Autonomous Agents: From Self-Control to Autonomy

Autonomous Agents: From Self-Control to Autonomy

Autonomous Agents: From Self-Control to Autonomy

Autonomous Agents: From Self-Control to Autonomy

Synopsis

The concept of self-control, and its bearing on human behaviour, is examined here, as well as its relationship to personal autonomy and autonomous behaviour.

Excerpt

This book explores two related topics: self-control and individual autonomy. 'Self-control,' as I use the term, denotes roughly the contrary of akrasia (want of self-control, incontinence, weakness of will) in Aristotle's Greek. Conceptions of self-control as autonomy (e.g., Dennett 1984) do not compete with mine; it is self-control as (roughly) the contrary of akrasia that concerns me. My examination of self-control is guided by two concerns: first, to understand it and its bearing on human behavior; second, to see what light a proper understanding of self-control and behavior manifesting it can shed on personal autonomy and autonomous behavior. My discussion of self-control goes beyond what is strictly required by my second concern; but a proper understanding of self-control is worth having in its own right.

The root idea of autonomy, which comes from autos (self) and nomos (rule or law), is self-rule or self-government. Taking etymology seriously, my efforts to understand autonomous agency are efforts to understand the agency distinctive of self- ruled or self-governed individuals. 'Autonomy,' as I shall use the term, is in the family of metaphysical freedom terms: 'free will,' 'free action,' and the like. However, just as there is no need to postulate the existence of the will in arguing for the reality of what is sometimes called "weakness of will" (Mele 1987), there is no need to postulate it in arguing for the reality of autonomous agency.

My interests in personal autonomy are traditional ones. I want to understand what it is to be an autonomous person and to act autonomously and whether autonomous agency is open to us. However, my approach is in some ways untraditional. My tack is to develop a conception of an ideally self-controlled person, to argue that even such a person can fall short of personal autonomy, to ask what may be added to such a person to yield an autonomous agent, and to offer an answer--or, rather, two overlapping answers, one for compatibilist believers in human autonomy and one for incompatibilist believers (i.e., libertarians). I do not try to settle the issue between compatibilists and incompatibilists about autonomy--that is, between theorists who hold that autonomy is compatible with determinism and theorists who deny this. (This will undoubtedly upset some readers.) I do argue, however, that the belief that there are autonomous human agents is better grounded than the belief that there are not.

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