Feminism, Liberalism, and Relational Autonomy
McGill-Rutherford, Emily Catherine
In this dissertation, I respond to the feminist critique of traditional theories of autonomy, which revolves around the charge that such theories are too individualistic. Feminists argue against the liberal atomism that they see at the center of traditional autonomy theories. Their resulting theory of relational autonomy is meant to remedy that traditional theories of autonomy posit an individualistic conception of both the self and autonomy. Instead, feminists have argued for a theory of autonomy that takes account of the ways in which persons are irreducibly social, and the ways in which autonomy itself is only possible within certain types of social relationships. I separate the feminist charges against liberalism from the feminist charges against traditional autonomy, since it is at least prima facie possible to consider personal autonomy separately from political autonomy. I thus isolate the feminist critique of liberal atomism from the feminist critique of individualistic autonomy. The first chapter examines the feminist critique of liberalism to determine why it is that the charge of liberal atomism continues to stick, even though it has been clearly established by both feminist and mainstream liberals that liberalism is not guilty of such a charge. While I do not provide a full defense of liberalism, I do argue that such a defense is possible, and possible in a way that upholds feminist goals. Having separated the critiques of liberalism from the critiques of traditional autonomy, the rest of the dissertation focuses exclusively on the autonomy debate. I present an argument against the most robustly relational feminist accounts of autonomy – those which accept a relational account of both the self and autonomy. I argue that, although such theories are explicitly designed to vindicate the normative commitments of feminism, their implications yield unwelcome results from this very same feminist perspective. I then present my own procedural account of autonomy. Because it is not constitutively social, it is unlikely to be characterized as a relational account at all. I argue, however, that it is this very feature which allows my account to vindicate the feminist normative commitments espoused by constitutively relational accounts.