Faith in Schools? Autonomy, Citizenship, and Religious Education in the Liberal State

By Ian Macmullen | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
AUTONOMY, IDENTITY, AND CHOICE

MY GOAL in this chapter is to investigate and flesh out the idea of autonomy, which I also sometimes refer to as personal or ethical autonomy, in a way that lays the foundations for constructing an argument that the development of such autonomy in individuals is a legitimate, and indeed an appropriate, goal of education policy in a liberal democratic state. I do not pretend to offer a fully articulated conception of autonomy: such a task would be beyond the scope of my current project. But I do aim to make some important distinctions, to challenge the adequacy of certain conditions that have often been thought to be either necessary or sufficient for an autonomous life, and, ultimately, to offer a sketch of the nature of autonomous reflection. In chapter 1 I provided a working definition of autonomy in order to illuminate the problematic nature of political liberalism's attempt to avoid taking a position on autonomy's value. I proposed that autonomy is the combined capacity for and commitment to ongoing rational reflection on all of one's ethical commitments. But that working definition invites a whole host of questions as to whether an autonomous ethical life is truly a coherent, realistic, and attractive option for individuals. I try to address many of those questions in the course of this chapter, before proceeding in the following two chapters to argue that autonomy's value is an appropriate object of recognition not only for individual persons but also for the liberal state.

A first step in characterizing personal or ethical autonomy is to distinguish it carefully from another form of autonomy, which may be called Kantian moral autonomy. Ethical autonomy is a rationally reflective way in which a person may hold (and act according to) one particular conception of the good life rather than other conceptions, where all the options under consideration are morally permissible. Kantian moral autonomy describes a rational way in which individuals may come to and be motivated by an answer to the prior question: what maxims of action are morally permissible (and, therefore, which conceptions of the good can permissibly be pursued)? The exercise of moral autonomy defines the set of permissible options: the exercise of ethical autonomy guides the choice within that set.

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