Autonomy-Centered Liberalism

Lecture Notes for PHIL 320

by Dr. Jan Garrett

This page revised February 24, 2003

According to this view, the core value is human autonomy. The core duty is to protect, secure, or provide, in a fair way, the means to live autonomous lives.


Basic autonomy: the powers of moral and prudential choice with which most human beings are born (corresponds to the two moral powers to which John Rawls refers)
1. the power of prudential choice is the capacity to inquire about, formulate, revise, deliberate from (figure out means to), and pursue one's conception of the good

2. the power of moral choice depends on what Rawls calls the sense of justice or fairness

Enhanced autonomy:
We're all born with a basic capacity but this must be enhanced by activities and conditions (e.g., education, protection against assault) involving things and persons outside us if it is to be realized.

Universalism (Egalitarian thrust)

Each of us, every human being, has the same basic right to conditions necessary for an autonomous life.

Partial Definition of Rights

We can define rights in part as entitlements (justified claims) to these conditions.

Objects of Human Rights

The objects of human rights are what we have human rights to. If, for example, we have a human right to liberty, then liberty is an object of a human right.

The objects of human rights are things that can enhance our autonomy.

We can list these objects in various ways. One short list is:

security - security of the person, property
liberty - freedom of expression, conscience/religion, assembly
political participation (or recognition)- political freedoms,
          rights to choose political leaders, transparency
subsistence - rights to the material goods necessary for survival, health

Some put equality on the list. Others say equality is included because we all have the same basic right to each of these. Either way, liberalism is committed to equality at the basic level.

These objects (security, liberty, etc.) are abstract objects that can be further specified or detailed. The right to security, for instance, can cover security against murder, assault, rape, theft of property, etc.

Libertarians differ from what I am calling autonomy-centered liberals by denying that subsistence is an object of human rights.

Rights and Duties

Rights correspond to (and may be partly defined in terms of) duties:

1. negative duties of individuals and instutitions (not to deprive humans of the objects of their human rights they already have)

2. positive duties of institutions to protect and/or provide (to protect us against violation of our human rights or to provide us with the objects of our human rights that we lack)

3. positive duties of other individuals to assist us in obtaining or preserving the objects of our human rights (if this comes at a reasonable cost)

1. Levels of specification.
a. The first-level (short) list is basic and enduring. It is a list of the "abstract objects of human rights".

b. From the short list we can construct a second-level, longer, more specific list (cf. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, where dozens of specific rights are listed). These are subject to redefinition over time (given resources, wealth of humanity, the problems, state of technology, etc.)

2. Forfeiture. Some rights can be forfeited if individuals violate the rights of others.

3. However the objects are specified at the second level, they must have reasonable costs:

a. to others (Providing some persons with the objects of their human rights does not justify depriving other persons of objects of their human rights.)

b. to society (Provision of the objects must not be so expensive that it undermines the capacity of society to provide the objects of rights fairly over the long run.)

4. The objects of human rights and the burdens of providing them must be fairly distributed.

Short Bibliography

Brian Orend, Human Rights: Concept and Context, Toronto: Broadview, 2002.
Kok-Chor Tan, Diversity, Toleration, and Global Justice. Penn State University Press, 2000.
Jan Garrett, The Concept of Rights.
Jan Garrett, John Rawls' Theory of Justice.
Jan Garrett, Martha Nussbaum on Capabilities and Human Rights.