[lit-ideas] SOS: Autonomical risk

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sat, 20 May 2006 10:34:48 -0700



Heather-Noel Schwartz describes Sources of the Self as "an examination of
the ethical basis behind a Communitarian society."   Schwartz implies that
Taylor values autonomy in that it enables the individual to choose what
matters.  I could ask whether he chooses what matters to him or what matters
to the community in which he resides.  If there is no difference, if what
matters to the individual is identical to what matters to the community,
then I wonder whether much value can be placed on autonomy.   If we remember
that pre-modern man did not want to be autonomous from his community, it is
probably safe to say that a longing to be one with one's community is
something many if not most people feel.  


Sinclair Lewis with Babbitt, made conformity a dirty word, and yet people
still desire to be accepted members in good standing of their communities.
Organizations of all sorts want their members to conform to a greater or
lesser extent.  So how valuable is autonomy?  Or perhaps a better question
would be "what sort of person most values autonomy?"


A member-in-good-standing at a local church is going to be one who conforms
to the beliefs and practices of that church.  To call a church member
"autonomous" is almost a contradiction in terms.  If someone disagrees with
the doctrine and practices of his church, he will almost certainly not
remain a member.  He cannot be utterly autonomous and be a conscientious
member at the same time.  


On the other hand a historian writing an original work of history will
strive to be autonomous in the sense that he will seek to avoid being
influenced by previous historians' opinions; otherwise he will be called a
disciple.  The same thing would be true in other fields.  Russell wanted
Wittgenstein to be a disciple but the latter was autonomous and could not
subordinate his thinking to Russell's.  


Can we say that we are happier if we are living in a structure we respect,
one in which we readily choose not to exercise our potential autonomy?
Perhaps we have a family, are a member in good standing of a few
organizations including our job, subscribe to popular opinions, accept what
is accepted and are, therefore, happy.  But some of us were confronted by
the question in Philosophy 101, "is it better to be a happy fool or an
unhappy Socrates?"  We decided, of course, that it was better to be an
unhappy Socrates, and Socrates was about as autonomous as it is possible to
get.  Even when he drank the hemlock he was choosing a course of action
almost no one else would have chosen, or perhaps it is better to say "been
able to choose."   Though we answered the question a certain way in
Philosophy 101, have we carried that answer consistently throughout our
lives?  Or have we opted in most situations for the soothing happiness of
the joiner, the Babbitt, the conformist, the fool? 


Then too there is almost by definition a pathological risk to being
autonomous.  It has been implied to us that Socrates was unhappy.  Surely it
is pathological to choose to be unhappy.  I've read many of the Plato's
Dialogues and don't recall that Socrates was presented as being unhappy, but
insofar as we reject our community in the exercise of our autonomy, we are
inviting unhappiness.  Perhaps the historian or the philosopher can be
autonomous without being unhappy, but can a truck driver, a policeman or an
engineer?   In speaking for the latter category, I recall that I didn't seek
autonomy in all things but when a managerial decision came athwart my
conception of what was right, I became unhappy, especially when I decided to
do what I believed to be right rather than obey an order.  Schwartz portrays
Taylor as addressing this issue.  She says Taylor wouldn't have couched the
matter as I have but would ask "what does it mean to be good" when
confronted with my engineering dilemma"?  And yet I must slip back into the
matter of right and argue that it would have been more difficult for me to
live with having done something wrong than having disobeyed a manager.  I
don't recall thinking in terms of choosing the good. 




-----Original Message-----
From: Omar Kusturica


--- Lawrence Helm <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxx> wrote:


> I'm not sure whether Charles Taylor cares about the

> "autonomy" of the modern

> self, 


*Apparently he is quite concerned with that. See:




The general thrust of Turner's ideas are set against

the narrative of Western intellectual thought,

particularly concerning the ideas of Autonomy and

Morality. Modernist philosophers have placed Reason,

Autonomy and rule-governed/rights-based morality at

the center of what is considered to be a "good life."

What has been taken to issue by many theorists in the

19th and 20th Centuries is the harmful aspects of

these grand ideas. Reason was chipped away at by the

increasing bureaucratization and military

technologies/methods of killing, Autonomy considered

to be not only a bourgeois luxury but a naive

understanding of what the individual is in society,

and moralities based on rights and fundamentally,

rules, had been criticized for being anything but

moral by doing away with morality founded from (and

maintained) within individuals. It is at this

dissolution/disillusion that Taylor enters the scene. 


  Charles Taylor continues the effort to question the

authority of Reason and Autonomy. By this, I mean to

state that Reason and Autonomy have been given the the

authority to be the only goods in life and thus

ignoring the other facets of what Turner and

contemporaries would consider "the good life."

Fundamental to modernist thinking is the use of

dichotomies that arbitrarily polarizes fragments of

human existence and ways of knowing. Typical examples

can be thrown out easily (for we all know the game)

such as Reason/Intuition, Light/Dark, Male /Female,

Individual/Community, etc,. In the West, the dichotomy

was used as a way to regulate and steer society into a

"morality" and fetishization of laws based on Reason

and Autonomy. As many theorists have pointed out, the

belief in an existent/coherent notion of Reason and

Autonomy (that is privileged in the West) can exist

only against the categories of the Irrational and

Community (society). The standards (Reason, Autonomy,

and rights based on the two) are given the authority

to decide what does and does not matter. "Mattering",

especially for Taylor, is an important aspect of

ethics when considering what is "the good life."1 It

is in this consideration that Taylor begins to

re-evaluate the values that the have been the

foundation of Western thought and society. 




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