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Beyond History: The Ongoing Aspects of Autonomy

by Steven Weimer

Historical accounts of autonomy hold that the autonomy of pro-attitudes depends, at least in part, on the way in which they came about. Understandably, such accounts tend to focus the bulk of their attention on identifying the historical conditions necessary for the development of autonomous pro-attitudes. As Alfred Mele has argued, however, in addition to autonomy with respect to the development of one’s pro-attitudes, full or robust personal autonomy requires as well that one be autonomous with respect to the continued possession of one’s pro-attitudes, and with respect to the influence those pro-attitude have on one’s behavior. These non-historical aspects of personal autonomy have not, though, been adequately addressed by recent historical accounts. This paper aims to draw attention to, and hopefully go some way toward remedying, the need for further illumination of the two ongoing aspects of autonomy. I argue first that in order for a pro-attitude to be autonomously possessed, it is not enough that it developed in an autonomous manner; it must also be maintained in an autonomous manner. I examine two proposed “autonomous-maintenance” conditions, one by Mele, the other by Richard Arneson, and argue that, as those conditions stand, neither is satisfactory. What we need, I argue, is an autonomous-maintenance condition that adjusts and combines the requirements of those two conditions, such as that I go on to offer. According to that condition, the autonomous possession of a pro-attitude requires that the agent remain disposed and able to review the pro-attitude in the light of new and relevant evidence, and that she is capable of shedding the pro-attitude should such review issue in a rational judgment that it is best to do so. I then examine Mele’s discussion of the behavioral aspect of autonomy relative to a pro-attitude. I argue that by requiring that an agent be able to construct and execute a plan for acting on the basis of a pro-attitude that has some objectively determined likelihood of success, Mele’s treatment of the behavioral aspect of autonomy confuses the ability to autonomously pursue one’s ends with the ability to achieve them. The behavioral aspect of autonomy, I argue, ought instead require merely that an agent be able to employ her adequate self-control capacities in determining for herself whether and how to go about acting on her autonomously possessed pro-attitudes.

ISSN 1559-3061
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