McDowell, J. (2010): Autonomy and its burdens

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What is autonomy?

the capacity of an individual to determine her thought and action for herself (5)

McDowell emphasizes that autonomy is a capacity. One can be autonomous even when not acting autonomously.

One is self-determining to the extent that one thinks or acts as one does for reasons that, in thinking or acting as one does, one is responding to as the reasons they are (5)

That’s a bit of a mouthful. Shorter, and I think equally accurate, is the claim that one is acting/thinking for reasons that one recognizes as the reasons they are.

Animals and reasons

McDowell notes that non-rational animals can respond to reasons—they can act for reasons (and maybe think, this is less clear on his account), but they cannot respond to reasons for which they act as those very reasons.

Because of this, it is very important to the account to say something about what it is to respond to a reason as a reason.

Reasons and reflection

To count as being able to respond to reasons as the reasons they are, one must be able to step back, as it were, from the fact that a certain circumstance, for instance perceived danger, inclines one towards acting in a certain way, for instance towards fleeing, and raise the question whether one should act in that way. If one resolves such a question and acts in the light of one’s resolution of it, one’s acting reflects the capacity that distinguishes rational animals from the rest. Such action exemplifies a capacity for a kind of freedom. This kind of freedom is not found in the lives of creatures that cannot engage in that sort of reflection. (6)

So acting (here I use the notion broadly) for reasons is acting freely, because it is action that is not the “immediate outcome of motivational forces” (6). Note the appeal to “immediate outcomes” – what we’ve got here is at best the kind of practical freedom that Kant discusses in the Canon.

This freedom is linked to reflection – the “stepping back”:

To step back from a circumstance is to contemplate it as a candidate for being a reason to, do something (6)

When one steps back, it becomes up to one whether to acknowledge, as a reason for acting, a candidate for being a reason for acting that is brought to one’s attention by its eliciting a motivational impulse, for instance an impulse to run away. And if one does acknowledge a consideration as a reason for acting in a certain way, it is up to one whether to act in that way, or perhaps to recognize more compelling reasons for doing something else, and do that instead. (6)

As far as I can tell, this is pretty much synonymous with the account of reflection Korsgaard provides in Sources of Normativity and elsewhere.

Reflection and language

McDowell credits the capacity for reflective distance to whatever capacity or capacities underlie language use.

What seems plausible is rather this: the capacity to use language and the capacity to adopt a distanced attitude towards circumstances one finds oneself in are two elements in a bundle of capacities that needs to be understood as a whole. (7)

McDowell considers acting for reasons as reasons to be scaffolded upon whatever capacities are necessary for percieved environmental circumstances to (non-rationally) engage with animal motivation and action:

The relation between a reason in the full-blown sense and what it is a reason for has intelligible precursors in ways in which perceived environmental circumstances engage with merely animal motivational tendencies: that is, ways in which we can make sense of stretches of the lives of animals without language, animals that are not rational in the demanding sense I am working with. (7)

Rationality without reflection

McDowell emphasizes the importance of the capacity for reflective distancing for rationality and self-determination, rather than the specific use of that capacity in any particular situation.

What matters for rationality, in the sense I want to exploit, is the capacity to step back and assess whether putative reasons warrant action or belief. Rationality may be operative even when the capacity to step back is not being exercised. Responding to a reason as the reason it is, by doing something or forming a belief, does not require that one actually reflects about whether some consideration is a sufficient rational warrant for doing or believing what one does or believes. Sometimes it is enough that one could reflect. (8)

rationality, in the demanding sense, can be operative in quite unreflective behavior. And similarly, rationality can be operative in quite unreflective belief-formation. I am not recommending a picture in which rationality is operative only when there is the kind of intellectual activity that is naturally described in terms of deciding what to do or what to think. (8)

While I certainly understand why McDowell wants to emphasize this—his position looks absurdly demanding and intellectualist otherwise (as he himself notes)—I also find the qualification a bit puzzling. It isn’t clear why some act should count as acting for a reason if that very act is not itself understood as the actualization of the relevant rational capacity—here understood in terms of “reflective distance” of “deciding.” And if “sometimes it is enough” that one could reflect then when is it not enough, and why (in both cases)?

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