Autonomy or Autarky?

There’s a tension in liberalism when it comes to autonomy.

On the one hand, liberalism represents the thin set of rules that constitute the overlapping consensus, the implicit social contract between warring conceptions of the good made to share control of a political order. We accept liberal institutions, if only begrudgingly, because a) we recognize disputes over irreconcilable conceptions of the good are pointless, and b) we all stand to benefit from an expanded aperture of social cooperation.

This is the context in which Kant defined the concept of equal dignity. Though we may disagree with our neighbor’s way of life, dress or worship, we all have equal dignity through a common commitment to respect each other’s autonomy. Autonomy means moral self-constitution, or self-authorship: the freedom to chart one’s own course in life. To be treated as an end, and not as a means to an end, is to be left the constructor of one’s own ends, to conceive of whatever the good and just life means to you and to be left to pursue it.

Autonomy is neither hedonistic, nor atomistic. Autonomy is the subject and object of human reason, and acting in alignment with reason requires self-legislation, self-control, and obedience to the moral norms required of a civil and cooperative society. When whole societies of people are granted autonomy, an amazing thing happens: It creates the Kingdom of Ends, exemplified by the free market, where equal dignity is manifest in each and every commercial exchange.

But as time has worn on, an interesting thing has happened. The terms of the social contract seem to have become internalized as a conception of the good in their own right. That is, the political order, which emerged through conflict and error to sustain rivalrous conceptions of the good, has become mirrored in our sensory order. Liberal neutrality, rather than being a property of corporate institutions, percolates into an individual’s own faculty of judgment. Autonomy, rather than being an allusion to sectarian ceasefire, is reconstrued as a kind of end in itself.

There is no such thing as autonomy for autonomy’s sake. Autonomy gets its footing precisely through the way it enables, empowers and amplifies genuine, substantive conceptions of the good, irreconcilable though they may be. Autonomy for autonomy’s sake, in contrast, is without substance. It’s a purposive void.

More dangerously, this way of conceptualizing autonomy quickly becomes identified with lacking dependencies: romantic, familial, moral, and organizational dependencies. Yet being dependent on someone is not at all contrary to living an autonomous life. Mutual advantage presupposes interdependence. As do market exchange, specialization and the division of labor.

Fundamentally, this confuses autonomy for autarky. Autarky in economics is the refusal to trade. Translated to human psychology, autarky is the refusal to be vulnerable; to open one’s self to emotional and intellectual trade winds.

Self-reliance, it has been said, is just another word for poverty. So what will come of our psychic Juche? Will we move from a pluralistic Kingdom of Ends to a monastic Kingdom of Hermits? And what does the capacity to self-legislate look like when, morally speaking, we’re living out a hung jury?

9 thoughts on “Autonomy or Autarky?

  1. cathyreisenwitz

    The most interesting claim is that autonomy can’t be an end. But rather than building a case for it you just state it like it’s self-evident. Which, if it were self-evident you would have no reason to shit on autonomy as an end. So you should probably make an actual case for that claim.

    1. Paul Crider

      What this post made me think of more than anything else is libertarians who use “thin libertarian” neutrality as a way of dodging social criticism. Say something about feminism, or Black Lives Matter, respecting sex workers, etc and the response is “But the state shouldn’t be involved in that tho!”

      “I didn’t say anything about the state.”

      “Well then it’s none of my business.”

      “But I’m saying your actions are contributing to stigmatization of real people and it has a real impact on their well-being.”

      “You can’t tell me what to do because Freedom!”

      Autonomy on its own is like the thinnest kind of libertarianism, and in my experience it’s usually accompanied by a lazy, selfish, unreflective default conception of the good.

      1. cathyreisenwitz

        That’s a case I find compelling for why autonomy is a useful means but a less useful end.

      2. blacktrance

        A more charitable interpretation of those thin libertarians would be that they’re not dodging social criticism, but (ineptly) responding to it. First, most people who make those kinds of critiques do call for some kind of coercion, so many libertarians understandably expect that to come in at some point, and reflexively preempt it. Second, they’re appealing to a view of the good that has less interpersonal incompatibility than in the pluralist view – it’s not that autonomy is necessarily a good in itself, but that it enables people to seek out their own good without interference from others. The reason they put their objections in those terms is that at some level they understand that it can be bad to give social power to “moral busybodies” even if they don’t use it in a way that violates the NAP.

    2. The case for autonomy not being an end in itself is in the opening paragraphs, where I quickly retrace the original classical liberal conception, and what motivated the definition given by Kant.

      1. Here is a conjecture, and perhaps Cathy can correct me if I’m wrong here.

        If one supposes that social organization is something that we do, which requires autonomy, then your point follows very naturally. But if social organization (or at least social organization in its ideal form) is a spontaneous result of widespread autonomy, then there is nothing for us to do or to seek other than autonomy as the end itself. The rest is just something that happens later. In this sense, perhaps autonomy really is an end.

        I still think that in this second case there is an implied end that supersedes autonomy, but I can see how someone who saw it this other way would feel some push-back against what you’ve written.

        I’m projecting a little – I admit that the above is what happened in my own brain. I had to think about it twice in order to realize my error.

      2. cathyreisenwitz

        You pointed out a really interesting internal contradiction in the piece that I didn’t really get. Thanks for showing that to me!

  2. blacktrance

    One can distinguish between political and social kinds of autonomy. Dependency is compatible with political autonomy as long as no coercion is involved: the fact that I have to trade to eat makes me no less autonomous in that sense, because no one is restricting my freedom of association. But under a thicker social conception, the fact that humans generally have to trade to eat is an unfortunate fact that limits autonomy, because they would suffer and die if they didn’t, and thus sometimes have to put themselves in situations they don’t like in order to survive. Something similar goes for social pressure and uncomfortable personal appetites (e.g. suffering because of social isolation). If people were “truly autonomous”, they would be at a high baseline of happiness and consider themselves having a good life even as hermits, even though they could still make it better by interacting with others. Such a state is currently impossible, but moving closer to it (such as by encouraging emotional self-sufficiency) is good.

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