I now want to focus on views of what we might call autonomy within constraints — that is, I will set out recognizing that there is no absolute autonomy, but that any discussion of it must assume that humans are subject to certain physical and psychological limitations.
One of the most common views of such autonomy with constraints assumes that humans are autonomous if they are able to achieve the (physically attainable) desires that they have. In alignment with this view, which we might call autonomy as desire achievement, those who attain what they want are self-directed. By contrast, those whose ability to achieve what they want is externally or internally hindered are not.
Though this view may seem straightforward, in fact there is an ancient discussion about whether achieving what one happens to want is sufficient for autonomy. For one, human psychology is actually rather complex; and in fact those who get what they want often have other, perhaps at times even contradictory, wants that they might not have achieved. For another, the question arises as to whether one has freely chosen what one wants.
For the mentioned view of autonomy as desire achievement to be correct, we must assume that achieving what one wants means achieving what one wants most of all; for at times one simply wants contradictory things. Getting one thing that one wants would of necessity require not getting something else that one wants. At some point in one’s life a individual might want to live in Santa Fe and move to London. Yet clearly meeting one of these desires means not meeting the other one. Assuming that getting what one wants most of all is autonomous, though, still opens us to the second query noted. If one did not choose one’s wants or did not choose them without undue constraints, then one can ask if one is truly free if one gets them. There are many dimensions to the question of whether one has chosen one’s wants. A view related to this arises already in Plato’s work. Plato appears to assume that an individual is not autonomous if she is pushed and pulled in her decisions by her passions or desires. Such an individual, unable to act against her passions, unable to control them, is not not self directed but enslaved by her desires. In Plato’s view a tyrant is such an individual. Though he may acquire power and many things he desires, if he does not control his desires, or has not wisely chosen his desires, he is not free. We can also imagine someone whose desires are formed by some pathology or mental illness, or, as Susan Wolf mentions, someone under hypnosis. Such an individual who achieves her desires is not self-directed. She is not autonomous because she did not freely chose the desires that direct her action.
Plato’s view of autonomy is questioned by many. He indeed implies that only those are free who chose according to the dictates of reason. Before discussing this view of autonomy as rational goal fulfillment, I want to discuss an alternative view that imagines that someone could freely choose to be dominated by one’s passions. It is at the certainly logically possible that a person who has examined the question of whether she wants to be driven by reason in decision making or to give into passions could decide for passions. In such a view, the choice of the values that such an individual has would in any case be necessary in order for one to be autonomous. It would seem that for such a person, who decided to be ruled by the passions, then actions that are directed by the passions would be autonomous. Getting what one wants most of all would make that person autonomous — at least theoretically. But here, the wants that the individual has are not willy nilly. They have been chosen after deliberation — or perhaps we might want to add a caveat that they have been accepted after informed consent. We might thus see their activities as goal directed rather than merely desire directed. We might thus call this view autonomy as goal achievement.
Here, to again underline the difference from the first view though, the person would not be autonomous who simply got what she wanted. She would only be autonomous if she had also chosen those desires (or what we might call her values) after informed deliberation and made the achievement of them her goal. Here, it is also necessary that the person did not choose her goals under some undo psychological influence or without important information.
This view, too, as I have suggested, would be challenged by Plato. In Plato’s view autonomy does not consist in managing to achieve goals that one has freely chosen. Rather, the motivating desires or values, according to Plato, must themselves be rational. The tyrant, according to Plato, would not be free, as we have noted, simply if he had the opportunity to do what he wants. Nor would he be free even if he consciously embraced the (confused) values that direct his actions. Plato has one of the first clearly developed views that only what is rational facilitates autonomy. We can call this view autonomy as rational goal fulfillment. It seems Plato would think that the idea of informed consent to be ruled by one’s passions, for example, would be impossible. This, Plato would likely see to be a decision that simply betrays a lack of having been fully informed — a decision issuing from ignorance.
We can see Kant as also having some such view. For Kant the individual who does not make decisions in accord with a rational law (his categorical imperative) is one who acts arbitrarily. Only rationality provides a consistent law that results in consistent and for Kant autonomous behavior. Plato’s view is different from this in details. Plato does think that only those who are rational are free. But we can see him as indicating that the individual who is rational acts freely by fulfilling the needs of his nature. One might alternatively call his view, or the one Aristotle, the view of autonomy as rational human fulfillment. However, it is important to see that for Plato a person will only be autonomous, and free from enslavement by her desires, if she is moderate. Autonomy requires precisely moderation because human beings are habitual creatures.
In sync with this view, autonomy consists in the ability to act on the passions or desires that one should have, that reason dictates, and that fulfill human nature. In fact, it may be that it is possible to find in Plato, or to build from a foundation that he has, an argument that there is a problem with the view of autonomy as goal fulfillment — namely, an individual may choose goals without undue constraint that ultimately are formed into habits that undermine an individuals autonomy. A Plato-inspired argument would appear to be that only by accepting goals that underline moderation is an individual able to develop the kinds of habits that prevent her from eventually loosing her autonomy. If this is true, then autonomous individuals would have ipso facto a requirement to choose to subject their appetites to reason, that is to become moderate. A tyrant who consciously chooses goals that feed his appetites would eventually lose his abilities to freely direct his behavior. Moderation would be one of the necessary conditions for autonomy.
As an aside, in a perhaps less Platonic spirit, one might leave open the possibility of an occasional breach of one’s habitually moderate behavior, though, as such occasional breaches would not lead to a habit the gave permanent dominance to the passions. But let us return to the main discussion and summarize.
The three positions of focus here are not the only views of autonomy of importance. However, they begin to thematize important questions in the discussion of self-directedness. Self-directedness is always within constraints of our physical and mental capabilities. The positions discussed here address important concerns about whether just achieving our desires is sufficient for autonomy. It would also seem important that we choose the things we desire to desire, or our values. Here, though, the question arises about whether one must simply make a well-informed, unconstrained choice about values or whether one must choose to be directed by reason, as best we understand that. Though the direction by reason appears to give up self-rule in a complete sense, since one doesn’t determine what is rational, and so our autonomy would be constrained, someone defending a Plato-inspired position might argue that this is still the greatest type of human autonomy that is possible.
I would like to add one short note regarding a problem with the view of autonomy as rational goal fulfillment — namely that while there are cases where reason may facilitate us in choosing our goals, there are certainly also many where it does not seem powerful enough to do this. Sartre of course is famous for emphasizing that there are many cases where reason will not provide a best answer as to what one should do or avoid as a life goal. Should one become a doctor or a musician? Reason does not answer this type of question. And in the moral sphere, at some point in time, should one join the resistance or help take care of one’s aging parent? Again, even weighing the specifics in such a case may not yield a right answer. Many of our choices are just choices. Autonomous people would choose with as much information as possible. But in many such cases reason will simply not be determinant.