II. Individualism and Autonomy

Care Ethics and Liberal Freedom

Liberal freedom or liberty is usually defined in atomistic terms.1 Although liberal political theorists generally acknowledge the relational nature of social or political freedom, involving as it does social interactions among human beings, they do not usually conceive of human relationships as themselves sources of freedom. Rather, freedom for liberals generally means freedom from coercion by others or the ability to govern one’s life according to one’s authentic preferences without undue outside influence from others.

One of the oldest and still most powerful accounts of liberty in the liberal tradition, for example, is negative liberty theory. Negative liberty theorists define freedom as an absence of barriers or constraints to one’s choices. Individuals are free from this perspective to the extent that they are not obstructed or coerced by other human beings from choosing among opportunities they would otherwise have (Berlin 1969; Steiner 1994; Kramer 2003). The more individuals are left alone by people who might interfere in their choices, on this account, the freer they will be.

Some liberal theorists endorse a positive concept of liberty rooted in autonomy.2 Whereas negative liberty requires only an absence of obstacles in the way of a person’s potential choices, autonomy is an “exercise concept,” requiring that individuals reflect on their choices, have the capacity to change their choices after reflection, and ultimately choose based on values or desires they consider their own (Taylor 1985, 213). Despite this important difference between negative liberty and autonomy, liberal theorists have historically defined autonomy in similarly individualistic terms, as feminist critics and others have highlighted (Nedelsky 1989; Mackenzie and Stoljar 2000). The autonomous person is usually understood to be a self-determining agent who stands apart from outside environmental influences, including other human beings, and chooses according to their own authentic preferences.3

In this chapter, I aim to balance out this individualistic approach of liberal theories of negative and positive liberty with a relational perspective based in care ethics. My purpose is not to overturn or discard existing concepts but instead to amend and improve them by showing how caring human relations contribute to them. By my account, negative liberty and autonomy theories are incomplete without a relational care perspective.

Inasmuch as the “criterion of oppression” in negative liberty theories is the “part played by other human beings” in generating obstacles “to possible choices and activities” (Berlin 1969 xxxix, 123), I argue that the long-term blights or scars left on individuals by harmful, neglectful, or otherwise deficient care should count as obstacles or impediments to their freedom. Likewise, inasmuch as certain forms of good enough care are necessary for a secure sense of self capable of autonomy, I argue that they do not just represent general background conditions for autonomy’s development but are constitutive of it. The important implication of these arguments is that a society committed to promoting negative liberty and autonomy should do more than protect individual rights and provide general support for the development of autonomy. It should also support some specific caregiving programs for both children and adults. Liberal societies that fail in this regard fall short not just of supporting the “worth” of liberty, as John Rawls (2001, 149) might say, but also of supporting liberty per se (formal or otherwise). They thus fail to meet some of the most basic commitments of liberalism.

A free society ultimately requires, by my estimation, support for both negative liberty and autonomy - as well as other background conditions. This is the important link connecting the three parts of this chapter. In the first section, I discuss in general how good care can contribute to the conditions of a free society. I also note why negative liberty and autonomy theorists usually discount these contributions. In the second section, I outline the integral connection between care and negative liberty. In the third section, I then build on the work of relational autonomy theorists in order to highlight care’s constitutive role in a self capable of autonomy. Although care ethics is not usually thought to have much to offer liberal theories of freedom, its insights are profound. Care ethics fills out important gaps in liberal theories and provides a richer understanding of what makes us free. It also highlights the fundamental importance of supporting good personal care as part of any liberal society’s basic commitment to freedom. A caring liberalism is not a new breed of liberalism but rather a better - because fuller and freer - liberalism even by the standards of liberalism itself.

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