Personal Autonomy and Anti-Perfectionism
Much of contemporary liberalism has been associated with the claim that it is not the role of the state to make people live worthy lives or to promote any particular comprehensive moral orethical conception of the good life. Anti-perfectionism is the doctrine that the state should be ‘neutral’ between conceptions, in the sense that it should not try to promote some ideals, or discourage others, on the grounds that they are valid, valuable, ignoble or worthless. There is a fairly dominant tradition within liberalism which believes that anti-perfectionism is founded primarily on considerations of respect for personal autonomy. Respecting autonomy, its proponents argue, requires that governments act in ways that do not violate the autonomy of its citizens, and that its policies not hinder or exhibit contempt for a person’s capacity for autonomous choices. I aim to show in this paper that using personal autonomy to justify state neutrality constitutes a fundamental problem for anti-perfectionists, because an appeal to autonomy is an appeal to perfectionist premises. One difficulty is the alleged inconsistency – autonomy itself appears to be a substantive conception of the good. A second problem is that a government which aims to promote personal autonomy will often find itself acting in non-neutral ways. I will examine what I believe are unsuccessful attempts at answering this objection: either by revising our understanding of what personal autonomy is, or by finding some explanation as to why autonomy does not pose a problem for neutrality. My conclusion is that liberals are presented with a dilemma: either to abandon considerations of autonomy or embrace perfectionism. Given that personal autonomy seems to underwrite so many of our liberal sentiments, I will urge that we should be ready to formulate and defend an autonomy-based perfectionist.