The Concept of Autonomy
The fundamental assumption in moral philosophy is that men are responsible for their actions. From this assumption, it follows necessarily, as Kant pointed out, that men are metaphysically free, which is to say that in some sense they are capable of choosing how they shall act.
Being able to choose how he acts makes a man responsible, but merely choosing is not in itself enough to constitute taking responsibility for one’s actions. Taking responsibility involves attempting to determine what one ought to do, and that, as philosophers since Aristotle hae recognized, lays upon one the additional burdens of gaining knowledge, reflecting on motives, predicting outcomes, criticizing principles, and so forth.
The obligation to take responsibility for one’s actions does not derive from man’s freedom of will alone, for more is required in taking responsibility than freedom of choice. Only because man has the capacity to reason about his choices can he be said to stand under a continuing obligation to take responsibility for them. It is quite appropriate that moral philosophers should group together children and madmen as beings not fully responsible for their actions, for as madmen are thought to lack freedom of choice, so children do not yet possess the power to reason in a developed form. It is even just that we should assign a greater degree of responsibility to children, for madmen, by virtue of their lack of free will, are completely without responsibility, while children, insofar as they possess reason in a partially developed form, can be held responsible (i.e.: can be required to take responsibility) to a corresponding degree.
Every man who possesses both free will and reason has an obligation to take responsibility for his actions, even though he may not be actively engaged in a continuing process of reflection, investigation, and deliberation about how he ought to act. A man will sometimes announce his willingness to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions, even though he has not deliberated about them, or does not intend to do so in the future. Such a declaration is, of course, an advance over the refusal to take responsibility; it at least acknowledges the existence of the obligation. But it does not relieve the man of the duty to engage in the reflective process which he has thus far shunned. It goes without saying that a man may take responsibility for his actions and yet act wrongly. When we describe someone as a responsible individual, we do not imply that he always does what’s right, but only that he does not neglect the duty of attempting to ascertain what is right.
The responsible man is not capricious or anarchic, for he does acknowledge himself bound by moral constraints. But he insists that he alone is the judge of those constraints. He may listen to the advice of others, but he makes it his own by determining for himself whether it is good advice. He may learn from others about his moral obligations, but only in the sense that a mathematician learns from other mathematicians – namely by hearing from them arguments whose validity he recognizes even though he did not think of them himself. He does not learn in the sense that one learns from an explorer, by accepting as true his accounts of things one cannot see for himself.
Since the responsible man arrives at moral decisions which he expresses to himself in the form of imperatives, we may say that he gives laws to himself, or is self-legislating. In short, he is autonomous. As Kant argued, moral autonomy is a combination of freedom and responsibility; it is a submission to laws which one has made for onself. The autonomous man, insofar as he is autonomous, is not subject to the will of another. He man do what another tells him, but not because he has been told to do it. He is therefore, in the political sense of the word, free.
Here, Wolff has defined his primary character, the autonomous individual. His argument that responsibility comes from an ability to act, and availability of choices, is crucial given the first piece of Wolff’s argument – that states wish to exert authority and may compel it. Wolff has set up a situation in which he can contrast the autonomous individual who chooses to self-legislate as being apart from compulsion: if a state forces you to follow its laws, you’re still an autonomous individual, you are simply acting in accordance with the compulsion of the state. This is a more rigorous phrasing of what Locke assumes ex deo in his Second Treatise Concerning Civil Government – namely that everyone has a right to be free, etc.* Between the first part of this discussion and the second, Wolff has divided the philosophical landscape into authority dependent on compulsion, and autonomous individuals who are creators, enforcers, and subjects of their own laws.
There are a few other really delightful nuggets in Wolff’s discussion of autonomy, specifically the question of being commanded:
Since the concept of taking and forfeiting responsibility is central to the discussion which follows, it is worth devoting a bit more space to clarifying it. Taking responsibility for one’s actions means making the final decisions about what one should do. For the autonomous man, there is no such thing, strictly speaking, as a command. If someone in my environment is issuing what are intended as commands, and if he or others expect those commands to be obeyed, that fact will be taking into account in my deliberations. I may decide that I ought to do what that person is commanding me to do, and it may even be that his issuing the command is the factor in the situation which makes it desirable for me to do so. For example, if I am on a sinking ship and the captain is giving orders for manning the lifeboats, and if everyone else is obeying the captain because he is the captain, I may decide that under the circumstances I had better do what he says, since the confusion caused by disobeying him would be generally harmful. But insofar as I make such a decision I am not obeying his command; that is, I am not acknowledging him as having authority over me. I would make the same decision, for exactly the same reasons, if one of the passengers had started to issue “orders” and had, in the confusion, come to be obeyed.
I haven’t read this passage in years, but it must have stuck in my mind, because when I am trying to explain the difference between power and leadership I usually use the example of a crowded theater-fire and one person who says “There is an exit over here. Everyone get low to the floor and come this way!” – that person is demonstrating leadership and it may be indistinguishable from power in that situation – the difference is that the person demonstrating leadership relinquishes that position when the crisis is over, whereas the person desirous of obtaining and exercising power does not: they work to increase and preserve their power. In Wolff’s terms power and authority may be interchangeable; I think they are.
I’ve got to say that a lot of Wolff’s focus on “free will” is problematic to me. I’m comforable saying that “free will” appears to be a label we slap on certain things – but then that makes Wolff’s point moot: we’re dealing with a circular definition (in the form of a label) We hold people responsible because we do. I do not want to drag Wolff’s argument down into verbal nihilism or extreme skepticism; let’s acknowledge that possibility (any assertions appear to be subject to obliteration through extreme skepticism) and move on.
As a procedural note: when I begin a posting with large quotes from someplace, I will quote verbatim and will only begin discussion after I separate the quoted text with a horizontal bar. One of the paragraphs in the Wolff piece at the head of this article was .. maybe not entirely necessary, but I don’t think that’s for me to determine for you. So I’ll favor using a bit more bandwidth and server space. In sections below the horizontal rule, I may pick and choose non-contiguous with the main text, but I’ll include unedited paragraphs (generally) or unedited sentences.
(* Oddly, that part sort of found its way into the US Declaration of Independence, but they mysteriously left out his targeted comment in Chapter 4, in which he describes slavery as a continuation of a state of war between the slave-keeper and the slave; an argument which retains the right – if not duty – of rebellion for all slaves.)