Philosophy: Chapter Two - Part Two: The Value of Autonomy in Relation to Personal Power - The Origins of Citizen X
Chapter Two - Part Two
The Value of Autonomy in Relation to Personal Power - The Origins of Citizen X
Relational autonomy and authority
The core notion of autonomy is “self-law,” or better, “self-authority.” An autonomous agent is able to decide and act in accordance with his or her own choices and does not need to confirm these choices with any authority higher than their own.
Autonomy is closely bound to the concept of authority, defined as “power that acquires legitimization” In practical terms, I understand this to mean that an exercise of authority is when “an agent comes to hold recognized legitimate power over one or more other agents.”
As socially oriented beings, we are involved in a political system constructed of intertwined relationships of institutional and interpersonal natures. Various practical limitations to self-authority exist in the simple fact of social reality and acknowledging these empirical relations negates the usefulness of ideal theories and requires that we examine the nature of the empirical conditions individual agents relate within.
This view of “relational autonomy” has grown in use and acceptance in contemporary discourse and helps philosophers understand the systemic, inter-related nature of our social environment in a frame useful to practical research. By understanding in physical terms the actual consequences of our conceptual apparatus, we are better positioned to examine the empirical evidence of where and how these ideals relate and effect our social environment.
And once we see that self-authority is determined in important part by relations to other self-governing agents along with the various forms and expressions of authority in the modern socio-political state, it becomes possible that personal autonomy, a cherished liberal ideal, may be something beyond the reach of many in contemporary liberal society.
Marina Oshana understands autonomy as “global,” concerning the entirety of an agent’s life, as opposed to “local” theories that explain autonomy in terms of discreet units of choice and event. Among traits she lists as necessary for self-authority are “reasonably astute cognitive skills and a developed set of values,” as well as “certain psychological characteristics and a history of experiences conducive to self-directed agency.”
Such qualities, she claims, can be “cultivated more or less successfully in persons.” She further says autonomy calls for “the presence of certain social, political, and economic arrangements…” and that an autonomous person’s choices “…must not merely be unobstructed but, where realistic, these choices must be socially, politically, and economically within his or her reach.”
These characteristics frame Oshana’s autonomy as a relation of constitutive social forces and degrees of personal disposition, development, and opportunity. The self-authority Oshana describes involves socio-political conditions where agents learn, develop, and refine the skills necessary to live lives of personal choice and where economic and political forces do not hinder the exercise of self-directed decisions and actions.
More specifically, she claims that for an individual to be autonomous two empirically observable traits are necessary.
First, an agent must have de jure entitlement, the recognized right, to maintain personal authority over deliberations, desires, and changes of mind, goals and opinion relevant to her life.
Second she must have de facto authority, actual self-control and power, over matters of choice, action, and intention.
Obtaining these characteristics requires developed critical thinking skills and important degrees of self awareness, self-mastery, and personal, social, and financial independence to insure ones choices can be not merely implemented, but maintained over time.
Autonomy is not the sole value in society, she admits, but holds that it does occupy a “central and irreplaceable position” in our social and personal identity. Echoing Mill’s “harm principle,” she claims, “Security may surpass autonomy in value and may justify constraints on the freedom necessary for autonomy.” She recognizes the tensions in the relationship between individual and state authority, and admits there are justifiable instances when the state must limit personal autonomy.
Justifiable instances under her criterion include not permitting the blind to drive or traffic regulations and penalties, but there is a wide swath of area where “the good of the people” intersects with “good for the people”, and it is here that the potential for abuse and unjustified transgression become apparent.
Noting the widespread breaches of personal authority and information following the events of 9-11 and their echoes to post-Pearl Harbor internment camps, she describes the social value of autonomy as “not easy to balance” (2003, pg. 142) and finds the line between justifiable and unjustifiable paternalism is not a clear one.
She claims that local, non-arbitrary interventions are sometimes justifiable to promote global conditions for autonomy, as in the case of certain national security practices for the protection of state territory from domestic or international threats or attacks.
Justification of such measures moves her beyond “harm to others” and leaves her account open to critiques of unwarranted paternalism. A full account of her stand on paternalism is beyond the scope of this blog, but I will say that the mechanics involved with the legitimization of state intervention are related to a second critique facing Oshana involving her emphasis on the physical conditions agents find themselves in and the criteria she claims is necessary for de facto autonomy.
To qualify as autonomous, an individual must be able not only to develop the critical and cognitive skills needed to make reasoned judgments and examine, reflect on, and choose from available options, but she must also live within social conditions where she has the economic and political power needed to act upon her choices.
An individual must not merely possess the capacities for de facto self-governance and de jure entitlement, she must actually be self-governing and in control over the course of her life. This socio-political power is not available to all.
The majority of citizens find their choices and options limited by their social and financial conditions, and while they may enjoy a certain degree of individual freedom, it is difficult to say that they are, in fact, the guiding authority in their lives.
By adhering to such restrictive conditions, Oshana’s theory describes a scenario where it is beyond the means of many to qualify as self-governing. She says that her concept of autonomy is compatible with a limited amount of “perfectionism,” and this is an argument I must avoid for now, but there is an even deeper concern implied by this same emphasis on empirical social conditions.
This strong relational stance means that the reasons why an agent is or is not free, be they financial, educational, dispositional, psychological, or circumstantial, are to an important degree constituted by the social conditions the individual is living in, and these lay significantly outside of individual control. Judith Wagner DeCew writes of Oshana’s model,
“If autonomy is something most of us want to praise and encourage in moral agents, then given the extent to which ones social political situation disallows an agent from being autonomous in Oshana’s sense, it seems it is often beyond an agent’s control to become autonomous.”
As in the case with paternalistic matters, the line between self-control and lack of control is not always a clear one. In certain local situations, agents most certainly express autonomy (“I changed my mind, I’ll have a salad instead”; “I voted for so and so”), but what I read Oshana as concerned with are deeper ontological conditions where the choices and actions one must make are to an important degree directly or indirectly born through and shaped by the socio-political paradigm.
In Part Three of Chapter Two, I will bring Bartky’s idea of “embedded femininity” into the discussion as an example of some of the basic phenomenologically oppressive mechanisms and motivations at work in the modern state and begin to explain how the existence of “Citizen X” implies its own justification for revolutionary action.
Bartky, Sandra Lee
Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression, Routledge, 1990, New York
‘Reconsidering Relational Autonomy. Personal Autonomy for Socially Embedded and Temporally Extended Selves’, Analyse and Kritik, Lucius and Lucius, Germany, 2008
DeCew, Judith Wagner
‘Marina Oshana, Personal Autonomy in Society’, Social Theory and Practice, 2009
‘Discipline and Punish’, Vintage Press, USA, 1995
‘The History of Sexuality’, Vintage Press, USA, 1990
‘The Foucault Reader’, Pantheon Press, USA, 1984
‘Power’, Essential works of Foucault, Vol. 3, Editited by James Faubion, The New Press, New York, 2001
‘Power/Knowledge’, Pantheon Press, 1980
Meyers, Diana Tietjens,
Feminist Social Thought: A Reader, Routledge, 1997, New York
‘Autonomy and Free Agency’, Personal Autonomy: New essays on personal autonomy and its role in contemporary moral philosophy, Edited by James Stacey Taylor, Cambridge University Press, 2008
‘How Much Should We Value Autonomy?’, Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation, USA, 2003
‘Personal Autonomy in Society’, Ashgate Publishing, USA, 2006
‘Making the Social World’, Oxford University Press, New York, 2010
‘Spheres of Justice: A defense of pluralism and equality’, Basic Books, 1983
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP): “Foucault and Feminism” http://iep.utm.edu/foucfem/
 First, as physical beings, basic physical limitations hinder our freedom and independence in important ways; for example, our need for nourishment and rest, and the reality of different environments bring varied opportunities and obstacles. Second, we are involved in ongoing social relationships which enhance and inhibit full autonomous expression. Simply possessing a capacity to be autonomous does not suffice to describe the reality of social and political ‘daily life’, nor does the classic notion of autonomy referring to insulated, atomistic individual units.
 See Speery, MacKenzie, Cristman, Benson.
 Oshana (2003) pg. 102
 ibid. pg. 101
 ibid. pg. 102
 ibid. pg.104.
 Oshana (2006), pg. 75, 98
 Oshana, (2003) Pg. 142
 Oshana, (2003) pg. 114.
 Of 9-11, Oshana writes, “Circumstances since that date no longer resembles what we once regarded as normal.” (Personal Autonomy in Society, pg. 135)
 “…strong paternalistic intervention is sometimes needed to preserve the autonomy that is threatened” (Oshana, 2003, pg. 115)
 unwarranted phone tapping, holding prisoners without charging them for crimes, restricting travel for Arab-Americans, and illegal searches of private information are just a few of the possible extra-legal acts commited by the U.S. government following the attacks of 9-11
 DeCew (2009) pg. 3