Front Page Titles (by Subject) II: Autonomy, Privacy, and Authority - Literature of Liberty, October/December 1978, vol. 1, No. 4
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II: Autonomy, Privacy, and Authority - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, October/December 1978, vol. 1, No. 4 
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.
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Autonomy, Privacy, and Authority
Natural law, indeed any reflective personalist morality or political ideology such as individual freedom, requires autonomy. To be free the self seeks to form its own moral consciousness autonomously, rather than passively have its consciousness formed by externally imposed authority. In this framework, the progress of culture and civilization parallels the progressive concern for the privacy of other selves and the determination to cultivate our own autonomy. Increasing autonomy in a society represents a liberation from the authoritarian mentality's taboos against individuation and dissent from the group's rules. By freeing the person to be individuated and differentiated from the group, autonomy tempers the old, automatic, and conventional customs by rational scrutiny and the Socratic examined life.
From the Stoic Epictetus to Abraham Maslow, autonomy as inner personal freedom has been seen to have intimate connections with external freedom in society and politics. The modern world, with its trends toward centralization, bureaucracy, and depersonalization demands that we study more carefully the conflicts between the inner freedom of autonomy and the external servitude of authority, conformity, and obedience. Accordingly, the following summaries focus on the interconnection between the concepts of autonomy, privacy, and authority.
The first two summaries show how essentially pertinent autonomy is to such issues as authoritarian bureaucracy and the debate between voluntarism and government authority. Next, the Black summary, introducing five related studies, emphasizes how vital is autonomous self-responsibility in developing moral self-awareness and the capacity for freedom. A similar theme underlies the studies of buck-passing and the ongoing conflict in the classroom between self-assertive autonomy and authoritarian conformity. With the Margulis summary the focus moves to the close kinship between autonomy and privacy. That privacy and personal autonomy have social and political repercussions is evident throughout each summary.
Bureaucracy and “The Organization Man”
“Capitalism and Individuation in the Sociology of Max Weber.” British Journal of Sociology 28 (December 1977): 498–508.
Sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) posed a crucial question: “Given this overwhelming tendency toward bureaucratisation, how is it still possible at all to preserve any sense of ‘individualistic freedom of movement’...” This commitment to individual autonomy, argue the authors, is what motivated Weber in his studies of modern capitalism.
Weber identified two decisive factors in the development of modern capitalism in the West: (1) The growth of Protestant ‘inner-worldly asceticism’ overturned the religious bias against worldly economics, and (2) The existence in the West of competing political and social authorities prevented the totalizing control of a monolithic empire.
A central theme in Weber's work is “the significance he attaches to the break-through from particularistic-prescriptive structures (clan-caste) with their in group-out group morality to communal-associational structures which embody a universal ethic.” “In the west clan ties were replaced by military, territorial, and juridical associations.” Helping to promote individuation, the “Christian ethic of universal brotherhood replaced the in group-out group dualistic ethic.”
However, the final steps in the direction of rational economic activity ushered in by the Reformation were to break down the priest/laity dichotomy and to spiritually reconcile the tensions between the Christian ethic of universal brotherhood and the purposive-rational conduct of other orders in society. Weber's analysis of the social origin of the bourgeoisie in the medieval city shows how the city provided a favorable climate for the systematic rationalization of administration, commercial life, science, art, and theology.
In addition, the expansion of capitalism necessitates an increasingly rational and efficient organization of social relations—in short, increased bureaucratization. However, Weber realized that impersonal bureaucracies would inevitably lead to a loss of autonomy “by the individual in the face of technically calculated production and consumption and impersonally formalised integration.”
Autonomy and Anarchism
“Autonomy and Wolff's Defense of Anarchism.” Philosophical Forum 8 (September 1976): 108–121.
Robert Paul Wolff defends anarchism on the grounds that political authority is incompatible with moral autonomy. For Wolff, political authority is legitimate only if we can rightly acknowledge the state as possessing genuine authority—that is, only if we can acknowledge that the state's commands should determine our moral obligations.
Wilson sees ambiguity and a flaw in Wolff's notion of autonomy. Wolff has actually created two divergent notions of autonomy—one in In the Defense of Anarchism and another in The Autonomy of Reason. Wolff has thus created two different arguments for anarchism. The first theory (presented in Defense of Anarchism) holds that autonomy is the primary obligation of man, an obligation to take responsibility for one's actions by deliberating about what one ought to do. Autonomy, in this sense, implies our absolute duty to reject the right of others (e.g., the state) to command and determine our obligations.
Wolff's second theory of autonomy (formulated in The Autonomy of Reason) is inconsistent with the first notion of autonomy. This second autonomy is the source of all obligations. This implies a contractual theory of obligations: obligations exist only insofar as we have freely contracted with other agents. But autonomy cannot be both man's primary obligation and the source of obligations in general. In the second view of autonomy no obligations exist other than those which arise by contract, whereas in the first view of autonomy a primary obligation exists regardless of one's contractual activities.
Wolff's proof of the contractual theory of autonomy also fails. He defends his contractual theory of obligation by asserting that no substantive principle of obligation can bind a rational agent a priori. But what if there is no source of obligations at all? Furthermore, Wolff offers no proof of the anti-a priori obligation thesis. Wolff weakly claims that the categorical imperative does not prescribe obligations but only rules out contradictory obligations. But what if there exist other sources of obligations than formal principles such as the categorical imperative?
Wolff's argument for anarchism now becomes very strange indeed. For Wolff has conceded that a rational person can have any noncontradictory obligation what-soever so long as this arises by voluntary unanimous contract. Why, then, could not rational agents agree to obey a state's commands? Unless Wolff shows this to be logically impossible, his notion of autonomy does not entail anarchism. Ofcourse, it is perverse to use political power as the source of one's obligations if it is true that autonomy is the only source of one's obligations. But there is nothing logically impossible about such a perverse society, or at least Wolff has provided no argument to that effect.
Autonomy and Taking Responsibility
“Responsibility Management: The Primary Object of Moral Education.” Journal of Moral Education (UK), 7 (1978) 166–181.
Moral education in the sense of “responsibility management” or accepting personal responsibility inculcates individual autonomy.
“Personal freedom of action is the capacity to act on one's preferences for good reasons, unobstructed by various sorts of coercion or compulsions.” But such freedom also requires us to take rational responsibility for evaluating and correcting the consequences of our actions. A valid theory of moral education should stress “ascriptive responsibility,” which holds a person responsible for what he does or believes, regardless the degree of personal freedom or knowledge he had when he acted. This approach aims at increasing rational capacity and knowledge of self and others by asserting responsibility without exculpation. By accepting full responsibility for our acts, we assert our personal autonomy, our freedom.
This conception of moral responsibilities differs from legal liability. Morality seeks to develop character to a more perfect capacity for responsibility and freedom, whereas law permits and acts upon the possibility of diminished responsibility by reason of mental incapacity, ignorance, or excusing conditions. Morality under ascriptive responsibility demands strict liability for both acts and omissions, regardless of any excusing conditions.
As a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” holding ourselves responsible can guide us through feelings and “action-regulators” which compel us to take personal responsibility for our behavior. Thus ascriptive responsibility becomes the educational method by which one enhances real personal autonomy, the goal of moral education.
This method heightens personal awareness on the levels of intellect, will, and emotions. When we have fully internalized the habit of responsibility, the job of formal moral education is completed. A responsible person is a free person, one who habitually thinks for himself, rectifies his wrongs, and continues to instruct his own autonomy. Today social institutions often atrophy personal autonomy. Institutions encourage dependency, reward irresponsibility, while penalizing personal responsibility and excusing wrongs. The natural consequences of these failures to manage responsibility contribute to the decline in personal freedom characteristic of our present society. But as society and the law increasingly apply ascriptive responsibility, the resulting strengthened personal responsibility will diminish the need for custodians of our personal morality. Also, state regulations which, by definition, create more crimes and criminals, and less and less personal freedom, will become unnecessary.
Autonomy, Motivation, and “Buck-Passing”
“Implications of the Buck-Passing Phenomenon for Reactance Theory.” Journal of Personality 45 (1977): 543–553.
According to reactance theory, whenever an important freedom has been threatened or eliminated, a person is motivated to protect or restore that freedom. However, individuals do not seem to seek to maintain or restore freedom when the situation involves a potential threat to themselves. The present study investigates whether a person would strive to reestablish or maintain freedom of choice in a situation which requires taking responsibility for decisions that have potentially negative consequences for others. Relinquishing freedom of choice under such circumstances can be viewed as “buck-passing.”
Three variables were manipulated in this study: (1) Participants either did or did not experience a threat to their freedom of choice; (2) The participants either were or were not told that they were responsible for the consequences to others; and (3) The outcomes to others could either be positive or negative in their effect. The findings of the study confirmed the buck-passing hypothesis. “When faced with responsibility for decisions which may have adverse outcomes for others, individuals will often relinquish their freedom of choice to others.” This result may account for the reluctance of members of a bureaucracy to take action even within their range of prerogatives when confronted with controversial situations that threaten negative consequences for others. This result also implies that citizens may permit government to abridge their freedoms if taking action could produce negative outcomes for others.
The results of this study also indicate that a person who attempts to limit the freedom of choice of others is likely to be evaluated less favorably than one who does not threaten freedom of choice.
Schooling for Conformity
“Teachers' Attitudinal Responses to Differing Characteristics of Elementary School Students.” Journal of Educational Psychology 69 (1977): 261–265.
Do teachers teach conformity and stifle individual autonomy?
The authors report a study of public elementary school teachers' attitudes toward descriptions of students who varied along personality, ability, and sex dimensions. A total of 53 elementary teachers were given 16 personality descriptions of students. The teachers reported on their feelings of attachment, rejection, concern, and indifference to each of the 16 descriptions.
Attachment—The teachers reported significantly higher levels of attachment to rigid-conforming-orderly and passive-acquiescent-dependent students. Teachers reported significantly lower levels of attachment to active-independent-assertive and flexible-nonconforming-untidy students.
Rejection—Teacher feelings of rejection essentially mirrored feelings of attachment. The feelings of rejection varied between sexes. Teachers displayed strongest feelings of rejection toward flexible-non-conforming-untidy boys but rejected active-independent-assertive girls the most.
Concern—A student's academic ability stirred up teachers' feelings of concern more than any other dimension. Students with lower scholastic ability elicited more concern. However, the teachers reserved their highest levels of concern for passive and dull students rather than their more active-independent counterparts.
Indifference—Teachers were generally most indifferent about active-independent-assertive students while least indifferent about their rigid-conforming-or-derly schoolmates.
The implications of this study are very clear. Teachers in this study felt positive attitudes toward those students inclined to accept authoritarian classroom practices, whereas they rejected those more autonomous students unlikely to accept authoritarianism. To the degree that teachers practice these paternalistic attitudes, they dampen student autonomy and encourage self-effacing conformity. Such classrooms are nurseries not for freedom but for authoritarian, political, and social environments.
The Schoolroom vs. Autonomy
“Gatekeeping and Student Role.” Journal of Educational Research 68 (July 1975): 366–370.
Teachers function as “gatekeepers” of what is allowed to happen in classrooms. When teachers control discussions or show favoritism, do they do so on the basis of conformity or of autonomy in their students?
This study investigated the verbal interruptions of teachers and students in 10 public school classrooms. The study involved a total of 245 elementary school (third grade) students. The frequency of interruption was tied to the personality characteristics of the students being interrupted. Student teachers rather than the regular classroom teachers were controlling the classrooms during the study.
Teachers interrupted active-independent-assertive males and flexible-nonconforming-untidy females the most. On the other hand, passive-dependent-acquiescent and rigid-conforming-orderly students of both sexes were interrupted significantly less often than would be expected. Other students tended to follow their teacher's lead in the kinds of students that they interrupted. These findings are somewhat limited in that all but one of the teachers was female. However, the great bulk of elementary teachers are also female so the limitation is of small practical significance.
Williams's study corroborates others which show that teachers tend to reward passive, conforming behavior while punishing independent, nonconforming behavior. Since the existence of authoritarian political and social systems depends in large measure on the tacit support of a large group of the population, teacher support of such behavior undermines free societies. At the same time it builds the kinds of attitudes that make the establishment of an authoritarian society easier.
Obedience to Authority
“The Case for Teaching Social Skills in the Classroom: A Review.” Review of Educational Research 48 (Winter 1978): 133–156.
What is the hidden curriculum of the public schools? What are the social behaviors, attitudes, and values that the public schools unofficially inculcate as part of their socializing function? The authors cite extensive research on modeling, imitation, vicarious learning, and reinforcement demonstrating that teachers tend to desire and reinforce obedient, attentive behavior in their students. Teachers place less value on freedom, initiative, and assertive behavior by their students. Gradually teachers place more emphasis on social controls and establishing a “stable, orderly classroom in which academic standards receive a prominent position” (Rabinowitz and Rosenbaum, 1960, p. 317). Since obedience is related to success in traditional schools, the authors argue for specific instruction designed to produce students that are obedient, attentive, task-oriented, and willing to perform the teacher's tasks.
The authors ignore the evidence that indicates school success is a very limited predictor of post-school success. America remains partially free. In such a system more is demanded than obedience and task-orientation.
The Meaning of Privacy
“Conceptions of Privacy: Current Status and Next Steps.” Journal of Social Issues 33 (1977): 5–21.
The common theme emerging from several empirical studies of the common speech meaning of the word “privacy” entails “separation from others through control over information, space, or access, including simply being or working alone.” However, variations in the definition of privacy also reflected the vagueness and ambiguity of the term. The meaning of privacy in the legal realm is represented in four categories: “personal control over personal disclosure (protection from public disclosure of private facts); direct intrusions upon a person's seclusion, solitude, or personal affairs; the appropriation of another's name or likeness for personal (e.g., commercial) advantage; and casting someone in a false light publicly.”
Margulis provides what he calls a core definition: “Privacy, as a whole or in part, represents the control of transactions between person(s) and other(s), the ultimate aim of which is to enhance autonomy and/or to minimize vulnerability.”
Irwin Altman's (1974) theory of the processes involved in achieving a desired level of privacy is described and analyzed. Reference is made to the psychological costs involved in maintaining privacy. Privacy in this context is integral to the functioning of self-identity and autonomy.
Privacy and Autonomy
“Privacy and Research with Human Beings.” Journal of Social Issues 33 (1977): 169–195.
Social psychology, because of its focus on personal facts and feelings, has a dangerous potential of invading the privacy of the participants in research studies. Kelman uses a definition of privacy developed by Ruebhausen and Brim: privacy is “the freedom of the individual to pick and choose for himself the time and circumstances under which, and most importantly, the extent to which, his attitudes, beliefs, behavior and opinions are to be shared with or withheld from others.” Research participants are in a vulnerable position regarding invasions of privacy since they are often unable to determine what information about themselves they will reveal. Furthermore, once disclosure occurs, they lack control over how that information will be disseminated. The author discusses the potential abuses that exist in a variety of different research-procedures including participant observation, unobtrusive observation, field experiments, laboratory experiments, laboratory experiments, questionnaires and tests, and interview studies.
One important psychological function of privacy is to preserve our sense of an “autonomous self.” We have a desire to establish and maintain an acknowledged boundary between self and environment, a feeling of physical and psychological space which can be entered only by our invitation. A central part of this is the inviolability of our bodies and of our possessions. This aspect of privacy extends to the exchanges which occur within certain relationships, e.g., interactions with our friends, lover(s), physician, attorney, or priest. Kelman surveys various psychological research studies which involve violations of private space without informed consent. These studies seem “tantamount to spying.” We can minimize invasions of privacy by avoiding deliberate intrusions with prior consent and by the rejection of methods which involve deception, coercion, manipulation, or misrepresentation.
Privacy and Consent
“Privacy and Secrecy: A Conceptual Comparison.”
Both privacy and secrecy involve restricted observability and the capacity to deny access to others. The authors contend that the two differ on a moral dimension. “Secrecy implies the concealment of something which is negatively valued by the excluded audience and, in some instances, by the perpetrator as well.” It is a means to escape being stigmatized. “Privacy, by contrast, protects behavior which is either morally neutral or valued by society as well as by the perpetrators... Privacy has a consensual basis in society, which secrecy does not. There is an agreed-upon ‘right to privacy’ in many areas of contemporary life; however, there is no equivalent, consensual ‘right to secrecy’.”
The authors take note of Shils's (1966) concept of “public-life secrecy.” “Public-life secrecy is secrecy on the part of those in power and their agents, acting purportedly in the public interest.” As such it is closely related to the institution of politics. “Public-life secrecy is active and directed at others' lives, while private-life secrecy is passive and protective of the self.... The secrecy of those empowered to act in the public interest is aimed at actively uncovering persons, groups, and activities which are a threat to those in power. In contrast, private-life secrecy is protective rather than aggressive; indeed, a major aim of private-life secrecy is to protect persons from secret agents of social control.”
For their example of privacy the authors selected various family activities, whereas their example of secrecy portrays the homosexual world. Whatever the value of these examples, the conceptual distinction between privacy and secrecy may lead to further research.
The Court and Privacy
“Privacy in the Courts: Law and Social Reality.”
How do Supreme Court decisions deal with the questions of privacy?
The right to privacy may be seen as deriving from the Fourth Amendment's protection “against unreasonable searches and seizures,” the Fifth Amendment's guarantee against self-incrimination, and possibly the First Amendment's prohibition on the abridgement of freedom of speech. With regard to the protection of sexual and reproductive behavior, the Supreme Court has recognized the right of privacy within the marital bedroom. Thus, individual access to birth control information and abortion is protected from governmental interference. However, the Court has decided that privacy interests can be outweighed by the social need for public safety. Thus, the police, without a warrant, are permitted to stop and frisk suspicious looking persons on the streets for weapons.
The authors believe that were the Courts to use social science data, the result would be an extension of the right to privacy. “The Justices of the Supreme Court have no special background regarding the meaning of or significance of personal privacy as a behavioral phenomenon. It is up to the social scientists who have studied this phenomenon to educate the courts.”
Although not directly related to the authors' main line of reasoning, they observe that “in the modern world it is precisely governmental structures and governmental power that most directly threaten our right(s) of privacy.” From the perspective of personal autonomy and freedom the use of social science data regarding the psychological expectations of privacy is fraught with problems.