Autonomy Revisited

In a N&C (Circumstances) a few days ago I asked a lot of questions about the relation (if any) between ethical commitments and autonomy. About whether it’s possible to have ethical commitments (as opposed to rules) at all without autonomy. I don’t know the answer. But I am skeptical about the possibility, and I think that problem (if it is one) gets overlooked too easily, when people think about religion as a source of ethical commitments and ideas.

I happened on some relevant remarks this morning, so thought I would add them to the mix. They’re by Susan Moller Okin in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? pp. 129-130.

Even the most prominent ‘political liberal’ of all, John Rawls, who rejects the imposition on religious sects that ‘oppose the modern world’ of the requirement that their children be educated so as to value autonomy and individuality , also argues that the liberal state should require that all children be eudcated so as to be self-supporting and be informed of their rights as citizens, including freedom of conscience…Nussbaum, who also endorses political liberalism, says that, while it respects nonautonomous lives, it ‘insists that every citizen have a wide range of liberties and opportunities; so it agrees…that a nonautonomous life should not be thrust upon someone by the luck of birth…Many parents belonging to religions or cultures that do not respect autonomy would (and do) very strongly resist their children’s being exposed to any religious or cultural views but their own. But, like Nussbaum (and to a lesser degree Rawls) I do not think that liberal states should allow this to happen. I believe that a certain amount of nonautonomy should be available as an option to a mature adult with extensive knowledge of other options, but not thrust on a person by his or her parents or group, through indoctrination – including sexist socialization – and lack of exposure to alternatives.

There. Exactly what I was thinking. ‘Lack of exposure to alternatives.’ The argument that religion should be treated with special consideration because ethical commitments are an especially valued and valuable part of individual identity seems dubious to me not only because religion is not the only source of such commitments, but also because for many people ethical commitments can be a kind of closed loop. They can be a closed loop and still be a valued part of identity…but does that matter? Or at least does it matter more than other considerations that come to mind? Like considerations about the merit of the ethical commitments in question (maybe the children of Mafiosi, of white supremacists, of warlords, grow up with strong ethical commitments to extortion and murder and genocide), and about whether the people who hold them have ever actually thought about them, and whether this question relates to the previous one. In other words, does it make any difference whether an ethical commitment is something you’re just born to, or whether it’s something you’ve consciously made? Surely it does. If we never think about ethical commitments, how do we separate the decent ones from the disastrous ones? Ethical commitments are not just adornments for our identities, they’re motivations to treat people well or badly; so they’re not just personal private concerns, they’re also public ones.

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