Violence and the Boundaries of the Community: A Relational Approach to Autonomy

In: Pacifism, Politics, and Feminism
Author: John Lawless

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One common approach to autonomy begins by drawing boundaries around the agent, dividing her from external forces that limit her options, hostile agents who would harness her to their projects, and rebellious motivations embedded within her own psychology. Relational approaches to autonomy blur these boundaries, demonstrating the ways in which autonomy is possible only in mutually respectful, caring relationships. I develop a particular kind of relational approach, on which autonomy requires others’ recognition that certain choices belong to us. That is because agency involves responsibility for one’s actions. Crucially, the responsibility in question is not simply causal responsibility. Rather, to be an agent is to be the proper object of reactive attitudes like resentment or gratitude for specific actions. Whether one is responsible (in this sense) for any state of affairs depends, not simply on whether one caused that state of affairs to occur, but on whether the choice to bring this state of affairs about belonged to you. Moreover, I argue that that while some tools – specifically, violence – might bolster one’s causal powers, they simultaneously threatening the social contexts that make “choice-ownership” possible. While these tools seem apt to secure our agency, they in fact threaten to destroy it.