On Autonomy

If you're interested in wonkish debates on the philosophy of liberty, I recommend you go read the last ten or so posts over at Will Wilkinson's The Fly Bottle. Will has made a variety of astute observations on happiness and its implications for liberty, with Bill Korner serving as a foil/heckler in comments.

Bill made a comment to this post that typifies a quite common modern-liberal argument against classical liberalism:

I have argued... that an individual's [relative] autonomy should be evaluated by looking at the whole range of choices he/she faces and how attractive those are compared to others' (in his/her view). I suggest that this is a much more meaningful view of autonomy than one that sees it as having ones rights as side-constraints respected.

This, IMHO, is clearly wrong, and it's worth exploring why it's wrong, because it is such a common philosophical claim, and it attempts to hijack one of the most important and appealing values of classical liberalism and twist it to the purposes of modern liberalism. To that end, a thought-experiment below the fold.

Consider two men: one a lone nomadic hunter on some primitive savanna thousands of years ago, and one an ordinary, downtrodden citizen of a modern totalitarian but non-genocidal dictatorship, say the Soviet Union of Brezhnev's time. Who has more autonomy?

On Bill's account, it's gotta be the Soviet. He has a wider range of professions and life-paths available to him by far; he can travel much further and know much more; he can expect to live much longer. It is true that the Soviet is heavily constrained in the sense that there are numerous innocent things which, if he does them, will result in severe pain or violent death. But that's true for the hunter too; the only difference is that for the hunter the pain/death will come at the hands of animals, diseases, and other natural forces, where for the Soviet it will come from the officials of the State.

But I think it quite obvious that this doesn't accord well with most people's intuitive notion of autonomy. The hunter's life has a distinct romance to it, a sense of open-ended adventure; the Soviet's does not. The hunter has a degree of dignity and self-possession which the Soviet is denied. The hunter, within the admittedly heavy but morally neutral and unchangeable constraints of physical reality, may do as he pleases without asking the leave of any man. The Soviet is a slave of other men who clearly are morally wrong to enslave him, and could have chosen not to. A notion of autonomy which does not capture these differences and declare the hunter the more autonomous one is a ridiculous notion.

Now it does not follow that any freedom-loving person, given a choice of becoming one of the two, should wish to be the hunter; freedom is not the only thing worth loving. But the great power of real autonomy-- which is to say, respect for one's negative liberties-- is demonstrated by the fact that we would not expect any rational person to automatically choose to be the Soviet, even though the Soviet has vastly greater material ability and comfort and a vastly wider range of choices open to him.

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A more poignant comparison

A more poignant comparison might be between the nomadic hunter and black plantation slaves, some of whom lived quite comfortably and gained significant respect and trust from their master's family and the surrounding community.

Nick, You might be right in

Nick,

You might be right in claiming that your understanding of liberty is preferable to modern liberal understandings. I don't happen to agree, but I'm willing to grant the point for the sake of argument.

What I do dispute is that what you talk about is actually _autonomy_, at least not unless you're defining it in a pretty unusual way. Autonomy is generally understood as the capacity to give laws to oneself, or, in less Kantian terms, the ability to live one's own life via one's own reasons. The concept of autonomy has a lot in common with _positive_ liberty, but it's not really synonomous with liberty or with freedom at all. It's something similar, but importantly different.

Your post offers an interesting argument for the value of negative freedom, but it's really not an appeal to autonomy, at least not as understood in philosophy.

For the record, classical liberals don't actually talk about autonomy at all. Locke, for instance, talks about liberty, but his references to autonomy are iffy. John Simmons argues that Locke really does have a concept of autonomy, but then argues that, insofar as Locke does accept something like autonomy, he's really a liberal and not a proto-libertarian. Autonomy as a concept doesn't really get going until Kant (and maybe Rousseau).

John Christman's entry on autonomy in the Stanford Encyclopedia is pretty useful

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/autonomy-moral/

Joe: Fair enough. Your

Joe:

Fair enough. Your knowledge of philosophers' usage is superior to mine. But I'm appealing to everyday and not technical usage. Autonomy is, I think, popularly understood as a species of freedom, and I'm treating it in that sense.

Joe Miller says: "For the

Joe Miller says: "For the record, classical liberals don’t actually talk about autonomy at all. Locke, for instance, talks about liberty, but his references to autonomy are iffy. John Simmons argues that Locke really does have a concept of autonomy, but then argues that, insofar as Locke does accept something like autonomy, he’s really a liberal and not a proto-libertarian. Autonomy as a concept doesn’t really get going until Kant (and maybe Rousseau)."

Locke was the original fan of the noble savage, and contested Hobbes view of same. While Nick's version of autonomy is an individual alone in the world, man as island, (not absolutely, given tribal groupings, but to a far greater degree than the modern world) true autonomy is really nothing different from the concept of sovereignty, and it is here that defines Locke as a proto-libertarian and less of a proto-liberal in the modern sense. In Locke's age, the only sovereign was of course the king of any given nation. Everyone else was one degree or another of slave, at least until the Magna Carta was signed, whereupon all men were recognised to have rights, but these rights were defined by ones station in life. Locke of course recognised the aristocracy as a subjective construction and posited that all men were equal, posessing equal rights, and therefore, within the scope of those rights, sovereign individuals.

The real distinguishing between the prehistoric nomad and the communist peasant is a matter of packing. Higher population and tighter demand for resources (or perceived tighter demand due to systemic inefficiencies of a given economic system) causes constriction of rights into tighter and smaller zones of individual sovereignty, if not its outright confiscation. Much as a molecule of water is quite free in the vacuum of space but not as much in the ocean, and even less in ice, but is still capable of some minor movement while crystallized until it reaches absolute zero, at which it is completely unfree.

How free an individual man or molecule of water is is defined by the pressure it experiences from outside, i.e. outside force.

Viewing an autonomous prehistoric nomad as more free because the threats of force against him are entirely natural is a dualist argument. Humans are natural too, and so their government constructs should also be seen as natural. A thug tax collector is as much a parasitical predator as a sabre toothed tiger. The only way to judge relative freedom from both is the density of each in the population, how much force each can bring to bear, and how well the individual can defend himself from each type of predator.

To compare natural to

To compare natural to political restraints on autonomy is to wish the issue away by packing apple crates with oranges. Liberty (autonomy) refers to a person's freedom from forcible intervention by other *people*.

I have critiques of both

I have critiques of both Nick's notion of autonomy and the modern liberal's notion.
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Nick's example does not contrast a primitive hunter gatherer with a Soviet peasant. It contrasts a modern man, with modern notions of science and technology, temporarily thrown into a physical position similar to the primitive nomad, against a Brezhnev era peasant.

From his perspective, the noble savage was a slave to creatures with will. There were capricious spirits and gods that required bizarre supplications. Powerful creatures with will might cause pain or death to you at any time because they found your offerings unsatisfactory or due to simple whimsy or malice, just like a peasant in Brezhnev's Soviet Union. The noble savage had less autonomy, even on Nick's terms.
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Note that under the modern liberal's notion of autonomy, any study of or action in politics is ultimately wasted. Science and technology trump politics, absolutely. The only moral justification for studying politics is being intellectually incapable of performing the role of the lowliest technician's helper. If you're that incompetent, you can't actually contribute in politics either; you can only get through college. Someone who holds those views while pursuing, for example, philosophy or political science degrees is, by definition, acting amorally. Not immorally, amorally. They are engaged in a pointless timewaster, similar to playing video games.

Ultimately, the modern liberal's interpretation leads to endorsement not of the American or European ways, but the Asian way, a tightly controlled society with a respect for science and technology.

Lewis, _Note that under the

Lewis,

_Note that under the modern liberal’s notion of autonomy, any study of or action in politics is ultimately wasted. Science and technology trump politics, absolutely. The only moral justification for studying politics is being intellectually incapable of performing the role of the lowliest technician’s helper. If you’re that incompetent, you can’t actually contribute in politics either; you can only get through college. Someone who holds those views while pursuing, for example, philosophy or political science degrees is, by definition, acting amorally. Not immorally, amorally. They are engaged in a pointless timewaster, similar to playing video games._

I'm sorry, but I don't see how it is that any of this follows. If autonomy really amounts to living my life as I see fit, then how does that imply that the study of politics is wasted or amoral? Indeed, I don't see how it follows that we could really claim that _any_ life is being wasted, as long as the person living that life really is leading it according to their own principles, acting in ways that are consistent with rules that they give to themselves.

It really doesn't follow that the pursuit of philosophy is, or somehow ought to be on a liberal's understanding of autonomy, pursued only by those who can't do anything technical. What is your understanding of liberal autonomy that gets you to that conclusion?

Doesn't all this talk of

Doesn't all this talk of living under the Soviets pre-suppose the existence of the (relatively) free and capitalistic West which created the modern world for the Soviets to plunder by diverse means?

Absent the West, the Soviet cesspool would have been more like a nomadic hunter who was bound and gagged by his neighbors after he made the kill and forced to watch as they consumed his prize.

Adjusted for technological

Adjusted for technological level the hunter has far more liberty than the Communist serf.

Take the case of a hunter-gatherer in an egalitarian (proto-communist) tribe that confiscates everything he hunts and redistributes it according to the social engineering schemes of the shamans and chiefs. That person has far less liberty than were he allowed to keep what he earned.

Take also the case of a Brezhnev-era American hunter, like maybe a Maine lobsterman. He lived a life of hard labor yet had access to advanced medical care, cheap electric power both at home and aboard his boat, unfettered access to radio (CB, short-wave, and broadcast), television, newspapers, and even crude hobby-kit computers, and was allowed to choose where he sails -- although his economic interest suggests going where the lobsters are. He probably also owns a car and can drive anywhere in the U.S. and Canada he might wish, or with a little bureaucratic effort to Mexico and South America. He could even fly out to Checkpoint Charlie and take a picture of the Berlin Wall.

Only a member of the Politburo could have enjoyed such liberty under Soviet Communism.

It strikes me that a view of

It strikes me that a view of liberty that holds that only other agents can restrict that liberty is a rather impoverished view. My liberty can be constrained by all sorts of things, such as my natural talents, my circumstances, my previous choices, and, of course, the actions of others.

Certainly it is a particularly bad thing when other agents restrict my freedom. But it's hardly the _only_ way in which my freedom is restricted. You might argue that it's the worst way in which freedom is restricted, but I think that even that is pretty doubtful.

Thus, I think it's pretty silly to compare a nomadic hunter-gatherer with a modern of any variety. Both face all sorts of constraints on their freedom. The hunter-gatherer, for instance, can't spend an afternoon reading Plato or writing a sonata or looking at porn or bullshitting on blogs. The hunter-gatherer either hunted and gathered or starved. That's not really all that much freedom, or, if that's the _only_ kind of freedom that you value, it's not really worth getting all that worked up about.

It's naive romanticism of the worst sort to imagine such a life as noble; life as a hunter-gatherer sucked, which is pretty much why hunter-gatherers decided to become farmers as soon as they figured out how. And before we get too far down that road, farming pretty well sucks, too, which is why farmers rushed off the farm to work in factories, which in turn rather sucked, thus explaining the factory workers who sent their kids to college to be computer engineers.

Again, this is not to say that the sort of freedom that the hunter-gatherer had isn't worth having. My point is only that that sort of freedom is worth having only when other basic conditions are met. I suspect, though, that if you offered the hunter-gatherer the choice between his current life and the life of the Brezhnev-era peasant, he takes the later any day of the week. I further suspect that the Brezhnev-era peasant who makes the switch would be asking to go back pretty quickly. Only in Heinlein fantasy (or Rousseauian ignorance of actual nomadic life) do people choose the reverse.

Your analogy fails in the

Your analogy fails in the comment about the lone nomadic hunter on the savannahs...

You are assuming that he is alone, free and independent. False, buster.
Mary Ann Glendon, in her books "Rights Talk" discusses the evolution of this idea back to the "primitive savage" of the French philosophers, and notes that they discussed how such theoretically free men lived. Ah, she notes, what they didn't discuss is how the women and children of those times lived...

And once you have women and children, you have worries and responsibilities...outsiders might see glamour in the freedom of the hunt, but the hunter might worry that if he doen't get a good kill, the family will not eat...and he might worry during the hunt that his wife will be attacked by outsiders, or die in childbirth, or that his oldest son who is with him and just learning to hunt might be killed by the wild beast...The "noble savage" of the French were the American Indians--but any of us who worked in the IHS know how communal their societies were and are...(Yes, the men killed the buffalo...but the women processed the kill, cooked it, and kept their men warm at night).

There are few Ted Kazynskis (or, if you prefer a more classic example, few St Anthony of the deserts). Even the Mountain men had Indian wives. So, unless you have a man with a low sex drive willing to live in isolation, you will have "restraints" on freedom...

Echoing tioedong above, I

Echoing tioedong above, I certainly hope you don't put too much weight behind your “solitary hunter” example. It's bad paleoanthropology. At every time in the history of our species this was an exceptional and, probably, pathological condition. Human beings are not cats (solitary hunters who only come together for sex and temporary companionship) or ants. We are much more like wolves living in packs that are basically extended largely familial groupings.

For the autonomy of your exemplar solitary hunter read Robinson Crusoe.

On the wife and children as

On the wife and children as responsibilities, they were also pretty much necessary to maintain the home (such as it was). The reduction of autonomy of others was necessary for the "autonomy" of this hunter-gatherer. I'm not saying his life is a completely bad one, just that the picture isn't as neat as some might like to believe.

The point about the noble hunter-gatherer being a romanticized idea is a good one. And by Rousseau, a Frenchman, to boot! Those darn French.

The mention of Ted Kaczynski reminds me that in his manifesto he said it was arguable that people in the Middle Ages were happier and more fulfilled. More romanticizing. I agree with Isaac Asimov: if the place/time doesn't have modern medicine or modern plumbing, I don't want to spend my life there.

Lewis, _Joe, you’re

Lewis,

_Joe, you’re engaging in semantic games. You don’t dispute that the study is comparable to playing videogames all day, every day. You just want to redefine terms like “waste” and “amoral” down to meaninglessness. In that world view, technology trumps all, so studying politics is equivalent, both morality wise and “waste” wise, to playing video games all day._

I'll take another stab at this because I'm genuinely curious, but I have to confess that I haven't really seen you offer any reasons for your rather odd claim. In fact, your current response makes even less sense than your original did.

I guess my first question would be to ask you what it is that you mean by 'waste'? This can be a pretty tricky concept to nail down, actually. After all, there are lots of ways that one can think of waste, particularly as it pertains to describing a life. Socrates, for instance, would hold that a wasted life would be an unexamined life. But one could also hold that a wasted life is one that hasn't contributed to mankind generally, or that a wasted life is one in which one didn't constantly pursue adding to the world's supply of resources...the possibilities are pretty vast here. So what do you mean, exactly, in saying that someone has wasted a life?

I'm not at all sure how you got from my comments the claim that technology trumps all. I certainly don't hold that view. I like technology as much as the next person, I suppose. Certainly I like my hybrid car and my laptop and non-drowsy allergy medicine and DVDs. But I'd hardly hold that those things are the be-all-end-all of existence. I'd find life pretty impoverished if I didn't also get to read sf, write philosophy, drink wine, talk to my friends, and play with my son. I don't especially see any of those things as wasting my time. I do respect the fact that others might prefer not spending their time in those same ways. That's the beauty of autonomy. We're each free to do those things that bring us fulfillment.

Come to think of it, I'm not entirely sure what you mean by 'amoral' either. There are lots of categories when we talk about morality. There are those acts that are morally required, those that are morally prohibited, and those that are morally permissible. Amoral usually refers to things that don't fall into the category of morality at all. I'd think that video games and philosophy fall into the morally permissible category. One can do them morally, but one isn't perhaps required to do them.

You do want to be careful not to beg any questions, though. Consequentialists, of whom there are a number here at Catallarchy, would hold that _all_ actions are governed by morality, with the one that maximizes good consequences being both morally required as well as the only morally permissible action.

Maybe some clarification will help me to see your point.

Checkpoint Charlie writes

Checkpoint Charlie writes "Adjusted for technological level the hunter has far more liberty than the Communist serf."

This is certainly true. However, if you have to factor out technology to even start discussing liberty, you are de facto conceding that technological progress is vastly more important than political progress.

Joe Miller writes "If

Joe Miller writes "If autonomy really amounts to living my life as I see fit, then how does that imply that the study of politics is wasted or amoral? Indeed, I don’t see how it follows that we could really claim that any life is being wasted, as long as the person living that life really is leading it according to their own principles,"

Joe, you're engaging in semantic games. You don't dispute that the study is comparable to playing videogames all day, every day. You just want to redefine terms like "waste" and "amoral" down to meaninglessness. In that world view, technology trumps all, so studying politics is equivalent, both morality wise and "waste" wise, to playing video games all day.

Okay, I did kind of miss the

Okay, I did kind of miss the point: that the choice between primitive freedom and modern serfdom isn't automatic was the point.

I'll make up for it by improving the scenario a little:

Let's use democratic ancient Greece as our primitive ideal. We'll choose a period when Athens and Sparta were still united and democratic and choose to live in Sparta so women's rights aren't an issue. (Sparta got a little weird after the breakup with Athens.)

Now we're not talking about mythical noble savage grizzly-men but real and mostly-free people. We can also let the women in on the conversation, as Spartan women had the same rights as men including the right to keep and bear arms.

This is a much more realistic question: ancient Greek citizenship or mostly-modern Soviet serfdom?

For me that one's a no-brainer, but then I'm still a young man who'd just as soon brave a Gulag as Spartan boot camp for the promise of "Spartan women". Watching the wife practice archery in her summer toga is pretty much my definition of paradise.

I'll leave it to you older philosopher types to make more rational choices. I do think ancient Greece presents a much more realistic and attractive scenario than a mythical "noble savage". Now you have an honest choice.