The Place of Autonomy Within Liberalism


My concern in this chapter is the place of autonomy within liberalism, understood as a public morality.1 To what extent is liberal morality necessarily committed to some doctrine of autonomy, and what is the nature of this doctrine? I begin (§2) by briefly explicating my understanding of liberalism, which is based the fundamental liberal principle—that all interferences with action stand in need of justification. Section 3 then defends my first core claim: given a certain compelling view of the nature of moral reasons, the fundamental liberal principle presupposes a Kantian conception of morally autonomous agents. I then consider (§4) an implication of the fundamental liberal principle when applied to public morality and the law, viz. that an interference with liberty must be justified to everyone. This public justification principle, I argue, constitutes a version of Kant’s categorical imperative; thus liberalism is committed to not only autonomy of the will (§3) but a substantive morality of autonomy. By the end of section 4 I will have shown that liberal morality is committed to what may be broadly deemed a “Kantian” conception of moral autonomy



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Gerald Gaus
Last affiliation: University of Arizona

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