Front Page Titles (by Subject) I: Autonomy - Literature of Liberty, April/June 1978, vol. 1, No. 2
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
I: Autonomy - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, April/June 1978, vol. 1, No. 2 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
Autonomy—the individual's capacity to be psychologically, morally, and socially self-governing—excites controversy and the extremes of partisanship or vilification. No one, however, disputes the enormous popular currency of this notion under such varied synonyms as self-actualization, self-esteem, self-efficacy, independence, individualism, or even the colloquialisms, “doing your own thing” and “being at cause rather than at effect.”
As pointed out by psychologist Nathaniel Branden, autonomy or self-esteem covers such personality traits as self-awareness, self-acceptance, self-responsibility, and self-assertion. The complex and often contradictory range of psychological, ethical, social, and political meanings attached to autonomy have recently been explored in Abraham Maslow's The Farther Reaches of Human Nature (New York: Viking Press 1971) and David L. Norton's Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism (Princeton University Press, 1976).
The following summaries investigate how the controversial value of autonomy is related to human liberty in such areas as psychology, ethics, and politics. Do government welfare programs endanger autonomy? Psychologically, should the autonomous personality be judged a cultural ideal or a deviation? Do autonomous personalities impede or promote prosocial behavior, generosity, learning, and cognitive-emotional maturation? Politically, does the autonomous man and woman tend to create an authoritarian or a democratic and open society?
“Welfare vs. Liberty: Prisoners of Benevolence.” The Nation 226 (April 1, 1978): 370–372.
Do government service and charitable agencies assault individual autonomy and self-determination?
Millions of Americans are dependent on government social services and “institutions of caring” such as public schools, mental hospitals, public housing, welfare agencies for the poor, and nursing homes for the old. These citizens are vulnerable to the state's arbitrary authority, which, behind the mask of benevolence, infantilizes them and ignores their legal rights and personal dignity.
For example, patients of government nursing homes are often treated as children. They are denied the control of their money, their freedom to come and go, and their right to have visitors or privacy as they would determine. Exercising a stultifying parental role, officials care more for administrative convenience than for the self-esteem of the patient.
Although legally competent, subjects of service institutions lose many of their Bill of Right guarantees because of such benevolent paternalism. Various authoritarian restrictions tend to eclipse their individuality and independence. Control over an individual's life includes humiliating deference to authority, denial of sex, and penalties for self-expression.
The same self-denying controls practiced in nursing homes and mental hospitals also demean the clients of public schools, public housing, and public welfare. Officials tend to assume the legal power of surrogate parents and dictate what is in the best interest of their clients. Often eligibility standards for social care depend on bureaucratic discretion and judgment of clients' morality.
We need to be more skeptical of government charity and service professionals who determine the lives of clients, many of whom are entrapped against their will in caring institutions. “Power is the natural antagonist of liberty, even if those who exercise power are filled with good intentions.”
Autonomy vs. Cooperation
“Psychology and the American Ideal.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 35 (1977): 767–782.
The predominant theme that describes the American cultural ethos is an extreme form of autonomy: “self-contained individualism.” The problem, it is argued, is that a person living according to the ideal of individual self-sufficiency will suffer isolation and alienation. The self-contained person may be viewed as a narcissist who neither desires nor requires others for his or her completion and life; the self-contained person is or hopes to be sufficient unto himself. With the aim to need or want no one, self-containment is the extreme expression of independence. It is the polar opposite of the concept of interdependence. Self-contained individuals, it is claimed, require strong externally imposed limits “to control their appetites.” It seems that the contemporary psychological ideal of autonomy entails fighting against all forms of cooperative group activity.
The political implications of such individualism may be sketched. Authoritarian systems of control and government would seem most likely if we realize the ideal of self-contained individualism. What other alternative is therefore governing a group of “excessive individualists”? How can a democratic government survive if rugged individualists feel that collective interests and the recognition of vital interdependence are overly constraining?
Contemporary psychology appears to play an important role in perpetuating an individualistic, self-contained perspective and in downplaying the role of interdependent values. Some psychologists have argued that there is no need to oppose egoism (i.e., individualism) and human interdependence. But others set egoism against altruism to make it seem that altruistic values and culture are the enemies of the individual. J.H. Bryan in an article, “Why Children Help: A Review” [Journal of Social Issues 28 (1972): 87–104] goes so far as to lambast the excessive costs of altruism or helping behavior and to oppose prosocial acts and individual freedom:
A helpful person may well be intrusive (e.g., invade our privacy), moralistic (e.g., prevent us from “doing our thing”), or simply conforming to the status quo of proprieties...a helpful person with all his “good” intentions may well violate a variety of personal freedoms that we cherish. (pp. 101–102)
But egoism and altruism are opposite concepts only within the context of self-contained individualism. The ideal of an interdependent system is not the isolated individual who achieves completion and synthesis within himself; the ideal is rather to achieve one's personal function in harmony with others.
The contrast between individualism and interdependence is illustrated in the current theory of personality, androgyny. Androgyny would resolve the polarities of masculinity and femininity in an ideal individual synthesis: each individual would integrate masculine and feminine qualities. This synthesis is an ideal only for a self-contained culture. A collectivist social system, of high cooperation, would prefer a sexually differentiated individual, thus androgyny would be unsuitable.
The individual is not necessarily the possessor of all of a culture's valued qualities; collective cooperation among persons lacking in some qualities does not have to thwart individual self-realization.
Although Kohlberg and Piaget have underlined the importance of autonomous and independent thinking as well as the ideal of a person transcending his collectivity and culture, such an independent view of moral development might harm social cohesion.
“Generosity.” American Philosophical Quarterly 12 (1975): 235–244.
The generous person, though frequently confused with the just, charitable, dutiful, or altruistic and selfless person, may really be the fully autonomous and superabundantly selfish man. The moral confusion over generosity arises from misidentifying its gift-giving with sacrifice and the ethics of duty.
Generosity involves an act of giving because of the value of the act itself rather than because of some other good it brings as a consequence (such as purchasing goods, repaying debts, fulfilling one's duties or station, or expiating guilt). One giving generously intends to do the recipient a real good, but not as a duty in the manner of paternal obligation rescuing a prodigal son. The generous person's intention is gratuitous; he has no “because” in giving beyond the benevolent gift. To answer “Why give someone anything?” the generous person doesn't invoke obligation but rather a “Luciferian freedom,” that freedom needing no reason for what we do.
As a free gift, generosity is distinct from justice, charity, and altruism. The virtue of justice does not monopolize concern for the welfare of others. Generosity also tends to others' welfare, but the generous agent is motivated by self-centeredness rather than pity or fairness to others.
The Good Samaritan, as the image of the charitable man who saves the unfortunate wayfarer, bestows a different sort of benefit than does the generous man. Charity involves rescuing someone from something bad; generous action intends to do someone a more positive good. Generosity, a characteristically Greek ethical notion, is a self-centered liberality in gift-giving which does not notice the beneficiary's need; Christian charity, in contrast, focuses on the other, on his soul with its private needs and pain. This other-centeredness is morally insignificant to the Greek ethics of happiness (eudaimonia), with its concern for self-actualization.
The generous man is not an altruist in his gift. Because he does not reckon his own interests or the interests of others in his gift-giving, the generous man cannot be said to subordinate his interests to another in altruistic or sacrificial fashion. Unlike the altruist, the generous man disdains to attend to moral rules or requirements.
As Aristotle, Descartes, Emerson, and especially Nietzsche portray him, the generous person not only practices liberal acts, but lives a life of liberality and demonstrates a noble superabundant autonomy and self-sufficiency. Disdaining niggardliness or the need for safety and affection, the generous man perceives himself as “one who has overmuch of the good” and “a squanderer with a thousand hands” (Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra). Generosity is beyond all need, either the benefactor's or the beneficiary's.
In respect to the virtue of generosity, those persons who are morally best are those for whom being good is natural and easy. Generosity does not require that being a good person entails struggle with the self or its spontaneous overflowing of goodness. The generous person is not at the effect of his or another's need but is at the cause of his self-chosen benevolence.
Self-Esteem and Helpfulness
“Motivational Maturity and Helping Behavior.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence 6 (1977): 375–395.
Do approaches to personality development that stress self-worth inhibit generosity and helping behavior? Some psychologists contend that the self-esteem emphasis in the writings of Carl Rogers, Ayn Rand, and Abraham Maslow would probably produce motivations which militate against helping, altruistic, or social concerns [see L. Berkowitz, “The Self, Selfishness, and Altruism.” In J. Macauley and L. Berkowitz eds., Altruism and Helping Behavior. New York: Academic Press, 1970]. However, recent psychological studies indicate that higher levels of self-worth and autonomy characterize the more helpful person.
These test studies, establishing a positive correlation between self-esteem motivation and prosocial behavior, were conducted with college age students. Two groups of subjects were selected on the basis of Aronoff's measure of Maslow's hierarchy of motivational needs [see A. Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being. Princeton: Van Nostrand, 1968]. In ascending order, Maslow had postulated the following ranking and hierarchy of needs: basic physiological needs, safety needs, love and belonging, esteem needs, need for cognitive understanding, and later developmental needs of self-actualization. Thus, according to Maslow, self-esteem needs rank higher in motivational maturity than the need for safety. Persons of high self-esteem, in Maslow's scheme, would be more socially responsible and caring for the fortunes of their fellow beings than would “safety-dominant” persons. Accordingly, in the studies, group 1 consisted of students who were significantly above the mean in their responses reflecting safety needs; group 2 was composed of students whose test scores manifested significantly high esteem needs. The students in group 2 also exhibited high self-worth as determined by Rosenberg's (1965) self-esteem measure.
The key study using these contrasted sets of students staged a situation in which a confederate of the experimenters pretended to have lost a contact lens in the presence of one of the student test subjects from the two control groups. The individual subjects were scored on the basis of both their time-delay in volunteering help to search for the lens and the duration of their help. As predicted, those persons of high self-esteem were most likely to offer assistance and to help for a longer time.
Such studies show how misplaced the suspicion is that individualistic personality traits make for unhelpful and antisocial behavior. These studies also confirm earlier studies which reported that one's characteristic needs also affect one's “gaming strategy.” Individuals' personalities may be primarily concerned with either belongingness, power, or achievement. People in these three categories behaved predictably different in the famous prisoner's dilemma which weighs competitive versus cooperative behavior and gaming strategy.
“Self-efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change.” Psychological Review 84 (1977): 191–215.
Government subsidies and welfare are frequently defended in the belief that such state support is needed to provide services for citizens who cannot provide for themselves. If individuals felt more self-esteem or more capable of providing for their own needs, they would seek external help less urgently. “Self-efficacy” is the term used to describe one's awareness of his or her capacity to “cope effectively.” The various factors influencing a person's beliefs concerning self-efficacy require detailed analysis. Although this discussion narrowly focuses on how different psychological treatment procedures affect self-efficacy and corresponding behavior changes, broader applications are possible.
Beliefs and expectations of one's own personal efficacy determine whether an individual will initiate coping behavior, how much effort he will expend, and how long he will cope in the face of trials and negative experiences. Beliefs about personal efficacy are distinguishable from beliefs about “response-outcome contingencies.” That is, to know that a particular personal response will produce a desired outcome does not necessarily induce a person to perform the appropriate behavior if that person harbors serious doubts about his ability to accomplish it effectively. Independent and autonomous behavior is more likely to occur if one is confident in his ability to carry it out and thereby achieve the desired outcome.
Four sources of information influence the level of one's perceived self-efficacy: (1) personal performance accomplishments, (2) vicarious experiences of others' accomplishments, (3) verbal persuasion, and (4) emotional arousal or physiological arousal. Of these sources, the most important are personal performance accomplishments. In effect, personal successes enhance self-efficacy expectations; personal failures diminish them. Failure occurring during initial attempts to perform tend to hurt our self-image more grievously than the same failure that occurs after a number of successes.
We learn self-efficacy not only from our own experiences but also from vicarious experiences, that is, from our observations of how others cope successfully with similar situations. But since vicarious experiences derive from social comparisons instead of personal experience, they are less powerful in establishing belief in our own mastery. Similarly, expectations of self-efficacy based solely on verbal persuasion rather than personal experience are less likely to produce significant behavioral change.
For persons possessed of a limited sense of personal efficacy, successful experiences will not necessarily create an intensified feeling of mastery. When expectations and beliefs have served as self-protective devices over a long period of time, we cannot readily modify them.
Such findings on self-efficacy have important implications for efforts to persuade others about the value of liberty. These efforts stand a better chance of success if the individual listener recognizes that his personal efficacy is adequate to meet his needs without feeling dependency toward others.
Democracy and Self-Esteem
“A Taxonomy of Democratic Development.” Human Development 19 (1976): 197–210.
How does a free and democratic society preserve itself and people itself with individuals who respect freedom and human rights? To grapple with this question we must identify the psychological stages through which individuals develop the intellectual and moral ideas of freedom and personal autonomy that equip them to function harmoniously in a free society.
From this developmental perspective it can prove useful to advance a classification or taxonomy of democratic character formation. There are suggestive parallels between the individual's social, moral, cognitive development and his democratic socialization or his internalization of those values of freedom and rights that are vital to democracy. Among the attitudes and liberties that democratic citizens must learn to internalize are appreciation of freedom of expression, concern for justice and human rights, avoidance of exploiting others, and trust in the efficacy of persons to make decisions regarding their own welfare and that of society.
A four-level classification of how the individual develops his concepts of free and democratic behavior includes: (1) isolate—the state of a person insufficiently socialized or reflective about the norms of a democratic society (e.g., human rights are not analyzed as abstract universal principles); (2) conformist—the stage where one uncritically accepts and approves the existing system (e.g., one intellectually conforms to and respects the concerns and rights of one's peer group without extending his respect to others); (3) assertive dogmatist—the stage of simplistic, often authoritarian, support of the system in terms of black and white alternatives (e.g., one supports oversimplified solutions to social arrangements such as imposing government constraints on human behavior); and (4) rational humanist—the most mature stage characterizing the autonomous, critical, and independent individual—one concerned with the logical and universal application of rights and freedom as well as sensitive to the dilemmas encountered in moving toward a freer society (e.g., one's primary concern is for universal protection of human life and human potential; one believes that no individual or group should dominate or be dominated by another).
The highest and most mature stage of this taxonomy—the rational humanist—resembles Kohlberg's sixth and highest stage in the development of moral judgments concerning justice: intelligent personal autonomy which decrees that unjust laws may be broken because morality does not consist of special rules and taboos but rather of abstract principles of justice and respect for every individual. Following Piaget, we may hypothesize that a necessary precondition to constructing and abstracting political principles on the mature rational humanist level is the maturation of a person's formal cognitive operations. The actual adoption of democratic principles also depends upon a person's social learning history, for example, their exposure to democratic models and experience in democratic roles.
This four-stage taxonomy is useful for understanding the framework from which individuals advocate the value of liberty. The highest moral stage where one exercises independent conscience is valuable to society because society relies upon the individual's capacity to act rationally upon independent beliefs. But a potential conflict exists when the autonomous and sovereign individual challenges the sovereignty of the society.
Aside from this revolutionary implication in the concept of autonomy, the rational humanist citizen would elevate and foster democratic values by casting an informed vote based on critical investigation of issues and individual responsibility. It thus seems profitable to identify the psychological antecedents of the concept of free democracy on both cognitive and social developmental levels. This has important implications for creating educational curricula which can foster the adoption of free, democratic values.
Obedience vs. Self-Ownership
“Why We Consent to Oppression.” Reason 10 (September 1977): 28–33.
Does the authoritarian state arise from the cradle of the authoritarian family that suppresses self-determination?
Today the question posed by the sixteenth century humanist Étienne de la Boétie in Voluntary Servitude is still crucial: “Why do people voluntarily consent to their enslavement to political tyranny?” Why do people fear their own independence and reject a “live and let live” philosophy that asserts individual freedom? America's drift toward political totalitarianism appears to be rooted in familial totalitarianism. The family serves as the nursery that teaches voluntary servitude; it socializes children in the psychological and ethical will to surrender autonomy and individualism for dependence and selflessness. Children who, out of fear or parental authority, renounce their self-ownership are molded into citizens who consent to arbitrary political authority.
From birth children naturally express self-ownership and self-determination. Self-ownership entails that each person assumes responsibilities for the major aspects of his self: free will, reason as a guide to decision making, the demand for personal freedom, and the pursuit of self-interest. Gradually, however, most children disown their self and helplessly deny their moral autonomy. Why do children become the most oppressed class of persons? Parental authority. Parents threaten: “Don't be selfish!” and “Obey, or suffer!” and thereby stifle the child's wish to express his self. To survive peacefully, to secure food and acceptance, and to escape parental punishment, the child conforms and obeys.
This original compromise of his self-ownership enables the child to survive in the family. Soon he extends this denial of his own self-interest into the context of the school, church, and state. Having subverted his self-interest through choice, the passing years make it difficult for him to revoke his habit of self-oppression. Next, the child lies not only to others, but more importantly, to himself about his own desires and interests. Thus he reaches adulthood a stranger to his inner self.
Voluntary servitude becomes the child's habit because other options seem too threatening. Reason functions not as a means to pursue personal freedom and goals, but as a veil for selflessness. The escape from the shackles of childhood dependency only means new forms of self-oppression. Now the “grown-up” conformist is impotent to rebel against school, church, or state, all of which continue the original parental autocracy and demand a similar obedience and stifling of the self.
In the psychology of self-determination, persons achieve liberation by relearning how to value their own selves. This self-liberation follows two processes: building self-esteem and recovering self-love. Self-esteem is a conditional attribute; it is the self-efficacy we have to earn by living up to our own judgmental standards. Self-love, on the other hand, is an unconditional placing of a high value on our personal selves as living beings. By extending this love to other humans we recognize the basis for granting rights. We thereby respect the sacredness of others' lives and selves.
To achieve a good and free society, we need to leaven self-interest with this extended love for mankind and a love of human liberty. On a family scale, we can anticipate in miniature this ideal society of love and liberty. The first step is fostering our own children's self-determination and liberating our family relationships from fear and force.
This question of self-ownership is vital for the stability of a free society. A free, antiauthoritarian society would inevitably perish unless it were peopled by enough autonomous individuals who value risky freedom over the apparent comforts of tyranny.
“Bridging Science and Values: A Unifying View of Mind and Brain.” American Psychologist 33 (1977): 237–245.
One modern area where the controversy between free will and determinism is being fought is the mind-brain question and the concept of consciousness. Reacting against the older deterministic position, science may be able to clarify value questions by advancing a non-mechanistic theory of brain functioning. This theory would negate many mechanistic, deterministic, and reductionistic features of the earlier materialist-behaviorist doctrine and allow for a conscious causality in processing value statements.
In this nondeterministic theory, any given brain will respond differently to the same input and will tend to process the same information into very different behavioral paths depending on the brain's specific system of value-priorities. Our current concept of the mind-brain relationship thus attributes an active and causal role in brain processing to the phenomena of consciousness.
Some of the earlier but defective theories of consciousness viewed subjective experiences variously as epiphenomena, as passive parallels of brain activity, as identical to neural events, or, finally, as an artifact of our semantic system. A more adequate interpretation of consciousness is the current one which focuses on conscious thoughts as emergent properties of brain activity which do not require identical correspondence between subjective states and the neural events. Such thoughts are active, causal determinants essential to control normal brain functions. This theory asserts that the subjective properties of brain processing conform to general natural laws: that holistic or system properties can exercise causality.
This complex issue requires some qualification. We possess no empirical proof of the stated theory; however, the traditional behaviorist theory also lacks similar proof. The question comes down to a balance of credibility. During the past decade, the modified causal concept of conscious mind has become more credible than the behaviorist view.
Using the present theory, we may approach questions of value scientifically without reducing man to a neurochemical automaton. Man in this scientific image regains much of his freedom and dignity, both of which were challenged by behaviorists. Current theory in mind-brain relations allows a measure of autonomy: a person can determine his own actions based on his personal judgment, cognitive purposes, or subjective wants. Thus, freedom of choice is introduced into the causality of decision making for man. This clearly enthrones the human brain at the apex of other processing systems in its capacity to choose and select events. This neurophysiological theory appears fully consistent with rationalist views that honor man's cognitive capabilities.
Important consequences flow from whichever model of the human mind we select in reference to the mind-brain controversy. The issues of free will and the nature of man are intimately connected with such technical and scientific research.
Freedom and Learning
“The New 'Brain' Concept of Learning.” Phi Delta Kappan 59 (February 1978): 393–396.
Education that aims at preparing autonomous persons to live in a free society needs to heed recent discoveries about the brain's natural methods of functioning. Current educational practices, however, are largely antagonistic to the brain's nature.
Just as a finger bends forward but not backward, the brain has certain ways in which it works and other ways in which it will not work. Among the brain's characteristics highlighted in the recent studies are:
These findings have important implications for educational practice and for socialization in autonomy and freedom.
Educational methods grew up and became entrenched long before this information was available. In large part pedagogy goes against the grain of the brain's nature. For instance, the brain learns by successfully executing an action. What is required is that materials and teachers be available to provide guidance in learning actions. What is not required is a system mainly comprised of talking at, testing, failing, and moving along. Because the brain is a pattern-detecting device of incredible capability and subtlety, it needs vast amounts of input to provide the raw material from which it can discover the relevant patterns. The typical school offers little in the way of input.
Finally, brain research clarifies how to foster independent individuals. People cannot learn the skills or attitudes they need to survive and prosper in a free society exclusively through a conceptual approach. They must have a base of relevant experiences from which they can derive a conceptual understanding. They must have the experience of living and functioning in a free society.
Intolerance vs. Self-Actualization
“Evolution and Collective Intolerance.” The Journal of Politics 39 (1977): 667–684.
Applying evolutionary analysis to politics creates disturbing thoughts. If the very process of natural selection reinforces human aggression and competition, what hope does mankind have for peace?
Collective intolerance endangers liberty (meaning Mill's freedom of dissent). This becomes clear by exploring the connection between man's biological nature and his attitudes toward diverse, threatening, and novel ideas. “Collective intolerance” here means the tendency in members of a group not only to insist upon behavioral and intellectual conformity but also to repress unconventional behavior or expression.
Will evolution solve the problem of collective intolerance? To answer this, we must search back into our evolutionary roots, examine recent efforts by biologists to discover the attitudes of the lower primate groups to challenges from contesting groups, as well as investigate modern scientific conceptions of natural selection. Conclusions may be drawn from these primate examples and from what is known about man's behavior toward competing groups when he was still in the herding phase. In effect, man possesses a genetic disposition to identify with a group in order to secure his own survival. Consequently, group survival—and the corresponding necessity to homogenize the group through shared ideas, customs, religious beliefs—dictates intolerance for dissent within the group and opposition to competing societies with different belief systems. Thus, the proliferating warfare of the preceding four centuries is directly linked to the increase in communication between these divergent societies.
What, then, is the likelihood of promoting toleration and liberty within society if man is biologically predisposed to be intolerant? The primary solution is rationality. Once men in competing societies recognize that nuclear war may annihilate all groups, they might discern that increased cooperation is the only means of securing survival. And finally, constitutional guarantees within states ought to be institutionalized in order to protect the liberty to dissent.