Academic journal article William and Mary Law Review

Autonomy and Agency

Academic journal article William and Mary Law Review

Autonomy and Agency

Article excerpt

Many feminists and communitarians have raised significant objections to the way that liberal theorists conceive human agents and their capacities. In particular, they object to any assumption that, regardless of circumstance, human beings are, can be, or ought to be autonomous.(1) The criticism often is accepted as sufficient grounds for rejecting liberalism, but Professor Abrams, wisely I think, explores the possibility that the important points the critics make can be taken up in a reconstructed liberalism--or at least acknowledged and used within a legal framework that retains liberal features. Abrams is well aware, however, that there are many different ideas of autonomy floating about in contemporary philosophy, just as there are many different feminist and communitarian perspectives.(2) To focus discussion, therefore, she concentrates on explicit discussions of autonomy by Joel Feinberg(3) and Gerald Dworkin(4) and a selected mix of feminist conceptions of how women express their agency under conditions of oppression.(5) Her ultimate aim is to "highlight" and "foster" women's agency though the law, which I assume means promoting, in various legal contexts, a proper recognition that women in oppressive conditions can be self-directing in special ways that do not fit the liberal models of autonomous agency.(6) By calling attention to social realities that abstract liberal theory may overlook,(7) her discussion challenges liberals to consider seriously whether, and how, liberal theory should be modified in the light of a more sensitive awareness of social conditions that fall far short of their ideals.

This is a worthy project. Though questions may be raised about the details of the argument so far, it seems more consistent with the admirable spirit of Abrams's exploratory paper for a commentator to try to add something constructive, even if only briefly. What I want to do is make some suggestions about the different ways in which ideas of agency are used in liberal theory, for that is important background for thinking about what conceptions of agency are appropriate for each purpose. Although there are many liberal theories, the distinctions that I will mention are drawn mostly from reflecting on the work of John Rawls.(8) Feinberg and Dworkin offer explicit descriptions of autonomous agents,(9) but neither proposes a systematic liberal political theory comparable to Rawls's. The questions are, then, where and how such a systematic liberal theory employs a special conception of an agent. We need to determine these roles for agency in liberal theory before we can decide reasonably whether to replace the liberal conception with an alternative or modified conception drawn from feminist observations of women under oppression.

(1) Agents conceived as part of an idealized perspective for reasoning about principles of justice. One prominent place in which Rawls uses a special idea of an agent is in what he calls "the original position."(10) He does so in the context of a thought experiment designed to lend support to two principles concerning the justice of basic social institutions. Rawls describes agents as rational, mutually disinterested, and unbelievably knowledgeable regarding general facts, but as operating behind a "veil of ignorance" that prevents them from knowing their gender, race, class, personal relationships, culture, history, and even the century in which they live.(11) They all are moved by exactly the same thing, a concern to maximize their share of "social primary goods,"(12) which are supposed to be goods that any rational person is expected to want.(13) Rawls does not call these hypothetical members of the original position autonomous, but he argues that real persons can be seen as expressing their own nature as rational autonomous persons when they act from respect for the principles of justice that the imagined members would adopt.(14)

We can critique Rawls's use of this thought experiment, as many already have, but it seems clear that it would be no improvement to replace the "members" (as Rawls defines them) with agents described in Abrams's feminist account of women's agency. …

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