Sunday, 11 February 2007

Autonomy, Choice, Self-Respect

"The idea of seeing the value in our activities is very important. It's crucial to what [John] Rawls calls self-respect, the 'sense that one's plan of life is worth carrying out'. Self-respect, as Rawls says, isn't so much a part of any rational plan of life, but rather a precondition of it. If we thought that our goals in life weren't worth pursuing, then there would be no point to our activities. To ensure that we have this self-respect, we need the freedom to examine our beliefs, to confirm their worth. This is why liberty is so important to Rawls, and why he gives it precedence over material benefits and the prerogatives of office. Once material security is ensured, so that the conditions necessary for the effective exercise of liberty exist, it is irrational to trade off liberty for more wealth.

So far that seems unobjectionable. But we need to look more closely at those beliefs about value which are said to give meaning and purpose to our lives. Where do they come from? Liberals say that we should be free to accept or reject particular options presented to us, so that, ultimately, the beliefs we continue to hold are the ones that we've chosen to accept. But the range of options can't be chosen. In deciding how we live our lives, we do not accept, de novo, but rather we examine 'definite ideals and forms of life that have been developed and tested by innumerable individuals, sometimes for generations [Rawls, 1971 pp563-4]. The decision about how to live our lives must ultimately be ours alone, but this decision is always a matter of selecting what we believe to be most valuable from the various options available, selecting from a context of choice which provides us with different ways of life.

This is important because our range of options is determined by our cultural heritage...From childhood on, we become aware both that we are already participants in certain forms of life (familial, religious, sexual, educational etc) adn that there are other ways of life which offer alternative models and roles that we may, in time, come to endorse....we make judgments precisesly by examining the cultural structure, by coming to an awareness of the possibilities it has, the different activities it identifies as significant."

Will Kymlicka, Liberalism, Community and Culture Ch 8

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