The Origins of Autonomy: Not as Lonesome as You Might Expect

By Contributing Writer Molly Wilder

Autonomous man is–and should be–self-sufficient, independent, and self-reliant, a self-realizing individual who directs his efforts towards maximizing his personal gains. His independence is under constant threat from other (equally self-serving) individuals: hence he devises rules to protect himself from intrusion. Talk of rights, rational self-interest, expedience, and efficiency permeates his moral, social, and political discourse. (Lorraine Code 1991, What Can She Know? Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge, p78)

Thus Lorraine Code describes the conception of autonomy in the popular imagination–and often in the academy as well. This conception of autonomy is obsessed with the self, as evidenced by the language Code uses to articulate it: “self-sufficient,” “self-reliant,” “self-realizing,” and “rational self-interest.” And the word ‘autonomous’ originally meant “self-rule” (derived from the Greek αὐτόνομος, from αὐτο-, ‘self’, and νόμος, ‘rule, law’). The image of the self that Code evokes is that of a citadel, forever warding off external attacks. These attacks are characterized as coming primarily from contact with other people—suggesting that relationships with other people are in themselves dangerous to the self. Though relationships may be valuable in some ways, they are a constant threat to the self’s interests.

Feminist philosophers have largely found this conception both accurate and deeply problematic. Though some feminists have therefore rejected the value of autonomy all together, many have instead sought to reclaim autonomy as a feminist value. Since the late 1980s, feminists have proposed and argued for a myriad of alternative conceptions of autonomy, which have collectively come to be known as theories of “relational autonomy.”

Theories of relational autonomy vary widely. Some, like Marilyn Friedman’s, still recognize the value of independence and conceive of autonomy as an internal procedure that is available to people of many different beliefs and circumstances. Such an internal procedure requires some sort of critical reflection on attitudes and actions, but places no limits on the outcome of the procedure. Thus, this sort of procedure makes it possible for a person to count as autonomous even if she endorses attitudes or actions that may seem incongruous with a liberal Western image of autonomy, such as discounting her own right to be respected or remaining in an abusive relationship.  In contrast, theories like Mariana Oshana’s put stringent requirements on the kind of actual practical control necessary for autonomy, significantly limiting those who can count as autonomous. Such theories might consider a person autonomous only if her circumstances meet certain conditions, such as economic independence or a wide range of available social opportunities—conditions that might not be met, for example, by a person in an abusive relationship.

And there are theories that aim somewhere in the middle, such as Andrea Westlund’s, whose conception of autonomy requires some accountability and connection to the outside world, but does so in a way that provides latitude for many different belief systems and social circumstances. Specifically, on Westlund’s account, a person is autonomous only if she holds herself open to criticism from other people. While this dialogical accountability is not a purely internal procedure like Friedman’s, as it involves people other than the agent herself, it does not inherently limit the outcome of the procedure as Oshana’s does. See this collection of essays for more on the theories of Friedman, Oshana, and Westlund, as well as other contemporary theorists of relational autonomy.

These theories, while diverse, share a rejection of the idea that autonomy is inherently threatened by relationships with others. On the contrary, they argue that certain relationships are in fact necessary to the development of autonomy, its maintenance, or both. These theories have provided a much needed new perspective on the concept of autonomy, and continue to provide new insights, particularly with respect to understanding the effect of oppression on selves.

But their core idea, that autonomy requires relationships, is an old one. Long before autonomy became so closely aligned with the protection of the self from others, a prominent strain of philosophy recognized relationships with others as crucial to the well-being of the self—rather than as a threat. To illustrate, consider these excerpts from an ancient philosopher, Aristotle, and a modern philosopher, Spinoza.

For Aristotle, the ultimate good in life, a kind of long-term happiness, is a self-sufficient good. The word he uses is ‘αὐτάρκης’ (derived from αὐτο-, “self,” and ἀρκέω, “to suffice”). He clarifies: “And by self-sufficient we mean not what suffices for oneself alone, living one’s life as a hermit, but also with parents and children and a wife, and friends and fellow citizens generally, since the human being is by nature meant for a city.” (Nicomachean Ethics, 1097b9-11, tr. Joe Sachs) Aristotle, then, explicitly understands self-sufficiency with respect to happiness to require certain kinds of relationships—those of family, friends, and political compatriots.

Though Aristotle does not discuss the concept of autonomy, this passage and others suggest that his ideal of independence was one that required intimate relationships, rather than being threatened by them. Aristotle famously wrote of humans as “political animals.” On a first reading of this phrase, it is apparent that humans are political simply in the sense that they tend to form social institutions by which to govern themselves. But the phrase might also be read to suggest that even at their most independent, humans are the kind of animals that rely on one another.

Spinoza, likewise, identifies the well-being of the self with happiness, and he argues that happiness consists in having the power to seek and acquire what is advantageous to oneself. One might reasonably summarize Spinoza’s view of happiness as the achievement of one’s rational self-interest. For a contemporary reader, Spinoza’s language naturally evokes the conception of autonomy articulated by Code, a conception in which the wellbeing of the self is naturally threatened by others.

Yet Spinoza explicitly argues that “nothing is more advantageous to man than man.” (Ethics, P18, Sch., trans. Samuel Shirley) On Spinoza’s view the only effective, and therefore rational, way for individual to seek her own advantage is with the help of others. In general, Spinoza criticizes those thoughts and emotions that push people apart—and he argues that when we fall prey to these things, we not only lose power, but we fail to act in the interest of our true selves. An individual’s true self-interest, he argues, is necessarily aligned with the true self-interest of others.

The examples I’ve given remind us that, despite the apparent radicalism of arguing that the concept of autonomy is inherently relational in our contemporary cultural context, the conjunction of terms of self and terms of relationality is both ancient and long-lived. The very concepts that Code uses to describe the kind of autonomy that sees relationships as a threat—self-sufficiency and rational self-interest—were once thought of as concepts that in fact required relationships.

Thirty years after she wrote it, Code’s depiction of autonomy as an atomistic individualism threatened by others still well-captures the general sense Americans have of autonomy. Although feminist philosophers have been fairly successful in gaining wide recognition of the importance of relationships to autonomy among philosophers who study autonomy, their impact has not been as wide as might be expected given the strength of their arguments. One major exception has been the field of bioethics, in which the discussion of feminist theories of relational autonomy is quite lively. Yet these theories have not been robustly taken up in other professional fields such as business or legal ethics. Nor have they been taken up in a pervasive way in mainstream philosophical ethics or political theory.

Moreover, they have been decidedly less successful in changing the popular conception of autonomy, particularly within the United States, where the threatened-self conception of autonomy is so revered in the nation’s mythology. Indeed, many Americans might be surprised to learn about the history of this conception and its relative novelty. While some philosophers are already doing this, perhaps it would be fruitful in going forward for people in all fields to spend some time tracing the development of their conceptions of autonomy and self—they might be surprised at what they find.

Perhaps one reason relational theories haven’t been taken up is because of their feminist origins. Some of the wariness, surely, is simply sexism, both explicit and implicit. But beyond that, there may be a perception that the theories are specifically tied to the interests of women. Yet, to borrow a delightfully biting phrase from Spinoza, if someone were to pay a modicum of attention, they would see that is not the case. The historical precursors of their ideas demonstrate this. While the contemporary standard bearers of relational autonomy may be feminists, the basic ideas are as old and general as philosophy itself, and if the ideas are true, they should prompt Americans to seriously reconsider their national assumptions and priorities. If autonomy is in fact relational, it calls into question standard American justifications and understandings of a huge array of policies and practices, everything from gun control to education to marriage.


Molly has just received her law degree from Georgetown University Law Center and is currently developing a dissertation that brings together the professional ethics of lawyers, neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics, and feminist theories of relational autonomy. She wants to know, can you be a (really) good person and a (really) good lawyer at the same time? Beyond her dissertation, Molly has varied philosophical interests, including philosophy of tort law, children’s rights, privacy, and communication. When not philosophizing, Molly enjoys reading children’s fantasy, finding places to eat great vegan food, and engaging in witty banter.

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