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Stanley Benn on Autonomy - Dictionary of Arguments

Gaus I 104
Autonomy/Benn/Gaus: As John Stuart Mill pointed out, it is ‘mere accident’ that decides the traditions into which one is inducted: ‘the same causes which make him a Churchman in London, would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian (...) (1963a(1): ch. 2, para. 4).
Benn: Given that we necessarily come to adulthood with values and commitments that we did not choose, Stanley Benn argues that an autonomous person is one who is engaged in an ongoing process of ‘critical adjustment within a system of beliefs in which it is possible to appraise one sector by canons drawn from another’ (1988(2): 32; but cf. Wall, 1998(3): 128–9).
Gaus: On this view, a person who leads a selfchosen life is not really one who creates herself, but one who continually evaluates all her commitments and values to ensure that they are ones that she can continue to affirm in light of the other things she accepts. She cannot evaluate everything at once, but she can always be prepared to look critically at her values and projects to ask whether they are really things she is prepared to continue to affirm. Thus understood, a person’s life is not a freely chosen, autonomous life, if there are some parts of it she refuses to examine – if she has some commitments that she will not, or cannot, critically reflect upon. >Autonomy/Mill, >Autonomy/Gaus, >Autonomy/Young, >Autonomy/Dworkin, Gerald.
Degrees of autonomy: Benn recognizes, though, that this renders personal autonomy a character ideal that can be achieved to various degrees, and that many people fall far short of. Thus, in contrast to most liberal autonomists, Benn refuses to base liberal freedoms on autonomy, seeing it as a personal ideal, but not a foundation for basic liberal justice (1988(2): ch. 9).


1. Mill, John Stuart (1963a) On Liberty. In J. M. Robson, ed., The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, vol. XVIII, 213–301.
2. Benn, Stanley I. (1988) A Theory of Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
3. Wall, Steven (1998) Liberalism, Perfectionism and Restraint. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gaus, Gerald F. 2004. „The Diversity of Comprehensive Liberalisms.“ In: Gaus, Gerald F. & Kukathas, Chandran 2004. Handbook of Political Theory. SAGE Publications.


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution. Translations: Dictionary of Arguments
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.
Benn, Stanley
Gaus I
Gerald F. Gaus
Chandran Kukathas
Handbook of Political Theory London 2004


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