Carnegie Mellon University
February 12, 2020

Examining the Various Threads of Freedom

By Stacy Kish

Stacy Kish
  • Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences
  • 412-268-9309

Autonomy /ôˈtänəmē/ noun - self-directing freedom and especially moral independence

This definition of autonomy seems straightforward, but when it passes through the prism of philosophy, it bends across a spectrum of theories, approaches and arguments.  I had the pleasure of sitting with Danielle Wenner, assistant professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University and a 2019-2022 Greenwall Faculty Scholar in Bioethics, to discuss her recent paper, “Nondomination and the Limits of Relational Autonomy,” published by the International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics. The following is an excerpt of our conversation.

In your paper you note that liberal conceptions of autonomy are built on the view that the individual is entirely self-sufficient and independent. What are your concerns with this approach to autonomy?

The feminist concern about this idea is that it fails to recognize our essential interdependence. There are lots of problems with this, but one of the big ones is that in doing so it disappears those people who are doing all of the work in the background that is taken for granted by those who appear, to the outside world, to be “independent.”  This ideal is most clearly represented by the self-sufficient man who only has to make decisions for himself and is free to organize his life around the things that he values. What has disappeared in this picture is the woman in the background, who is washing his laundry and feeding his kids and doing all the other stuff that allows him to go out into the world and “be independent.”  We might also worry that this conception makes it easy to ignore so-called “externalities,” or the impacts of what are often considered personal decisions or behaviors on other members of society.

Relational theorists’ conception of autonomy is predicated on a view that the individual is inseparable from socialization. How does this approach to autonomy overcome the limitations of the Liberal approach?

Relational autonomous theorists have two goals. One goal is to highlight our essential interdependence – and here is where they offer an answer to liberal conceptions.  Part of relational autonomy theory is a recognition of the fact that we are all dependent on others for large swathes of our lives and that this needn’t undermine the sense in which we are also “authors of our own lives.”  The idea here is that we can point to those interrelations as productive sources of some portion of our identities and of what we value. The other goal is to recognize that some relationships can be autonomy-promoting and some can be autonomy-undermining. Relational theorists try to distinguish which kinds of relationships are which, but what I get out of the literature is that they can’t accomplish this – at least not without smuggling in some pretty big assumptions about what kinds of things people can (or should) value.

In your paper, you focus on freedom as non-domination. Can you explain what this means?

It might help to use an example.  Suppose a woman lives in a very patriarchal society with a patriarchal legal structure. Suppose that in this society, if she were married, her husband would suffer no consequences if he physically abused her, restricted her ability to move about or prevented her from having a job outside the home or pursuing an education. Now consider the same scenario but the husband is a super nice guy. He cares about the woman deeply and wants her to be happy. He doesn’t prevent her from having a job outside the home. He doesn’t tell her that she can’t have an education. He doesn’t interfere with her in any of these ways.

Using the dominant idea of what it means to be free, the woman would be free in the situation I’ve described, because no one is interfering with her. What freedom as non-domination says is that in fact, she is not free in this scenario as long as someone has power over her and can interfere with her decisions without consequences. At any moment, her ‘nice’ husband could change his mind and say, “No, you cannot go outside the house.”

When we want to understand which relationships are good for your autonomy and which ones are bad, we seem to be asking in what circumstances are we oppressed. This understanding of freedom may be more helpful at getting us to that than relational theories of autonomy that have trouble distinguishing good influences from bad.

What are the benefits of this concept – freedom as non-domination?

Well, our concept of autonomy or freedom can be used to inform policy. And the kinds of interventions we might take to promote autonomy or freedom might look very different depending on which conception we are using.

From the traditional understanding of freedom, anything the government does to coercively restrict your behaviors is a restriction of your freedom. If the government says that if you drive on the left side of the road, we are going to give you a ticket and you are going to have to pay it or you will lose your license, that is a restricting my freedom.

The non-domination theorist is going to say not necessarily. Instead it depends on how the state came upon the power to enforce those rules. Is it unchecked power or is it checked by a process that you are part of? We might actually think that having rules such as which side of the road you can drive on are not restrictions but a promotion of freedom because they allow you to move about the city without getting into head-on collisions.

Are there ways that students can use these concepts as they progress through their careers?

I think for students it is really helpful to realize that if you think that freedom means no one interferes with anyone else then you are in effect reifying existing hierarchies of power and existing structures of oppression. From this perspective, there is nothing we can do to fix those structures because any intervention is going to “interfere with peoples’ freedom.” On the non-domination view, the state’s interest is in promoting freedom by reducing domination, and this will often mean undermining or reforming existing structures of power.

How did you become interested in these themes?

One way to think about my research program as a whole is as pushing against dominant liberal framing of various issues. Liberalism is very much built up out of an idea of individuals being very disconnected from one another, and this is a view that I think is not only false but also actively contributes to many of our social and political ills.

Wenner’s work on this project was supported by the Brocher Foundation, Switzerland.