Autonomy as a Liberal Justification: Three Objections

By Hagen, Melissa | Journal of Thought, Spring-Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Autonomy as a Liberal Justification: Three Objections


Hagen, Melissa, Journal of Thought


Introduction

In the public schools of culturally diverse, liberal democratic nations such as Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, there is a tension engendered by tenets of the liberal ideal. The essential liberal commitments to tolerance and pluralism can, in a diverse public school system, run up against opposing illiberal commitments held by the parents of schoolchildren in the democratic state. The liberal commitments encourage not only a recognition of, say, racial, religious, cultural, and sexual diversity, but also implicitly or explicitly support the rights of individuals--including students--to choose from these various ways of life and their associated commitments. However, because there are parents for whom such recognition and endorsement might undermine or threaten religious or cultural ideals, the public school, as an arm of the liberal state, finds itself in a difficult position. For, on one hand the liberal state is committed to the principle of tolerance and the acceptance of cultural pluralism, but on the other hand, among this plurality could be a group whose beliefs, if tolerated or accommodated in the public school, would undermine the instillation of the essential liberal ideals of which we speak. This conflict has been noted by several philosophers of education (Mendus, 1995; Burtonwood, 2000) and the tension is articulated plainly in Dwight Boyd's "Dominance Concealed through Diversity: Implications of Inadequate Perspectives on Cultural Pluralism." Summarizing what he calls the "dilemma of diversity," Boyd writes that:

   [I]f one affirms both sides, one is in the position of both morally
   prescribing that individuals ought to treat each other in certain
   ways according to preferred moral principles or ideals and denying,
   through the acceptance of the fact of reasonable moral pluralism,
   that there is a moral point of view common to all cultures that
   would make this prescription meaningful and binding for anyone,
   regardless of where they are located within the diversity. (1996,
   p. 616)

Boyd characterises the dilemma as a general conflict within pluralist liberal societies but he also highlights its implications for public education insofar as education is part of the "public domain." If, as Boyd claims, there is no "prescriptive leverage that could apply across the diversity," (1996, p. 616) how does the liberal educator respond to school-home conflicts? How for example, should the educator respond to the mother who argues that the presence of books depicting same-sex families in the class or school library interferes with her right to morally educate her child? Or, the father who demands that his 10 year-old daughter be excluded from a unit on 'Women in Science' on the grounds that the content interferes with the role of women as decreed by his religious and cultural beliefs?

In this paper, I will argue that philosophers of education (particularly those writing from a liberal perspective) chiefly appeal to the principle of autonomy as a way of addressing the tensions outlined above. Thus, in section 2, I will cite several educationalists who address these conflicts. (1) I will also note their similar conclusions that the restriction on illiberal accommodations in the public educational sphere is justified on the grounds that such accommodations would interfere with the cultivation of autonomy. In section 3 I will go on to try to problematize the use of autonomy as a justification by presenting three objections to the ideal. The first objection to autonomy will be based on its inherent assumptions of neutrality vis-a-vis the individual. The second will highlight the assumptions of impartiality and universality vis-a-vis the ideal itself. Finally, the last objection, which will build on the assumptions made by the first two, will be to criticise the assumption of freedom embedded in the ideal of autonomy and to note some of its consequences.

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