Fordham University            The Jesuit University of New York

Personal Autonomy

PHGA 7658 Personal Autonomy
Professor John Davenport
Fall Semester 2006
Fridays, 1:00-3:00

The modest concept of autonomy: To many recent thinkers, the notion of autonomy has become a code word for objectionable kinds of Hobbesian egoism, individualism, absolute sovereignty, or extreme metaphysical independence. It is sometimes conflated with libertarian notions of an “unencumbered” self that has no responsibilities prior to voluntarily assuming them, or with Kant’s idea that our own reason is the final source of moral duty. Despite being much maligned of late, however, some practical concept of personal autonomy is implied in any conception of human agency that distinguishes between deep or full responsibility for actions, decisions, and character-traits and their merely occurring in my life. Autonomy in this modest sense -- as the opposite of coerced action and alien motives -- is indispensable for an account of such apparently real phenomena as responsibility for character and personal integrity. Thus, the concept of personal autonomy is central to contemporary theories of action, moral psychology, and moral responsibility. This course will introduce students to the enormous and profound literature on this topic that has developed in the last thirty-five years.

The Transcendental and Practical Self: For an action, decision, motive, or disposition to be autonomous means that it is self-determined, or authored by the agent self, in whatever sense implies full responsibility for it. But conceived merely as the subject of consciousness or the cause of decisions, “the self” does not seem to have sufficient substance to make it the “author” deeply responsible for some dispositions, motives, or plans of action rather than others. The notion of acts or states coming from or expressing my true self seems to require a thicker conception of practical identity in terms of identity-defining projects, commitments, cares and relationships, as well as the values to which these volitional states respond. Can these states and relations themselves be autonomously formed in some sense, and if so, what kind of freedom is involved in the process? This is closely related to the questions: what is character, and kind of control do we have over the formation of our character-traits?

Frankfurt’s legacy. We will begin with a little history on Aristotle, Kant, and the genesis of the idea of autonomy, but turn quickly to the rich and growing literature on personal autonomy that derives from Harry Frankfurt's hierarchical accounts of autonomy in terms of the “higher-order will.” We will contrast his procedural theory with more rationalist and normative accounts that treat autonomy as a virtue of practical reason, based on our mind's capacity to discern objective values. We will look at coherence theories and other accounts that define autonomy as a condition of mature agency more advanced than voluntary intentional action and strength of will (as the opposite of akrasia). We will also consider some recent lines of feminist critique and alternative proposals that point towards essentially social conditions for personal autonomy. A central question that emerges from these approaches is: what capacities must a young person develop in order to cognitive and emotional sensitivities and powers of reflection necessary for her values to count as “her own,” rather than simply implanted, imposed, or indoctrinated? Depending on student interests, we may also compare and contrast these accounts with recent approaches to autonomy in continental philosophy (e.g. Levinas on autonomy and the will).

A Sample of Likely Readings:
  • Harry Frankfurt, “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person” and “Identification and Wholheartedness” in The Importance of What We Care About
  • Harry Frankfurt, “Autonomy, Necessity, and Love,” in Necessity, Volition, and Love. (Cambridge, 1985)
  • Essays in John Christman, ed., The Inner Citadel: Essays on Individual Autonomy (Oxford, 1989) [most of these essays are responses to Frankfurt and Dworkin]
  • Alfred Mele, Autonomous Agents (Oxford University Press, 2001).
  • Eleonore Stump, “Persons: Identification and Freedom,” Philosophical Topics (1996)
  • Sarah Buss, “Autonomy Reconsidered,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy (1994)
  • Paul Benson, “Free Agency and Self-Worth,” Journal of Philosophy (1994)
  • Gary Watson, “Free Action and Free Will,” Mind 1987.
  • Gary Watson, Agency and Answerability (Oxford, 2004)
  • Essays in Buss and Overton, eds., Contours of Agency (Oxford, 2002)
  • Essays in James Taylor, Autonomy: New Readings (Cambridge 2004)
  • Essays by Michael Bratman in The Faces of Intention and other works.
  • Arpaly and Schroeder, “Praise, Blame, and the Whole Self,” Philosophical Studies 93 no.2, and Nomy Arpaly, Unprincipled Virtue (Oxford, 2003).
  • Laura Ekstrom, “A Coherence Theory of Autonomy,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 53 no.3
  • Linda Barclay, “Autonomy and the Social Self,” in Relational Autonomy, ed. MacKenzie and Stoljar, ch.2.
  • Marilyn Friedman, Autonomy, Gender, Politics (Oxford, 2003), chs 1-2
  • David Shoemaker, “Identification, Caring, and Agency,” Ethics 114 no.1
  • John Fischer, My Way: Essays on Moral Responsibility (Oxford, 2006)
  • Thomas Hill, “Servility and Self-Respect,” and other papers in Autonomy and Self-Respect (Cambridge, 1995)
  • Stephen Darwall, “The Value of Autonomy and the Autonomy of the Will,” Ethics 116.2 (Jan. 2006)

The main books will probably be Frankfurt, The Importance of What We Care About, Taylor’s collection, and Mele’s book. Other readings will be provided in the form of a course packet.

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