Rousseau S Autonomy And The Ir Essay

, Research Paper

Autonomy is literally self-rule or self-government. Autonomy has often been thought to bear a particularly close relation to democracy. Only in a democracy, it is sometimes said, can an individual or a people be truly autonomous. Spelling out why this should be so, however, takes some care.

In its ancient meaning, autonomy was taken to be a property of states, rather than of individuals. An autonomous people was one that was self-sufficient and self-governing, rather than being ruled by an outside force. In the modern world, we have not lost this understanding of the term: the “puppet” regimes of the former Eastern bloc, for example, were commonly contrasted with the apparently more autonomous regimes elsewhere around the globe. To have autonomy in this sense is part of what is required for a nation to be a democracy, but we should remember that in the ancient world even tyrannical states were often regarded as fully autonomous.

The modern understanding of the term attributes autonomy, or the lack of it, to individuals. In the philosophical literature, personal autonomy has been identified with a great variety of other notions, including self-government, freedom, responsibility, morality, dignity, independence, and self-knowledge. Yet the core concept seems to be simply that an autonomous person is one who makes, and acts upon, his or her own decisions.

The relationship between autonomy and democracy was perhaps most fruitfully worked out by the eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose views inspired the moral and political works of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (with whom the term autonomy is most often associated). Rousseau’s ideas were also to influence Hegel and Karl Marx in different ways.

Rousseau makes a powerful attempt to bring together the ancient and modern understandings of autonomy. The idea of individual autonomy is given perhaps its classic formulation by Rousseau in The Social Contract. According to Rousseau, freedom is obedience to a law that we prescribe to ourselves. The problem of social order, then, becomes the problem of reconciling the individual’s right to autonomy with the existence of the state, and in particular with the state’s right to create and enforce laws. In Book 1, chapter 6, of The Social Contract, Rousseau sets out this problem as the need to find a kind of association in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.

Rousseau’s solution is simple and elegant: all must equally play a part in the creation of laws to which all will equally be subject. In other words, individual autonomy is reconciled with the authority of the state by a form of direct, participatory democracy. At the same time, group autonomy is preserved: Rousseau’s ideal state is self-governing.

Rousseau put this ideology into practice by designing a model of education which preserves the pure nature of children and teaches them to be autonomous. The educational model involved a 5 step process ranging from birth to early adulthood. The stages isolate the child from the corruption of society and allow him to cultivate his morals on his own.

Rousseau applies this educational model only to males for he believes the capability to rationally be autonomous is not achievable by females. This is because of fundamental differences between males and females which Rousseau adamantly believes in. First of all women are born consumed with things of ornament. They do not have the reasoning capability to surround themselves with higher matters of intelligence and therefore are fond of things such as dolls and mirrors. They learn to read and write reluctantly, but learn the trade of needlework quite willingly. Males, on the other hand, are quite capable of rationality and intellectual thinking. They learn to read and write and analyze readily. These fundamental differences play specific roles in Rousseau s theory.

According to Rousseau, women are completely dependant on men not only for their wants but also their necessities while men are only dependant on women for their desires. For this reason women should be educated to please men in every way. They should be educated according to societal laws of how women ought to act. Men on the other hand should be educated to be autonomous. They should at reject society influences and create laws in which to follow themselves.

Mary Wollstonecraft identifies the irony which is so flagrant in Rousseau s theory. On one hand Rousseau rejects the influence of society and educates men in autonomy or self-rule, and on the other hand he embraces the influence of society and educates women in heteronomy or government by an outside force, specifically society itself. After identifying this irony she then goes on to set up several arguments in favor of equality in the education of women.

First of all Wollstonecraft discusses how the social order which convinces women to value trivial things and virtues over true morality and understanding makes women worse than they ought to be. It teaches them to be cunning and sly, tricking their husbands, fathers, brothers or sons into getting their way. They therefore exhert power over men. Wollstonecraft argues that if women were educated equally with men they could rely more on their own efforts to achieve goals and therefore would have less power over men. Wollstonecraft does not want women to have power over men, she merely asks for equality.

Secondly, Wollstonecraft argues that they differences between men and women have never been proven. They are simply a traditional value held to by the majority of the population because it is all they have ever known. In educating women as equals with men, Wollstonecraft sees no harm because if there are fundamental differences, they will then be proven and not assumed. If there are not however, as Wollstonecraft suspects, it will create a greater number of reasonable, thinking citizens to serve humanity

Lastly, Wollstonecraft relies on man s intrinsic desire to get the better end of the deal. She shows how by equal education, women will be able to reason for themselves and make logical rational decisions without being a forced slave. This will in turn cause them to be more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers.

Rousseau s model of education relies on the fact that all people are essentially good and that society corrupts them. Not every man subscribes to this belief. According to Psalms 51: 5, Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. According to the Bible, man is essentially sinful and left to his own judgment will lead a sinful life. It is through education that he is taught right from wrong, and instructed in acceptable behavior. That is not to say that what is socially acceptable is always right, but children should be taught right from wrong at an early age and not left to decipher these things on their own.

Rousseau s educational model is also incredibly ironic. To say that one is going to go against all the laws of society and create totally new laws for oneself and then follow such a basic societal assumption such as the differences between men and women and their respective education is absurd. Rousseau obviously sees women as nothing but possessions. It is no wonder then that he is known to have had at least four illegitimate children, all abandoned in poor excuses for orphanages. Rousseau s autonomy only applies to a small number of the population, namely white male property owners. The rest of the population is apparently out of luck.

Wollstonecraft on the other hand has some insightful observations which she records in her work The Vindication Of Women s Rights. Her identification of Rousseau s irony is in a sense before her time. Wollstonecraft makes rational arguments but avoids particularly offensive proofs because of the time period she was writing in. Wollstonecraft realized that her audience was mainly men and therefore chose her words carefully and provided evidence that men could not refute and arguments which appealed to her audience. Although her true desire was probably to be herself autonomous, she wrote under the guise of simply wanting to be a better citizen in a male dominated society.

I will not dispute the fact that there are some fundamental differences between men and women. Although I obviously don t agree with Rousseau, I do believe certain characteristics are more likely to be found in certain genders regardless of societal influence. These differences can be as simple and relatively undoubted as physical strength but also as questionable as man s apparent gift in special relations and woman s apparent gift in verbal relations. These differences do not hinder society, but rather create a more diverse population to draw from.

There have been many changes which have occurred since Wollstonecraft stated her plea for equality. First of all, women are given full rights under the constitution of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Specifically women have gained the right to vote, own property, work in a previously male work setting and be educated in whatever fashion they so choose including equal education with men. These changes were sparked by philosophers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and have made out society more effective by increasing the number of rational thinkers.



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