Notes on Anarchism II
R. P. Wolff on autonomy
This post has a prerequisite. We now explore the concept of autonomy as discussed by Robert Paul Wolff on pp. 12-18 of In Defense of Anarchism. Bibliographical details in the prerequisite.
1. "The fundamental assumption of moral philosophy is that men are responsible for their actions." (12) Wolff intends moral as opposed to merely causal responsibility. But if we are morally responsible, then we are "metaphysically free." W. doesn't explain what he means by "metaphysically free," but since he mentions Kant, and he knows his Kant, we may impute to W the view that we are libertarianly free, that is, free in the 'could have done otherwise' sense. Thus we enjoy more than what Kant derides as the compatibilist "freedom of the turnspit."
So if we are going to do moral philosophy at all, we must assume both that we are morally responsible for some of our actions and omissions and libertarianly free with respect to those same actions and omissions. So far, so good.
2. Taking responsibility for an action involves more than being (morally) responsible for it. "Taking responsibility involves attempting to determine what one ought to do . . . ." (12) W assumes that there is an obligation to take responsibility for one's actions, and I suppose he would say that this assumption is part of what we must assume if we are to do moral philosophy at all. It is clear that one cannot take responsibility for one's actions, or be held responsible for one's actions, unless one possesses both free will and reason.
3. According to W, "Every man who possesses both free will and reason has an obligation to take responsibility for his actions . . . ." (13) Here a question arises: Is it in virtue of my possession of free will and reason that I have the aforementioned obligation? If yes, would W not be inferring an 'ought' from an 'is'? That I am free, and that I possess reason are non-normative facts about me. Taken together they entail that I am capable of taking responsibility for my actions. But how does it follow that I ought to take responsibility of them, that I am morally obliged to? Let's let this query simmer on the back burner for the time being.
4. The responsible man is not capricious or anarchic: he sees himself bound by moral constraints. "But he insists that he alone is the judge of those constraints." (13) A responsible person will listen to others in the course of trying to determine what he should do, but he will not rely on another's authority to determine what he must do. He will not be told what he must do; he insists on seeing for himself what he must do.
5. It seems to follow that a responsible person, on W's conception of same, not only will but must 'tune out' or disregard any moral instruction that he cannot understand or validate for himself with his own resources. The only laws he accepts are the laws he gives himself. He is thus self-regulating, or (in Anglicized Greek) autonomous. The autonomous man submits, but he submits only to laws he himself has enacted. He does not submit to the will of another. (14) He recognizes no commands. "For the autonomous man, there is no such thing, strictly speaking, as a command." (15)
But here there may be a problem. The morally responsible person relies only on himself for the "final decisions" (15) about what he should do. But what if he doesn't know what is in his own best interests? Or only knows it imperfectly? What if he lacks the insight to see what he must do to flourish? What if he is morally obtuse, or value-blind or lacks the capacity for moral reasoning? Or perhaps he has moral insight but it is routinely and easily clouded by unruly passions.
Suppose wise and caring parents override the autonomy of a teenager by commanding her to do something for her own good. W's scheme seems to entail that they do her wrong by violating her autonomy, and that she does wrong if she acts in accordance with the parents' authority because it is their authority. For W, "The primary obligation of man is autonomy, the refusal to be ruled." (18) This implies that one ought never submit to the authority of one's moral superiors.
Suppose I have good reason to believe that you are morally superior to me, but you command me to do something ("Love thine enemies," for example) that I cannot validate using only my own reasoning powers and moral intuition. If I refuse to submit to your better judgment, then I preclude the possibility of moral development. In a case like this, W's position seems to imply that I have a moral obligation to do something that would preclude my moral development.