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Doubts About Autonomy

  • John Kekes (a1)

Most of us are more or less dissatisfied with some aspect of our present self and want to change it to a better future self. This makes us divided beings. The beliefs, emotions, and motives of our present self prompt us to act in one way and our desired future and better self often prompts us to act in another way. This makes us ambivalent. One of the shibboleths of the present age is that the key to overcoming our ambivalence is to cultivate autonomy. This Kantian ideal is defended, developed, and somewhat revised by Christine Korsgaard, who constructs an ideal theory of self-constitution. This theory is untenable. Its very nature makes it incapable of addressing the concrete problems ambivalence presents to us in our very different individual circumstances. It unreasonably claims that either we meet arbitrary, unrealistic, and mind-bogglingly complex requirements, or disqualify ourselves from being rational and moral agents. And it optimistically assumes that by becoming more autonomous, we become more rational and moral, rather than merely continue to act in the ways we have been acting before. The failure of this latest ideal theory does not show that there is something wrong with autonomy. It shows that the extravagant claims Korsgaard makes for autonomy are groundless. The way to cope with our ambivalence is not to follow a theory, but to think better and harder about what we – individuals in individual circumstances – are, and want to be.

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1 The emergence of autonomy as an ideal is superbly traced in the monumental work of Schneewind, J.B., The Invention of Autonomy, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

2 See Korsgaard, Christine M., Creating the Kingdom of Ends, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), The Sources of Normativity, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), and Self-Constitution, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). I will concentrate on the last work, which represents Korsgaard's fullest and latest position.

3 The numbers in parentheses refer to the pages of Self-Constitution. The italicized phrases in the passages cited are always as they appear in the book.

4 Schneewind, Invention of Autonomy, 5.

5 Korsgaard, Christine M., Creating the Kingdom of Ends, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 147–8.

6 Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), 241.

7 Ibid. 246.

8 Ibid. 476 and 245.

9 Hume, David, A Treatise of Human Nature, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960/1739), 619 or III. vi.

10 Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Discourses on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Man, trans. Cress, Donald A., (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1988/1754), 89 and Letter to Beaumont in Oeuvres completes, 5 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1959–95), 935; translated by O'Hagan, Timothy in Rousseau, (London: Rutledge, 1999), 15.

11 Kant, Immanuel, Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone, trans. Greene, Theodore M. and Hudson, Hoyt H., (New York: Harper & Row, 1960/1794), 39, 31.

12 Mill, John Stuart, Utilitarianism, (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1979/1861), 3, 31–2.

13 Hayek, Friedrich, The Constitution of Liberty, (Chicago: Regnery, 1972/1960), 31.

14 Foot, Philippa, Natural Goodness, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001), 5, 9, 14.

15 Hampshire, Stuart, Innocence and Experience, (New York: Allen Lane, 1989), 77.

16 Hampshire, Stuart, Justice is Conflict, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 43.

17 Williams, Bernard, The Sense of the Past, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 54.

18 Ferguson, Niall, The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, (New York: Penguin, 2006), Introduction.

19 Ibid. 649. See also Rummel, R.J., Death by Government, (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1994) for extensive statistical evidence and nation-by-nation breakdown of the figures.

20 Howard, Michael, The Invention of Peace: Reflections on War and International Order, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 1.

21 Rawls, Theory of Justice, 245.

22 Korsgaard, Sources of Normativity, 251. Korsgaard says this in response to Cohen's objection. But she does not seem to recognize that this is to acknowledge the failure of the Kantian approach to both reason and morality.

23 Rawls, Theory of Justice, 9.

24 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. W.D. Ross, rev. Urmson, J.O., in The Complete Works of Aristotle, (ed.) Barnes, Jonathan, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984/c.325 BC), 1109a23–29.

25 Rawls, Theory of Justice, 9.

26 I gratefully acknowledge Leo Zaibert's comments. They helped in several ways to improve the argument.

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  • ISSN: 0031-8191
  • EISSN: 1469-817X
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