[ D. Seiple Liberalism]

Its Nature and Its Importance
to the LGBT Community

Delivered to The Philosophy Forum
September 22, 2001
Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center
New York City


D. Seiple

©  2001



The concept of autonomy has a long philosophical pedigree, with roots in both political and moral philosophy, especially in Rousseau and Kant.  Autonomy has been thought to be the central governing principle of liberal democracies, as they began to emerge during the European Enlightenment, and it is enshrined in the founding slogans of the American republic, whose citizens are supposed to be guaranteed, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  The ability to preserve life and liberty, and to attain a fair semblance of “happiness” – these are generally what is meant by “autonomy.”

But the devil, as they say, is in the details, and the detailed implications of this notion have lately drawn some fire from a number of critics.  This is because the notion of “autonomy” seems to suggest a kind of self-sufficiency that more communitarian-minded philosophers have found disturbing.  Feminists like Seyla Benhabib see “autonomy” as one of the myths that keep us, men and women alike, in the grip of oppressive gender roles, because autonomy is “conceived in the image of a disembedded and disembodied male ego.”[1] My own view is that this is a rather narrow view of what “autonomy” might be taken to mean.  My point here is certainly not that the term has never been sullied by hegemonic associations (for, as Gerald Dworkin points out, “autonomy” is a many-splendored term[2] and can be used for various political purposes).  I just believe in not murdering the philosophical baby simply out of abhorrence for its own bathwater.

There is an old medieval adage: Abusus non tollit usum -- which translates roughly into saying that the abuse of a term does not preclude its appropriate use.  But then, we have to get clear on what that use might be.  This paper is a stab at clarifying the appropriate use of the term “autonomy,” and in order to do that, I shall be especially interested in adding what philosophical discussions of this topic generally tend to omit – viz., historical and political references that are meaningful for members of the LBGT community. 




The Myth of Hegemonic Maleness


            It is not at all difficult, at first, to understand the aversion that some in our community have towards notions like “autonomy.”  Its origins make it seem especially suitable for abusive discourse, in some minds, because Kant and other Dead White European Males (DWEMs) seem to speak of “autonomy” as applicable only to “men.”  Now there is a significant political point to be made on this, but it also suggests an old and rather superficial objection, which I’ll call the Objection from Sexism.   Let’s begin this discussion by making an important preliminary point about it.  For the Objection from Sexism has almost as long a pedigree in our own Movement as the notion of autonomy.  It dates back to the early 70s, if not before.  And, as a philosophical move, it’s terrible argument. 

I don’t mean to suggest that male domination has not been a real force in history, and I do not mean to discount its effects upon women in particular (and upon gay and even straight men as well).  But some lesbian feminists, such as Adrienne Rich, have at times seemed to insist that biological gender itself is somehow the explanation for women’s oppression: for this reason, heterosexual women rather than gay men are supposed to be lesbians’ natural allies. And for this reason, Kant’s patriarchal references to the paradigmatic male would sometimes be taken as a sign of a truth much deeper than the historical accidents of linguistic usage – as a sign of a dark fact about biology that underwrites “the mystique of the overpowering, all-conquering male sex drive, the penis-with-a-life-of-its-own.”[3] Though it’s not always clear from their writings, some radical feminists seem to assume that male biology can be essentially rendered in such hegemonic terms. 

Well, let’s be bold here, and for a moment let’s imagine what a rather irritated defender of Kant and the DWEMs might say: “What, pray tell, is really at stake in showing that Kant was, say, a heterosexist?  For at least some feminists, apparently, it’s to hammer home to us that terms like ‘autonomy’ are embedded in something -- a point of view, a socially engendered or even biologically determined perspective, one that is best framed in gender-specific categories.  All this suggests the rather bleak idea that one’s own biological gender determines one’s moral destiny.  In other words, just because I’m a male person, I am supposed to lack the moral necessities for full (caring, nurturing, non-alienated) personhood – I’m just full of aggressively competitive, uncompassionate and non-caring testosterone, apparently.”

Now let’s step back from the drama of this for just a moment.  Let’s reflect a little more coolly.  What is at stake in the logic of the defensive male reaction to the hard-minded feminists?[4]  It might surprise us to notice.  For here at least, this defender of Kant might really be saying nothing at all negative about many key points on the feminist agenda.  He can still bemoan the historically constructed attitude of homophobia – which happened to be expressed in male-terminology during the last several centuries.  He can still deplore the shared effect this has had on gay[5] people and on women, and he can recognize a fervent solidarity with them.  And if ever the political and cultural environment were to degenerate to the level of, say, some moments during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, he could still run eagerly to the barricades.  He could say and do all this without being compelled to say that “male” signifies “hegemonic logocentric Eurowhite totalizer” or anything of the kind.  That’s just academically sophisticated hate speech. 

Nowadays, most in our Movement probably recognize this, but it’s worth emphasizing here: any radical feminism that is gender-hegemonic in this way is a threat to men’s autonomy every bit as much as truly anti-feminist rhetoric is to women’s.  And this latter point brings out one of the important features of “autonomy.”  It is an implicitly democratic, egalitarian notion, because insofar as autonomy is an ideal we hold for ourselves, it is a rather short step to recognizing (with Kant) that others should be treated as autonomous beings as well[6]– which has implications for the discursive space we place that other person in.  So if a feminist is sensitive to the effects of having her own identity as a biological woman maligned, she should also be sensitive to what that does to the self-image of a sensitive male.[7]

This nicely illustrates an important political point.  Autonomy, when politically recognized, gets cashed out in terms of “human rights,” because autonomy, unlike freewill,[8] is a matter of biological and social development.  Here I make an assumption that some may dispute.  Genetics, I would say, is not destiny, not because we do not have “aggressive” genes (for example) but because those genes get variously expressed depending upon our experience as children and adolescents.  This is the point that sensible people are making about all those “twin” studies that are supposed to show that homosexuality is genetic.  For it may well be that the population of humans have widely varying tendencies that determine to what extent same-sex desire turns out to be an issue for them.  But we don’t need to stretch biological determinism onto the specific forms that such tendencies take.  This is why someone can commit homophobic violence, and do so out of the pathological inner tensions created in part by such tendencies, without “really” being gay.  And this is because “being gay” is not a matter just of who excites you (for good or for ill) – it’s a matter of what we do with that excitement.  And what we do is indeed a matter of choice -- which is only to say that it’s a matter of motivated agency, a product of how we have interacted so far, beginning as small children, with the nurturing or terrorizing world around us.  Choice (which again is not the blameworthy “freewill” of right-wing Christians) is a function of culturally engendered habit.

Now here I’d make another controversial claim that I cannot take the space to defend at this point.  Among genetically normal individuals, when it comes to social conduct, habits are more difficult to manage than genetic predispositions.  I go with John Dewey on this: that “as a matter of fact, it is precisely [habitual] custom which has greatest inertia, which is least susceptible of alteration; while [genetic] instincts are most readily modifiable through use, most subject to educative direction.”[9] And politics gets involved at just this point because humans develop express these genetically originating tendencies according to a social and political framework, so that “political autonomy” would mean the right to sustained access to any social institution that would crucially further one’s own capacities in “pursuit of happiness.”   Whatever is within our collective social control must be made available to all, as equally and fairly as possible – including the right to be named in the terms of one’s own choosing (“gay” or “lesbian” or “queer, “ as opposed to “invert” or “fag” or “abomination”) and to be nurtured through the basic stages of learning in a way that empowers us later on.  All this is pretty much what the Gay Movement has said all along.  And this then takes us back to the issue of sexism.  For it is entirely within the spirit of the Movement to note that no male person is going to feel very empowered by the idea that simply being male is a biological ticket to moral inferiority.

Sexist language was standard for most of history (and today still is in probably most parts of global culture), and this is not an insignificant fact, because unless we name something, we can’t fully discuss it and we are likely to suffer misconceptions about it.  So when, say, women’s concerns are rendered invisible, women’s personal and social needs can hardly be met.  However let’s notice as well that what’s important about the non-inclusive language is not its reference to “male,” but its exclusion of the “other” (“female” or “gay” or whatever.)  What is the explanation for this exclusion?  Maleness itself?  I don’t think so.  Part (but hardly all) of the explanation lies in the ways that maleness has been historically expressed, which hardly exhausts its possible forms of expression. 

And this has implications for the way we treat the words that male-dominated European culture made current.  Just because a notion like “autonomy” was formulated in a social environment before women’s lib, this doesn’t mean that the notion itself has to be poisoned with some hegemonic taint.  Of course, many notions have been used hegemonically, to dominate and oppress, but that is a very different observation.  It remains to be seen whether “autonomy” (as I mean it here) is one of these inherently oppressive notions, and I don’t think it is.



The Myth of the Disembodied Self


            So perhaps, in order to see this, we should try building an idea about what autonomy really is.  Dworkin[10] and others have pointed out that the key notion behind “autonomy” is the idea of “self-rule,” “self-determination,” and this is obviously tied to the notion of “freedom.”  But the meanings of a term like “freedom” are no less resplendent than the uses of “autonomy,” so this alone is nothing more than the barest clue, simply because we can’t know right off which meaning is intended.  Once again, it may be worth pursuing a negative strategy for just a while longer here – to see at least what autonomy is not. 

            One of the more sophisticated and interesting objections to the privileging of “autonomy” has been its associations with what is thought to be an antiquated Kantian metaphysics.  Kant famously supposed, as J. B. Schneewind has pointed out in his magisterial study of the history of “autonomy,” that “morality centers on a law that human beings impose on themselves, necessarily providing themselves, in doing so, with a motive to obey.”[11] Kant is notoriously difficult to understand, even for professional philosophers, so let’s just concentrate here on the notion of “freedom” that Kant presupposes.  I don’t think Kant is far wrong in his connection between motivation and self-determination.  But Kant wants to say that moral autonomy requires a freedom of the will that is not subject at all to empirical causation: as truly moral agents, (he says) we are moved not by our desires or affections, but by our rational sense of duty (which Kant had to think was not, in its pure form, laced with any affectional qualities).  This means that we must be motivated by something other than the psychology of the biological human – which would be to leave us, as moral selves, completely disembodied.  (There is no hint here of today’s popular notion of “emotionalized intelligence.”)  Here is probably Kant’s single most curious point – his belief that there is a “noumenal” realm, separate from time, space, and causation, of which we as moral agents are actual partakers just insofar as we can – in the physical world! -- act autonomously.   How we can act noumenally in the non-noumenal realm has never been very clear to any but the most fervent Kantians.

            This is just where objections by Benhabib and other come in.  And women philosophers are not the only ones to make them.  Raymond Boivert,[12] after citing approvingly the Benhabib’s objection to the notion of disembodied agency, takes that point to its natural conclusion: that, if the ideal of “autonomy” requires humans to develop in relative self-sufficiency, without the nurturing, life-long communal dependencies that liberate our biologically embedded human capacities, then we’d better abandon “autonomy” for something more suited to our social nature.  Then we’d better adopt some notion of “heteronomous freedom.”

            This kind of objection strikes home with many of us in the LGBT community, because many of us have suffered quite directly from the social impulse, fostered especially by some forms of Judaism and Christianity and Islam, to deny the needs of the body.  Asceticism has a long history in the West, which dates at least to the Hellenistic and early Christian period.  We who have since suffered the constraints of a Puritan upbringing know the developmental havoc that sex-denying disciplinary practices may have imposed upon us, and many of us barely escaped with our sanity, or even our lives.  (Some of us, we know, did not.)  We ourselves began that process of escape when we “came out.”  And we are understandably not very keen on adopting as a moral ideal anything like the notions that made us suffer in the past.

            And I agree.  If this is what “autonomy” has to mean, then we’d better abandon it.  But remember that words are social constructions – this is a point about postmodernism that is, I think, absolutely irrefutable.[13]  “Autonomy” as a word has a wide range of related significations, and it’s up to us to explore and assess them.  But I also think that that there is an indispensable philosophical use for the term “autonomy” that does not reduce to disembodiedness or emotionally impervious rationality, and is undeconstructable.  (Derrida himself has finally been driven to admit that “justice” is such an undeconstructable notions, in complete contradiction to his own Deconstructionist project.[14])

So here again is our task in this discussion – to come up with an understanding for “autonomy” that does not press too far upon the margins of plausibility.  But at least we’ve made some progress.  We should now see that the “libertarian” (contra-causal, anti-deterministic) view of “freewill,”[15] one version of which is held by Kant, just will not do.  For doesn’t it seem odd to suppose that we could possibly interact with each other, as physical beings, in any way other than through physical causation?[16]  We are not embodied selves, and physical (including psychological) causation is just how bodies operate (like it or not).[17]  As biological beings we are subject to the laws of the natural world,[18] and any useful notion of autonomy has to be made to fit into that basic fact. 



Communicability and the Myth of Unstable Reference


            So let’s stick with our “negative” strategy a little longer.  One helpful clue here may be that “autonomy” can be negatively characterized in terms of the absence of “coercion.”  This has an intuitive plausibility, certainly: for we know what we need often by its absence, and who has not understood what’s been lost when we’ve lost our freedom of movement, or when we see ourselves suddenly engaged in addictive behavior of some kind?  A growing recognition of the price that coercion places upon us has been perhaps the most crucial impetus behind the Gay Movement – especially the idea that coercion can be “internalized” through seeing ourselves mirrored in others’ uncharitable responses.  Here again is a testimony from Out of the Closets:


All my life, the emotions that have controlled me have been feelings of isolation and loneliness, fear and mistrust of others, and a need for love….I went around feeling like shit all the time, since that’s the way you’re taught to feel, if you don’t have a sex life.  It got so bad that I just wanted to die…[19]


That is certainly a recognition of being coerced.   So, what is coercion?  If we can define “coercion,” then we perhaps we can see what its opposite (“autonomy”) might be.

            Here we begin to tread on some postmodernist toes, because postmodernists sometimes assume that such strategies are ineffectual because they’re based on what is called “binary opposition” – the idea that one term can be set apart from another as a clue to the determinate nature of reality itself.  Here I have been hinting at the possibility that “coercion” and “autonomy” are opposites in just this sense, because there seem to be  clear cases of coercive situations where, just for that reason, autonomy is impaired.  If we could get a general notion of what “coercive” might mean, then we might also understand, contrastively, what “autonomous” means.  And this kind of project is just what postmodernists have typically been skeptical about. 

Now this postmodernist reluctance is a version of a more general objection to the privileging of “autonomy” that I’ll call the Deconstructionist Objection.   The reason that the binary strategy has to fail, deconstructionists think, is that it’s just impossible to lay our language across the world in such a way that the characteristics of reality are displayed once and for all.  Jacques Derrida’s entire “Deconstructionist” project is consumed by this vision of “Différance” – the idea that there are no unique names, even to denote what seems immediately present to us (sights, sounds, feelings, intuitions etc).   “Presence,” Derrida declares, is a myth. 

What Deconstructionists like Derrida are saying is too complicated, and far too interesting, to handle well in a short discussion like this one.  No one whose eyes begin to glaze over at this point should feel discouraged.  For I am interested here only in the possible implications for our assessment of “autonomy” as it relates to communities such as ours.   If I understand Deconstructionists’ general view correctly, postmodernism[20] seems to have rather puzzling consequences for social communication.  I myself would say that it’s possible to come to an imaginative understanding of another person because of genuinely shared subjective experiences.  On the Deconstructivist view, however, there are no genuinely shared subjective meanings, at least as these might relate directly to the substance of any shareable common experience – and this is supposed to be so just because our words cannot be tethered firmly enough to our own subjective apprehension to make that sharing possible.  (We can’t treat our feelings or insights as “present” to us in any way that makes it possible to name them.)  Meanings just flit about in social space, as it were, and we create our conversations with each other like conversational artisans, as the play of signification drives us hither and yon. 

Now I think it is undeniable that this play of signification occurs -- we all free-associate with each other, especially when we are having fun together socially.  The question is: do we need to think of communication as anything more than this?  Yes, indeed we do.  Here is not the place to evaluate the particulars of Deconstruction (not all of which are wrong, by any means).  But I think we can see that, in one essential respect at least, its concerns stand rather apart from the tradition of the Gay Movement.  It presupposes that, because our subjectivities are not really nameable, our subjectivities are not really shareable – not certainly as many activists who were involved in the 70s and later always supposed.  For let’s remember that there is in our community a venerable tradition of “Consciousness-Raising” that dates back to the earliest roots of gay liberation and feminism.  In Out of the Closets, we read one such account:


When I entered the collective I was told that the group had to rediscuss every decision it had made so that I could share in making them…[We would meet] for expressing our feelings for one another, discussion [of] our relationships together, as well as our needs and our plan of action.  Soon, one or two other nights were taken up with consciousness-raising.[21]


It is clear from passages like this, and clearer still to many of us who attended such meetings, that something more at least seemed to be going on than just getting our verbal signals straight, or spinning plays of signification.  The experience that many of us had back then did involve an empathetic openness to each other which seemed grounded in the actual possibility of such experiential sharing.  That openness would never have occurred had our sense of genuinely shareable experience not been as vivid as it was.  And many of us continue to experience this, on perhaps preciously rare occasions, so that this is not just a stale holdover from days gone by. 

            I would want an epistemologist to notice here what I am not saying.  I am not saying that the mere experience of such group members conclusively demonstrates that their impressions of the situation back then were accurate. I’m not giving an epistemological foundation here. But I am saying something else, which involves the assumption of shared existential meanings, and of a reference to our words and subjective images stable enough to communicate those meanings, and to do so in communitarian contexts like a CR group.  My point here is very much in line with the general philosophical tradition of Classical American Pragmatism.  I am saying that this shared assumption is simply necessary for the experience (whatever it was) even to have occurred.  It is a “working hypothesis,” essential for us to hold – unless we are willing to give up the very feature that emboldened us to come out in the first place. 

Thus, in a way, shared meanings are rather like Voltaire’s God: if they didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them by simply assuming they do.  Insofar as we place ourselves in the tradition of the CR group and of the Gay Liberation Movement itself, we have to admit this.

            The most empowering political action, as well as community life in general, depends on communication of these shared experiences.  As Mike Silverstein wrote in the early 70s: “…gay liberation was made up of people like me; they sat around and argued and discussed things.”[22]  (If those very personal, self-revealing discussion had never occurred, we’d all still be the closet.) And for many of us,  communitarian dialogue is still our model of community involvement.  We listen attentively to each other – hopefully – and at the best moments we are encouraged to imagine how it must be to feel “that” way, to be the other.  And though we cannot attain perfect apprehension of another person in such a way, even in love-making or other intimacies, do we really want to deny that those moments, rarely but palpably, convey some real glimmerings of that commonality?  Do we not at least feel that we get drawn out beyond “ourselves”?   If we did not, would we have ever succeeded, at any single point, at moving beyond our own narcissism?  (And in too many community settings, when we feel that discussions are being wasted or that Miss X is just ranting, is not just that same narcissistic failure often to blame?)

            Dismissing the possibility of moving from narcissism to communitarianism is what I call the “error of the jaded.”  And while I would not want to discount many of the discursive features that postmodernism has happily made available to us, radical Deconstruction really falls into such an error.  It is perhaps the best academic example of that error, and the very possibility of political action requires us to reject it.  As our own philosopher Mark Blasius has more recently said, our Movement


…has itself only become possible to the extent that lesbians and gay men have identified themselves with each other.  Though the emergence of what I call a lesbian and gay ethos, a way of life more encompassing than either a sexual orientation or a lifestyle, one shares values and an interpretation of reality with others as a consequence of one’s personal choice to come out, to challenge the “truth” of the pathological label “homosexual” and become “gay” or “lesbian.”  In this way, one constitutes oneself as an ethical subject that can then allow for a collective recognition of and challenge to domination.[23]


I would simply add here my own view that Blasius’ allusion to a Foucauldian construction of the self is certainly compatible with the idea that one’s self-construction can be satisfying or not.  (Not all self-creations are on a par just because they are “our own.”)  I would also suggest, in what I am about to say in the remainder of this paper, that this kind of satisfaction is tied to something in the real world, a world that can indeed be reached and enacted upon, however indirectly, by use of carefully crafted philosophical language.[24]  And I think that the notion of “autonomy” is crucial to us if we are to work out just what all that means.



Coercion and Negative Freedom


            So then lets get back to the relation of “coercion” to “autonomy.”  Several points need to be made here.  (1) One thing that is abundantly clear is that autonomy and coercion relate to our abilities to act in everyday life – to a capacity for “agency,” in other words.  (2) Another thing that’s clear is that agency, in this sense, is not something that is given to us at birth: it is a capacity that must be achieved over time, through biological maturation and acculturation.  (3) This is obviously why education is important, and also why the distribution of social resources – access to economic and cultural goods – is crucial.   If we haven’t been trained in the appropriate habits in making decisions about the options we face, or if we lack the external resources to make our decisions effective, then we can’t be autonomous in any meaningful sense.  (4) And this is why the issue of autonomy is both personal and political.  It’s personal because the content of our choices – Do we choose to act on our same-sex feelings? Do we choose to have a family? Do we choose to believe in God? or whatever – is “up to us” if we are autonomous.  These choices are not imposed upon us by Jerry Falwell or anyone else.  And so this is a political matter as well, because the larger society ought to leave enough cultural space for us to explore and develop those options, to change our minds if we decide to do that, and to have access to facilities like a Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center so that we are not left to fend for ourselves in bleak isolation.  This is one reason that the Stonewall Rebellion was so significant – it opened the way for us to gather together socially without fear of constant police intrusion.

            So one prerequisite for autonomy is what Isaiah Berlin has famously called “negative freedom” –  the freedom from external constraints.[25] This is the notion that, ironically, both libertarian-minded Republicans and left-wing radical anarchists share: the idea that I should be allowed to do pretty much what I want, without interference from government.  It’s indeed a remarkable irony of history that these seemingly contrasting political agendas share in common such a basic feature, and it’s one source of confusion over what the term “liberal” is supposed to mean.  John Stuart Mill, one of the classical exponents of this kind of political freedom, is said to have been a “liberal”; but so was Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose “Great Society” program is often regarded as diametrically opposed to such a view (since it mandated rather drastic government intervention in matters of education, welfare, and civil rights that had, up to then, often been taken to be beyond the legitimate reach of the state). 

But for a number of reasons, negative freedom had better not be all there is to autonomy.  For one thing, others have rights which my own actions, no matter how much I might want to perform them, might critically impair.  If I hate Jerry Falwell and decide that the only way I can feel personally fulfilled is to bump the guy off, that’s hardly justified in view of the social precedent that would set, or the pain it would inflict upon his family and associates. (No, Jerry Falwell is not Adolf Hitler.)

And it’s not just others who suffer under the curse of unbridled negative freedom.  If I think that I just have to have sex with anonymous strangers every waking moment, that’s hardly an indication that doing so would render me autonomous.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  This suggests a whole other complication here – the confused notion that just because no one is forcing me to do something, I’m “free” in a meaningful sense.  A guilty chain-smoker is not free, nor is a sexually compulsive person, nor someone who just has to run to watch soap operas for eight hours daily instead of taking care of the kids or clients.   These are cases of “inner coercion,” and one of the puzzling features around “autonomy” concerns this question of how to distinguish inner coercion from inner freedom.  So sometimes, it seems, people themselves aren’t the best judge of that distinction. 

But once we admit this, have we surrender the self-determining aspect of autonomy?  This worry becomes really clear when we listen to what the Christian Right sometimes says about us.  Fred Phelps, a strident homophobic preacher who screams epithets at funerals of  PWA’s,[26] is the ugly old face of right-wing Christianity. There is, however, a kinder, gentler version – remember Anita Bryant’s assuring us that she “loves the sinner but hates the sin”? – and it is couched in the kind of talk about “coercion” that we’ve just been having here.  Here is the counsel of Joe Dallas, President of Exodus International[27]:


It’s not just a sexual sin you are fighting, but a deeply ingrained way of responding which seems immune to good intentions.  In fact, you may be finding that the more effort you apply to the fight, the harder it is to believe you’ll ever win.  “The good that I will to do I do not do,” laments the apostle Paul, “but the evil I will not to do, that I practice” (Romans 7:19).  Sound familiar?[28]


So we’ve got a challenge here.  On the one hand, just because we think we really know what we want and need, that doesn’t mean that we always have privileged access to that kind of information.  Even strongly held beliefs about what makes us happy are not irrevocable.  Sometimes, what we thought we knew once, we’re no longer so sure about – we did, after all, “come out” in the first place, and for many of us, that was certainly an alteration of deep-seated beliefs!  On the other hand, though -- are we really ready to give up our confidence that at least in some matters, like our sexual orientation and the need to act (prudently) upon it, we know ourselves better than any sweet-tongued reparative therapist?[29]


Ethics and the Practice of Autonomy


            What I am suggesting here is that we have available to us an immediate awareness of what is empowering to us and what is not.  We know when we are being coerced, just as those who rebelled at Stonewall knew.  But it’s equally important that we see something else here as well.  We don’t always know in precisely what way we are being coerced, and we certainly don’t always know what to do about it.  We lack, in other words, the appropriate interpretation.   The German people after their defeat in World War I (1918) recognized that certain provisions in the Versailles Treaty (1919) were coercive in just this sense.  But they turned to the Nazis to interpret that experience of disempowerment. 

Now this has gigantic implications for us.  For unless you’d really like to countenance, at least implicitly, what the Nazis did to Jews, Homosexuals, Roma (gypsies) and others, you’d have to say that not all interpretations are equally valid.  No matter how difficult it may be to give a philosophical expression to the fact, the fact is that we have to regard moral values as, in some send, “real.” (But, then again, let’s not leave it to the Christian Coalition to tell us what those values are!  Here’s the baby and the bathwater issue again.)

            What then is the nature of this immediate awareness?  In a very fine book of its type.[30] the psychologist and activist Harold Kooden gives us some inkling of this when he makes an important observation about the aging process: “By virtue of coming out, gay men already possess the power to age well,” and this is so because gay men are perhaps disproportionately[31] able to overcome the kind of social stigma associated with a homophobic upbringing.  Gay men by now really ought to be well practiced at casting a skeptical eye on attitudes and beliefs of others that inhibit the expression of their personhood.

            Now why does this kind of “power” have to do with “autonomy?”  Without getting very deep into the metaphysics of all this, we can say that such an experienced power constitutes a sign of autonomy (which is a matter of degree, so that the autonomy of virtually any individual person is more or less in process of formation).  And there are at least two elements here that we can distinguish – one as a condition for autonomy’s occurrence, and the other as a subjectively imbued condition of the person herself.  (1) First, negative freedom (liberty, freedom of the will[32]) is a condition of the exercise of autonomy because it enables us to act in ways that accord with our own deepest self-interest.[33]  But more needs to be said on this.  For there is what we might call a Cartesian complication here, because we can at least imagine the following thought experiment.  Let’s suppose for a moment that our actions are not self-determined in an important sense, regardless of their happy outcome.  Let’s imagine that their direction occurs, say, at the behest of some omnipotent being – though this might not be an “Evil” Genius,[34]it might be “God” – who, unbeknownst to us, controls us like puppets.  That would be an affront to our autonomy even as we might staunchly declare ourselves to be autonomous, because it would violate what Dworkin calls “procedural independence.”[35] As autonomous beings, we need to be able not only to act on a certain set of motivations by accomplishing our goals, but also to change those motivations (goals) if we so desire.  Now admittedly this begs the question in some regard because then, ex hypothesi, the very possibility of such desire to change would rest on the omnipotent power and not on us. But Dworkin also suggests that autonomy involves not only the ability to change our lower-order desires if we had higher-order preferences[36] to do so, but also the ability to make those preferences effective just because “one has reflected upon them and adopted then as one’s own.”[37] Our coming to have our own desires must, in other words, be a process that occurs through a certain kind of natural interaction between our biology and our socio-physical environment, and not through the extra-natural intervention of a Power that would subvert that process. 

(2) Now this notion of a natural process of interaction is perhaps an “indecently vague idea”[38]until it is cashed out much more subtly than I can manage to do here.  But it does lead us into noticing a second element in this equation – viz., that not all contexts call for the maximum possible exercise of negative freedom.  Negative freedom should be exercised prudently, and the case of the addict is a great example of this.  The absence of available heroin may be a negative constraint on the actions and psychological state of the junkie.  But that does not mean that this absence is a bad thing, at least as long as a viable alternative exists for handling the consequences to that person.  (This is where social policy needs radical reform.)  The point is that not every possible action is a prudent one. 

It remains then to identify what we mean by “prudence.”   Prudence involves, roughly, the effective means for enhancing one’s own well-being.  At the commonsense level, we all recognize this: we know, for example, that it may not be prudent to leave our jobs without a viable alternative.  But why?  Obviously, I think, because it would detract from the satisfactions we could otherwise draw from living our lives, which would be put out of reach without a source of income. 

These satisfactions differ from one person to the next, of course, and the liberal tradition has been devoted to recognizing this and allowing as much leeway as possible to the variegated individual pursuits of happiness.  The trouble is that we are not always prepared to do what it takes to enhance that happiness because we may lack a clear sense of our direction in life, or because we feel disempowered at some basic stage along the way.  Gaining mastery over ourselves – over our confusions and ignorance and inertia – is roughly what Foucault meant by “askēsis” (“care of the self”[39]).  This then is the other side of negative freedom – the ability to see and act on the wisdom of doing this or that, in accordance with our most vivid imaginings of what constitutes our own happiness.  And this is also essential for autonomy.

At this point, it would be a task far beyond this paper, or this writer, to give a complete account of the satisfactions that comprise happiness.  But we can I think give a general characterization.  Happiness is tied to a certain kind of agency in the world.   Foucault for example, denies that the subject is constituted by language (which is, in some sense, what Derrida is saying), but by practices – socially constructed but actually enacted relations that include the conduct of the person herself.[40] My point is that there is a basic relation between the agency (the autonomous practices of a person) and the satisfactions (whatever those might be) which characterize that person’s life.  And this is a relation of power.

Foucault was absolutely correct in calling our attention to this feature of agency – its connection with “power.”  But though Foucault has attained something like the status of Saint in our community,[41]our own Foucauldians sometimes seriously misread him by supposing that, despite its importance in political and personal contexts, “domination” exhausts the range of “power.”  For Foucault himself announces: “I understand by [‘power’] something other than the states of domination.”[42]And this relates directly to our previous point about negative freedom.  For Foucault, “liberty” (which essentially involves negative freedom) must be “practiced ethically” insofar as “liberty is the ontological condition of ethics” and “ethics is the deliberate form assumed by liberty.”[43] If we substitute here the term “autonomy” for “liberty,” then I think we have a fair general statement of what we can say about autonomy.  Autonomy is the ontological condition of ethics, and ethics is the deliberate form assumed by autonomy.

Admittedly, this leaves lots unsaid.  We have not characterized very clearly what we mean here by “ethics” – which is to say, we have not characterized the kind of agency that full autonomy engenders.  But we can, I think, speculate rather confidently that ethics in this sense must involve some characterization of the satisfactions that constitute a happy life.  This takes us back to the preoccupation of the Greeks, but also I think to the form that Greek philosophy took among the apologists and teachers of the early Christian churches (though this is not the only place it takes us).  Many in those communities had a vivid sense of what kind of agency is ethically satisfying, which would take us into discussions of what has been variously termed “agapē”[44] (or perhaps “Karuna”[45]).   That is, for better or worse, where this discussion does naturally take us, and so there is still a ways to travel if we are to understand “autonomy.”

D. Seiple

                                                                                    Union Theological Seminary

                                                                                    dis3 @ columbia.edu





Benhabib, Seyla. "The Generalized and the Concrete Other." In Women and Moral Theory, edited by E. Kittay and D. Meyers. Totowa NJ: Roman and Littlefield, 1987.

Berlin, Isaiah. "Two Concepts of Liberty." In Four Essays on Liberty, 118-72. London: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Berofsky, Bernard. "Autonomy." In How Many Questions? Essays in Honor of Sidney Morgenbesser, edited by Leigh S. Cauman, et al., 301-20. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983.

Blasius, Mark. Gay and Lesbian Politics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

Boivert, Raymond. "Heteronomous Freedom." In Philosophy and the Reconstruction of Culture, edited by John J. Stuhr. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Dallas, Joe. Desires in Conflict. Eugene OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1991.

Descartes, René. Meditations Concerning First Philosophy. In Philosophical Essays. Translated by Laurence J. Lafleur, 61-143. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964.

Dewey, John. Human Nature and Conduct. In John Dewey: The Middle Works, 1899-1924. Edited by Jo An Boydston. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.

Dworkin, Gerald. The Theory and Practice of Autonomy. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

The Final Foucault. Edited by James Bernauer and David Rasmussen. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 1991.

Foucault, Michel. The Use of Pleasure. In The History of Sexuality, Vol 2. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Random House, 1985.

Halperin, David M. Saint Foucault. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Lilla, Mark. "The Politics of Jacques Derrida." The New York Review of Books June 25 1998.

Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation. Edited by Karla Jay and Allen Young. New York: Douglas/Links, 1972.

Rajchman, John. Michel Foucault: The Freedom of Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." In The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, edited by Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin, 227-54. New York and London: Routledge, 1993.

Samar, Vincent. "Autonomy, Gay Rights and Human Self-Fulillment: An Argument for Modified Liberalism in Public Education." Unpublished paper, 2001.

Schneewind, J. B. The Invention of Autonomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Seiple, David. "Aging Out." The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide viii, no. 3 (2001): 42-3.



* David Seiple received his Masters in Theological Studies from Drew University, and his PhD in Philosophy from Columbia for his dissertation John Dewey and the Aesthetics of Moral Intelligence.  His publications include contributions to the Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide (formerly the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review).  He is currently pursuing postdoctoral research at Union Theological Seminary, for work on a book entitled Spiritual Autonomy. 

[1] Seyla Benhabib, "The Generalized and the Concrete Other," in Women and Moral Theory, ed. E. Kittay and D. Meyers (Totowa NJ: Roman and Littlefield, 1987), 171.

[2] Gerald Dworkin, The Theory and Practice of Autonomy (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 5.

[3] Adrienne Rich, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale and David M. Halperin (New York and London: Routledge, 1993), 237.

[4] More tender-hearted feminists would probably not raise such an objection against their brothers in the community.

[5] Here I use the word “gay” in its broadest sense, quite in the spirit of the early phases of our Movement – to include gay women, for example.  This might be comparable to Kant’s use of masculine terminology.  I am not arguing for this latter point, but only point out that resolving it involves much more than reference to terminology per se. 

[6] Vincent Samar, "Autonomy, Gay Rights and Human Self-Fulillment: An Arguemnt for Modified Liberalism in Public Education" (Unpublished paper, 2001).

[7] Of course it needs to be said as well that there is an historical discrepancy here.  On balance, women have probably been more brutalized by sexist language and other similar cultural practices than men.  But generalities can paper over the specifics of injustice: there are probably plenty of cases where men have felt castrated by hurtful speech from women, and when it comes to consideration of individual cases, it seems callous to play the game of which of us have been more victimized -- unless that serves as a very temporary and rather theatrical corrective for someone’s ignorance of this abusive history. 

[8] My reference here to the idea of “freewill” (in logical contrast to both “causally determined will” and “indetermined will”) does not mean that I accept the existence of human freewill.  I do not believe that autonomy implies freewill.

[9] John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, in John Dewey: The Middle Works, 1899-1924, ed. Jo An Boydston (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983), 76-77.

[10] Dworkin, The Theory and Practice of Autonomy, 12-13.

[11] J. B. Schneewind, The Invention of Autonomy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 483.

[12] Raymond Boivert, "Heteronomous Freedom," in Philosophy and the Reconstruction of Culture, ed. John J. Stuhr (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993).

[13] But I would add that just because words are socially constructed, we do not need to assume that they don’t refer to anything beyond other words.

[14] Mark Lilla, "The Politics of Jacques Derrida," The New York Review of Books June 25 1998.

[15] That is, “freewill” understood in its normal philosophical sense, as “the ability to act independently of physical or psychological causation.”

[16] However, this need not mean that the physical world is not a great deal more complex and unexpected than we normally assume, and that truly remarkable, seemingly miraculous physical events do not occur. I leave out of the discussion here the claim some people make to certain kinds of paranormal experience – not because I think these kinds of things never happen, but because, if they do, I think they are the product of physical forces that we have not as yet fully understood.

[17] I go with Aristotle on this, and Aquinas should have as well.

[18] But let’s not make the mistake of naively supposing at this point that we really understand what kind of things “natural laws” are.  Here is an opening for progressive members of the Roman Catholic community.

[19] Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, edited by Karla Jay and Allen Young (New York: Douglas/Links, 1972), 270.

[20] Here I am using this term with shameful sloppiness, because part of the postmodern attitude seems to be that there is little if any shared “project” that postmodernists are all up to: there are many “postmodernisms,” rather than a single postmodern perspective.  I hope the reader here will be patient with the inevitable imprecision of such language.

[21] Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, 304.

[22] Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, 270.

[23] Mark Blasius, Gay and Lesbian Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), 3.

[24] I mean to include here the language of some religious liberals.

[25] Isaiah Berlin, "Two Concepts of Liberty," in Four Essays on Liberty (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), 122ff.

[26] Persons with Aids.

[27] An organization of ex-gays “dedicated to communicating God’s restorative power” to all who are “struggling” with the sin of homosexuality.

[28] Joe Dallas, Desires in Conflict (Eugene OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1991), 18.

[29] “Reparative therapy” is the clinical practice offered by right-wing Christian psychologists who claim to be able to “cure” us.

[30] See David Seiple, "Aging Out," The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide viii, no. 3 (2001): 42-3, for a review of the book.

[31] I’m speculating here about the proportion of gay to straight men who enjoy a radical flexibility in their commitments to social convention (including beliefs), insofar as they have succeeded at weathering a very tough homophobic childhood.  A similar point could be made about lesbians, though it’s unclear whether lesbians might not be even more able to do this than gay men.  The difference may not be significant.  As the Gay Movement succeeds, however, this subcultural trait, as it characterizes the LGBT community at large, is likely to diminish unless we can share that effectively with others outside, before the historical moment is lost.  History allows only some things at certain moments, and while I don’t believe historical outcomes are “predetermined” in any simple way, they are certainly constrained 

[32] As distinguished, once again, from “freewill” (which is supposed to be physically and psychologically undetermined).

[33] It is important to note, though we cannot here discuss, the fact that this does not imply ethical egoism as long as we take a communitarian line and say that it is in our own interest to take others’ interests into account when acting.   This would be an ethic based ultimately in a modified altruism.

[34] René Descartes, Meditations Concerning First Philosophy, in Philosophical Essays, trans. Laurence J. Lafleur (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964), 80.

[35] Dworkin, The Theory and Practice of Autonomy, 16.

[36] An example of a “lower-order preference” might be one’s desire to smoke cigarettes, and a “higher-order preference” would be what one thinks about that desire – as in the case of the smoker who wants badly to quit.

[37] Dworkin, The Theory and Practice of Autonomy, 17.

[38] Bernard Berofsky, "Autonomy," in How Many Questions? Essays in Honor of Sidney Morgenbesser, ed. Leigh S. Cauman, and others (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1983), 315.

[39] Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, in The History of Sexuality, Vol 2, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Random House, 1985), 71-77.

[40] John Rajchman, Michel Foucault: The Freedom of Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 36.

[41] David M. Halperin, Saint Foucault (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

[42] The Final Foucault, edited by James Bernauer and David Rasmussen (Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 1991), 3.

[43] The Final Foucault, 4.

[44] The Greek term from the New Testament usually translated as “love.”

[45] A Buddhist Sanskrit term often translated as “compassion.”