What does it mean to be moral? Is the basis of morality the liberty to choose, or something else? In this Café, Dr Chris Groves introduced the work of a number of philosophers, feminist and otherwise, who suggest that the Enlightenment’s emphasis on the autonomy of the individual as the foundation of moral life is in fact mistaken, and may even have serious negative political consequences.

We might find ourselves, in our day-to-day lives, faced with a variety of problems we see as having a moral dimension: suffering, inequality, indifference. Yet public debate over these issues often circles around a central value: the right to choose.

Looking back to the age of Enlightenment, one of the most influential accounts of freedom of choice was provided by Immanuel Kant. The central value of morality, for Kant, lies in the will: one’s power of decision, of making up one’s

From a painting of Immanuel Kant
From a painting of Immanuel Kant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

mind, of committing oneself to following a rule. The will is different from other human capacities, like feeling, imagination etc. It is linked to reason, to our capacity to explore and understand the justifications and grounds for doing or not doing something. The will is, primarily, the faculty of acting on reason’s dictates – other faculties, like feeling, imagination etc. lead us away from it.

For Kant, then, there is a strong duality within human nature, a division between the autonomy and heteronomy of the will. The ‘heteronomy’ of the will is its tendency to be dominated by motivations that come from ‘outside’ it – such motivations might be biological impulses, social imperatives (including religious doctrines, cultural values or beliefs, and so on), or supposedly moral principles like happiness, utility or whatever. All these reasons for action do not derive from reason itself, and find their justification in something else whose justification is typically accepted without rational foundations (like self-interest, the desire to honour one’s ancestors, or whatever), and so are inauthentic.

On the other hand, there are reasons which are purely self-justifying, ones which reason authors itself or gives to itself. The classic formulation of such a rule is Kant’s categorical imperative: one should act according to a decision rule that also makes sense for everyone else in the world to follow. The only reason for acting according to such a rule is that it is rational to do so and irrational not to – to act against such a rule would entail a logical contradiction, as when one ignores the injunction not to lie (in a world where everyone lied, lying would itself become impossible, as a lie requires at least one person who wants to tell the truth in order to work).

More broadly, the only thing that truly counts, morally speaking, for Kant is a will that tells itself what to do rather than accepting direction from other motivations. Only such a will, operating on the basis of the dictates of reason, is truly free rather than being conditioned by external motivations over which it ultimately has no power.

The kind of conception of autonomy presented by Kant has been extended by others into different fields, beyond moral philosophy as such. For example, the work of the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg develops a Kantian account of autonomy in ways that have had significant influence in education and developmental psychology.

Kohlberg presents an account of moral development in which children are thought to move through several stages of moral development, ranging from the attitude that one should act so as to avoid punishment, through a desire to act to further one’s own interests, all the way up to a genuinely autonomous, principled perspective which, given the right educational conditions and life experiences, is attainable from adolescence on. The developmental path takes the child away from heteronomous motivations towards being motivated by principles of fairness, which demand that all people are treated as of equal value in themselves.

The distinction between autonomy and heteronomy has profound implications. It divides the world into moral agents (those who have achieved autonomy) and moral patients. Moral patients lack autonomy to some degree (including here, for example – and to various degrees – children, people with learning disabilities, people with severe mental illnesses, people suffering addiction, and animals), but have interests and can therefore suffer harm. They count, therefore, in the deliberations of moral agents – to some degree. But they are, to a certain extent, problematic – being heteronomous, and perhaps (some might argue) outside the sphere of moral concern entirely. They are dependent on others to a greater or lesser extent to look after their interests, and cannot do this by themselves.

Nonetheless, one might ask whether the division between autonomous and heteronomous individuals makes sense. Consider these two passages from James Griffin’s book On Human Rights (2008):

“Autonomy is self-legislation, deciding one’s own goals in life, choosing one’s own conception of a worthwhile life; liberty is being free to pursue that conception.” (p. 243)

“And having chosen, one must then be able to act; that is, one must have at least the minimum provision of resources and capabilities that it takes (call all of this ‘minimum provision’’).” (p. 33)

Even the autonomous individual is dependent, to some degree, on having access to certain kinds of goods s/he requires in order to be autonomous at all. It has been suggested that this dependence reaches down to every level of our being. Alasdair MacIntyre, who draws on Aristotle and Christian philosophy but also on biological research, repudiates strongly the kind of model of the will offered by Kant. He insists that dependence and vulnerability (physical, mental, emotional) are fundamental to being human, thanks to our biological being, our animality – we are not fundamentally different to other creatures in this sense. What it is to be moral, he suggests, has to be rethought in light of these observations.

“The question then arises: what difference to moral philosophy would it make, if we were to treat the facts of vulnerability and affliction and the related facts of dependence as central to the human condition?” Dependent Rational Animals (1999), p. 4

Feminist philosophers have stressed that interdependence (as contrasted with dependence and autonomy) should be seen as the foundation of morality and of moral agency. Eva Feder Kittay argues that agency – and the moral value of individuals – are fundamentally relational.

“I propose that being a person [and moral agent] means having the capacity to be in certain relationships with other persons, to sustain contact with other persons, to shape one’s own world and the world of others, and to have a life that another person can conceive of as an imaginative possibility for him- or herself […] We do not become a person without the engagement of other persons—their care, as well as their recognition of the uniqueness and the connectedness of our human agency, and the distinctiveness of our particularly human relations to others and of the world we fashion.” “When Caring Is Just and Justice Is Caring” (2001)

Instead of being anchored in the right to choose, agency is anchored in perceptions of vulnerability and need (of oneself and others), and attention to the relationships required to make sure that these needs are provided for. Rather than, for example, holding back from others in order to respect their right to choose, sometimes it means crossing boundaries between self and other in order to try to determine and to provide what the other needs. Moral agency is, therefore, thoroughly heteronomous, in Kant’s sense.

The essential argument of those who turn our attention to dependence, or perhaps interdependence is that autonomy is a fragile achievement, rooted in capacities which are developed through, and which depend upon, the quality of emotional relationships with others. The “minimum provision” of which Griffiths writes turns out to be quite maximal – like the proverbial nine-tenths of an iceberg which is underwater, and which needs to stay there in order to prevent the iceberg tipping over. But this nine-tenths – relationships with others, trust, caring labour, social institutions that sustain us and protect us – is relatively invisible when we talk about moral questions in terms of autonomy-related concepts such as the “right to choose”.

And this invisibility is politically significant. An emphasis on the moral value of autonomy is not ‘innocent’. It tends, feminist philosophers insist, to promote certain inequalities and implicitly assigns a particular, negative status to those who are seen as heteronomous. Kittay points to the fact that our dependence on others – on those who produce food for us as much as on those who love us – is masked by our insistence on the value of autonomy, and at the same time those whose dependence cannot be hidden become treated as outsiders, as ‘pariahs’. If interdependence is more characteristic of human being than autonomy, then our accepted concepts of freedom and our assumptions about the centrality of the ‘right to choose’ to moral life may need to be rethought.

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One thought on “Last Night’s Cafe: Humans: Autonomous Individuals or Dependent Rational Animals?”

  1. There is a new series of the Philosopher’s Arms running all this week: Radio 4, 23.30 each night. Programmes available on BBC i-player

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