Free Speech and Autonomy: Thinkers, Storytellers, and a Systemic Approach to Speech

By Williams, Susan H. | Constitutional Commentary, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview
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Free Speech and Autonomy: Thinkers, Storytellers, and a Systemic Approach to Speech

Williams, Susan H., Constitutional Commentary

Ed's and Seana's papers together present a powerful argument for the idea that autonomy is a fundamental value underlying the protection of free speech. As I have written elsewhere, I agree with this argument. (1) In this response to their papers, I would like to suggest that an autonomy approach focused on narrative rather than choice as the vehicle for autonomy offers some advantages. First, I will outline briefly the functions served by autonomy that provide a foundation for this value in our moral and political experience. Second, I will offer a narrative model of autonomy and describe how it serves the functions in our moral and political lives for which we need autonomy. Third, I will highlight the two primary advantages of this model: (1) seeing autonomy as an ongoing process rather than an assumed starting point, and (2) focusing our attention on systems of free speech--rather than only on individuals, whether they are speakers, listeners, or thinkers. I believe that this focus on systemic concerns is crucial to rethinking the commitment to free speech in a way that makes issues of inequality central and therefore holds the promise of making free speech a living and meaningful part of people's experience.


An autonomy theory needs grounding: it needs to explain the source of the particular version of autonomy that it is using, and that source needs to provide a basis for believing that this autonomy value is fundamental in a way that explains its constitutional status. For Ed, the source is a particular understanding of the respect that a government must show its citizens in order to legitimately demand their obedience to its laws. (3) For Seana, the source is the collection of capacities-rational, emotional, perceptual, and sentient--that "correctly constitute the core of what we value about ourselves" and that together constitute "the individual mind and the autonomy of its operation." (4) I take a more functionalist and relational approach that focuses on social practices. In order to know what autonomy means and why it matters, I begin by asking what is the work that we want and need the concept of autonomy to do in our moral and political lives? If those functions are of fundamental importance to us--as I believe they are--then we have both an explanation of the importance of autonomy and a framework for assessing a particular concept of autonomy to see if it can fulfill these functions.

I believe that there are at least four primary functions served by the concept of autonomy in our moral and political lives. These functions are fundamental in the sense that, if we did not have a concept of autonomy that could effectively do these things, we would both find our moral lives deeply disrupted and lose moral and political practices of great value to us. All of these functions are described in terms of social practices and the value of those practices runs both to the individuals involved in them in any given instance and to all members of the societies that can sustain them?

The first function of autonomy is to ground a collection of attitudes towards ourselves, including self-trust and self-respect. Self-trust is the ability and inclination to rely upon oneself, even if it leads to vulnerability. Self-respect is the belief that one is worthwhile as a person and the disposition to act on that belief by, for example, resisting violations of one's rights, being committed to one's own projects and values, and maintaining one's personal standards. (6) Both of these attitudes allow us to experience ourselves as agents and not merely as objects of our own observation. Without self-trust and self-respect, we would be incapable of forming and working to implement plans. I assume that the value of this orientation toward ourselves is obvious enough to need little argument. (7)

These valuable attitudes toward ourselves are dependent upon a concept of autonomy.

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Free Speech and Autonomy: Thinkers, Storytellers, and a Systemic Approach to Speech


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