Autonomy in political liberalism

Armstrong, Luke (2021) Autonomy in political liberalism. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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John Rawls intends his doctrine of political liberalism to be free of metaphysical commitments. For this reason, Rawls’ conception of autonomy is not supposed to be dependent on the truth of any one metaphysical theory of human nature. Instead, Rawls states that people are rationally autonomous – able to develop their moral powers – and fully autonomous – able to act from a sense of justice – positing that we can accept these conceptions of autonomy whatever our other philosophical commitments.
Though autonomy is not Rawls’ central concern, I argue that, nevertheless, full autonomy is integral to Rawls’ theory of justice. Without fully autonomous citizens, there is no one to realise justice as fairness. Through his way of thinking about human nature, Rawls assumes that people will be motivated to become fully autonomous. Through the possession of the moral powers, and the witnessing of the just workings of society’s institutions, a person will wish to act as a fully autonomous citizen should. I argue against making this assumption. Instead, I evaluate Rawls’ conception of the person against data in neuroscience and psychology, and thereby articulate two central concerns. First, a person’s moral psychology is largely dependent on her upbringing. If a person’s upbringing has not instilled in her a sense of the importance of fairness, there is little hope of her becoming fully autonomous in the way Rawls imagines. Second, in the neuroscience of free will, evidence suggests that we are much less in control of our thought processes than is traditionally imagined. If we are not in full control of our thought processes, there may be little we can do to prevent our being influenced by ideas that undermine justice as fairness.
This is why I argue that, to realise political liberalism in the way Rawls formulates it, a system of moral education is necessary; a system that is much more demanding than that imagined by Rawls. It cannot be assumed that people are inherently predisposed to the value of justice as fairness, nor can it be imagined that the majority of people would reject alternative doctrines through their capacity to regulate their thoughts. A strong prior commitment to justice as fairness is therefore necessary. If political liberalism is to be realised in the way Rawls imagines, people must be educated in the importance of justice as fairness, with the aim of such a system of education being the development of fully autonomous citizens.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Rawls, Political Liberalism, Autonomy, Free Will, Reasonableness, Education, Neuroscience, Metaphysics, Justice
Subjects: J Political Science > JC Political theory
Colleges/Schools: College of Social Sciences > School of Social and Political Sciences > Politics
Funder's Name: Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
Supervisor's Name: Knight, Dr Carl and Colburn, Professor Ben
Date of Award: 2021
Depositing User: Dr Luke Armstrong
Unique ID: glathesis:2021-82094
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 30 Mar 2021 14:05
Last Modified: 19 Aug 2022 15:53
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.82094

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