Notes and thoughts on the concept and value of ‘autonomy’

This post is a reply to a question in the comments below on a previous post that was actually itself an extended quotation from a recent ethnography by psychological-anthropologist Victoria Burbank – this is a reply to a question about the difference between ‘processual’ and ‘substantive’ conceptions of autonomy.

I have a personal interest in debates about autonomy because – as a concept and a value it is central to both feminist and anarchist political thought. And from an anthropological perspective the debate is just as interesting because there has likely never been a society where there was absolutely no hierarchical relations and no form or semblance of private property. Similarly, there has likely never been a society where people or socio-political bodies have ever been truly autonomous. As I see it the site or ground of this debate is the negotiation of a culturally recognised state of interpersonal exchange between two or more people, or socio-political entities. As an anthropologist I’d say this should point us to concepts of emotion and morality. But anyhow, to ‘processual’ and ‘substantive’ concepts –

The literal definition of ‘autonomy’ is to be governed by one’s own law  – as derived from auto (‘self’) and nomos (‘rule or law’). According to Gerald Dworkin (1988) the term ‘autonomy’ was first applied to the Greek city-state – a city had autonomia when its citizens made their own laws as opposed to being under the control of some conquering power. Use of the term was then extended to refer to people – to individuals when their decisions and actions are their own, i.e. when they are ‘self-determining.’

A conception of ‘autonomy’ as ‘procedural independence‘ refers to the capacity and value to act according to one’s own values free from manipulation or coercion:


‘Autonomy is conceived of as a second-order capacity of persons to reflect critically upon their first-order preferences, desires, wishes, and so forth and the capacity to accept or attempt to change these in light of higher-order preferences and values. By exercising such a capacity, persons define their nature, give meaning and coherence to their lives, and take responsibility for the kind of person they are’ (Dworkin 1998, p. 20).


According to this conception an autonomous person can be ‘a tyrant or a slave, a saint or sinner, a rugged individualist or champion of fraternity, a leader or follower’ –  any kind of person can be autonomous as long as they can decide on their own course of action in accordance with their own desires and values free from coercion, deception and manipulation. This way of characterising autonomy is oft times described as ‘substantively neutral’ because it doesn’t rank available, alternative choices as regards the ‘types of selves’ or persons that someone might be or become.

Feminist philosophers (e.g. Jennifer Nedelsky) and other political philosophers (e.g. Wolff in In Defense of Anarchism) reject this characterisation because to agree with it would be to accept that ‘autonomy’ has no teeth or force as a tool of critical analysis and enquiry. Because it doesn’t rank available alternative choices of ‘types of selves’ as moral and political actors – it provides no basis for a general analysis or a critique of values or socio-political ideas.

A ‘substantive conception’ insists upon the value of autonomy as a substantive quality of the moral and political self – trix is though – this evaluative ranking of ‘types of people’ is not compatible with the value of autonomy as procedural independence. If what is morally right or good is what one has decided for oneself then for another person to interfere with one’s freedom of action based on that decision is, as Dworkin says, to encourage or invite hypocrisy. Unless everyone independently decides and voluntarily agrees upon what is morally correct there is no moral justification for insisting upon, and thus reproducing, what one has decided is and prefers as ‘morally correct’ without restricting the liberty of others. And so the involutionary knot of debate goes on.

There are other key points at issue in this debate but I hope this gives a sense of the two different camps. There is a case-example of Odysseus being tied to the mast, actually, which is really great for thinking through this debate. Perhaps I’ll post that another day. Before I close though, to throw my two cents in –

My research with Yolŋu mala encourages me to think of autonomy as a cultural understanding associated with emotion and morality that describes a salient, culturally recognized form of interpersonal exchange – or state of relations between two or more people. All emotion-concepts refer to some kind of cognitive-affective state of mind, writes the admirable anthropologist Geoffrey White, but the best exemplars ‘are those that are both social and moral; social in the sense that they are embedded in a field of interpersonal relations and actions and moral in the sense that they possess evaluative entailments and behavioural valence’ (1997, p. 232). I think this is where autonomy fits in somehow, which is why I think it’s important to be wary of any claims that it is cross-culturally neutral. To conclude with an encore from Geoffrey White – emotions and emotion-concepts play a strategic role in cultural reasoning about the social realities and nature of relations between the self and others:


‘Emotions arise in contexts of transaction, marking boundaries between inside and outside, and defining relations between me and you, or we an you-plural, that are probably always in flux and subject to the moment-by-moment negotiations of social interaction. As such, emotions are well suited to the moral work of (re)shaping the course of events and (re)defining the nature of social relations’ (1997, p. 237).


Radtastic. To read the original post (and comments) from whence this post were born click here.


Good day.




Filed under General personal writings

8 responses to “Notes and thoughts on the concept and value of ‘autonomy’

  1. Marcoiac

    Thanks for posting this stuff. The beginning is quite clear to me, but then at some point I kind of get lost. 

    When you say

    “This way of characterising autonomy is oft times described as ‘substantively neutral’ because it doesn’t rank available, alternative choices as regards the ‘types of selves’ or persons that someone might be or become.”

    What exactly do you mean? That it doesn’t matter what you choose to be for the substantive autonomy position? I guess so, I need confirmation

    So Naomi Wolff (I think she is great) and the feminists don’t like it because they say, “wait a minute, not all choices are equal, if you a tyrant, that’s not cool’. Is that right? Is this the position of the ‘processual autonomy’? But why processual? You don’t really spell it out.

    I LOVE the final quote, although it is not clear to me the link between the culture you studied and that argument.

  2. Yes, rather stream-of-consciousness rant of a post, which is probably why points are not clear.

    ‘Substantively neutral’ in the sense that any ‘type’ of person (no matter their character or substance etc) can be seen to example the value of autonomy as long as the ‘process’ of decision making upon which they then act or behave is free from coercion and manipulation (i.e. procedurally independent or autonomous).

    The debate gets its knickers in a rather ridiculous knot though – because the distinction between the two conceptions of autonomy pivots on that between mind/body and self/other – which are obviously not ever completely separate or distinct. So, for example – if you think and feel that you are quite happily independent and autonomous and in control of your life and decisions etc. but I – as a third party observer – can see that you are in fact being unduly influenced and are clearly not aware of all alternative options available to you – are you really autonomous?

    • i think i get it now. processual autonomy means that the process of deciding who the hell you are is not influenced, and substantive autonomy means that as long as you reach your autonomous decision on who the hell you are, it doesn’t really matter who you have decided to be.

      assuming i am not confused again, i have to agree with you that these ideas sort of assume separation between mind and body and between self and other. i can’t choose to be whatever i want. my body constraints my decision making. (indeed, my body is who i am…) and i can’t completely independently from others go through this process, because i relate to others all the time, and we do influence each other

      i guess this field needs to develop a naturalistic autonomy position, that takes into account data from the behavioral and brain sciences

  3. Yes, and a strong feminist approach insists that the value of autonomy need be consistent with the relationship between mother and child.

  4. – oh and as regards my research, the concept of ‘autonomy’ is completely ill-fitting in the Yolngu case. More than individual attributes or states of feeling most all Yolngu terms and concepts associated with equilibrium and balance in social relations describe ‘states’ of interpersonal exchange. The concept of autonomy seems rather pathological from the Yolngu perspective because it is ever striving for dissociation and differentiation – especially as a value.

  5. Marcoiac

    From a naturalistic standpoint, autonomy the way is described by those political philosophers (or whatever they are) is always a bit pathological. Some cultures are more interpersonal than others, for sure. I can see your point. But I’d say that the autonomy arguments that you described sound rational abstractions rather than descriptions of real life phenomena. On the other hand, I can see why that those arguments were made. Some people clearly have more choices than others. (at the very least!)

  6. Pingback: Long Anthropology Blogs - 15 January 2012 | Anthropology Report

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