Autonomy and progressive policies

December 18, 2016 3:01 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

How much should individuality be important for progressive forces? And is it possible to reconcile economic utility and individual autonomy? Despite the serious crisis which democracies are going through, our economic and social systems are based on the assumption that we are intrinsically free, and that, in order to take the best decisions as consumers, workers, citizens, members of a group, we only need to be informed about all the options ahead of us. Populism, for instance, allows electors to vote for politicians against the establishment, and the average citizen has the possibility to turn his or her back to institutions and beliefs which have been previously dominant.

Even when they suffer poverty or exclusion, human beings exert, through rage or disillusion, an individualism, which is not so different from the one we could find in affluent areas and in the establishment. On the other hand, real progress requires something more. Progress requires not only that most people hold certain beliefs, but also that they are able to provide a rational justification for them, beyond what would be convenient from a merely individualistic point of view. Progress is about individuality, as the ability to choose one’s aims in life, and not only about individualism, as the ability to choose a means for a preconceived aim. And true individuality implies autonomy.

In my book “Exchanging Autonomy. Inner Motivations As Resources for Tackling the Crises of Our Times”, I defined three kinds of autonomy: we are in a condition of relational autonomy when we make choices independent of our environment; we have functional autonomy, when our values (such as social justice and tolerance) guide our actions, instead of being the outcome of our social role; and we are in a condition of existential autonomy when we perceive our own dignity not because of our values, but because we are able to satisfy fundamental needs such as belonging to a community and influencing the reality where we live. This is made possible by metavalues (such as abandoning one’ s egoism), as attitudes towards ourselves, which guide the choice of our values.

In the current juncture, the left seems to face huge challenges, and the legacy of a great financial crisis, with its social and political implications. There is a need to rebuild trust with citizens who are having hard times. On the other hand, I find that progressive forces should not care only about getting consensus, which is possible when most voters share their views and agendas.

These forces should care about something more: the relational, functional and existential autonomy of people. For instance, autonomous voters express their opinions, on issues such as migrations and climate change, not only on the basis of their direct economic implications. Moreover, these voters base their opinions not only on how migrations and climate change interact (or do not interact) with their social role, but on a wider perspective, the one that Adam Smith considered proper of “the impartial spectator”, and which is similar to Immanuel Kant’s notion of moral autonomy and John Rawls’s veil of ignorance.

In my book, I proposed some options to foster autonomy in our societies. One of them is the exchange of values and metavalues. Such transactions would imply that, for instance, John transfers to Jane a document describing the benefits experienced by him and other individuals (and certified by third parties) through applying a given value, such as social justice, in their personal and professional activities. Jane, on the other hand, could transfer to John a document describing the benefits obtained through another moral value (such as tolerance), organisational value (e.g. learning by doing) or cultural value (e.g. attachment to local traditions).

In this way, both individuals would have the possibility to acquire new beliefs, independent of their particular social role. And if these documents were a means of exchange – which means that they might be exchanged with goods and services – , John and Jane would have an economic incentive to personally apply the experiences they receive from each other, as this would increase the amount of goods and services that they can get through these experiences. This would put an end to the monopoly of money as means of exchange, to which people usually adjust or even sacrifice their values and personal aspirations. And this would make possible to reconcile economic utility and autonomy, as the ability to look at the world beyond our role in it. Such exchanges might also have significant benefits with regard to issues such as income inequality.

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This post was written by Marco Senatore

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