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Does Basing Rights on Autonomy Imply Obligations of Political Allegiance?

  • James W. Nickel (a1)

Charles Taylor's well-known essay, “Atomism”, criticizes libertarian theories of rights like Nozick's that make individual rights independent of any duties to belong to, support, or obey the law in the society in which those rights are to be enjoyed. Taylor argues that if one grounds rights to important liberties on the human capacity for autonomy, this commits one to the view that the development of autonomy in oneself and others is morally obligatory. Further, Taylor argues that most people cannot develop autonomy in the absence of a certain sort of social and political environment. Hence, if it is morally obligatory to try to develop autonomy in oneself and others, it is also obligatory to belong to, support, and give obedience to those institutions which create the environment in which autonomy can be developed.

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1 Taylor Charles. Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 187210. See also the treatment of issues about “atomism” in “The Nature and Scope of Distributive Justice”, in ibid., 289–317. Numbered page references within the text refer to “Atomism”.

2 Nozick Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974).

3 Taylor's argumentative strategy in “Atomism” is similar to his strategy in “What's Wrong with Negative Liberty?” (Philosophy and the Human Sciences, 211–229), where he tries to show that if one inquires into plausible justifications for the liberties the libertarian wants to defend, one finds that these grounds have implications that conflict with and go beyond libertarianism.

4 The Social Thesis is a direct contradiction of the view that Taylor calls “atomism”. Atomism denies that “living in society is a necessary condition of the development of rationality, in some sense of this property, or of becoming a moral agent in the full sense of the term, or of becoming a fully responsible, autonomous being” (191).

5 Taylor suggests that if one is really concerned about maintaining an autonomy supporting environment in a certain society, then one will need to be concerned about maintaining the right sorts of institutions, including representative democracy, in that society. And this concern will reasonably lead one to give one's “allegiance” to these institutions (207). Taylor goes on to say that one may even need to engage in political action to promote and protect a culture that has the right kind of “moral tone” for the development of autonomy (207–208). It seems unlikely, however, that the possibility of developing the threshold amount of autonomy that one is committed to by basing rights on autonomy in fact depends on the “moral tone” of one's society. See Section 3 below.

6 See Simmons A. John, Moral Principles and Political Obligation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 24.

7 For an account of the difficulties in giving an adequate account of the concept of autonomy, see Christman John. “Constructing the Inner Citadel: Recent Work on the Concept of Autonomy”, Ethics 99 (1988), 109124. See also Christman John, ed., The Inner Citadel: Essays on Individual Autonomy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

8 Raz Joseph endorses a view of roughly this sort in The Morality of Freedom (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), chaps. 14 and 15.

9 Simmons, Moral Principles and Political Obligation, 31–32. An even stronger statement of the particularity requirement is put forward by MacIntyre Alisdair, in “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” Lindley Lecture, (University of Kansas, 1984): “A necessary first step … is to distinguish patriotism properly so-called from two other sets of attitudes that are all too easily assimilated to it. The first is that exhibited by those who are protagonists of their own nation's causes because and only because, so they assert, it is their nation which is the champion of some great moral ideal …. What distinguishes their attitude from patriotism is twofold: first it is the ideal and not the nation which is the primary object of their regard; and secondly insofar as their regard for the ideal provides good reasons for anyone at all to uphold their country's cause, irrespective of their nationality or citizenship.

“Patriotism by contrast is defined in terms of a kind of loyalty to a particular nation which only those possessing that particular nationality can exhibit” (3–4).

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Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review / Revue canadienne de philosophie
  • ISSN: 0012-2173
  • EISSN: 1759-0949
  • URL: /core/journals/dialogue-canadian-philosophical-review-revue-canadienne-de-philosophie
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