Autonomy and liberalism: A troubled marriage?

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In its various guises, liberalism rests on principles that place a central value on the capacity of citizens to govern their own lives in pursuit of what they take to be the good. Yet from both inside and outside the liberal camp, this coupling of principles of justice with the value of individual self-government has been questioned. Some liberals think that placing primary value on autonomy exemplifies an insufficiently pluralist account of justice since being self-governing in the way that trait is usually defined is not a central component of all reasonable value orientations. Similarly, others who resist being labeled liberal also see the reliance of principles of justice on the value of autonomy as overly exclusionary, and/or an instance of the imposition of contestable (e.g., male, Western) values on otherwise marginalized and denigrated groups and cultures. To help illuminate, but not to pretend to settle, these trenchant debates, I will examine some powerful challenges to the linkage between autonomy and principles of justice, both those defended by self-described liberal thinkers and those who eschew that label. As we will see, the major sticking point in these discussions is whether a commitment to the value of autonomy is sufficiently compatible with the kind of pluralism or respect for difference that must come with liberal democratic orders. I will take a moment, then, in the first section, to discuss some of the various ways that resistance to the value of autonomy has been expressed, homing in specifically on those that rest on a commitment to pluralism. I then turn to autonomy and consider variations on that idea, and I will suggest how a plausible understanding of that notion may well avoid the critiques discussed, though seeing such an idea as central to liberal principles of justice may well alter the view we take of liberalism itself.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to Liberalism
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages22
ISBN (Electronic)9781139942478
ISBN (Print)9781107080072
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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