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?