Research Article

Doubts About Autonomy

John Kekesa1 c1

a1 University at Albany


Most of us are more or less dissatisfied with some aspect of our present self and want to change it to a better future self. This makes us divided beings. The beliefs, emotions, and motives of our present self prompt us to act in one way and our desired future and better self often prompts us to act in another way. This makes us ambivalent. One of the shibboleths of the present age is that the key to overcoming our ambivalence is to cultivate autonomy. This Kantian ideal is defended, developed, and somewhat revised by Christine Korsgaard, who constructs an ideal theory of self-constitution. This theory is untenable. Its very nature makes it incapable of addressing the concrete problems ambivalence presents to us in our very different individual circumstances. It unreasonably claims that either we meet arbitrary, unrealistic, and mind-bogglingly complex requirements, or disqualify ourselves from being rational and moral agents. And it optimistically assumes that by becoming more autonomous, we become more rational and moral, rather than merely continue to act in the ways we have been acting before. The failure of this latest ideal theory does not show that there is something wrong with autonomy. It shows that the extravagant claims Korsgaard makes for autonomy are groundless. The way to cope with our ambivalence is not to follow a theory, but to think better and harder about what we – individuals in individual circumstances – are, and want to be.

(Online publication June 24 2011)

After many years first as Professor of Philosophy and later as Research Professor, John Kekes has retired in order to devote himself to writing full time as an independent author. His many books include Enjoyment (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2008) and The Human Condition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2010). He may be reached at