On Autonomy

117398_dx6_chibi-comic-autonomyAs we attempt to construct a universally applicable standard of morality, we inevitably encounter the highly debatable issue of autonomy: namely, questions arise such as ‘what is the nature of autonomy?’ or ‘are we really autonomous at all?’. These questions are of the utmost importance to a system of ethics in which every individual is responsible for their own actions[i], and in which every member of society is ideally protected from the actions of others.

Philosophers differ wildly in their interpretations of autonomy; likewise do they frequently argue over the conditions in which we develop autonomy. Certain viewpoints expound the belief that our autonomy is dependent upon our abilities to share and relate our thoughts with others. In this conception, our autonomous selves are formed as personalized reflections of the societies we belong to. This view proposes that, to be authentically autonomous, we must balance our compassions with reason, with neither gaining precedence, but rather promoting the idea that we should act as conscientious members of a communally driven society that is founded on a tradition of compassion[ii]. Alternative theories hold that we make autonomous decisions as well reasoned deductions stemming from a fundamental impartiality to personal biases[iii]. This view tells us that to be authentically autonomous we must rely purely on reason to judge what to do, or what not to. Ultimately, however, I believe that in order establish a practical, and functional, conception of morality, we will require a pragmatic view of autonomy, (which I will discuss in more detail later).

It is impossible for any one of us to wholly escape the traditional biases of our societies; we are social beings, hence we cannot nourish our identities independently of the influences of others. What is of dire import to bear in mind, though, is the difference between influences and pressures; our autonomy flourishes on widely varied influences, whereas it often flounders under undue pressure. To act autonomously we must be allowed to reflect on our societal influences and, therein, find inspiration[iv]; further, we must make decisions to act freely in the pursuit of those inspirations and, in doing so, we create our social identities. We must not, however, permit ourselves to be pressured into circumstances in which our capacity to rationally determine our own actions is in any way mitigated[v]. In losing our powers of deliberation we surrender our autonomy to the suggestion of others and become ‘socially determined’[vi]. We thereby lose our individual identities and cease to benefit the development of society.

Unfortunately, in spite of the recent implementation of many forms of institutional equalities to promote the growth of individual autonomy, we continue to find something lacking in many social equalities. The perceived inequality between individuals of a society often creates a mental situation for the undervalued parties, wherein their capacity to exercise their rationale diminishes[vii]. This behaviour can be observed in many instances of the oppressed and dispossessed that have been pressured into adopting a mindset that is not authentically their own. These people cannot be said to be acting (or even thinking) autonomously. On the other hand, though, nobody springs up as a fully “procedurally autonomous”[viii] person; (here “procedural autonomy” is the concept of autonomy as stemming from reason alone). We could be said to owe both our capacities and incapacities to think autonomously to our social influences; whichever it is, though, depends upon the nature of our social influences themselves.

Positive influences (such as compassion and trust) direct us to respond in kind from an authentic sense of inspiration that is caused by those initial positive influences. Negative influences, in turn, often deny us this inspiration; sadly, very few people are capable of overcoming the social forces that control them and, as a result, most people are susceptible to becoming slaves to tradition[ix]. These people fail to achieve autonomy for the simple fact that they are overwhelmed by the forces around them, so overwhelmed that they are incapable of detecting the forces within themselves with which they may combat the encroaching pressures of their surroundings.

Despite being heavily influenced by our social environments, most people have, to some degree or other, a set of forces within themselves that are inherent to all social creatures[x]. These are forces that drive us to support not only ourselves, but also others we identify with. These are the basic grounds of compassion and respect that are necessary for a society to posses before an authentic system of morality can be developed. With these positive influences in place we can then use our imaginative abilities to detach from our surroundings and, using our rational abilities, we withdraw into reflection[xi]. Within our individual, inner-worlds, each of us is a creator; we are constantly adding personal insights in response to our perceived experience of the external world. It is vital to our individual autonomy that we also realize our capacities to share and relate our thoughts and insights. Without this relativity we become lost in our thoughts and can drive ourselves into ‘inner confusion’[xii].

As we passively absorb our influences we use reason to make critically informed decisions about how to act. It is sensible to say, though, that we cannot always maintain this reflective state of mind, this would be very tiresome indeed; and, as a result, we must largely rely on societal values to steer our decisions and actions[xiii]. In order to continue as an autonomous person, then, we must establish independently conceived guidelines for our behaviour that can be referred to in times of ethically relevant decision making, but that will not clutter up our minds during our more mundane activities. To this end, we must recognize the value of our freedom to reflect on and judge which social traditions to sustain, and which to reject.

These decisions, as was shown earlier, require the use of reason to be called ‘autonomous’; however, the question remains: “how do we use reason to make our critical assessments of society?” I believe that many traditional opinions on how reason should be applied in ethics contain an inherent flaw; essentially, this is that they rely too much on the concept of morality as a derivative of pure reason. This troubles me because it removes the motives for our actions from the consequences they incur; I think it is wrong to find motivation in totally impartial reflection. I believe that this conception of morality is an impossibility in our actual world. I would rather promote a pragmatic approach to morality. After all, ethics is the responsibility of every rational being; and this requires a system of moral behaviour that is equally applicable to everyone.

There is no sense in establishing an ideal standard of morality based on pure reason because, simply put, this often escapes the understanding of the average person and is thus considered irrelevant to their daily lives. Instead, I believe that a more practical application of reason is called for, this would be as a regulator of our societal values and as a mediator between conflicting values; reason is not the be-all-end-all of ethics, it is a tool to be used as needed. It is of note to mention here that even though our moral decisions must be made autonomously, this does not necessarily imply that each individual will yield a unique interpretation of how to act. We must recognize that, as social beings, we inevitably share many of our traditional values in common; with these as our basis of reference we are bound to agree unanimously on many of our decisions as long as we can use reason to critically assess our shared values.

My conception of a pragmatic application of reason places far more emphasis upon the role of compassions as motives to action. ‘Compassions’, in this sense, are not to be confused with personal desires—this would incline us to selfish behaviour; compassions are the shared values of a society that contribute to positive, unselfish, pro-social behaviour. These compassions are often born of our shared traditions but we must still use reason to find the inspiration within ourselves to decide whether or not we agree with tradition. Following this inspiration, we may proceed to act with the implicit understanding that we act in the best interests of society when we are motivated by compassions.

This pragmatic approach to morality obviously requires a certain dedication to society and the importance of shared social values; this is a contentious dependence that many philosophers would abhor. Yet, I believe that it is the most rational approach in light of the fact that we are, in fact, social beings. There is absolutely no use in arguing in favour of a person’s ability to completely deny their societal influences and exist independently of their social identity: this is simply not possible for a social being. Even were this possible, is it really ideal? The person that could conceivably escape all societal influences would not be autonomous; they would be alone. We require the influences of others to initiate our autonomy as a critical response to those influences; more explicitly, our identities as autonomous beings arise from the inter-relations of our ideas and our individual interpretive criticisms of other’s ideas.

It becomes clearer now how we may benefit from positive social influences and, likewise, suffer from negative influences; and, with this in mind, it also becomes clear just how important it is to promote positive social influences. With more chances to experience positive social influences we become more and more likely to find an authentic inspiration to moral behaviour. This is because we have adopted our compassions from our social influences (or as critical responses to them) and our compassions are what inspire us to action.

To further this communally beneficial cycle, I believe that we must, as a society, shift our focus away from our responsibilities to ourselves as individuals; and, instead, give our attentions to our responsibilities to society. These responsibilities relate to our autonomously made decisions to contribute to the development of society and the ethical values that society abides by. This means that we will, ideally, use a pragmatic rationale to freely choose to follow, and act on, our compassions. I believe that we must genuinely cherish our societies, and our relations to society, as the source of our autonomous selves. We owe the gifts of our identities to the societies of which we are a part; conversely, societies owe their continuing development to the autonomous decisions made by their individual members. As a final note, I would have you reflect on the truism that perspective arises only from the introduction of distinctions; we cannot hope to be autonomous if we are also alone.




[i] Hill. Thomas E. The Importance of Autonomy. Autonomy and Self-Respect. Pg.45.

[ii] Hill. Thomas E. The Importance of Autonomy. Autonomy and Self-Respect. Pg.51.

[iii] Hill. Thomas E. The Importance of Autonomy. Autonomy and Self-Respect. Pg.46.

[iv] Barclay. Linda. Autonomy and the Social Self. Relational Autonomy. Ed. Catriona Mackenzie. Pg. 62.

[v] Barclay. Linda. Autonomy and the Social Self. Relational Autonomy. Ed. Catriona Mackenzie. Pg. 56.

[vi] Barclay. Linda. Autonomy and the Social Self. Relational Autonomy. Ed. Catriona Mackenzie. Pg. 53.

[vii] Barclay. Linda. Autonomy and the Social Self. Relational Autonomy. Ed. Catriona Mackenzie. Pg. 56.

[viii] Barclay. Linda. Autonomy and the Social Self. Relational Autonomy. Ed. Catriona Mackenzie. Pg. 60.

[ix] Barclay. Linda. Autonomy and the Social Self. Relational Autonomy. Ed. Catriona Mackenzie. Pg. 65.

[x] Barclay. Linda. Autonomy and the Social Self. Relational Autonomy. Ed. Catriona Mackenzie. Pg. 62.

[xi] Barclay. Linda. Autonomy and the Social Self. Relational Autonomy. Ed. Catriona Mackenzie. Pg. 55.

[xii] Barclay. Linda. Autonomy and the Social Self. Relational Autonomy. Ed. Catriona Mackenzie. Pg. 57.

[xiii] Hill. Thomas E. The Importance of Autonomy. Autonomy and Self-Respect. Pg.45.


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