Feminist Perspectives on Autonomy (2022)

Autonomy is usually understood by feminist writers in the same waythat it is understood within moral psychology generally, namely, asself-government or self-direction: being autonomous is acting onmotives, reasons, or values that are one’s own. Earlyfeminist literature regarded the notion of autonomy with suspicionbecause it was thought to promote unattractive“masculinist” ideals of personhood; that is, it wasthought to presuppose a conception of the person as“atomistic”, as ideally self-sufficient, as operating in avacuum unaffected by social relationships, or as an abstract reasonerstripped of distorting influences such as emotions. Recently feministshave sought to rehabilitate the notion of autonomy. Some have arguedthat articulating the conditions of autonomous choice is essential tounderstanding gender oppression and related concepts such asobjectification. The challenge facing feminist theorists therefore isto reconceptualize autonomy from a feminist perspective. The term“relational autonomy” is often used to refer to feministreconceptualizations of autonomy to contrast them with notions ofautonomy that are thought to presuppose atomistic conceptions of theself.

1. Introduction

In Kant’s famous dictum, “Autonomy of the will is theproperty the will has of being a law unto itself (independently ofevery property belonging to the objects of volition)” (Kant1785, 108). Rational beings make the moral law for themselves and canregard themselves as authors of the law. Thus autonomy is manifestedwhen rational agents “will” the moral law. For Kant themoral law is a categorical, not a hypothetical, imperative. The act offormulating a categorical imperative, and hence the moral law, is anact of a pure autonomous will, because, unlike the formulation of ahypothetical imperative, it is untainted by the influence of thedesires and interests that an agent may have relative to a particularsituation. (For a more detailed account, see the entry on“Kant’s Account of Reason”.) A contemporary parallelof Kant’s conception of autonomy is John Rawls’sinfluential notion of free and rational agents formulating principlesof justice in the “original position” (Rawls 1971). Rawlsargues that rational agents formulate principles of justice frombehind a “veil of ignorance”, that is, from a position inwhich they are making decisions about how a society will functionbefore they know who in this society they will turn out to be. Forexample, in the original position, agents do not know their socialstatus, natural abilities, or conceptions of the good (Rawls 1971,12). Such agents, like Kantian agents, are not influenced by theparticular desires and preferences that are contingent on beingembedded in an actual situation. Because of this, their formulation ofthe principles of justice is taken to be the product of a“pure” self, and hence genuinelyself-originating. (For a more detailed account, see the entryon “Original Position”.)

Feminist philosophers typically reject the Kantian and Rawlsianconceptions of autonomy. Five categories of feminist critique havebeen identified (Mackenzie & Stoljar 2000b, 5–12). All ofthe critiques reject both the nature of the self and thevalue of autonomy implicit in the Kantian/Rawlsian account.The notion of self implicit in the Kantian and Rawlsian accounts issaid to be “atomistic”; that is, it is abstracted from thesocial relations in which actual agents are embedded. Such aconception of the self is associated with the claim that autonomousagents are, and ought to be, self-sufficient, which in turn isassociated with the character ideal of the “self-mademan”. Feminists challenge this character ideal and questionwhether self-sufficiency, or “substantive independence”,is really a value that a theory of autonomy, and normative theories ingeneral, should promote (Jaggar 1985; Code 1991). If autonomy issomehow conceived as inimical to being a woman—because, forexample, being a women involves valuing social relationships of carewhereas being autonomous devalues such relationships—one denieswomen, in particular, the social and political advantages associatedwith the label “autonomous”.

Since these initial critical reactions, feminist philosophers haveattempted to rehabilitate autonomy (e.g., Meyers 1987 and 1989; Benson1990; Friedman 1997 and 2003; Mackenzie & Stoljar 2000a). Somefeminist philosophers have argued that articulating the conditions ofautonomous choice is vital to attempts to understand genderoppression. The challenge facing feminist theorists is toreconceptualize autonomy in ways that are compatible with the feministcritiques (Mackenzie & Stoljar 2000b, 3–4).“Relational autonomy” is the name that has been given tofeminist reconceptualizations of the notion of autonomy. The term“relational” here may serve simply to deny that autonomyrequires self-sufficiency. If relationships of care andinterdependence are valuable and morally significant (cf. Mackenzie& Stoljar 2000b, 8–10), then any theory of autonomy must be“relational” in the sense that it must acknowledge thatautonomy is compatible with the agent standing in and valuingsignificant family and other social relationships.“Relational” may also deny the metaphysical notion ofatomistic personhood, emphasizing instead that persons are sociallyand historically embedded, not metaphysically isolated, and shaped byfactors such as race and class. It is this latter sense of“relational” that will be employed in the following sketchof relational accounts.

2. Feminist “Hard Cases”

Why is autonomy of interest to feminists? One way to answer thisquestion is to examine what might be considered failures ofautonomy that appear to be linked to practices of genderoppression. This section describes three examples that have beenwidely discussed in the feminist literature on autonomy. Theseare:

  1. self-abnegation or excessive deference to the wishes ofothers;
  2. “adaptive preference formation” in which choices andpreferences are unconsciously accommodated to oppressive socialconditions; and
  3. decisions of agents to adopt what may appear to be practices ofgender oppression—e.g., veiling—including those that seemto produce significant physical and psychological harm to women, e.g.,“genital cutting” (Meyers 2000a).

The examples are “hard cases” because there isdisagreement among feminists over whether (and how) the casesillustrate diminished autonomy.

2.1 Self-abnegation

Several theorists (e.g., Westlund 2003, 483–4; Oshana 2006,57–58) invoke Virginia Woolf’s critique of CoventryPatmore’s poem “Angel in the House” to motivatediscussions of autonomy:

She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. Sheexcelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herselfdaily. If there was chicken, she took the leg, if there was a draught,she sat in it. (Woolf 1942, 59)

Andrea Westlund observes that the Angel resembles Thomas Hill’swell-known example of the Deferential Wife (Westlund 2003,485–6):

She buys the clothes he prefers, invites the guestshe wants to entertain, and makes love whenever he isin the mood. She willingly moves to a new city in order for him tohave a more attractive job, counting her own friendships andgeographical preferences insignificant by comparison... She does notsimply defer to her husband in certain spheres as a trade-off for hisdeference in other spheres. On the contrary, she tends not to form herown interests, values, and ideals, and when she does, she counts themas less important than her husband’s. (Hill 1991, 5)

One would think that such excessive deference would be incompatiblewith autonomy. Excessive deference implies that others, not the agentherself, are driving the agent’s choice and preferenceformation. However, Westlund points out that on some popular accountsof autonomy, because the woman is willing to subordinateherself or, because she prefers deference and values her ownopinions and interests less than she values those of her husband, shemay be considered autonomous. For example, on one influential account,that of Harry Frankfurt, a preference is autonomous if it is one withwhich the agent wholeheartedly identifies (Frankfurt 1988). AsWestlund argues, the agent here seems to identify wholeheartedly withher preference for deference to her husband: “Hill’scharacter is remarkable in part because she seems sounambivalent about her subservient role” (Westlund2003, 491).

The example is of interest to feminists in the first place because thedeference and apparent preference for subservience it describes isgendered. It is an outcome of systems of gender oppressionthat women are expected to assume servile roles, and hence may come toendorse, prefer or willingly adopt them. Moreover, perhaps preciselybecause of the connection between these kinds of preferences andsystems of gender oppression, many feminists resist the conclusionthat the Angel and the Deferential Wife are autonomous. Thus SusanBabbitt argues that although the Deferential Wife appears to have madea rational judgment about what she values, and appears therefore to beliving according to her own life-plans, in fact the preference forsubservience is incompatible with her autonomy: “habitualservility” defines her sense of self, and this is “not thekind of self to which a concept of autonomy can be applied”(Babbitt 1993, 250). If this is right, influential accounts ofautonomy, and those feminist positions influenced by them, will haveto be revised. (See the entry on “Feminist MoralPsychology” for more discussion of the example of theDeferential Wife.)

2.2 Adaptive preference formation

Discussions of adaptive preference formation are often found in theliterature—both feminist and nonfeminist—on rationalchoice theory (Elster 1983; Superson 2005; Cudd 2006). According toJon Elster’s classic description of adaptive preferenceformation, a fox, after finding that he can no longer reach somegrapes, decides that he does not want the grapes after all. The foxadapts his preferences to what he perceives to be the optionsavailable to him. In order to distinguish adaptive preferenceformation from preference change due to learning and other processes,Elster proposes that the former is an unconscious process in which anagent turns away from a preference to avoid unpleasant cognitivedissonance that is associated with holding on to it. According toElster, this is a “blind psychic process operating ‘behindthe back’ of the person” (Elster 1983, 16; see alsoColburn 2011). Others characterize adaptive preferences as those theagent finds herself with after “life-long habituation”(Nussbaum 2001, 80; Sen 1995; see also Khader 2009, 2011). Forexample, Martha Nussbaum describes the case of poor working women inIndia who, though subjected to physical abuse by their husbands,choose to remain in the marriage. Some women, like Vasanti, think thatthe abuse “was painful and bad, but, still, a part ofwomen’s lot in life, just something women have to put up with aspart of being a woman dependent on men, and entailed by having lefther own family to move into a husband’s home” (Nussbaum2001, 68–9).

It is increasingly noticed that adaptive preferences are formed in thecircumstances of oppression. Theorists of oppression have pointed tothe phenomenon of “deformed desire” in which “theoppressed come to desire that which is oppressive to them…[and]one’s desires turn away from goods and even needs that, absentthose conditions, they would want” (Cudd 2006, 181). Adaptive ordeformed desires may be the result of the internalization of anoppressive ideology:

Consider the eighteen year-old college student who excels in herstudies, is well-liked by her many friends and acquaintances, leads anactive, challenging life, yet who regularly feels bad about herselfbecause she does not have ‘the right look’… So, ontop of everything else she does, she expends a great deal of time andmoney trying to straighten or curl her hair, to refine her cosmetictechnique, to harden or soften her body, and so on…. (Benson1991, 389)

One plausible analysis of the student’s psychology is that shehas internalized the oppressive norms of the fashion industry,according to which appearance is tied to self-worth. The student hasunconsciously turned away from values that would afford her ahealthier sense of self-worth; her desire for an excessive number ofbeauty treatments is deformed because it is the product of adoptingvalues that are oppressive to her, and it is a desire that she wouldnot have had absent the oppressive conditions.

Adaptive or deformed preferences have been taken to be“paradigmatically nonautonomous” (Taylor 2009, 71). Forinstance, feminists working on rational choice theory tend to assumethat deformed desires are incompatible with rational choice andautonomous choice, or at least that they arise only in contexts inwhich autonomy is already damaged (e.g., Superson 2005, 109). However,reactions to adaptive preferences vary in the literature on autonomy(Stoljar 2014; Terlazzo 2016). Marilyn Friedman suggests that womenwho choose to remain in abusive relationships may be autonomous. ForFriedman, adapting to an abusive relationship is in principlecompatible with the critical reflection that is sufficient forautonomy; such women may have endorsed the preference to remain andmay have rejected competing options (Friedman 2003, 146).(Friedman’s “procedural” account of autonomy will bediscussed in detail in §4.) Other autonomy theorists argue alongsimilar lines, leaving open the possibility that adaptive preferencescould count as autonomous. Andrea Westlund argues that women could“freely and authentically” be committed to norms thatsubordinate them, as long as they are answerable to others for theircommitment to these norms (e.g., Westlund 2009, 29; see §7 of thecurrent entry).

2.3 Practices of oppression

The third set of cases that has attracted attention among feministautonomy theorists are those in which agents appear toself-consciously adopt (what are alleged to be) practices ofoppression (such as the Islamic practice of veiling), participate inpractices of oppression that severely curtail women’s options(such as arranged marriages) or subject women to physical harm (suchas ‘female circumcision’ or clitoridectomy). Adopting suchpractices need not be the result of accommodation or adaptation; itneed not be the result of an attempt to resolve cognitive dissonanceat an unconscious level, or of resigned habituation to oppressivecircumstances. Rather, the practices in question can be the explicitrequirements of a society or culture, and self-consciously promoted bywomen themselves. Uma Narayan describes a community of women in India,the Sufi Pirzadi, who “live in relative purdah (seclusion)within the home and are expected to veil when they are inpublic” (Narayan 2002, 420). These women acknowledge that purdahseverely limits their education and mobility, and has the effect ofmaking them dependent on male members of the community. But they alsoexplicitly recognize benefits, for instance, that veiling signifies“womanly modesty and propriety” and their “superiorstanding vis-à-vis other Muslim women” (Narayan 2002,420–1).

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Some theorists of autonomy (e.g., Oshana 2006) claim that severelyconstraining external conditions are autonomy-undermining. Othertheorists are more circumspect, urging that women subject toconstraining practices should not be characterized as “compliantdupes of patriarchy” (Narayan 2002, 420) and that women livingunder oppressive regimes could autonomously accept theirconditions (Christman 2004, 152; Westlund 2009, 29). Diana Meyerswrites, for instance, that “there are women [participating inthe practice of female genital cutting] who conclude that culturaltradition or cohesion or getting married and bearing children are moreimportant than bodily integrity” and that therefore “wewould need far more consensus than we presently have (or are likely toget)…before we could conclude that women who opt for compliancewith female genital cutting norms never do so autonomously”(Meyers 2000a, 479).

We see, then, that feminist philosophers have responded to the hardcases in different ways. The following sections provide a moredetailed elaboration of the theoretical positions behind thesedifferent responses.

3. Relational Autonomy

The cases above draw attention to the fact that there is disagreementamong theorists of autonomy, and among feminist theorists, overwhether they are examples in which the agent’s autonomy isdiminished.

One way to resolve the disagreement might be to adopt what could becalled a “thin” or “minimalist” conception ofautonomy. On this conception, agents are autonomous just in casecertain minimal conditions for human flourishing obtain, because thepreferences, choices, and so forth that one adopts in this state ofwell-functioning should be considered to be “one’sown”. Sarah Buss, for example, advocates such a position:

The key to…self-governing agency is the distinction between ahealthy human being and a human being who suffers from somepsychological or physiological ‘affliction’ (e.g., intensepain, fear, anxiety, fatigue, depression, and obsession). (Buss 2005,215)

An agent’s autonomy is impaired, therefore, only if shesuffers an affliction that is severe enough to distort and pathologizeher capacity for reasoning; the default position is that she isautonomous. Narayan also suggests a thin conception of autonomy:

A person’s choice should be considered autonomous as long as theperson was a ‘normal adult’ with no serious cognitive oremotional impairments and was not subject to literal outright coercionby others. (Narayan 2002, 429)

On minimalist conceptions of autonomy, most of the agents described inthe hard cases would be autonomous because minimal conditions forflourishing obtain and there is no pathology, cognitive impairment, ordirect coercion present. This characterization has its theoreticaladvantages. For example, Narayan is concerned to limit thejustification for state interference in individual voluntary choice; aminimalist conception may indeed be acceptable for use in theoriesthat regulate relations between the citizen and the state or toaddress issues of paternalism (Holroyd 2009).

But minimalism is not the norm within the feminist literature onautonomy. It is true that oppressive social conditions do nottypically produce pathologies or cognitive impairments; neither do thesocial conditions of oppression usually constitute direct coercionsufficient to erode autonomy. However, minimalism overlooks thecomplex effects of gender norms and oppressive social conditions onagency (e.g., Bierria 2014; Liebow 2016; Johnston 2017). The hardcases are hard because they suggest that gender norms and oppressiveconditions, in addition to factors such as cognitiveimpairment or direct coercion, potentially undermine or erodeagents’ capacities for autonomy. Yet it is not clear preciselyhow this happens.

Feminist or “relational” theories of autonomy attempt toanswer the question of how internalized oppression and oppressivesocial conditions undermine or erode agents’ autonomy. Thesetheories will be sketched in §4–8. Before turning to thesetheories, some preliminary classifications should be made. Relationaltheories may be classified as either

  1. procedural, strongly substantive, orweakly substantive, versus
  2. causal or constitutive.

The procedural/substantive distinction within relational conceptionsparallels a distinction within the literature on autonomy moregenerally (Mackenzie & Stoljar 2000b, 12–21). Proceduraltheories have dominated the debate since the 1970s (Dworkin 1988;Frankfurt 1988). They claim that autonomy is achieved when the agentundergoes, or has the capacity to undergo, an internal intellectualprocess of reflecting on her motivations, beliefs, and values, andthen revising her preferences in the light of such reflection. Thisprocess is said to be “content-neutral” because theoutcomes of the process of critical reflection, whatever theircontent, will be autonomous. Substantive theories claim that autonomyis a value-laden notion. According to “strong substantive”approaches, “the contents of the preferences or values thatagents can form or act on autonomously are subject to direct normativeconstraints” (Benson 2005a, 133). A preference to be enslaved orto be subservient cannot be autonomous on strong substantive accounts(e.g., Charles 2010). “Weak substantive” approaches buildin normative content, and hence are substantive, yet they do not placedirect normative constraints on the contents of agents’preferences (Benson 2005a; Richardson 2001). For example, someaccounts require that agents exhibit moral attitudes to themselvessuch as self-respect or a robust sense of their own self-worth tocount as autonomous (Govier 1993; McLeod 2002).

In addition to the procedural/substantive dimension, relationalconceptions may be classified as either causal orconstitutive. Causal conceptions acknowledge the impact ofboth social relationships and socio-historical circumstances onagents’ capacities. Annette Baier points out that agents are“second persons”, that is, “persons are essentiallysuccessors, heirs to other persons who formed and cared forthem” (Baier 1985, 85). On this view, an agent’s socialrelationships influence the development of autonomy: “if we askourselves what actually enables people to be autonomous, the answer isnot isolation, but relationships—with parents, teachers,friends, loved ones” (Nedelsky 1989, 12). If socialrelationships cause autonomy to develop, a lack ofappropriate social relationships can also stunt its development(Friedman 1997). Similarly, social and historical conditions (such asoppressive gender socialization) may promote or impede the capacityfor autonomy (e.g., Meyers 1989).

Causal accounts investigate the effects of external“relational” factors on agents’ autonomy; they donot offer an analysis of autonomy using such externalfactors. On constitutively relational accounts, however,interpersonal or social conditions are part of the “definingconditions” of autonomy (Christman 2004, 147). Suppose, forinstance, that an agent is subject to severely constraining externalconditions such as slavery. Marina Oshana argues that such externalconditions are incompatible with autonomy because autonomy is atemporally extended, “global” condition of agents in whichthey have “de facto power and authority over choicesand actions significant to the direction of [their lives]”(Oshana 2006, 2). Severely constraining external conditions remove thede facto power required for autonomy. Other theorists who adoptconstitutive accounts focus rather on local autonomy, namely,what is required for choices, preferences, or desires atparticular times to count as autonomous. Suppose, for instance,that autonomous choice at a particular time requires that agents haveavailable to them a “wide enough range of…significantoptions” at that time (Brison 2000, 285). This account of localautonomy is constitutively relational because no matter how robust anagents’ psychological capacities, if the relevant externalconditions do not obtain at a time, it is not possible for theagent’s preference at that time to be autonomous.

The procedural/substantive distinction cuts across thecausal/constitutive distinction. Procedural theories are typicallycausally relational (see §4). For instance, although thefeatures required for autonomy on procedural accounts—e.g.,critical reflection—can be affected by oppressive socialization,it is in principle possible for the critical faculties of agents inoppressive environments, even including those who endorse oppressivenorms, to be fully intact and hence for them to be fully autonomous.An important feature of procedural theories, however, is theircontent-neutral or formal aspect. Andrea Westlund has recentlyendorsed what she calls a formal and constitutively relationalposition in which interpersonal conditions are included in thedefinition of autonomy (see §7). Therefore, content-neutraltheories can be constitutively relational. Moreover, weak substantivetheories can be causally relational. Weak substantive theories buildin moral self-regarding attitudes such as self-respect as necessaryconditions of autonomy. Although these attitudes may be affected byinterpersonal and other external conditions, weak substantive theoriesneed not employ the external conditions as defining conditions ofautonomy (see §6). However, strong substantive theories thatplace direct constraints on the contents of the preferences permittedfor autonomous agents are constitutively relational because, on strongsubstantive theories, external conditions are necessary conditions ofautonomy (see §8).

4. Procedural Conceptions

This section outlines two versions of procedural and content-neutralconceptions that are well-known in the feminist literature: those ofMarilyn Friedman and Diana Tietjens Meyers.

Procedural conceptions have been prominent in the standard literatureon autonomy from the 1970s to the present day (e.g., Dworkin 1988;Frankfurt 1988; Christman 2009). These conceptions have been adoptedin different forms by feminist theorists. The concept ofcontent-neutrality has been an extremely important tool in thefeminist rehabilitation of autonomy and procedural conceptions areattractive to feminists in large part due to their content-neutrality.Many feminists hesitate to embrace autonomy because of itsassociations with “masculinist” ideals such as thoseexemplified in the “self-made man”, namely, substantiveindependence and self-reliance, social isolation and hyper-rationality(Jaggar 1985; Code 1991). However, on content-neutral conceptions,there is no value or set of preferences that an autonomous person mustendorse. Preferences for relationships of care and dependency such asthose within marriage or other family structures can be just asautonomous as preferences for self-reliance or relative socialisolation; preferences for cultural and religious norms into whichagents are born can be just as autonomous as preferences to repudiatethese norms, and so on. The device of content-neutrality also respectsfeminist attempts to preserve the differences among and themultiplicity of agents. Feminists noticed that agents’life-plans and conceptions of the good will be influenced by adiversity of social factors such as race, class, and gender (Friedman2003; Mackenzie & Stoljar 2000b; Meyers 1989, 2002). Hence theyargue that theories of autonomy must be neutral with respect tolife-plans and conceptions of the good. According to some feminists, atheory of autonomy should not “homogenize” agents (Meyers2000a, 480), nor should it impose feminist, liberal, or any otherideals on agents in the name of autonomy. Content-neutrality allowsthat the preferences of autonomous agents could be wrong fromanother perspective, either morally or because they do not align withthe agent’s best interests. Many theorists consider that acriterion of a correct theory of autonomy is that it distinguishbetween self-rule and right-rule (Benson 2005a).Content-neutrality ensures that self-rule does not collapse intoright-rule, and further that agents are protected from the risk ofpaternalistic interference in their decisions.

Procedural conceptions characterize autonomous agents—agentswhose preferences and desires are genuinely theirown—as those who critically reflect in the appropriateway to evaluate their preferences, motives, and desires. Suchapproaches are often hierarchical (employing a hierarchy ofmental states to explain autonomy) as well as structural(proposing conditions that an agent’s existingmotivational state must satisfy). One well-known example of ahierarchical and structural approach is that of Harry Frankfurt. OnFrankfurt’s account, autonomy requires “wholeheartedidentification” at a higher-order level with lower-ordermotives, preferences, or desires (Frankfurt 1988). These structuraland ahistorical approaches have been subject to many cogent objections(Mackenzie & Stoljar 2000b; Taylor 2005b). One importantdifficulty is the “problem of manipulation” in which it issupposed that a hypnotist inserts into an agent a mental statestructure that is sufficient for autonomy (see, e.g., Taylor 2005b).On structural accounts, this agent counts as autonomous when sheappears not to be.

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The procedural conceptions defended by Friedman and Meyers exemplifyan alternative approach in which autonomy is not tied to thestructural features of an occurrent mental state but rather isachieved when the agent undergoes a historical process ofcritical reflection. John Christman is an important proponent in thestandard literature of the historical approach (Christman 1991;Christman 2009; see also Mele 1995). For Christman, as for many otherswho adopt procedural conceptions, autonomous agents must be bothreflectively competent and authentic. The test for authenticity on hisaccount is historical and counterfactual: an agent is authentic withrespect to a certain preference or desire if and only if she did notresist the development of the preference or desire when attending tothe process of its development, or would not have resistedhad she attended to the process (Christman 1990; Christman 1991, 346).In recent work, Christman develops the notion ofnonalienation as the test of authenticity: an agent isauthentic with respect to a desire if and only if, were she tocritically reflect on the historical processes leading to the desire,she would not be alienated from the desire, where“alienation” is understood as either a negative judgmentabout or a negative emotional reaction to the desire (Christman 2009,144, 155–6).

Friedman employs the related idea of reflective endorsement:a process of critical reflection can result in either endorsement andwholehearted commitment to one’s preferences and desires, towholehearted repudiation of the preferences or desires, or tohalf-hearted commitment to the preferences or desires (Friedman 2003,4–5). Friedman says that “when an agent chooses or acts inaccord with wants or desires that she has self-reflectively endorsed,then she is autonomous” (Friedman 2003, 5). Agents acting ondesires that satisfy this condition are acting authentically and ontheir deepest commitments.

On Friedman’s conception, and on procedural accounts in general,there is no reason in principle why choosing subservience, or adoptingoppressive norms, could not be autonomous. An example considered byFriedman is that of a preference to remain in an abusive domesticrelationship due to adherence to religious or moral norms of marriage.The preference may be adaptive in the sense described in §2 ifthe agent has unconsciously adjusted her preferences to accommodatethe circumstances, thinking she has no other feasible options.Freidman comments that if these religious or moral norms are the onesthe agent “really cares about”, her preference to remainis autonomous. She writes:

Someone’s self-reflections and choices under those conditionsare less likely than otherwise to be reliable reflections of what shereally cares about. Yet it is not impossible to discern or actaccording to one’s deeper concerns under coercive conditions.(Friedman 2003, 146)

The agent may even recognize that choosing to remain in an abusiverelationship is in effect to choose a situation in which her ownfuture autonomy may be compromised. But, as Friedman points out,autonomy is not the only value, and, the case could be explained asthe agent ranking her own future autonomy against other values ofimportance to her. In the agent’s calculations, future autonomyis ranked below other considerations; it is not overriding.

Friedman nevertheless is reluctant to treat such agents as autonomousto the highest degree. She proposes a “threshold” account.That is, when the preference for a traditional role of subservience,or to remain in an abusive relationship, reflects the agent’sdeepest commitments, it meets a threshold and hence is autonomous.However, although these agents are locally autonomous relative tothese preferences, they are less autonomous than agents whoaltogether repudiate what Friedman calls “autonomy-devaluingnorms” (Friedman 2003, 24).

Meyers introduces the notion of “autonomy competency” tospell out her procedural conception. In an early paper, Meyersdescribes acting autonomously as “the difference between doingwhat one wants and doing what one really wants. The autonomous self isnot identical with the apparent self; it is an authentic or‘true’ self” (Meyers 1987, 619). For Meyers, theauthentic self emerges when a person exercises the “agenticskills” that characterize autonomous people:

Autonomous people exercise a repertoire of skills to engage inself-discovery, self-definition and self-direction, and...theauthentic self is the evolving collocation of attributes that emergesin this ongoing process of reflection, deliberation and action.(Meyers 2005, 49)

She argues that the skills necessary for the authentic self to berealized can be damaged by gender socialization. In the case ofWestern women, the “emotional receptivity andperceptiveness” that is encouraged in women is likely to enhancethe skill of self-discovery and hinder those of self-definition anddirection; whereas for men in Western cultures the opposite is likelyto be the case (Mackenzie & Stoljar 2000b, 18).

Meyers endorses the content-neutrality of the procedural accountbecause she considers that substantive or“value-saturated” accounts of autonomy limit thelife-plans and conceptions of the good available to autonomous agents,and undermine the possibility of diversity. However, in an analysis ofthe practice of “genital cutting”, she acknowledges that“value-neutral” approaches to autonomy, such as her own,should not “[neglect] the possibility that a well-integrated andsmoothly functioning self could be in need of rigorous scrutiny anddrastic overhaul” (2000a, 480). Meyers argues for the importancein such cases of education programs that “augmentautonomy” because “[s]uccessful education programsmobilize women’s introspection, imagination and imaginationskills”. For example:

One program invited women to explore their feelings about theirsexuality…[and encouraged them] to acknowledge the complexityof their emotional lives and to take their own subjectivity seriously.Another…invited women to empathize with [women who had becomeinfected] and the grief of the families of women and girls who haddied… [Another invited] women to imagine the lives of womenwhose cultures are different but whose religion is the same as theirown. (Meyers 2000a, 485)

Meyers’s account implies, then, that certain specific elementsof the critical reflection required for autonomy—namely,introspection and imagination—can be damaged by oppressivepractices. Moreover, if agents lack self-respect due to beingsubjected to oppression, they may not achieve autonomy competency.Meyers proposes that self-respect is necessary to achieve theself-realization required for autonomy competency, although it“cannot be construed as a masculine or perfectionistvalue” (Meyers 1989, 208; compare Dillon’s feministconception of self-respect in Dillon 1992). Due to the presence of amoral notion of self-respect in Meyers’s account, it has beenquestioned whether the account is really value-neutral. In one sense,her account is content-neutral: the life-plan that anautonomous agent can define for herself is not constrained by moral orother requirements; it does not have to be a moral life-plan or onethat is otherwise good for the agent to undertake. In another sense,because of the role of self-nurturing and self-respect without whichthe exercise of autonomy competency would not be possible,Meyers’s account could be said to have “weak normativesubstance” and hence be weakly substantive (Benson 2005a).

Friedman’s and Meyers’s conceptions of autonomy illustratefour features of autonomy that have been influential in subsequentfeminist work. First, their conceptions of autonomy are (causally)relational. Meyers considers the impact of oppressivesocialization on autonomy competency. Friedman considers theimpact of familial and community relationships (Friedman2003, 97). Restrictive or oppressive social relationships may hamperan agent’s ability to develop the capacity for criticalreflection that is required for autonomy, or they may provide rolemodels, self-trust, self-confidence, and so forth, which enhance thecapacity (Friedman 2003, 97).

Second, both Friedman and Meyers claim that autonomy is a matter ofdegree. On Friedman’s conception, autonomy comes in degreesbecause an agent’s capacity for critical reflection may operateat different levels of sophistication depending on the agent’ssocialization and educational background. Meyers distinguishesepisodic or local autonomy—the capacity todecide in particular situations—from programmaticautonomy, which is the capacity to decide major life issues (e.g.,whether to be a mother, or whether to dedicate oneself to the pursuitof a career). Meyers thinks that oppressive socialization hampersprogrammatic autonomy but not necessarily local autonomy (Mackenzie& Stoljar 2000b, 18). For example, oppressive socialization(which, for instance, might value marriage or motherhood over a careeror financial independence) may truncate the range of options thatgirls consider to be viable, thus interfering with their programmaticautonomy. They may nevertheless have strongly developed criticalreasoning faculties that allow them a high degree of competency toexercise local autonomy skills. If an agent is capable of localautonomy but not programmatic autonomy, she has autonomy only to adegree.

Third, Friedman and Meyers reject the association of autonomy withhyper-rationality or (overly) cognitive aspects of the self. Friedmannotes that the “self-reflections that make choices and actionsautonomous need not be conscious” and that “autonomouschoice…does not need to be highly deliberate ordeliberated” (Friedman 2003, 8). Moreover, feelings mayconstitute “reasons” on Friedman’s view:“emotions and desires, as well as imagination, can constitute akind of reflection on or attention to objects or values ofconcern” (Friedman 2003, 10). Meyers also repudiates the“hyper-rational” construal of the skills that arenecessary for autonomy on her theory. In recent work, she has focusedon the relational and embodied dimensions of the self to ask whetherautonomy skills can be exercised by what she calls the“self-as-embodied” and the“self-as-relational” (Meyers 2005). There is littlediscussion in the literature on autonomy of the embodied dimensions ofagency and autonomy, so here Meyers has identified a fruitful avenueof further research (see also Mackenzie 2001).

Fourth, Meyers addresses the question of whether the authentic or“true self” required for autonomy must be unified (Meyers2000b). Notions such as wholehearted endorsement seem to imply afurther requirement of coherence among mental states. Indeed, Bensonsuggests that coherence is a feature common to procedural conceptionsthat are “identity-based”, namely, those claiming thatpreferences and actions are “genuinely my own becausethey are appropriately related to my identity” (Benson 2005b,102–3). An important theme in contemporary feminist thought,however, is the rejection of the position that coherence is necessaryfor an agent’s sense of identity. Rather, identity is said to be“intersectional”: an agent’s sense of self issubject to multiple and intersecting modes of oppression, forinstance, those of class, gender, race, and sexuality (e.g., Crenshaw1991). Intersecting oppressions can lead to ambivalence or to a senseof self in which preferences pull in competing directions (e.g.,Benson 2005b, 105–6). Meyers argues for a conception ofauthenticity that incorporates the lessons of intersectionality(Meyers 2000b).

The procedural theories defended by feminists have many strengths, themost noteworthy of which is the commitment to content-neutrality.However, procedural theories have been found wanting by critics fortwo important reasons. First, they do not put enough weight on theeffects of internalized oppression on agents’ motivationalstates. And, second, procedural theories overlook the constitutiverole of external conditions in the definition of autonomy. Consideragents for whom certain norms are ingrained through oppressivesocialization, such as the eighteen-year-old student described in§2. She treats norms about beauty and fashion as important andperhaps overriding reasons for action because she has internalized theidea that appearance is a criterion of self-worth. Due to the effectsof the oppressive ideology, the agent treats false stereotypes as“natural”, and formulates desires and plans based on thestereotype. On procedural accounts, false stereotypes that have beeninternalized by the agent may well be the agent’s ownbecause they may be the products of reflective endorsement or theexercise of autonomy competency. This conclusion seems inadequate tomany authors. For example, Benson has objected to Christman’sversion of a historical procedural account that, in cases like that ofthe student, because the norms are so deeply ingrained, it is notplausible to think that she resisted or even would haveresisted the process of development of the stereotype even had shebeen aware of the process (Benson 1991). Hence procedural accountsoften cannot adequately explain why cases of internalized oppressionappear to be nonautonomous. A second reason that procedural approacheshave been deemed unsatisfactory is that it has been argued thatseverely constraining external circumstances, including the lack of asufficient number of real options, compromise agents’ freedomand autonomy (Raz 1988; Brison 2000; Nussbaum 2001; Oshana 2006).

5. Normative Competency Conceptions

In his early work, Paul Benson offered a normative competenceconception of “free agency” that, he argued, was congenialto feminist interpretations of moral and political agency (Benson1987; 1990; 1991). For our purposes, Benson’s proposal can betreated as an account of autonomy because the capacity for free agencyis also thought of as a capacity for exercising agency that isone’s own. As Benson points out, both Gary Watson andSusan Wolf adopt versions of normative competence views. Watson claimsthat endorsement is insufficient for autonomy because doing“what one wants”—that is to say, doing what one hasendorsed—is compatible with mere intentional agency anddoes not provide the further element required to guaranteeautonomous agency (Watson 1975, 205; compare Buss 1994).Watson proposes that “if what I do flows from my values andends, there is a…sense in which my activities are inescapablymy own” (Watson 1996, 233; quoted in Benson 2005b, 103). Thismodification of the endorsement view, although it introduces valuesinto the analysis of autonomy, suffers from the same objection as thepurely procedural theories discussed in the last section. For if anagent such as the student mentioned above has so effectivelyinternalized oppressive norms that she values them and treats them asher ends, then it is questionable whether they are genuinely herown.

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Susan Wolf adopts a normative competence view in which the capacitythat is essential for autonomy is the capacity to track objectivemoral reasons. Wolf considers agents who have experienced a morallyimpoverished or distorting socialization. For instance, JoJo is theson of an evil and sadistic tyrant who has been raised to respect hisfather’s values and emulate his desires, so that he thoroughlyinternalizes his father’s evil and sadistic worldview. Supposethat on procedural theories, JoJo counts as autonomous because heendorses his desires in the appropriate ways, has the desires hereally wants, and so forth. Wolf proposes that he is neitherfree nor morally responsible because his upbringing has undermined hiscapacity to distinguish right from wrong: “[i]t is unclearwhether anyone with a childhood such as his could have developed intoanything but the twisted and perverse sort of person that he hasbecome” (Wolf 1987, 54). On Wolf’s account, the failure ofautonomy is a failure of a capacity to track an objective aspect ofthe world, namely, “the moral” or “the right”.Since for Wolf the demands of morality are equivalent to the demandsof objective “Reason”, in order to be autonomous, agentsmust be capable of discerning the requirements of Reason.

Benson employs a parallel notion of normative competence, though itdoes not does require a capacity to track objective morality, butrather an ability to identify and deploy norms that are appropriate toa particular domain (1987, 486). He writes that:

[F]ree agency requires normative competence, an array of abilities tobe aware of applicable normative standards, to appreciate thosestandards, and to bring them competently to bear in one’sevaluations of open courses of action…At the heart of freeagency is the power of our actions to reveal who we are, both toourselves and to others, in the context of potential normativeassessments of what we do. (Benson 1990, 54)

Autonomy based on normative competence is compatible with feministreinterpretations of moral and political agency because it isrelational in three respects (Benson 1990, 55). First, normativecompetence is “other-directed” in that “it makescertain normative characteristics of the agent present toothers”. Second, the content of normative competence“depends on the particular norms or standards in relation towhich an agent’s freedom may be determined” (Benson 1990,55). Third, the normative standpoint relative to particular domains isthat of “persons and institutions with whom (or which) one isconcretely connected by friendship, family, work, neighborhood”(Benson 1990, 55).

It is plausible that the oppression experienced by marginalized groupsinterferes with their normative competence. The psychological harms ofoppression include false consciousness (the agent adopts as true thefalse ideology that oppresses her) and deformed desires (theagent’s desires depend on the belief in the false ideology)(Cudd 2006, 176, 182). At worst, agents in the grip of falseconsciousness in a particular domain do not have the capacity relativeto that domain to latch on to alternative, applicable, or“correct” standards and apply them to evaluate theirpreferences and desires. At best, they are faced with a contradictoryset of norms:

If many of the prevailing norms which enter into what normativecompetence practically means for most women in the society are normsthat function to suppress or trivialize women’s contributionsand experience, to deny women dignity as full participants in the lifeof the community, then free agency would seem to confront women as aself-destructive goal. (Benson 1990, 57)

In other words, attempting to exercise normative competence (that is,to promote autonomy) relative to the prevailing norms entails adoptinga set of norms that is oppressive to oneself. Benson suggests that, inorder to promote autonomy, members of marginal groups will need todevelop alternative norms through grassroots activities such asconsciousness-raising.

Benson is careful to point out that a requirement of normativecompetence should not be conflated with a strong substantiveconception of autonomy in which the theory places direct normativeconstraints on the contents of the preferences of autonomous agents.Even on Wolf’s position, in which normative competence is theability to track objective moral norms, normative competence isnevertheless a capacity. It does not require that the contentof agents’ preferences correspond to the content of theapplicable norms. As Benson puts it, “normatively competentpersons can choose what is unreasonable or wrong or value what is bad,because competence lies some distance short of perfect evaluativeperception or responsiveness” (Benson 2005a, 133–4).However, there are controversial issues raised by normative competenceaccounts. The first is that of the status of the moral and other normsthat are employed to explicate normative competence. Wolf’sclaim that there are objective moral reasons that rational agents havethe capacity to track is controversial despite being a well-known andwidely supported position. Benson’s normative standpoints arenot derived from objective moral reasons but rather areintersubjective standpoints—those derived from “persons orinstitutions to which the agent is concretely connected”. Theproblem here, as we have seen, is that such standpoints may beoppressive to the group in which the agent is a member. Indeed, as aresult of internalized oppression, the agent may competently deploythese standards to evaluate her own actions. It seems, for example,that the eighteen-year-old student is competent to evaluate heractions using oppressive norms such as “beauty is a component ofself-worth”. She is normatively competent with respect to theprevailing set of intersubjective norms (those of the oppressiveideology). If the student is to be characterized as lacking autonomy,she must be judged lacking in normative competence from some othernormative standpoint—but where does this other standpoint comefrom on Benson’s account? A final difficulty for normativecompetence accounts is the charge that they conflate autonomy withmoral responsibility. In the case of JoJo, for example, although it isplausible that the comprehensiveness of his socialization absolves himfrom full moral responsibility for his acts, it may be too quick toconclude that his acts are not the product of his own (autonomous)agency. The wish to maintain a conceptual distinction betweenresponsibility and autonomy has led Benson to revise his earlynormative competence approach (Benson 1994, 665).

6. Emotions and Self-regarding Attitudes

The accounts of autonomy surveyed so far offer necessary andsufficient conditions of autonomy that are, broadly speaking,rationalistic. On Friedman’s procedural and content-neutralapproach, an agent’s preference is autonomous if and only ifcertain processes of critical reflection have been followed. OnMeyers’s competency account, an agent is autonomous when theauthentic self emerges as a result of the exercise of the cognitiveskills of self-discovery, self-definition, and self-direction. OnBenson’s normative competence account, an agent must have theintellectual capacity to discern applicable norms in order to count asautonomous. Although these accounts are nuanced and recognize the roleof emotion in critical reflection, none explicitly treat emotions asnecessary conditions of autonomy.

This section sketches a family of approaches that argue that thereasoning processes and the intellectual competencies described aboveare not sufficient for autonomy (even assuming that they arenecessary) (Govier 1993; Benson 1994). These approaches propose thatcertain emotional states and attitudes to oneself are furthernecessary conditions; autonomy is undermined when these emotionalstates are damaged. There is a close connection between theundermining of such states and oppression. The indirect effects ofoppression include the harms of shame and loss of self-esteem (Cudd2006, 176–8; compare Benson 1994, 657–9), which in turncan lead to self-doubt, and the loss of self-confidence andself-trust.

Both Trudy Govier (1993) and Carolyn McLeod (2002) argue thatself-trust is a necessary condition of autonomy. Govier claims that“[p]rocedural autonomy has as its necessary condition a relianceon one’s own critical reflection and judgment, and that relianceis possible only if one has, and can maintain against criticism, asense of one’s own basic competence and worth” (1993,103–4). Govier proposes that other self-regarding attitudes,such as self-respect and self-esteem, are integral components ofself-trust. She looks at the experiences of rape and incest victims toillustrate the ways in which self-trust can be eroded. Women who arethe victims of rape or incest “tended to blame themselves,de-value themselves, and to have a diminished sense of their owncompetence and judgment after the sexual assaults…”(Govier 1993, 101). Govier concludes that lack of self-trust and adiminished sense of one’s own competence undermine thereflection required for autonomy.

Carolyn McLeod focuses on medical contexts to elaborate how self-trustis necessary for autonomy. Consider Anna, who suffered a miscarriageat six weeks gestation and afterwards felt considerable emotionalturmoil (McLeod 2002, 53). McLeod analyzes Anna’s sense ofincompetence to articulate her emotions as in part a result ofothers’ lack of sympathy for her grief and corresponding failureto reinforce her feelings: “[O]ften women and their partners arepressured not to grieve after miscarriage because people tend not toview the fetus’s death as an event that warrants grief”(McLeod 2002, 53). Comments such as “it was a blessing indisguise” or “it could have been worse; you could havelost a baby” fail to “give uptake to [women’s]feelings” (McLeod 2002, 55). The attitudes of others affectagents’ sense of competence, self-worth, and self-trust. Whenthese self-regarding attitudes are diminished, so is an agent’sautonomy.

For McLeod, self-trust is an “attitude of optimism about our owncompetence and moral integrity” (McLeod 2002, 6). McLeod’saccount differs from Govier’s in that her conception ofself-trust is explicitly moral: in “actingautonomously, we strive to meet moral responsibilities to theself” (McLeod 2002, 122). Being autonomous requires treatingoneself well in a moral sense (McLeod 2002, pp. 121–126). Thusalthough Govier’s notion of self-trust seems to be compatiblewith value-neutral procedural accounts of autonomy, McLeod’s isnot. Rather, McLeod’s account is “‘weaklysubstantive” because she claims that certain moral attitudes tooneself—for example, attitudes affirming one’s own moralworth—are necessary to acting autonomously. Moreover, onMcLeod’s account, the self-trust necessary for autonomy is(epistemically) “justified self-trust”: for instance,self-trust or self-distrust is not justified if agents overestimate orunderestimate their competence in certain contexts (McLeod 2002, 104).Hence, for McLeod, there are epistemic as well as moral constraints onautonomy.

McLeod’s examples illustrate the ways in which interpersonalconditions affect agents’ abilities for self-trust and hencetheir autonomy. Benson (1994) develops a similar line of thought. Hedescribes a case of a woman with a certain personality type (Benson1994, 555–7): she is excitable, imaginative, and passionate, andis “prone to emotional outbursts in public” (Benson 1994,556). The woman’s husband, whom the woman trusts, is aphysician, and his response is to “medicalize” hiswife’s personality type as psychologically unstable and“hysterical”. The husband treats his wife as if she werecrazy. As Benson describes it, the woman’s response ishelplessness and disorientation leading to lost self-worth. Thehusband’s and the establishment’s attitude to the womanradically affect her self-conception; it becomes destabilized and herself-confidence is eroded. Moreover, the woman does not resist theprocess through which she loses her self-worth because “shearrives at her sense of incompetence and estrangement…on thebasis of reasons that are valued by a scientific establishment whichis socially validated and which she trusts” (Benson 1994, 657).Benson argues that although the woman’s critical reasoningfaculties are intact, she nevertheless lacks autonomy because of adiminished sense of self-worth.

Govier, McLeod, and Benson introduce new tools for thinking about thehard cases described in §2. Agents in oppressive circumstancesmay have excellent skills of critical reflection, yet in thesecircumstances they are subject to others’ attitudes according towhich they are suited only for subservient roles, that they are ofinferior worth, that they are not capable of being full participantsin society or in a decision-making process, and so forth. Theseattitudes have the effect of eroding their self-trust,self-confidence, and sense of self-worth. For example, although thereasoning skills of the Deferential Wife may be intact—she mayhave reflected on her wish to always cater to her husband, andendorsed it—she may nevertheless have a diminished sense ofself-worth as a result of the subtle effects of gender oppression. Ifshe does not treat herself as worthy of being the “author of herown conduct”, she will lack autonomy (Benson 1994, 659).

Govier’s position is causally relational: interpersonalconditions affect the emotions, which in turn affect the capacitiesfor critical reflection required for autonomy. However, McLeod’sand Benson’s positions are constitutively relational because theself-regarding attitudes necessary for autonomy are themselvesunderstood as constitutively relational. We saw that McLeod adopts amoral notion of justified self-trust as necessary forautonomy, which makes hers a weak substantive position. Her positionis also constitutively relational because agents can be wrong to trustthemselves, for example, when they overestimate their own competence.Hence features of the world—facts about the agent’scompetence—are necessary for justified self-trust that in turnis necessary for autonomy. Benson claims that although what isrequired for a sense of self-worth will be different in differentagents, nevertheless there is a common feature: “the sense ofworthiness to act that is necessary for free agency involves regardingoneself as being competent to answer for one’s conduct in thelight of normative demands that, from one’s point of view,others might appropriately apply to one’s actions” (Benson1994, 660). The definition of self-worth required for autonomy onBenson’s analysis employs interpersonal relations and hence hisaccount is constitutively relational.

7. Dialogical Conceptions

A discussion of self-regarding attitudes raises the question of theinterrelation between self-interpretation and interpretation of theself by others. Charles Taylor comments on the dialogical nature ofthe social self. Taylor writes that “we define our identityalways in dialogue with, sometimes in struggle against, the things oursignificant others want to see in us” (Taylor 1994, 28; compareOshana 2005, 78). In the same vein, several authors pursue“dialogical” conceptions of autonomy in which anagent’s answerability to others is the key condition.As we saw above, Benson explicates the notion of self-worth as in parta requirement of “regarding oneself as being competent to answerfor one’s conduct” (Benson 1994, 660). He develops thisidea in recent work to argue that autonomous agents are those whotreat themselves as answerable for their conduct, who claim theauthority to speak for themselves (Benson 2005b, 111 ff.) CatrionaMackenzie also proposes an account based on agents’answerability to others. For Mackenzie, being self-governing is tohave “normative authority” over one’s decisions,which means that an agent must “regard herself as the legitimatesource of the authority, as able, and authorized, to speak forherself…[S]uch attitudes towards oneself can only be sustainedin relations of intersubjective recognition” (Mackenzie 2008,4).

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Andrea Westlund has developed a dialogical approach in some detail(Westlund 2003; 2009; 2012; 2018). For Westlund, autonomy is neither astructural nor a historical capacity of critical reflection, butrather a disposition of an agent to “hold herself answerable,for her action-guiding commitments, to external criticalperspectives” (Westlund 2009, 35). Westlund notes that“Autonomous agents will, in one way or another, manifestresponsiveness to justificatory challenges and their disposition to doso is partly constitutive of their status as self-governing”(Westlund 2009, 40). Excessively deferential agents such as theDeferential Wife will almost certainly fail to have this disposition.These agents will not treat themselves as authoritative andanswerable for their conduct; rather, the way in which they answer forthemselves (if they do so at all) will be governed by the reasons ofthe agents to whom they defer. Westlund argues, however, that itshould not be assumed that the women described in the hard cases aboveare “psychologically similar to each other” (Westlund2009, 29). For example, Westlund wants to allow that agents who adoptoppressive practices that significantly inhibit their equality may doso autonomously and believes that if a “fundamentalist womandoes freely and authentically accept a condition of social andpersonal subordination, it seems…problematic to assume that hercondition as subordinate, in and of itself, undermines her status as aself-governing agent” (Westlund 2009, 29). Westlunddistinguishes between two (hypothetical) fundamentalist women, both ofwhom accept their condition of subordination but only one of whom“is prepared to take up and respond to the critical perspectivesof others, even if she is unconvinced by their arguments”(Westlund 2009, 29). The latter exhibits dialogical autonomy whereasthe former does not. (For a critical discussion of Westlund’saccount, see Stoljar 2018.)

Like accounts that employ self-regarding attitudes, dialogicalaccounts can be either content-neutral or substantive. Westlundcharacterizes her own view as “formal” (i.e.,content-neutral) because it does not require an agent to endorse orreject any specific justificatory practice. Benson’s position,however, is weakly substantive for the reason that a condition ofanswerability on his view is that the agent treats herself as“properly…fit and worthy to possess suchauthority” (Benson 2005b, 117). Indeed, he is skeptical thatWestlund’s account can maintain its neutrality and contends that“[t]o hold oneself answerable, in any concrete situation, isto…to be disposed to apply in that situation some normativeexpectation to oneself” (Benson 2011). However, the differentproponents of dialogical accounts are in agreement that their positionis constitutively relational. Westlund explains that theautonomy disposition requires “positioning oneself as always apotential member of a reflective or deliberative dyad” so thatthe psychological perspective of the autonomous agent “[points]beyond itself, to the position the agent occupies as one reflective,responsible self among many” (Westlund 2009, 35). The idea ofanswerability employs interpersonal relations in the definition ofautonomy and hence is constitutively relational.

Dialogical accounts potentially suffer from the objection that theyare too weak to capture agents whose autonomy appears to becompromised by oppressive socialization or circumstances. Suppose anagent acquiesces in and endorses a set of circumstances or an ideologythat is oppressive to her. As Westlund’s account explicitlyacknowledges, she may nevertheless have the capacity foranswerability. In Benson’s terms, she may “regard herselfas being competent to answer for her conduct in the light of normativedemands that, from her point of view, others might appropriately applyto her actions”. Consider the eighteen-year-old student who isconcerned to uphold dominant beauty standards. In one sense, she maylack a sense of self-worth; but on Benson’s notion of theself-worth required for free agency, she may exhibit self-worthbecause, with respect to the norms she believes to be applicable toher, she may regard herself as competent to answer for her actions interms of those norms. She may be engaged in an attempt to enhance hersense of self-worth through beauty treatments precisely because shebelieves that it is appropriate that the norms of the fashion industryapply to her (Stoljar 2000, 108). Indeed, when an agent has acquiescedin and embraced a set of oppressive norms, she will often have theself-confidence required to articulate her commitment to these normsto others. Hence, agents who have adopted oppressive practices willoften be autonomous on dialogical accounts.

8. Strong Substantive and Social-relational Conceptions

A strong substantive theory of autonomy was defined earlier as one inwhich “the contents of the preferences or values that agents canform or act on autonomously are subject to direct normativeconstraints” (Benson 2005a, 133). On strong substantiveapproaches, certain preferences and values are deemed to beincompatible with autonomy, not because of how they are formed, butrather because of their content. For example, choosing slavery orsubservience would not be autonomous on a strong substantive approachbecause the contents of the choices would violate the normativeconstraints introduced by the theory. The conceptions of autonomy thatemploy normative competence (§5), self-regardingattitudes (§6) and dialogical features (§7)should be distinguished from those in the strong substantive category.These conceptions may “incorporate normative substance” indifferent ways and hence may be weakly substantive (Benson 2005a,133). However, none of these approaches invoke direct normativeconstraints on the content of agents’ preferences as necessaryconditions of autonomy.

Strong substantive accounts come in various forms. One accountcharacterizes autonomy as a moral notion: choices with criticizablemoral contents are deemed nonautonomous. For example, ThomasHill characterizes the failure of autonomy in the case of theDeferential Wife as a moral failure of self-respect, a failure totreat oneself as a moral equal (Hill 1991, 15). Agents who choosesubservience are nonautonomous because they make a special kind ofmoral mistake (see also Superson 2005). An alternative proposal saysthat agents cannot manifest autonomy in a “thick” senseunless their choices are consistent with what is objectively in theirinterests. The Deferential Wife is making a mistake because it is inher interests to choose a life of autonomy, rather than a life ofsubservience. Susan Babbitt notes that “the effects ofoppression may be such that people are psychologically damaged,possessing interests and desires that reflect their subservientstatus” (Babbitt 1993, 246). She argues that even if theDeferential Wife were a Rawlsian ideal reasoner, making choices underideal epistemic conditions—those of “adequate instrumentalreasoning abilities, full and complete information and the capacity tovividly imagine the consequences of her actions” (Babbitt 1993,247)—she still would not choose autonomy over deference. Rather,“it is part of her social and historical identity to be inferiorto men” (Babbitt 1993, 250), and hence she would have to undergoa conversion in her sense of self, so that “habitual servilityis not what defines it”, to be able to makes the choice that isin her objective interest.

Strong substantive accounts are constitutively relational because theyclaim that preferences are autonomous if and only if their contentscorrespond to morally permissible or correct features of the world. Arelated constitutively relational conception is exemplified in MarinaOshana’s “social-relational” approach in which thepresence of certain external conditions is necessary for autonomy(Oshana 2006). Up until now the theories of autonomy surveyed havetreated autonomy as a psychological feature of agents. Proceduraltheories and Meyers’s competency approach employ psychologicalprocesses of critical reflection. Similarly, normative competencetheories rely on an agent’s psychological capacity to discernsubstantive norms. Dialogical approaches invoke agents’psychological states, such as the sense of one’s ownanswerability, although they analyze these states as related toexternal interpersonal conditions. Strong substantive accounts requirethat agents’ psychologies hook onto the world in the right ways.On all these positions, in principle, autonomy “can beachieved” by the agent as long as her psychology changes in theright way or is aligned in the right way with features of the world.(Compare Meyers’s distinction between autonomy as“something a person accomplishes” and autonomy as“something that happens to a person”: Meyers 1987,626).

Oshana’s social-relational view proposes that autonomy can beundermined by conditions in the world that do not necessarily affectthe agent’s psychology. Autonomy (or lack of it) is“something that happens” to the agent. Other theoristsalso invoke external conditions. For instance, Joseph Raz argues thata woman living on a desert island who is hounded by a wild animal isnot capable of autonomy because her options in this situation are soseverely curtailed (Raz 1988, 374). And Susan Brison claims that“if one has an inadequate range of significant options to choosefrom, one’s autonomy is diminished and the extent to whichsignificant options are available to someone depends on the kind ofsociety she lives in” (Brison 2000, 285).

Oshana’s social-relational analysis is explicit that agents whoare reflective and psychologically competent can have their autonomyundermined by finding themselves in—or deliberatelyadopting—a situation in which their “practicalcontrol” is removed: “We correctly attribute autonomy to aperson when the person has de facto power and authority to directaffairs of elemental importance to her life within a framework ofrules (or values, principles, beliefs, pro-attitudes) that she has setfor herself” (Oshana 2007, p. 411). For Oshana, no matter thedegree of subjective self-realization or subjective endorsement oftheir situation, agents living under conditions of severe socialconstraint have limited autonomy. Consider, for example, serfs livingunder the protection of the lord of the manor in feudal times. On thesocial-relational conception, serfs would be considered lacking inautonomy due to a social structure in which the “general androutine” aspects of a serf’s life are not under his or herown control but rather under that of the lord of the manor. To theextent that agents today live under parallel social conditions, theylack or have significantly diminished autonomy. Oshana writes of theDeferential Wife that “she fails to be autonomous—notbecause she wants to be subservient, but because she is subservient.Her lack of autonomy is due to her personal relations with others andto the social institutions of her society” (Oshana 2006, 62).Similarly, Oshana’s example “Taliban Woman” is notautonomous because external circumstances deny her practicalcontrol:

She is not permitted to support herself financially. She does not havelegal custody of her children—that remains in the hands of theirfather and in his male relatives should he die. She has no voice inthe manner and duration of any schooling that her children,particularly her daughters, may receive. She must remain costumed incumbersome garb—a burqa—when in public. She cannot travelunless accompanied by a male relative…and can travel only whengranted permission by a male relative or religious elder. She knowsthat any transgression, any show of independence counts as hereticaldefiance and invites punishment both swift and harsh. (Oshana 2006,60)

According to Oshana, the external conditions to which this woman issubjected render her passive and her “life-plan remains in force[only] because of the will of another” (Oshana 2006, 62). Evenif the woman endorses the situation she is in, she lacks defacto control over routine aspects of daily life and hence cannotbe autonomous.

Oshana’s conception of autonomy should be distinguished from thestrong substantive views identified above: on her approach, thecontents of preferences and conceptions of the good are irrelevant toautonomy. Agents may have autonomy-promoting conceptions of the good,yet may fail to be autonomous because constraining external conditionsrule it out. Moreover, the converse case is also true. Consider anewly liberated prisoner who we will suppose satisfies the rationalcompetency conditions that are also necessary for autonomy onOshana’s account (Oshana 2007, p. 419). For Oshana, once theprisoner is released into autonomy-compatible external conditions, heis autonomous despite the content of his desires. The prisoner mayprefer to return to prison, yet this preference will not nullify hisautonomy. Although an agent may desire to be directed by the will ofanother, it is only if she is actually in the externalconditions in which she is so directed that her autonomy is impeded.Thus, Oshana’s conception is in a sense content-neutral.

There is an additional sense in which the social-relational conceptiondiffers from other conceptions of autonomy: it is “global”not “local”. Oshana’s theory provides an analysis ofthe condition of the autonomous agent rather than the conditions underwhich an agent’s particular desires and preferences atparticular times count as autonomous. This means that agents—for example, those living under conditions of slavery—could lack global autonomy but nevertheless have local autonomy withrespect to particular preferences and desires. A question arises thenabout the relationship between local and global autonomy.

Strong substantive and social-relational approaches are perhaps themost controversial of those surveyed and have as a result attractedtrenchant critiques. The first is conceptual. It has been suggestedthat strong substantive theories conflate autonomy (defined asself-rule) with morally right-rule (Benson 2005a,132). In other words, on these accounts, agents are autonomousonly if they make morally correct choices or choices thatcoincide with their objective interests. But, it is argued, beingautonomous is not conceptually identical to being moral, or to alwaysacting in ways that promote an agent’s interests. Second, it hasbeen suggested that social-relational views are objectionable becausethey permit paternalism or are implicitly committed to perfectionism(Holroyd 2009; Christman 2004; cf. Mackenzie 2008; Stoljar 2017). Forexample, Christman argues that Oshana’s position is implicitlycommitted to an egalitarian ideal; he claims that on her account, noother political arrangement is consistent with personal autonomy(Christman 2004; Christman 2009). Third, it has been alleged thatthese accounts are too quick to treat oppression as always impedingautonomy. For instance, Meyers claims that certain agents are“firebrand, adventure-loving resisters”, who thrive andflourish when they have the opportunity to oppose social norms (Meyers2000a, 479). If this is so, autonomy would be possible even in thecircumstances of the extremely constraining regime described byOshana.

Catriona Mackenzie has recently argued that autonomy is amulti-dimensional concept, and that the different conceptions ofautonomy surveyed here correspond to different dimensions of theconcept, namely self-determination, self-governance,and self-authorization (Mackenzie 2014; Mackenzie 2015).Oshana’s social-relational approach provides an account ofself-determination because it identifies the external“opportunities necessary to make and enact decisions ofpractical import to one’s life” (Mackenzie 2015, 55). Theprocedural approaches of Meyers and Friedman fall under the dimensionof self-governance because of their focus on the “skills andcapacities necessary to make and enact decisions and to live one’slife” (Mackenzie 2015, 55). And dialogical theories of autonomythat employ answerability correspond to the dimension ofself-authorization, which “involves regarding oneself as havingthe normative authority to be self-determining andself-governing” (Mackenzie 2015, 55). Mackenzie’smulti-dimensional approach illuminates the different concerns ofrelational autonomy theorists, but raises further questions. How dothe three dimensions of autonomy intersect? Are any or all of thedifferent dimensions necessary or sufficient conditions of autonomy?Is it possible for an agent to be fully autonomous is she satisfiesonly one dimension of autonomy?

9. Conclusion

Feminist theories of autonomy analyze the effects of internalizedoppression and the circumstances of oppression on agents’ globaland local autonomy. There is no consensus as to which theoreticalposition is correct. To some extent, the answer depends on intuitionsabout which view best captures the notion of agency that isone’s own. There is considerable consensus, however,that oppressive socialization and oppressive practices diminishautonomy and perhaps undermine it altogether. The relationalconceptions of autonomy surveyed here are important contributions totheoretical debates on the nature of autonomy as well as to ourunderstanding of how oppression interferes with the psychologicalstates and social conditions required for autonomy.


What does female autonomy mean? ›

Basu4 defined women's autonomy as the capacity and freedom to act independently, for example, the ability to go places, such as health facilities or the market, or to make decisions regarding contraceptive use or household purchases alone and without asking anyone's permission.

What are the three feminist perspectives? ›

Feminist theory has developed in three waves. The first wave focused on suffrage and political rights. The second focused on social inequality between the genders. The current, third wave emphasizes the concepts of globalization, postcolonialism, post-structuralism, and postmodernism.

What are the feminist perspectives? ›

Feminist perspective highlights the social issues that are often overlooked or misidentified by already present social theories. It analyses women's experiences of gender subordination and identifies the underlying causes of gender oppression.

What does the feminist perspective argue? ›

Radical feminists argue that all relationships between men and women are based on patriarchy – essentially men are the cause of women's exploitation and oppression. For radical feminists, the entire patriarchal system needs to be overturned, in particular the family, which they view as root of women's oppression.

What is the best definition of autonomy? ›

Definition of autonomy

1 : the quality or state of being self-governing especially : the right of self-government The territory was granted autonomy. 2 : self-directing freedom and especially moral independence personal autonomy.

Is autonomy a human right? ›

Bodily autonomy is a foundation of gender equality and for the enjoyment of all human rights—including the right to health and the right to live free from violence—and dismantling gender inequalities in social norms and practice is key.


2. Feminism Confronts Homo Economicus: Gender, Law, and Society
(University of Virginia School of Law)
3. Roundtable: Toward A Post-Covid Future: Feminist Perspectives on Care
(IWL Rutgers)
4. Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Capitalist Politics with Silvia Federici and Joy James
( Rojava University)
5. Black Women Have Never Had Bodily Autonomy | Zerlina.
6. Feminist Action Lab: Why Young Feminists Should Advocate for SHRH & Bodily Autonomy?
(Restless Development)

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