The Philosophical Basis of Egalitarianism: Autonomy

In the previous article, I discussed the notion of liberty – freedom from outside interference. I suggested that an ethical view that in which liberty outweighs any other value will fall short of recognising the demands of substantive egalitarianism. This brings us to the question of why we should take these demands seriously. I suggest that we can start with so-called “positive” liberty, which I shall term autonomy. Autonomy is self-governance, the ability to act, to exercise one’s volition. To be autonomous is not merely to be free from external prohibitions on doing what one wills; it is to have the ability to actually do so. It is autonomy that I shall suggest is the ultimate basis for a substantive egalitarianism.

In order for autonomy to discharge this duty, we should be able to say something about why it is itself of value; but this can be surprisingly difficult. To be more precise, there are various reasons for regarding autonomy as valuable, but none of them seem able to capture its importance for us. For example, it is certainly the case that autonomy can allow one to live a more pleasurable life, but this does not exhaust its worth. A life filled with pleasure but without autonomy would fundamentally lack something valuable; you would have grounds to reject the offer of such a life, and to protest if someone attempted to force your life into such a mould.

One apparent problem here is that autonomy is defined in terms of certain abilities or capacities, and it is natural to think of abilities as valuable not in themselves, but in terms of what they enable us to do. In a similar way, it would be odd to have any particular regard for a kettle unless one had some reason to value hot water. But autonomy is not merely one capacity amongst others, such that one could give it up and remain fundamentally the same. It is definitive of each of us as a person, as someone capable of rational behaviour, of choosing what to do, of voluntarily engaging with other persons. To the extent that we value this array of capacities, we must value autonomy. Conversely, to forgo autonomy would be to choose to give up the power to make any further choices.

In the previous article, I mentioned a distinction between those items which are valuable in and of themselves, and those which are valuable only insofar as they are required to fulfil some other value. It might be thought that autonomy belongs in the first category. However, I think this would be a mistake. The picture I prefer is this: each of us, as a person, is sensitive to a whole range of values, from pleasure and pain to social achievements, complex emotions, and relations with other persons; autonomy is one among these values, but it also runs through our sensitivity to the majority of the others. This is where its true importance can be found, in lifting each of us into a space where things matter to us, where we have reason to orientate our lives in one way or another. Think of finding meaning or significance in your life by belonging to a community or experiencing a deep personal relationship. Autonomy is not identical with any such meaning, but it is the condition of being able to embrace it. No personal relationship or community, no matter how worthy, would have the same value for you if you did not choose to engage with it and thereby make it significant for you.

It is worth pointing out that a life without autonomy is not thereby disconnected from any values. Animals can feel pleasure or pain; infants can respond to affection or coldness. Autonomy does not by itself introduce value into our lives, but it makes it possible for us to live according to a value or values. It is this which makes it the basis for treating others with dignity; and treating others with dignity requires regarding them in an important sense as equals. But to show this, I shall first have to examine what it is to respect the autonomy of others.

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