The Social Embeddedness of Autonomy within Liberal Societies: Insights from Contemporary Democracy Theory
This paper adds to theories of liberty as autonomy by giving special consideration to the social embeddedness of individual autonomy and its implications for proactive efforts aimed at nurturing autonomy in liberal societies. Autonomy is found to be influenced by social context as an inevitability, but in fact also dependent on social influences for individuals’ reflections on choices to be most meaningful; yet the potential oppressiveness of precisely these social influences even in dispersed and subtle ways demands of proactively liberal societies that particular attention is paid to neutral, non-manipulative forms of social interaction. I argue, against those who criticise the supposedly illiberal nature of deliberation and communities, that elements drawn from the theories of deliberative democracy and associative democracy can form a suitable framework for this. While associative democracy suggests a way to locate participation and reflection within civil society rather than leaving it in the control of the state, elements of deliberative democracy propose a particular form of social interaction and communication whose inclusiveness and unbiasedness render it autonomy-enhancing rather than autonomy-restricting. Moreover, associations, so long as ways to ensure sufficiently deliberative interactions between citizens can be found, provide opportunities for Millian ‘experiments in living’, which can lead to more autonomous lifestyles by instigating reflection and extending the range of choices available.