the ground. It is the shared character of such participation that also explains the fragility of the common good. The framework within which reciprocal relations thrive or deteriorate delineates, but does not absolutely constrain, the choices socially available. In turn, people's choices can shape that framework. This delicate equilibrium is expressed in the cultural symbolism that Sandel rightly worries about the corruption of by the market mentality. Thus, the commodification of the body, especially, is a kind of desecration, a flagrant signal to society that the body is subordinate to the will, a mere instrument of one's desire. In A Matter of Principle, even the well-known liberal theorist Ronald Dworkin, in the course of defending a right to pornography, acknowledges just how public the effects of "private obscenity" can be. Legal recognition of this right can "sharply limit the ability of individuals consciously and reflectively to influence the conditions of their own and their children's development. It would limit their ability to bring about the cultural structure they think best, a structure in which sexual experience generally has dignity and beauty, without which their own and their families' sexual experience are likely to have these qualities in less degree."

Everyone has an interest in the quality of the culture when its dynamics so profoundly shape her experience. A proper conception of autonomy does not treat the demands of self-constitution and integrity in isolation from the ends whose realization is perfective of human beings. Instead, it is a richer picture of someone standing back from his contingent preferences and seeing that the attainment of his own good is inseparable from the maintenance of the common good. This picture will not necessarily offer answers to questions about what practices should or should not be sanctioned by law or social norms, yet it melds the first-person "individual" and third-person "society" perspectives together in a way that reveals authentic purposiveness in the human condition. The truly autonomous self does not mistake pleasure or the absence of pain as the only ends but partakes in, through reflection, cooperation, and sometimes sacrifice, the value that transcends even desires.


Clement Ng is a writer based in Saskatoon and has an MA in philosophy from the University of Western Ontario. He has been a political staffer in the Office of the Prime Minister and a research fellow at the Centre for Cultural Renewal.