Man is semi-autonomous

Kevin asked:

We’re going to have a oral defense in our philosophy class. However, the statement assigned for us to discuss or defend is, “Man is semi-autonomous.” How to defend this statement? Please help

Answer by Paul Fagan

Now political philosophy would have something to say on this matter. Particularly those philosophers who criticise liberalism and are often grouped under the umbrella term ‘communitarians’. Firstly, they may note that individuals gain their language, values and customs from a greater society around them: they don’t invent a society all by themselves! Secondly, they may say that individuals need a surrounding society in which to ground their own self-perception: it is therefore logically impossible to view yourself as fully autonomous. Thirdly, they may argue that it is society giving persons ’ends’ or goals to realise. (A three-pronged criticism of this type, aimed at the liberal notions of individuality, has been more thoroughly dealt with by Will Kymlicka in his book Contemporary Political Philosophy; particularly the chapter entitled ‘Communitarianism’).

In an attempt to deny that society restrains an individual’s life, the advocate of liberalism may remark that she has the rights to free political association; can listen to whatever music she likes and own property. Don’t these constitute autonomy? Possibly, but this all depends upon how we value and measure the concept of ‘autonomy’.

To demonstrate the communitarians’ argument and make it more tangible, a person may have the freedoms to buy a good such as a bicycle for instance. But that same person would need a surrounding society to teach her the skills to ride it; furthermore, that same person would need a society to build and supply a bicycle in the first place! Additionally, the society would give the person self-perception as a cyclist. But all along, society will have provided the notion that owning a bicycle is advantageous.

Hence, whenever we think or act we are constantly guided by a formative society. There may be some philosophers who would argue that as it is impossible to completely detach yourself from society, then a state of ‘semi-autonomy’ is all that the individual, who wishes to jettison the trappings of society, may hope to achieve.

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