Autonomy

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Definition

From the Wikipedia:

"a concept found in moral, political, and bioethical philosophy. Within these contexts, it refers to the capacity of a rational individual to make an informed, un-coerced decision. In moral and political philosophy, autonomy is often used as the basis for determining moral responsibility for one's actions." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autonomy)


Discussion

Murray Bookchin:

"Let me stress that in the British and American social tradition, autonomy and freedom are not equivalent terms. By insisting the need to eliminate personal domination, autonomy focuses on the individual as the formative component and locus of society. By contrast, freedom, despite its looser usages, denotes the absence of domination in society, of which the individual is part. This contrast becomes very important when individualist anarchists equate collectivism as such with the tyranny of the community over its members.

Today, if an anarchist theorist like L. Susan Brown can assert that "a group is a collection of individuals, no more and no less," rooting anarchism in the abstract individual, we have reason to be concerned. Not that this view is entirely new to anarchism; various anarchist historians have described it as implicit in the libertarian outlook. Thus the individual appears ab novo, endowed with natural rights and bereft of roots in society or historical development.1

But whence does this "autonomous" individual derive? What is the basis for its "natural rights," beyond a priori premises and hazy intuitions? What role does historical development play in its formation? What social premises give birth to it, sustain it, indeed nourish it? How can a "collection of individuals" institutionalize itself such as to give rise to something more than an autonomy that consists merely in refusing to impair the "liberties" of others -- or "negative liberty," as Isaiah Berlin called it in contradistinction to "positive liberty," which is substantive freedom, in our case constructed along socialistic lines?

In the history of ideas, "autonomy," referring to strictly personal "self-rule," found its ancient apogee in the imperial Roman cult of libertas. During the rule of the Julian-Claudian Caesars, the Roman citizen enjoyed a great deal of autonomy to indulge his own desires -- and lusts -- without reproval from any authority, provided that he did not interfere with the business and the needs of the state. In the more theoretically developed liberal tradition of John Locke and John Stuart Mill, autonomy acquired a more expansive sense that was opposed ideologically to excessive state authority. During the nineteenth century, if there was any single subject that gained the interest of classical liberals, it was political economy, which they often conceived not only as the study of goods and services, but also as a system of morality. Indeed, liberal thought generally reduced the social to the economic. Excessive state authority was opposed in favor of a presumed economic autonomy. Ironically, liberals often invoked the word freedom, in the sense of "autonomy," as they do to the present day.2

Despite their assertions of autonomy and distrust of state authority, however, these classical liberal thinkers did not in the last instance hold to the notion that the individual is completely free from lawful guidance. Indeed, their interpretation of autonomy actually presupposed quite definite arrangements beyond the individual -- notably, the laws of the marketplace. Individual autonomy to the contrary, these laws constitute a social organizing system in which all "collections of individuals" are held under the sway of the famous "invisible hand" of competition. Paradoxically, the laws of the marketplace override the exercise of "free will" by the same sovereign individuals who otherwise constitute the "collection of individuals."

No rationally formed society can exist without institutions and if a society as a "collection of individuals, no more and no less" were ever to emerge, it would simply dissolve. Such a dissolution, to be sure, would never happen in reality. The liberals, nonetheless, can cling to the notion of a "free market" and "free competition" guided by the "inexorable laws" of political economy.

Alternatively, freedom, a word that shares etymological roots with the German Freiheit (for which there is no equivalent in Romance languages), takes its point of departure not from the individual but from the community or, more broadly, from society. In the last century and early in the present one, as the great socialist theorists further sophisticated ideas of freedom, the individual and his or her development were consciously intertwined with social evolution -- specifically, the institutions that distinguish society from mere animal aggregations.

What made their focus uniquely ethical was the fact that as social revolutionaries they asked the key question -- What constitutes a rational society? -- a question that abolishes the centrality of economics in a free society. Where liberal thought generally reduced the social to the economic, various socialisms (apart from Marxism), among which Kropotkin denoted anarchism the "left wing," dissolved the economic into the social.3

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as Enlightenment thought and its derivatives brought the idea of the mutability of institutions to the foreground of social thought, the individual, too, came to be seen as mutable. To the socialistic thinkers of the period, a "collection" was a totally alien way of denoting society; they properly considered individual freedom to be congruent with social freedom and, very significantly, they defined freedom as such as an evolving, as well as a unifying, concept.

In short, both society and the individual were historicized in the best sense of this term: as an ever-developing, self-generative and creative process in which each existed within and through the other. Hopefully, this historicization would be accompanied by ever-expanding new rights and duties. The slogan of the First International, in fact, was the demand, "No rights without duties, no duties without rights" -- a demand that later appeared on the mastheads of anarchosyndicalist periodicals in Spain and elsewhere well into the present century.

Thus, for classical socialist thinkers, to conceive of the individual without society was as meaningless as to conceive of society without individuals. They sought to realize both in rational institutional frameworks that fostered the greatest degree of free expression in every aspect of social life." (http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/bookchin/CMMNL2.MCW.html)