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Autonomy Without Choice September 17, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy, Political Philosophy.
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My current philosophical preoccupation is with the concept of autonomy, which refers to our capacity for self-rule, self-control, and self-direction. This is a central concept in ethics and political theory because it defines in part what it means to be a person and grounds assignments of moral responsibility and political rights.

But I think our tradition has largely misunderstood this concept.

The dominant theories of autonomy hold that an action is autonomous if it is the product of one’s deliberative choice. The basic idea is that if I think about and endorse an action (assuming I haven’t been manipulated in some way), then it belongs to me and is an autonomous act. I have freely chosen it.

I have been working on a series of papers (the first is available here) that attempt to show why this is wrong-headed.

My basic objections are that (1) it entails that many of our actions—all the ones that we don’t reflect on and don’t choose—are not autonomous, and (2) it assumes that a kind of self-sufficient independence is the defining feature of personhood.

In other words, the standard model thinks of being in control of the self as a subjective decision. We are free to the extent our actions obey our own directives—the self is defined by its will.

I just happened to come across this passage from an intriguing book, Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, that explains quite clearly why our received ideas of autonomy are wrong.

The errors of freedomism may be illuminated by thinking about music. One can’t be a musician without learning to play a particular instrument, subjecting one’s fingers to the discipline of of frets or keys. The musician’s power of expression is founded upon a prior obedience; her musical agency is built up from an ongoing submission. To what? To her teacher, perhaps, but this is incidental rather than primary — there is such a thing as the self-taught musician. Her obedience rather is to the mechanical realities of her instrument, which in turn answer to certain natural necessities of music that can be expressed mathematically. … These facts do not arise from the human will, and there is no altering them. I believe the example of the musician sheds light on the basic character of human agency, namely, that it arises only within concrete limits that are not of our making. These limits need not be physical; the important thing is rather that they are external to the self. (p. 64) (h/t to Manyul Im’s blog)

Learning to play an instrument is a matter of conforming to reality—deliberative choice is not directly relevant.

The point here can be generalized to most of our embodied interactions in the world—from driving a car to playing basketball to caring for loved ones. (This is why we talk of “falling in love” not “choosing to love”) The self is in control only when it conforms to the realities of the world in which we act and we often do this without reflection and without making conscious choices.

Of course, when things go wrong, when our effortless actions fail, then we have to consciously reflect on what we are doing and make choices. Rational reflection is important. But it seems to me the standard model of autonomy takes the exception and makes it the rule.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com



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