. 4
( 13)


self-identity, and thus agent autonomy. If autonomy calls for an absence
of alienation, as mainstream accounts charge, then a person cannot be
autonomous if she feels estranged from an aspect of her character that is
essential to her self-conception. It is imperative that the force of this con-
clusion be appreciated. The point is not simply that a person will not be
autonomous vis-` -vis some characteristic she happens to have. The point
is that she will not be autonomous simpliciter because the characteristics
from which she feels alienated and that she wishes to repudiate, but
cannot, are essential to her self-conception and therefore, according to
the views with which I am disagreeing, to her status as a self-directed
I suspect this is not the conclusion defenders of the standard concep-
tion of autonomy want to adopt. Fortunately, it need not be our con-
clusion. The concept of autonomy need not militate against viewing a
person as autonomous even if she is alienated from an aspect of her self-
conception. I need not be satis¬ed with, or feel an af¬nity with, every
aspect of my self-conception if I am to be autonomous. I may even be
resigned to certain aspects of my self-conception. For example, I might
be resigned to the fact that some choices “ such as the choice not to help
my mother “ are unthinkable for me, and I may not endorse the fact
that my will is inhibited in these ways. But this does not make me non-
autonomous with respect to my self-identity. And a sensible account of
autonomy can explain this. A sensible account of autonomy can explain
both the essentiality of something like race to self-identity in a racist so-
ciety and explain why something like race might be resisted as central to
self-identity. It is central because it grounds choice and self-description; it
is rejected because of the constraints upon self-navigation it creates. But
since the standard account of autonomy as authenticity qua endorsement
or absence of estrangement cannot adequately explain either, the stan-
dard account must be revised.
Marina A. L. Oshana

Authenticity demands more than is necessary for a plausible account
of local autonomy “ that is, of autonomy vis-` -vis one™s choices “ and
one™s propositional, affective, and relational states. Certainly there is a
sense in which autonomy requires that a person not be disaffected from
the entire corpus of those aspects of her life that are central to her self-
identity. For if a person were disaffected to the point of denying these
aspects as central to herself, we would be hard pressed to locate a core self-
conception that grounds self-government. But as the phenomena of racial
forgetting and rebellion against one™s socially instituted racial identity
show, a person can be autonomous despite the fact that she feels actively
alienated from aspects of her character that are essential to who she is
and how she conceives of herself. For this reason, I reject the idea that
re¬‚ective endorsement of the inescapable aspects of one™s identity or an
absence of estrangement subsequent to critical scrutiny is a requirement
of autonomy. What is required instead is the far weaker stipulation that
a person be disposed to acknowledge the factors that con¬gure her self-

This chapter is dedicated to the memory of my mother, Julie Oshana.
The concept of wholeheartedness is developed by Harry Frankfurt in “Iden-
ti¬cation and Wholeheartedness,” The Importance of What We Care About,
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988). A discussion of the authen-
ticity condition is found in Gerald Dworkin, The Theory and Practice of Autonomy
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
See Seyla Benhabib, Situating the Self: Gender, Community and Postmodernism in
Contemporary Ethics (New York: Routledge, 1992).
Charles Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition,” in Amy Gutmann, ed., Multi-
culturalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 28.
Taylor, ibid., p. 33. Diana Meyers draws a similar point in turning attention
to the relational aspect of the self as autonomous in her chapter (2) “Decen-
tralizing Autonomy: Five Faces of Selfhood” in the present volume.
Amelie O. Rorty and David Wong, “Aspects of Identity and Agency,” in Iden-
tity, Character, and Morality: Essays in Moral Psychology, (Cambridge, MA: MIT
Press, 1990), p. 20. Central identity traits “affect what is (perceptually, imag-
inatively, emotionally, and cognitively) salient to an agent . . . They affect the
formation of habits, systems of beliefs and desires” (p. 26). The ¬rst criterion
denotes the degree to which a trait has objective rami¬cations. I have ap-
propriated the four criteria from among the classi¬cations Rorty and Wong
Charles Taylor contends that “identity is de¬ned by our fundamental evalu-
ations,” which form “the indispensable foundation or horizon out of which
we re¬‚ect and evaluate as persons.” The quotation is from Taylor, “What is
Autonomy and Self-Identity 95

Human Agency?” in T. Mischel, ed., The Self: Psychological and Philosophi-
cal Issues (Oxford: Blackwell, 1977). Rorty and Wong cite Taylor, as quoted
at p. 30, Identity, Character, and Morality: Essays in Moral Psychology.
Rorty and Wong, “Aspects of Identity and Agency,” p. 30, op.cit.
Harry Frankfurt, “On the Necessity of Ideals,” in Necessity, Volition, and Love
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 113. Of course, one™s
self-conception is not settled only by volitionally necessary aspects of one™s
character. Certain cognitive and affective states that act as temporal sign-
posts in our psychic and physical development (adolescence, questioning
one™s faith, coming to know oneself as suited or not suited for parenthood)
also settle one™s self-conception, though it is characteristic of these that
they are stages, to disappear as our self-conception assumes a new form.
Frankfurt does not employ the concept of the unthinkable to explicate an
idea of one™s self-identity, as I do here. But insofar as one™s self-identity
is (in part) predicated on one™s essential nature, Frankfurt™s discussion is
In my view, this commitment is one we discover as much as it is one we choose.
One™s self-identity is revealed as one comes to recognize what is unthinkable.
Self-awareness, as Diana Meyers suggests, is as much a process of self-discovery
as it is of self-de¬nition. See her chapter (2) “Decentralizing Autonomy: Five
Faces of Selfhood” in the present volume.
Gerald Dworkin, The Theory and Practice of Autonomy, p. 20, op. cit. As I
have noted, one™s self-conception might be unveiled by less deliberative
Martin Luther, Speech at the Diet of Worms, April 18, 1521.
Frankfurt states that “In cases of volitional necessity, the aversion [to perform
an action] is not only irresistible; it is also in some sense endorsed by the
person.” See his “On the Necessity of Ideals,” p. 111“12, and his “Autonomy,
Necessity, and Love,” pp. 129“41, also in Necessity, Volition, and Love, op. cit.
Frankfurt, “On the Necessity of Ideals”, p. 112, op. cit.
Nagel, The Possibility of Altruism (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1970), p. 23.
Following Frankfurt, “Rationality and the Unthinkable,” in The Importance
of What We Care About (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988),
p. 179.
Frankfurt, “Rationality and the Unthinkable,” p. 178, and “On the Necessity
of Ideals,” op. cit., p. 110.
The language of ownership is borrowed from Paul Benson, who claims that au-
tonomy requires the agent to recognize herself as one who takes ownership,
or as one who has the authority to answer for herself. See his chapter (5)
“Taking Ownership: Authority and Voice in Autonomous Agency” in the
present volume.
In correspondence, John Santiago questioned this, noting that one can lack
an organizing principle for life and still be autonomous. (Meyers raises a
similar point in her Chapter 2 in the present volume.) Santiago is correct, but
I think a person™s autonomy is likely to be more vulnerable if he is inattentive
to his place in the world and the “map” he, rather than others, have authorized
for that place.
Marina A. L. Oshana

In “The Faintest Passion,” Frankfurt introduces the idea that authenticity re-
quires that a person feel satis¬ed with the desires that move her to act. This
represents a modi¬cation of (or, at least, an attempt to clarify) his earlier
view that authenticity calls for wholehearted or decisive identi¬cation, but
I shall ignore the nuances here. The point is that some manner of identi-
¬cation, and some absence of alienation, must be in place if authenticity
and autonomy are to be secured. Wholeheartedness “consists in being fully
satis¬ed that some attitude or psychic elements rather than others that in-
herently (non-contingently) con¬‚ict with them, should be among the causes
and considerations that determine [his] cognitive, affective, attitudinal, and
behavioral processes” (op. cit., p. 103). To be satis¬ed is to experience an
absence of restlessness or resistance to one™s condition, where this “derives
from a person™s understanding or evaluation of how things are with him”
(ibid., 105). One is satis¬ed with the condition of the self when one “has
no interest in bringing about a change in one™s condition (even if a change
would be willingly accepted) even if a change would make him better off ”
(ibid., 102).
Hawkins commented on an abridged version of this chapter for a session on
“Autonomy” at the Paci¬c Division Meetings of the American Philosophical
Association held in San Francisco in March, 2003.
In a sense, a person™s self-conception antedates and informs the process of
critical self-re¬‚ection. Perhaps one™s self-conception is unveiled in the course
of a critically self-re¬‚ective process, and what the person identi¬es with or
fails to experience as alienating might offer an indication of how she regards
herself. And a person might ¬nd that her self-conception is solidi¬ed in the
course of critical self-re¬‚ection. But this unveiling subsequent to critical self-
re¬‚ection does not establish or constitute a person™s self-identity. What a
person identi¬es with or repudiates is determined by who she already is. The
effect of wholehearted identi¬cation or authenticity one experiences relative
to one™s cognitive and conative states, to one™s physicality and to one™s social
attachments, depends largely on the self-conception brought to the process
of re¬‚ective appraisal.
Rorty and Wong, “Aspects of Identity and Agency,” p. 23, op. cit.
Anita A. Allen, “Forgetting Oneself, ” in Diana Tietjens Meyers, ed., Fem-
inists Rethink the Self (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996), pp. 104“123.
My ideas on the phenomenon of forgetting oneself owe much to Allen™s
provocative essay. Forgetting oneself, as Allen tells it, “entails simultane-
ously remembering and not remembering your own identity as a person
who accepts and adheres to” certain moral and non-moral norms and be-
havioral requirements. It is to fail to conform “our emotions, actions, and
habits to certain socially instilled general prescriptive principles” that we
have internalized and that are “constitutive of individuals situated in com-
munal forms of life.”(pp. 105 and 106, op. cit.) And what Charles Taylor
calls “collective social identities” engender a certain consciousness of
oneself, exempli¬ed in one™s attitude toward oneself and beliefs about
oneself. See Taylor, pp. 32“3, in Multiculturalism, op. cit.
Autonomy and Self-Identity 97

The idea of narrativity as a constitutive feature of agential identity is discussed
by J. David Velleman in “The Self as Narrator,” Chapter 3 in the present vol-
ume. Diana Meyers and Paul Benson offer different but correlated models
of agential autonomy premised in part on an autobiographical narrative ac-
count of the agent. See their chapters (2 and 5, respectively) in the present
As Anita Allen writes, “We are not so much born with race as born into race
as a feature of our social worlds. Yet our racialized social worlds exert such
an in¬‚uence that we seldom entirely escape the pull of constitutive norms.”
Allen, “Forgetting Oneself ”, p. 120, op. cit. And K. Anthony Appiah remarks,
“We make up selves from a tool kit of options made available by our culture
and society.” See his “Identity, Authenticity, Survival: Multicultural Societies
and Social Reproduction,” in Multiculturalism, op. cit., p. 155.
Appiah, “Identity, Authenticity, Survival: Multicultural Societies and Social
Reproduction,” p. 159, op. cit., my emphasis.
Rorty and Wong, “Aspects of Agency and Identity,” p. 23, op. cit.
Joseph Raz, Value, Respect, and Attachment (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2001), p. 17.
Raz, Value, ibid., p. 16.
One might charge that my rejection of a racialized identity grounded in certain
norms is authentic, and that this is necessary for greater autonomy.
Allen, “Forgetting Oneself,” p. 120, op. cit.
Frankfurt discusses the phenomenon of self-betrayal in “The Faintest
Passion,” especially section 3, pp. 97“98, op. cit. Raz raises a similar point:
He remarks that identity-forming attachments “are the sources of meaning in
one™s life, and sources of responsibilities . . . They are normative because they
engage our integrity. We must be true to who we are, true to it even as we try
to change. Thus, identity-forming attachments are the organizing principles
of our life . . . They give it shape as well as meaning. In all that, they are among
the determinants of our individuality. And they are partly past dependent. To
deny our past is to be false to ourselves.” Raz, Value, Respect, and Attachment,
p. 34, op. cit.
A certain measure of reconciliation between the agent and the aspects of her
identity integral to her autonomy is thus necessary. But integration is not a
sign of authenticity.
Appiah, “Identity, Authenticity, Survival: Multicultural Societies and Social
Reproduction,” p. 161, op. cit.
Earlier versions of this chapter were presented to the Philosophy Departments
at Washington University in St. Louis and at the University of Florida. I am
grateful to the audiences for their helpful remarks. I also thank David Copp,
Jennifer Hawkins, John Santiago, and Sara Worley for their comments on
ancestors of this chapter.
part ii


Personal Authority and Interpersonal Recognition

Taking Ownership

Authority and Voice in Autonomous Agency

Paul Benson

How can any of my actions genuinely be my own? How can they be more
than just intentional performances, with whatever investment of my will
that involves, but also belong to me in the special way that makes me
autonomous in performing them? How, in other words, can any of my
actions be my own in such a way that they arise from or manifest my
capacities for self-governance?
The literature on (locally) autonomous agency1 employs a number
of metaphors to characterize the difference between merely intentional
action and action that is, in the fullest sense,2 the agent™s own. Harry
Frankfurt™s metaphors are among the most vivid and compelling. A per-
son who acts autonomously genuinely “participates” in the operation of
her will, as opposed to being “estranged” from herself or being “a help-
less or passive bystander to the forces that move” her.3 Agents who act
intentionally but without autonomy do not do what they “really want”
to do; their effective volitions are “external to” or “outside” them.4 The
pervasive notion in this literature that persons who are autonomous in
acting act upon wills that are fully their own or that really belong to them
suggests an initial answer to the questions with which the chapter opened.
I am autonomous in acting just when I take ownership of my actions, or
at least have the unimpeded capability to take ownership of what I do
and regularly exercise that capability.5 But considerable mystery clings to
this concept of taking ownership as applied to intentional agency. None
of the best-known contemporary accounts of personal autonomy suc-
ceeds in dispelling this mystery satisfactorily. The aim of the chapter is to
make a start at understanding better what it is to take ownership of one™s
Paul Benson

Other theories of autonomy tend to conceive of taking ownership as
a matter of establishing some special relationship between one™s self and
one™s actions. To be autonomous in acting, according to these views, is
to act on the basis of who one is, practically speaking, or what one stands
for. At a minimum, autonomous agency is thought to consist in acting
with a will from which one is not alienated or has not dissociated oneself.
In the ¬rst section of the chapter, I explore some general problems with
these identity-based theories. I then develop, in the second section, an
alternative model for understanding agential ownership by examining
the sort of authority and social position implicated in taking ownership
of what one does. The distinctive authority involved in taking ownership
does not depend on the authorization of agents™ wills in relation to their
re¬‚ective identities. Rather, this authority concerns agents™ position to
speak for their actions in the face of potential criticisms. In this model,
autonomous agency turns out to bear normative, social, and discursive
content. Personal autonomy is neither content-neutral nor individual-
istic in the ways many theories have supposed. Agents act for reasons;
autonomous agents, who fully own their wills, act for reasons for which
they possess a special authority to speak or answer.
The chapter™s third section appeals to the concept of self-authorization
in order to explain how the proposed model captures both the active
and re¬‚exive features of taking ownership. Agents take ownership of
their actions and wills by claiming authority to speak for their intentions
and conduct. The ¬nal section of the chapter brie¬‚y discusses the rela-
tion between attitudinal and objective elements of autonomy, and points
toward the potential signi¬cance of the self-authorization account for
liberal political theory. With respect to the latter, the chapter suggests
that interpreting autonomous agency as a kind of socially situated self-
authorization could support helpful responses to familiar complaints that
liberalism is excessively individualistic or rationalistic or adopts an unduly
narrow view of the social constitution of people™s practical identities.

I Ownership and Practical Identity
The idea that agents can take ownership of their intentions and actions in
virtue of the relation their acts have to their re¬‚ective practical concerns
or values carries considerable intuitive appeal. According to this idea, I
can bring my will and conduct within the compass of my agential owner-
ship when my actions arise from or are incorporated within the sphere
of what I really care about. Such actions are genuinely my own because
Authority and Voice in Autonomous Agency 103

they are appropriately related to my identity as a caring, re¬‚ectively willing
creature. These relations to my practical identity constitute what I do as
acts that I really perform.
Many types of identity-based theories of taking ownership have been
proposed.6 For our present purposes, it suf¬ces to note four roughly
delineated types. First, identi¬cation theories, such as those developed by
Harry Frankfurt and more recently by Michael Bratman, hold that per-
sons take ownership of what they do when they identify with the motives
that lead them to act. Identi¬cation, according to Frankfurt, consists
in structurally-de¬ned re¬‚ective endorsement that is decisive or whole-
hearted, or in volitional necessities that the agent cannot help but re¬‚ec-
tively endorse.7
Second, some theories concentrate on evaluative self-disclosure. For ex-
ample, Gary Watson proposes that agents genuinely own their actions
when those actions arise from their systematic evaluative commitments.
Watson writes,

. . . if what I do ¬‚ows from my values and ends, there is a . . . sense in which my
activities are inescapably my own: I am committed to them. As declarations of my
adopted ends, they express what I™m about, my identity as an agent. They can be
evaluated in distinctive ways (not just as welcome or unwelcome) because they
themselves are exercises of my evaluative capacities.8

According to self-disclosure views, agents can express in their actions who
they really are, practically speaking, without forming re¬‚ective states of
identi¬cation with the particular volitions on which they act.
Nomy Arpaly and Timothy Schroeder set out a third type of identity-
based theory.9 They argue that identi¬cation and self-disclosure theo-
ries both wrongly presume that some privileged dimension of the self “
whether it be capacities for decisive, wholehearted endorsement of voli-
tions, or capacities to embrace and disclose systems of value “ constitutes
the “real self” for purposes of understanding agential ownership. Arpaly
and Schroeder propose instead that agents genuinely own their actions
just when those acts are produced by beliefs and desires that are well inte-
grated within agents™ whole personalities, where integration is a function
of the psychological depth of these states.10 This is a whole-self conception
of ownership.11
Finally, a fourth kind of identity-based theory claims that re¬‚ective non-
alienation accounts for the ownership that autonomous agents are capa-
ble of. This type of position holds that both identi¬cation and evaluative
self-disclosure theories are too restrictive. Persons can be autonomous
Paul Benson

in acting without actually subjecting their motives to re¬‚ective scrutiny
and without expressing any systemically embedded value judgments. But
whole-self theories are too weak, the argument runs, because they ignore
the historical development of well-integrated motives, which could in-
clude autonomy-undermining manipulation. This fourth kind of view, as
developed by John Christman,12 maintains that persons own their actions
when they act on motives whose processes of development they would not
resist, upon re¬‚ection, where such re¬‚ection would satisfy certain con-
straints of competence, minimal rationality, and the like. In such a theory,
agents take ownership of their wills and actions just in case they do not, or
(counterfactually) would not, disown them after suitable re¬‚ection upon
their history. Since this fourth type of account, unlike the other three
types of theory, does not locate agents™ ownership of their actions in any
actual type of relationship between agents™ practical commitments and
wills, re¬‚ective non-alienation accounts might be considered minimalist
versions of identity-based interpretations of taking ownership.
It has often been noted that identity-based theories fail to supply suf-
¬cient conditions for autonomy. The processes or states of identi¬ca-
tion, evaluation, psychological integration, or (hypothetical) re¬‚ective
scrutiny that are supposed to cement the connection between persons™
wills and their practical identities can themselves come about through his-
tories of brainwashing, trauma, pervasive social control, psychosis, and so
on that intuitively undermine autonomy. Even re¬‚ective non-alienation
theories that explicitly address autonomy-inhibiting histories of motiva-
tional development characteristically fail to suf¬ce for autonomy. For,
like the other types of theory, they presume at bottom that unimpeded
re¬‚ection can underwrite autonomy no matter how undeveloped (due
to immaturity or extreme apathy, say) or how malformed (due to mental
illness or psychological abuse) the agent™s practical self might be.13
Rarely has it been recognized that identity-based theories set forth
conditions that are also too strong to be necessary for autonomy.14 I can
take ownership of my actions even when they do not align with who I am
or what I stand for. Consider, for instance, trivial acts such as picking at
a callus on my hand, swivelling my of¬ce chair, or snaring a distracting
piece of lint off my desk, where these activities rise above the level of
sub-intentional behaviors. These acts aren™t worthy of re¬‚ective identi¬-
cation, don™t express what really matters to me, and may well not arise
from psychologically deep sources.15 Trivial acts may come about through
processes that would withstand re¬‚ective scrutiny, but the results of hy-
pothetical re¬‚ection upon those processes hardly seem germane to my
Authority and Voice in Autonomous Agency 105

autonomy. In fact, upon re¬‚ection, I would (and do) feel quite alienated
from the ways in which I am moved to do so many trivial, utterly insignif-
icant things, especially as they ¬ll up so much of my life. Yet, for all that,
I am autonomous in performing them.
This argument about the problem that trivial, but autonomous, action
poses for identity-based accounts is not merely a variation on the more
familiar objection that those accounts cannot explain perversely-willed,
autonomous agency. Perversity involves deciding to do what contravenes
one™s ¬rmly endorsed value judgments, but without weak will. Perverse
action can be autonomous. Some would ¬nd perversity to be an especially
clear demonstration of the capability to take ownership of one™s inten-
tions. Identi¬cation theories and evaluative self-disclosure theories will
have dif¬culty explaining this.16 Whole-self and re¬‚ective non-alienation
theories will have less trouble. Trivial action, however, presents a stum-
bling block to all of these theories because it directly challenges the con-
nection they presume between what agents really care about and which
actions they genuinely own.
A different problem for identity-based theories stems from the fact that
they presume various ideals of integrated practical identity. Autonomous
agents can take ownership of what they do even when their commitments
and concerns con¬‚ict so deeply that they cannot be wholehearted, so long
as the sources of their con¬‚icts are so dear to them that they would not
want, all things considered, to resolve them. Such persons are not am-
bivalent in the sense of being vacillating, muddle-headed, or indecisive.
They are ambivalent authentically, for their internal practical divisions
are ¬xed ¬rmly in their mature, re¬‚ective self-understandings. Mar´a ±
Lugones presents a compelling illustration of such authentic ambivalence
in her discussion of the reasons why, as a Latina and a lesbian, she cannot
adopt a coherent, uni¬ed practical identity.17 Lugones is ¬rmly commit-
ted, as a Latina, to struggling against racism. She is also strongly commit-
ted, as a lesbian, to participating in lesbian communities that offer alterna-
tives to heterosexism. Yet neither of these commitments can be integrated
satisfactorily with the other in present social circumstances. Cheshire
Calhoun explains Lugones™s dilemma: “Within Hispanic culture, lesbian-
ism is an abomination. Within the lesbian community, Hispanic values
and ways of living do not have central value. As a result, ˜Latina les-
bian™ is not a coherent identity. . . .”18 The cultural situation Lugones
faces leaves her no alternative but to maintain a divided identity,19 not
because of thoughtlessness, self-deception, or lack of self-control, but pre-
cisely because of her re¬‚ectiveness, integrity, and steadfast care. Lugones
Paul Benson

can nonetheless act reasonably and own what she does. Lugones has
undoubtedly worked out strategies for living wisely with her evaluative
disharmony, just as she has worked out ways to survive the multiple op-
pressions that bear down upon her.20
Identi¬cation theories cannot explain Lugones™s autonomy, because
she cannot be wholehearted in or resolutely satis¬ed with her re¬‚ective
endorsements. Self-disclosure theories do no better, since they suppose
that without a coherent evaluational standpoint, a person has no self
to express. For instance, Lugones cannot display who she is, within the
penumbra of her con¬‚ict, without also displaying who she is not. Arpaly
and Schroeder™s whole-self account maintains that well-integrated mo-
tives cannot be opposed to other psychologically deep beliefs and desires.
By this standard, some of an authentically ambivalent person™s core con-
cerns cannot be suf¬ciently integrated within her personality to prompt
autonomous action. This is counterintuitive. Finally, Christman™s formu-
lation of a re¬‚ective non-alienation theory likewise fails to make room for
autonomy within authentic ambivalence. His position requires that agents
“experience no manifest con¬‚icts of desires or beliefs which signi¬cantly
affect [their] behavior.”21 Nor are authentically ambivalent agents like
reforming smokers who, Christman argues, can accept manifest con¬‚ict
autonomously if they have a rational plan to overcome it.22
There is much more I could say here to develop these criticisms of
theories that seek to root agential ownership in some special alignment
between will and practical identity.23 I hope these abbreviated remarks ad-
equately convey the need for a different way of conceiving of autonomous
agents™ distinctive ownership of their conduct.

II Ownership and Authority
Notice that identity-based approaches interpret agential ownership as a
matter of persons™ having a certain authority over their will and conduct.
Identi¬cation, evaluative self-disclosure, psychological integration, and
critical re¬‚ection are purported to be constitutive means by which agents
authorize their intentions as their own and thereby acquire genuine own-
ership of them. For instance, Frankfurt speaks of making particular mo-
tives “authoritative for the self” by endorsing or identifying with them.24
Identifying with a motive, he says, should “endow it with greater author-
ity or . . . constitutive legitimacy.”25 It is plausible that agential ownership
should consist in a sort of authorization, since ownership, in its ordinary
senses, normally means having authority over the use or disposition of
Authority and Voice in Autonomous Agency 107

something. Like ordinary ownership, the authority involved in agential
ownership is a normative affair. Much as owners™ authority over their
property need not coincide with their possessing de facto control over it,
autonomous agents™ authority as owners of their conduct does not consist
simply in their having the power to perform it or not. Non-autonomous
agents can have that power, too.
Although taking ownership plausibly consists in some kind of norma-
tive authorization, identity-based accounts go astray when they conceive
of this authorization as directed toward particular motivational states (or
their histories). For, as we have seen, the motives upon which autonomous
agents act need not be authorized as belonging to or expressing what they
really care about. Rather, these motives are their own, I propose, because
autonomous agents have a certain authority in acting upon them. In other
words, the authorization that constitutes autonomy is an authorization of
agents with respect to their wills, not, in the ¬rst instance, authorization of
their motives or courses of action. Identity-based theories are wrong not
only in focusing so intently on persons™ practical commitments, values,
or personality integration; they are also mistaken to focus on the authen-
ticity of particular motives, as opposed to the authority that agents claim
in taking ownership of them.
This proposal ¬nds con¬rmation in the fact that identity-based the-
ories do much better at detecting impairments in particular volitions
that inhibit autonomy than in locating wider features of agents and their
social locations that diminish autonomy. For instance, identity-based ac-
counts often detect successfully the effects on autonomy of recalcitrant,
unendorsed motives that intrude upon the will. These theories are not
well equipped, however, to explain why pervasive social conditioning of
an Orwellian sort interferes with autonomy, or why histories of extreme
abuse or mental illness or even the normal conditions of young childhood
diminish autonomy (when they do not undermine re¬‚ective, intentional
agency altogether).26 I suggest that these latter cases affect autonomy
because they modify agents™ proper authorization as owners of their in-
tentions, not because they give rise to particular motives that can be
determined on independent grounds to be inauthentic.27
In addition to carrying some, as yet unexplained, normative content,
the authorization of agential owners also has a social, or relational, dimen-
sion. Consider again the analogy with property ownership. The authority
of property owners is relational on at least two levels.28 First, owners™
authority sets limits on what others can reasonably claim from the prop-
erty. But rights of ownership are neither absolute nor inviolable. Owners™
Paul Benson

prerogatives can be quali¬ed by others™ needs and interests when they are
serious and urgent enough. At the deeper level of justi¬cation, the au-
thority, as well as the responsibilities, of ownership are carved out within
a system of social institutions and relations in order to adjudicate, in a
fair and reasonable manner, among people™s competing claims to and
interests in the material resources of the natural and arti¬cial worlds.
Practices of ownership are justi¬ed theoretically by the functions they
serve within a fair system of social cooperation.
Similarly, agents™ ownership of their conduct is embedded within a
network of social relations and potential interpersonal claims. To have
the authority of owning one™s acts is to stand in a certain position with
respect to others™ potential expectations for one™s conduct. Intuitively,
this position is captured in the idea that those who take ownership of their
intentions and actions are appropriately positioned to own up to them, or
to speak for them. Even when autonomous agents lack the moral (or legal,
and so on) understanding to be properly accountable or responsible for
what they do, their ownership of their actions means that they have the
authority to face potential criticism for what they do autonomously, to
stand by their acts in the face of potential normative expectations.29 This
is so even when, as in cases of trivial action or authentic ambivalence,
agent-owners do not stand wholeheartedly for what they do.
Identity-based accounts fail to discern this intrinsic social dimension of
autonomy. In those accounts, social relations may in¬‚uence causally the
connections between identity and will that determine autonomy. Those
accounts can also allow that the content of persons™ practical concerns
encompasses interpersonal relations. But they do not recognize any in-
herent, constitutive connection between agential ownership and persons™
social relations. They entail the notion that persons can own their motives
independently of their socially structured authority to stand by what they
do. In this regard, my proposal contrasts with the constitutive individual-
ism of other theories.30
The social dimension of agential ownership also exhibits the discursive
signi¬cance of autonomous agents™ distinctive authority. Autonomous
agents specially own what they do in that they are properly positioned to
give voice to their reasons for acting “ to speak or answer for their acts,
or to give account of them “ should others call for their reasons. Their
position does not depend upon their having privileged access to the con-
ditions that best explain their behavior. Nor must autonomous agents
be more pro¬cient than others at constructing reasons that could jus-
tify their acts.31 Rather, the special authority conveyed in local autonomy
Authority and Voice in Autonomous Agency 109

concerns who is properly situated to face and answer potential criticism.
Autonomous agents are authorized to stand at the nodal point de¬ned
by the targeting of potential criticisms and the voicing of reasons in
response.32 Once more, autonomy does not guarantee that persons have
the speci¬c moral or legal competence to be fully accountable for what
they do.33
The discursive dimension of agent-ownership loosely parallels the dis-
cursive import of property ownership. Other things being equal, the
owner is the one who ultimately has the authority to speak for the dis-
position of her property or its consequences in the face of potential
criticisms.34 Furthermore, this discursive feature of autonomy reverses
and clari¬es the common intuition that autonomous acts have distinc-
tive self-expressive powers. The common intuition, exempli¬ed well in
Watson™s position, holds that autonomous acts reveal what agents really
care about, as those acts (purportedly) have been (or would be) certi-
¬ed by those agents as what they really wanted to do. In line with my
earlier criticism that identity-based theories focus too narrowly on par-
ticular motives and acts at the expense of agents, I would urge that the
self-expression necessarily involved in autonomy consists in the self™s dis-
playing her regard for her own authority to speak for her actions, not the
acts™ being specially ¬t for displaying the person™s practical self. My au-
tonomous acts fully belong to me because, whether or not they manifest
my values “ and they well might not “ I am the one duly positioned to serve
as the voice for those acts. I possess this authority regardless of whether
I really most wanted to perform them or would have refrained from re-
jecting them upon informed re¬‚ection. The next section examines how
I come by this authority.
To review: I have identi¬ed three dimensions along which the frame-
work I propose for interpreting agential ownership contrasts with identity-
based theories. The proposed framework highlights autonomous agents™
authority with respect to their will, rather than the authorization of par-
ticular motives as authentically their own; and my framework conceives
of this authority as having both intrinsic social content and discursive im-
port. At the same time, however, the idea that agents take ownership of
what they do by gaining authority to speak, or answer, for their acts in the
face of potential criticism can explain the notable intuitive plausibility of
identity-based theories. The various considerations those theories attend
to are normally also considerations that directly affect persons™ ¬tness to
give voice to their reasons for acting in response to potential challenges.
Actions driven by motives that the agent re¬‚ectively rejects (or would
Paul Benson

reject) or by motives that con¬‚ict deeply with the agent™s settled person-
ality or with what she cares about are typically actions for which she lacks
the authority to speak. Nevertheless, as I have maintained that identity-
based theories fail to capture either necessary or suf¬cient conditions
of autonomy, I freely concede that there can be marked discrepancies
between persons™ abilities to act on the basis of their re¬‚ective practical
concerns and persons™ authorization to speak or answer for what they do.

III Taking Ownership by Claiming Authority
The next task is to explain how the authorization of agents as potential
answerers for their acts can incorporate two prominent features of taking
ownership “ namely, its active character and its re¬‚exive character. If
the expressions “making one™s own” or “taking ownership” are apt, then
autonomous agents™ authority is not something they acquire passively.
Autonomous agents must gain ownership with regard to their conduct
because, in some sense, they actively claim or seize it.35 Moreover, we
need to explain autonomy™s re¬‚exivity. If the capacity to take ownership
of what one does is to suf¬ce for one™s self-governance as an agent, then
we should inquire how gaining authority to speak for one™s actions also
comprises self-rule, the self™s governance of itself. I propose in this section
that both the active and re¬‚exive characters of agential ownership can
be understood if agents™ authority arises through their self-authorization.
As I begin to develop this proposal, it will be helpful to consider a
case of heteronomy that illustrates some of the ways in which my account
makes stronger demands than identity-based theories impose. This will
clarify the signi¬cance of conceiving autonomous agents™ authority in so-
cial and discursive terms. It will also bring to light my proposal™s emphasis
upon attitudinal elements of autonomous agency. I have already implied
that my account sets more permissive conditions than identity-based the-
ories in some respects, since it should tolerate the autonomy of agents
who perform trivial acts or who act out of authentic ambivalence. Neither
the triviality of an action nor authentically ambivalent commitments, in
themselves, necessarily threaten the agent™s authority to speak for her
will and conduct. But my account also sets more restrictive standards for
autonomy in other respects.
Persons who satisfy standard identity-based conditions of autonomy
can nevertheless fail to take ownership of what they do because of their
attitudes toward their social competence or worth. Occupying a position
of authority to speak for one™s intentions and acts seems to depend not
Authority and Voice in Autonomous Agency 111

only on one™s objective ¬tness to play the social role of potential answerer,
but also on one™s regard for one™s abilities and social position. I will
sketch brie¬‚y an example that makes this point intuitively plausible before
presenting a general argument for this idea by appealing to the role of
self-authorization in autonomy.
Consider someone who, on the basis of race,36 has systematically been
treated as socially invisible, as lacking the dignity of a person and eligibil-
ity to participate in distinctively personal forms of relationship, such as
citizenship, friendship, or familial love. For example, imagine someone
brought up within racialized practices that embody many of the attitudes
that sustained chattel slavery and, later, Jim Crow in the United States. If
this person has been depersonalized consistently enough, and if the per-
sonal attachments that might have given her a sense of her own dignity
have continually been shattered or degraded, then she might come to
internalize her social invisibility. She might regard herself as un¬t for the
kinds of relationship for which only persons are eligible,37 at least across
many of the spheres of her social existence.38
Ralph Ellison constructs a voice for such internalized invisibility in
Invisible Man.39 In the novel™s prologue, Ellison™s unnamed protagonist
remarks that others refuse to see him as anything but a ¬gure in their
nightmares, a phantom-like projection of their contradictory desires and
fears. He observes that his invisibility to others has often made him doubt
whether he really exists: “It™s when you feel like this that, out of resent-
ment, you begin to bump people back. And, let me confess, you feel that
way most of the time. You ache with the need to convince yourself that
you do exist in the real world.”40 This vivid, but anonymous, character
struggles throughout the novel to secure some social basis that could
support a con¬dent sense of his own personal dignity, only to be driven
into despair and “hibernation” in the forgotten cellar of a whites-only
apartment building. He is keenly aware of the effects his internalized
invisibility has had upon his ability to make his actions his own.

I can hear you say, ˜What a horrible, irresponsible bastard!™ And you™re right. I
leap to agree with you. I am one of the most irresponsible beings that ever lived.
Irresponsibility is part of my invisibility; any way you face it, it is a denial. But to
whom can I be responsible, and why should I be, when you refuse to see me?41

The character™s point is not simply that his prolonged social invisibility
as a person has confounded his moral capacities, although he does con-
cede this.42 His concern is also that he cannot speak or answer for his
actions since, having incorporated his invisibility to others in his own
Paul Benson

attitudes toward himself, he cannot take up the social position of an-
swerer for his conduct. “Responsibility rests upon recognition,”43 the
character proclaims, signaling not only that the absence of social recog-
nition he has had to endure as an object of racial contempt has infected
his moral capacities from without, but also that his internalization of his
invisibility “ his failure to treat himself as having the full standing of a
person “ has corroded his autonomy from within.
Ellison™s protagonist probably fails to meet the conditions of most
identity-based accounts of autonomy. His mind is too divided for whole-
hearted identi¬cation or the like (“I became too snarled in the incompat-
ible notions that buzzed within my brain”44 ). Setting aside his profound
ambivalence, however, his invisibility to himself would not have to ob-
struct his ability to take ownership of his intentions by the standards
of those accounts. His internalized social death might impede re¬‚ective
endorsement of his will, the integration of his motives within his person-
ality, or his ability to confront re¬‚ectively the actual history of his motives
without deep alienation; but it need not carry those consequences. This
is one reason why my account of autonomous agents™ authority fares
better than identity-based theories: it addresses directly the social and
discursive dimensions of taking ownership that explain how internal-
ized invisibility can defeat agents™ capacities to take ownership of what
they do.
Note that persons like Ellison™s protagonist could suffer damaged au-
tonomy stemming from their failure to treat themselves as having full
personal worth, apart from whether others actually recognize them as
persons. If persons gravely doubt or distrust their own capability or wor-
thiness to face and respond to criticism, then they cannot take ownership
for their actions, even if others treat them as ¬t to speak for their own
reasons and decisions. Agents who feel dissociated from their actions,
as Ellison™s character does, are usually also victims of social invisibility (if
they are not mentally ill). It is conceptually possible, however, to undergo
invisibility-to-self without suffering non-recognition by others. The dam-
aged autonomy of Ellison™s protagonist is as much a function of his way
of regarding himself as it is a function of others™ treatment of him.45
Some ambiguities in the case of internalized invisibility call for clari-
¬cation of the sense of authority which, I claim, is implicated in taking
ownership.46 First, autonomous agents™ sense of their authority to speak
for their will and action is not bound to the conventional social norms in
relation to which (actual) others would be most likely to appraise them.
The problem that internalized social death poses for the autonomy of
Authority and Voice in Autonomous Agency 113

Ellison™s protagonist is not that he feels unequipped to appreciate the
normative domains in relation to which others would be likely to formu-
late evaluative responses to his actions. That would be a problem for his
normative competence, and thus for his full accountability in the relevant
normative domains, but not for his autonomy. What matters for his ability
to take ownership of his conduct is that he be able to take up the authority
to speak for his actions in response to potential challenges which, from
his own evaluative standpoint, others might appropriately bring to his
conduct.47 The “invisible man™s” autonomy has been damaged because,
suffering serious doubt about his own personhood, he does not regard
himself as worthy to answer for what he does by the normative standards
that he accepts.
Furthermore, this means that agents™ sense of their position as prospec-
tive voices for their actions can reasonably vary across normative domains.
An agent may be debilitated by self-doubt in one normative context, yet
take up a position to speak for her reasons within another normative
sphere. This underscores the signi¬cance of acknowledging the social
and discursive dimensions of agential ownership. A full speci¬cation of
the constituents of a person™s autonomy in some concrete situation would
require specifying the normative domains with respect to which she prop-
erly claims the necessary authority to answer for her acts.
The example of internalized social invisibility supplies some intuitive
ground for thinking that persons™ attitudes toward their ¬tness and wor-
thiness to be potential answerers for their acts can stand in the way of their
having the authority to speak for what they do, and so can prevent them
from being able to take ownership of their will and conduct. That persons™
self-regard should ¬gure in their autonomy is hardly surprising. We need
a more general basis, however, for understanding why this particular sort
of socially and normatively informed self-regard should matter for agents™
authority as answerers. It might seem, after all, that having such authority
does not depend on persons™ attitudes toward whether or not they have
it. The key to comprehending the signi¬cance of re¬‚exive, ¬rst-person
attitudes for autonomy lies in the active quality of agential ownership.
Persons cannot acquire ownership of what they do, in the sense that per-
tains to autonomy, simply by ¬nding themselves passively in the position
of owners. This sort of ownership is necessarily active; we can have it only
by taking it.48 Most identity-based theories of agential ownership have also
sought to elucidate its active character. Frankfurt, for instance, commonly
speaks of “taking responsibility” for motives in order to underscore the
active nature of decisive commitment or identi¬cation.49
Paul Benson

In order to grant a duly active role for agents in possessing the authority
to speak for their acts, we should conceive of this authority as depending,
in part, upon an active process of authorization that autonomous agents
enact upon themselves. Persons can occupy the position of potential
answerers only if they claim authority as answerers. In other words, agents
do not acquire the authority to speak for what they do solely by virtue of
satisfying requirements external to their self-regard. They must also treat
themselves as warranting that position of authority, and the complex of
attitudes this involves must contribute actively to their actually having
authority as answerers.50
The notion of self-authorization naturally arouses suspicion. It is rea-
sonable to wonder whether actively treating oneself as having authority
really differs from passively acknowledging that one meets independent,
objective criteria of agential authority. It is sensible to question whether
the psychological content of self-authorization will be too thick to be at-
tributed plausibly to all free agents, especially in their trivial callus-picking
or lint-snaring modes. Self-authorization might also seem to be too ac-
tive, akin to the excessively voluntaristic existentialist maxim, “choose
choice.”51 If the self-authorization that is to be necessary for the auton-
omy of deliberate actions must itself be a deliberate action, then a vicious
regress might not be far off if self-authorizations are themselves actions
to be performed autonomously.
These suspicions can be allayed, in part, by recognizing that treating
oneself as being in an authoritative position to speak for one™s actions,
where this treatment is also a claiming of authority, is not altogether dif-
ferent from cases of third-person authorization. We sometimes invest au-
thority in others explicitly and self-consciously by deliberately performing
actions that, in the context at hand, we properly understand as investing
authority. We often invest institutional authority in this way, for example;
we assign, hire, appoint, delegate, promote. Other investments of author-
ity are neither self-conscious and explicit nor formal. These commonly
occur within interpersonal relationships, although they also take place
within more formally structured, institutional settings. For instance, I can
authorize my partner to speak for both of us on various matters without
explicitly granting her this right. I might do so, in some contexts, just
by choosing not to speak for myself, where both she and I understand
that her authority to speak for me would not have obtained (other things
being equal) had I not treated her as having that authority. In some
contexts, I might authorize her without doing anything deliberately or
self-consciously. I can invest her with authority to speak for me by virtue
Authority and Voice in Autonomous Agency 115

of my attitudes about her authority, given our shared understanding that
my regard for her authority properly contributes to her actually having
it. Thus, authorization (whether re¬‚exive or not) may itself be a fully de-
liberate action; it may involve the performance of other actions without
itself being a full-¬‚edged action; or it may be a wholly attitudinal activity.52
These observations reveal how one™s authorization of oneself as an
answerer could be something other than merely a recognition of some
independent, pre-existing authority one has to speak for one™s conduct.
One claims authority for oneself as a potential answerer only if one un-
derstands that one would not have this authority without treating oneself
as having it. Moreover, it is not psychologically unrealistic to attribute
self-authorization to all autonomous agents, even in their least re¬‚ective
moments, because self-authorization can be entirely attitudinal, implicit,
and un-self-conscious in most contexts. As I swivel in my of¬ce chair, I
claim the authority to give account of my swivelling, or in effect have
done so through broader claims to authority I have made in the past,53
partly because I implicitly treat myself as having that authority, and un-
derstand that I would not possess it otherwise. (After all, why wouldn™t
I be in a position to answer for this?) Similarly, a worrisome regress of
self-authorizations cannot get underway if self-authorization need not
itself be a full-blown action and therefore need not be an action that
autonomous agents perform autonomously.
There will, of course, be situations in which autonomous agents™ claim-
ing authority as potential answerers will be likely to take the form of ex-
plicit, deliberate actions. For instance, where people struggle to reconsti-
tute their autonomy in the face of socially entrenched demoralization like
that displayed in the earlier example of internalized invisibility, they may
have to enact their claim to authority deliberately and perhaps in some
public way in order to secure in their own minds their regard for their
competence and worthiness to speak for themselves.54 Self-authorization
might also have to be enacted self-consciously in therapeutic contexts
in order to overcome psychological barriers to patients™ acquiring the
requisite self-regard and understanding its importance. Some practice in
deliberate self-authorization is also a common part of the social training
whereby children come to develop the attitudes and capabilities neces-
sary for full autonomy. Parents urge their children to treat themselves
as ¬t and worthy to speak for what they do, and help them to grasp the
often weighty practical implications of their dawning authority.55 These
cases of deliberate self-authorization do not, however, yield any general
argument that self-authorization launches a vicious regress.
Paul Benson

If the self-authorization that contributes to autonomy is not normally
a full-blown action, and often does not involve performing other actions,
then one might wonder how it can be active enough to explain taking
ownership. First, to state what I have already implied, the active character
of taking ownership that concerns me here is not a matter of deliberate
action. Phenomena can be active in the sense of comprising motivated
activities, for example, without being actions.56 Recall that claiming au-
thority for ourselves as ones who are in a position to speak for our conduct
involves understanding that treating ourselves in this way is a necessary
condition of our having such authority. Adopting the requisite attitudes
toward ourselves plays an indispensable part in effecting our authoriza-
tion as answerers, and we understand this. The conclusion of Ellison™s
Invisible Man can be read as making precisely this point, among others.
The protagonist decides, notwithstanding his continuing invisibility, to
end his hibernation, to “shake off the old skin,” and to embrace the “pos-
sibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play.”57
The novel holds out the prospect that by taking a new stance toward his
social position as an agent, the “invisible man” can take up the author-
ity he formerly has lacked and so overcome, in some measure, “the true
darkness [that] lies within [his] own mind.”58
Second, the attitudes toward our own authority that contribute to our
coming to possess it are potential objects of our re¬‚ection and deci-
sion making. While self-authorization typically transpires without re¬‚ec-
tion or decision, autonomous agents can re¬‚ectively scrutinize whether
they should treat themselves as having the authority to speak for what
they do, and they can decide to treat themselves as such (or not). Self-
authorization is active, then, because it is an activity arising partly out of
our self-regard, and it transpires within the reach of our capabilities to
re¬‚ect, decide, and act.59
Third, self-authorization is active, because it normally involves taking
responsibility for ourselves in a certain respect. When we invest someone
with authority, we ordinarily hold that person accountable for how she
exercises that authority (barring special circumstances that interfere with
her capacity to be responsible). We expect her to answer for her use of her
authority. Accordingly, when we claim authority to answer for our actions,
we normally place ourselves under a demand that we answer for how
we exercise that authority. Autonomous agents typically hold themselves
accountable as answerers. This explains the widespread view that taking
ownership of our actions is also a matter of taking responsibility, although
this is not a conceptual necessity, according to my account.60 Since taking
Authority and Voice in Autonomous Agency 117

responsibility for ourselves as answerers is something in which we are
engaged actively even when we do not do it deliberately, this exhibits a
further active dimension of self-authorization.
I have proposed that persons™ authorization to speak for their actions
can re¬‚ect both the active and the re¬‚exive character of taking owner-
ship because agents assume such authority for themselves when they act
autonomously. The distinctive authority that autonomous agents possess
in relation to their decisions and acts arises in part from the way they
treat themselves. In this manner, my suggestion that we think of auton-
omy in light of normative, relational, and discursive authorization keeps
faith with the fundamental conviction that autonomy is the self™s gover-
nance of itself. The role of self-authorization in autonomy also explains
our intuitive conviction that internalized invisibility can undermine au-
tonomy. Agents can be prevented from taking ownership of what they
do, independent of the conditions set out in identity-based theories, be-
cause their social circumstances lead them to withdraw their claim to
authority as answerers or inhibit them from ever treating themselves in
the ¬rst place as suf¬ciently competent and worthy to speak for their

IV Objective Constraints and Political Signi¬cance
That the self-authorization account I propose must incorporate some
objective constraints on autonomy becomes clear when we consider that
agents™ attitudinal regard for their own competence and worthiness to an-
swer for their acts can be developed through histories that plainly disrupt
autonomy. For instance, coming to trust our capabilities for re¬‚ection or
for self-regulative adjustment of our intentions in an entirely unreasoned
way “ say, on the basis of unnoticed manipulation by others that bypasses
our faculties of rational consideration (and that we have not deliberately
arranged beforehand) “ evidently does not sustain our ownership of what
we do. In order to succeed in claiming authority for ourselves to speak for
what we do, it is not enough simply that we treat ourselves as having this
authority and understand that treating ourselves in this way is a precon-
dition of our actually having it. It is also necessary that we properly treat
ourselves as ¬t and worthy to possess such authority, where the objective
elements of such propriety constrain the attitudinal aspects of autonomy
I have been discussing.
One way to discern the conditions under which treating ourselves as
having agential authority can actually succeed in conveying authority is to
Paul Benson

consider what kinds of revelation about the circumstances under which
our attitudes were formed would, upon rational consideration, typically
undermine our sense of our competence and worthiness as answerers.
Applying this criterion leads to at least four sorts of objective constraints
on autonomy: ¬rst, that agents™ attitudes toward their own capabilities
and worthiness to function as answerers be formed in a suitably ratio-
nal way on the basis of their evidence;61 second, that agents not be ren-
dered incapable of acquiring otherwise socially available information that
would be practically germane to their decisions (as in societies dominated
by Orwellian propaganda); third, that agents™ attitudes not be modi¬ed
through processes that circumvent their capacities for rational consid-
eration, broadly construed62 (as in forcible mind control); and fourth,
that the norms in relation to which agents regard themselves as capable
of articulating their reasons for acting be publicly shareable, even if not
actually publicly instantiated. Space does not permit discussion of these
constraints here.63
The theoretical import of these constraints is, in part, that they hold
out the promise of explaining more traditional components of autonomy
having to do with the character of agents™ capacities for re¬‚ection, their
access to information, or their ability to regulate their intentions. Hence, I
hope in future work to show that approaching the subject of autonomous
agency by inquiring ¬rst into persons™ authority to speak for their con-
duct will also provide a way to understand these more familiar features of
autonomous agency.64 Moreover, I suspect that attending to the norma-
tive, relational, and discursive dimensions of autonomy brought to light
in the proposed self-authorization account will be instructive for efforts in
political philosophy to combat some familiar complaints against liberal-
ism. Liberalism has long been accused of being excessively individualistic
in its politics, its accounts of value, and its presumed understandings of
selfhood. These charges have only become more trenchant with the ris-
ing prominence of communitarianism over the past two decades. Much
work has been done to address these objections, but too little of it has
concentrated on the purportedly individualistic character of personal
autonomy. The social and discursive dimensions of autonomy, as I have
begun to describe them, promise to be revealing when considered in this
light. The position of authority that autonomous agents claim for them-
selves is, I have argued, socially situated and relationally structured; both
the capabilities and attitudes this position demands concern interper-
sonal exchange governed by publicly shareable norms. There is nothing
unduly individualistic about the conception of selfhood this view might
Authority and Voice in Autonomous Agency 119

suggest. Nor does this understanding of autonomy promote some asocial,
atomized view of human well-being or political life.
The self-authorization account does not merely enable us to recognize
many respects in which interpersonal relationships and social practices
contribute causally to the development of capacities for autonomy.65 My
account also shows that social and discursive elements belong intrinsically
to autonomous agency. This suggests that liberalism might properly claim
the resources not only to appreciate the causal reach of persons™ social
formation and dependence but also to respect the constitutive depth of
human sociality.
The attitudinal aspects of autonomy might also give liberal theories
more to say in response to charges that liberalism requires a universal-
izing, impartialist perspective from which to apprehend the rights and
duties of citizenship, a perspective that cannot discern the political mean-
ings of socially-de¬ned differences among persons and that tends toward
narrow, rationalist abstraction in its view of political agency.66 By attend-
ing to agents™ regard for their own authority to speak for their actions, the
self-authorization account asks us to take seriously persons™ speci¬c, mul-
tifaceted perspectives on their agency. My earlier discussion of Ellison™s
Invisible Man reveals that this account can face head-on the complex,
socially situated character of a person™s agency, even in circumstances
of oppression. By focusing on agents™ attitudes toward their ability to
speak for their decisions and actions, this view may also provide liber-
alism with richer resources for appreciating demands for political voice
and recognition in relation to the value of personal autonomy. Moreover,
we can escape the rationalistic connotations of much liberal theorizing
by admitting the place of emotionally textured, re¬‚exive attitudes in per-
sons™ capacity to take ownership of what they do. The self-authorization
account also avoids excessive rationalism by permitting descriptions of
autonomous agents™ powers of re¬‚ection and self-regulation that do not
revolve around rare¬ed intellectual skills of detachment and analysis.67
The self-authorization view of autonomy does not mandate liberal pol-
itics, of course. Nor does it specify an interpretation of political rights to
individual or collective autonomy. But this view™s recognition of the norm-
laden, relationally and discursively structured features of taking owner-
ship of our actions suits it well to the task of appreciating the character
of personal agency within a liberal polity.
A ¬nal observation is in order. My case against identity-based theories
of autonomy is not independent of the reasons why my alternative account
of taking agential ownership might assist liberal theorists in responding to
Paul Benson

communitarian, contextualist, or post-modernist criticisms. The percep-
tion that liberalism depends upon unacceptable strains of individualism,
universalism, impartialism, or rationalism tends to be bolstered by the
representations of autonomous agency that emerge from identity-based
theories. Those theories portray autonomous agents as being capable of
various sorts of decisiveness, motivational or evaluative coherence, per-
sonality integration, or re¬‚ective self-acceptance that can readily be fash-
ioned, fairly or unfairly, as targets for liberalism™s critics. In presenting an
alternative to these presumptions that admits trivial acts and profoundly
divided agents into the realm of autonomy, the self-authorization account
is rendered a less ready target for anti-liberal attacks.68

I am interested in local autonomy, the condition of being self-governing in
the performance of particular actions and the formation of the particular
intentions that motivate them. I am not concerned directly with the global
notion of autonomy, which involves the ability to exercise authentic, re¬‚ec-
tive self-control over extended portions of one™s life. Prominent theorists who
construe autonomy in a global manner include Gerald Dworkin, The The-
ory and Practice of Autonomy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988);
Lawrence Haworth, Autonomy: An Essay in Philosophical Psychology and Ethics
(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986); Diana T. Meyers, Self, Society,
and Personal Choice (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989); Marina A.
L. Oshana, “Personal Autonomy and Society,” Journal of Social Philosophy 29
(1998): 81“102; and Robert Young, Personal Autonomy: Beyond Negative and Pos-
itive Liberty (New York: St. Martin™s Press, 1986). For an argument that local
autonomy is a more basic concept than global autonomy, see John Christman,
“Autonomy and Personal History,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 21 (1991):
1“24, at 2“4.
Cf. Harry Frankfurt™s distinction between one™s having a desire and “the fact
that the desire is in the fullest sense” one™s own. “Identi¬cation and Whole-
heartedness,” reprinted in The Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 159“76, at 170.
“Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” reprinted in The Impor-
tance of What We Care About, pp. 11“25, at 21, 22.
Frankfurt, “Identi¬cation and Wholeheartedness,” p. 165, 166. Also see “Iden-
ti¬cation and Externality,” reprinted in The Importance of What We Care About,
pp. 58“68, esp. at 64“8.
Local autonomy might in this way depend upon some more global condition.
For our present purposes, I am interested both in the actual condition of be-
ing autonomous in acting and the capabilities necessary for being self-ruling
in action. Cf. Joel Feinberg™s distinctions among four concepts of autonomy
in Harm to Self (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), pp. 27“51.
Authority and Voice in Autonomous Agency 121

6. Many of these theories were developed as accounts of free agency, free will,
or moral responsibility, not personal autonomy. Nevertheless, because these
theories all endeavor to interpret agential ownership, they can fairly be pre-
sented as accounts of autonomous agency. As will become clear, I am less
interested in the speci¬c features of these theories than in their general
approaches to the relation between ownership and practical identity. For
further examination of the relation between autonomy and identity, see
Marina Oshana™s Chapter (4) in the present volume.
7. For the main variations of Frankfurt™s understanding of identi¬cation, see
especially Harry G. Frankfurt, “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of
a Person”; “Identi¬cation and Wholeheartedness”; “The Faintest Passion,”
reprinted in Necessity, Volition, and Love (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1999), pp. 95“107; and “On the Necessity of Ideals,” reprinted in
Necessity, Volition, and Love, pp. 108“16. Bratman attempts to understand
identi¬cation by way of decisions to treat motives as reason-giving, where
the agent is satis¬ed with such decisions. See Michael E. Bratman, “Identi-
¬cation, Decision, and Treating as a Reason,” Philosophical Topics 24 (1996):
8. “Two Faces of Responsibility,” Philosophical Topics 24 (1996): 227“48, at 233.
Also cf. Watson™s “Free Agency,” Journal of Philosophy 72 (1975): 205“20.
Susan Wolf also seems to think that some kind of evaluative self-disclosure
is necessary, though not suf¬cient, for autonomy. See her discussion of the
relation between “real self views,” such as Watson™s, and her own “reason
view” in Freedom within Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990),
pp. 74“5.
9. “Praise, Blame, and the Whole Self,” Philosophical Studies 93 (1999): 161“88.
10. Ibid., pp. 171“5.
11. Also see Robert Noggle™s treatment of psychological integration and personal
autonomy in “Kantian Respect and Particular Persons,” Canadian Journal of
Philosophy 29 (1999): 449“77.
12. In addition to Christman™s chapter (14) in this volume, see “Autonomy and
Personal History”; “Defending Historical Autonomy: A Reply to Professor
Mele,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 23 (1993): 281“90; and “Liberalism,
Autonomy, and Self-Transformation,” Social Theory and Practice 27 (2001):
185“206, at 200“6.
13. For more thorough development of this criticism as applied to Christman™s
theory, see my “Autonomy and Oppressive Socialization,” Social Theory and
Practice 17 (1991): 385“408; and section 3.4 of my Answering for Ourselves:
The Place of Self-Worth in Free Agency (in progress).
14. A prominent exception is Sarah Buss, “Autonomy Reconsidered,” in Mid-
west Studies in Philosophy, vol. 19, eds. Peter A. French et al. (South Bend,
IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), pp. 95“121. See also Diana T.
Meyers™s chapter (2) in this volume, in which she criticizes autonomy theo-
rists™ preoccupation with “the self-as-unitary.”
15. In calling such actions trivial, I do not mean to suggest that they fall altogether
outside the reach of normative assessment. For a persuasive case that even
Paul Benson

such actions fall within the scope of moral evaluation, see Samuel Schef¬‚er,
Human Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), chapter 2.
See Gary Watson™s discussion of “perverse cases” in “Free Action and Free
Will,” Mind 96 (1987): 145“72, at 150.
See Mar´a Lugones, “Hispaneando y Lesbiando: On Sarah Hoagland™s Les-
bian Ethics,” Hypatia 5 (1990): 138“46. Also see her “Playfulness, ˜World™-
travelling, and Loving Perception,” Hypatia 2 (1987): 3“19; and “On the
Logic of Pluralist Feminism,” in Feminist Ethics, ed. Claudia Card (Lawrence,
KS: University Press of Kansas, 1991), pp. 35“44. Diana Meyers™s discussion
of intersectional identity and authentic selfhood is also helpful. See “Inter-
sectional Identity and the Authentic Self?: Opposites Attract!” in Relational
Autonomy: Feminist Perspectives on Autonomy, Agency, and the Social Self, eds.
C. Mackenzie and N. Stoljar (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000),
pp. 151“80.
Cheshire Calhoun, “Standing for Something,” Journal of Philosophy 92 (1995):
235“60, at 239.
Lugones prefers to characterize herself as having plural or multiple selves,
not simply a divided self. However, she grants that these selves can establish
connections with each other; they can communicate with and understand
one another, as well as critically evaluate each other. See “Hispaneando y
Lesbiando,” pp. 144“5. Because both of these “selves” must contribute to
Lugones™s practical decision-making and to her action, I prefer to regard
them as different evaluative sub-systems of a single self. For related discussion
of the role of practical deliberation and agency in constituting personal
identity over time, see Christine M. Korsgaard, “Personal Identity and the
Unity of Agency: A Kantian Response to Par¬t,” Philosophy and Public Affairs
18 (1989): 101“32. Amy Mullin offers other criticisms of the tendency to
represent divided identities as multiple selves in “Selves, Diverse and Divided:
Can Feminists Have Diversity without Multiplicity?” Hypatia 10 (1995): 1“31.
Cf. Meyers™s discussion of “the self-as-divided” in her chapter (2) in the
present volume.
“Defending Historical Autonomy,” p. 288.
Ibid., pp. 287“8. Christman™s chapter (14) in the present volume points to-
ward a change in his interpretation of ambivalence.
See Benson, Answering for Ourselves (in progress), chapter 3.
“Identi¬cation and Wholeheartedness,” p. 175.
Ibid., p. 166.
Note that Wolf uses similar examples to illustrate the inadequacy of “real self
views” of freedom and responsibility. Freedom within Reason, p. 37.
See the discussion of internalized social invisibility in Section III following.
Another level of relationality, which I do not discuss, involves the way in
which social relations shape the emergence of speci¬c rights from more
fundamental ones. See Richard Dagger, Civic Virtues: Rights, Citizenship, and
Republican Liberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 31“6.
This idea connects forward- and backward-looking aspects of agency in an
interesting way. According to a more standard view, autonomous agents can
be in a position retrospectively to stand by what they have done only because
Authority and Voice in Autonomous Agency 123

they have prospectively de¬ned or determined themselves in performing
their actions. My proposal reverses this relationship. As agents autonomously
decide to act, and so face forward into the futures they create, they do so by
virtue of occupying a position of ownership that subsequently enables them
to look back at what they have done and serve as potential answerers for it.
This is not to deny that identity-based views of ownership might incorpo-
rate social, or relational, theories of mind, intentional agency, or value. My
point is only that these views do not suppose that autonomy per se has any-
thing more than a contingent dependence on agents™ social situation. For
other treatments of autonomy™s relationality see the chapters by Meyers (2),
Oshana (4), Anderson and Honneth (6), and Friedman (7) in the present
Of course, the fact that autonomy does not entail privileged epistemic or
justi¬catory capabilities does not mean that autonomous agents might have
little or no understanding of their reasons for acting.
The idea that autonomous agency consists in being properly positioned, or
having the authority, to speak or answer for one™s reasons may seem con-
fusing. For we are used to thinking that a person™s authority to speak for
her action depends on some prior fact about her being autonomous in per-
forming the action. Thus, my proposal may strike some as being circular. An-
other instance of circularity could also appear to be involved. For example, if
agents™ authority to speak for their conduct is thought to depend upon their
owing others an account of their reasons, then my view could seem to presup-
pose autonomy in order to explain it, since having this obligation to account
for their actions might presuppose that the agents acted autonomously. As
should become clearer in the next section, my position is that it is agents
appropriately claiming the authority to speak for their actions that renders
them autonomous in performing those actions, and hence potentially sub-
ject to an obligation to answer for them. The conditions that explain what
it is to take up this authority and to do so appropriately therefore constitute
autonomy, rather than presupposing it.
Christman™s chapter (14) in the present volume presents a related political
argument for the signi¬cance of persons being placed in a position to speak
for themselves.
Of course, this authority is transferable and subject to delegation in ways that
personal autonomy is not.
I am grateful to Sigrun Svavarsdottir for suggesting the terminology of “claim-
ing” or “seizing” authority.
Or the socially accepted attribution of a racial identity. Sally Haslanger of-
fers a helpful analysis of what it means to belong to a racialized group
in “Gender and Race: (What) Are They? (What) Do We Want Them To
Be?” Noˆ s 34 (2000): 31“55. Also see K. Anthony Appiah™s discussion of
racial identity in “Race, Culture, Identity: Misunderstood Connections,” in K.
Anthony Appiah and Amy Gutmann, Color Conscious: The Political Morality of
Race (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), esp. pp. 74“105.
I do not address here the various forms that such self-regard might take.
Robin Dillon has usefully argued that such instances of damaged self-respect
Paul Benson

need not involve persons™ failures to understand intellectually their merit
or their status as persons. Rather, persons may suffer damaged “basal self-
respect,” which concerns their emotionally laden, non-propositional, prere-
¬‚ective grasp of their worth. See Dillon™s “Self-Respect: Moral, Emotional,
Political,” Ethics 107 (1997): 226“49.
It may be psychologically impossible for a person to be entirely invisible to
all others as a person. Accounts of slavery in the United States suggest, for
instance, that even those slaves who internalized many of the conventional
justi¬cations for slavery never entirely internalized their slave-status. For one
thing, many slaves lived or interacted with other slaves for whom their per-
sonhood was not in question. In his comparative analysis of slavery across
many cultures, Orlando Patterson writes, “There is absolutely no evidence
from the long and dismal annals of slavery to suggest that any group of slaves
ever internalized the conception of degradation held by their masters. To be
dishonored “ and to sense, however acutely, such dishonor “ is not to lose
the quintessential human urge to participate and to want a place” (Slavery
and Social Death [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982], p. 97).
For further relevant discussion, see Laurence M. Thomas, Vessels of Evil: Amer-
ican Slavery and the Holocaust (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993),
chapter 6; and Joshua Cohen, “The Arc of the Moral Universe,” Philosophy
and Public Affairs 26 (1997): 91“134, esp. 107.
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Random House, 1952).
Ibid., p. 4.
Ibid., p. 14.
The protagonist says in the novel™s epilogue, “Let me be honest with you “ a
feat which, by the way, I ¬nd of the utmost dif¬culty. When one is invisible
he ¬nds such problems as good and evil, honesty and dishonesty, of such
shifting shapes that he confuses one with the other, depending upon who
happens to be looking through him at the time” (ibid., p. 572).
Ibid., p. 14.
Ibid. In light of my claim that autonomy is compatible with authentic ambiva-
lence, it is interesting to see that Ellison™s character begins to regain a sense
of his personal worth when he reconciles himself to the moral ambivalence
that he previously found so disorienting. “Now I know men are different and
that all life is divided and that only in division is there true health” (ibid.,
p. 576). “. . . [T]oo much of your life will be lost, its meaning lost, unless you
approach it as much through love as through hate. So I approach it through
division” (ibid., p. 580).
This is not to say that he has as much responsibility for his predicament as
do others.
For further development of these clari¬cations, see my “Free Agency and Self-
Worth,” Journal of Philosophy 91 (1994): 650“68, esp. 661“3; and Answering
for Ourselves, chapter 4, section 4.3.
Autonomous agents must be disposed to engage with external criticisms. The
point of restricting their sense of authority as answerers to possible criticisms
that might arise from evaluative standpoints they accept is simply to mark
clearly the boundary between taking ownership, as autonomy requires, and
taking up a position of full responsibility to others.
Authority and Voice in Autonomous Agency 125

48. Cf. the requirements of Lockean theories of property that property can only
be acquired by actively taking unowned things out of their natural condition,
within certain constraints, or by the active transfer of ownership from one
party to another. The notion of active assumption of authority belongs in
common to many theories of property and many theories of autonomous
agency, not to mention theories of political obligation.
49. “Three Concepts of Free Action,” reprinted in The Importance of What We Care
About, pp. 47“57, esp. at 53“4; and “Identi¬cation and Wholeheartedness,”
pp. 170“1. Similarly, Watson emphasizes free agents™ active exercise of their
evaluative capacities or their active commitment to a conception of value.
See “Two Faces of Responsibility,” pp. 233“4. Also note Bratman™s attention
to decision as a key feature of identi¬cation in “Identi¬cation, Decision, and
Treating as a Reason.”
50. Christman™s chapter (14) in the present volume would situate this claim
within a Kantian, as opposed to a Hobbesian, formulation of liberalism.
51. Cf. Sartre™s statement, “Actually it is not enough to will; it is necessary to will
to will” (Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel Barnes [New York: Philosophical
Library, 1956], p. 444). He continues, “. . . the for-itself can be only if it has
chosen itself. Therefore the for-itself appears as the free foundation of its
emotions as of its volitions” (ibid., p. 445).
52. I use “activity” in David Velleman™s sense. Activities are purposeful doings
that fall short of being full-blooded actions but rise above mere happenings.
See The Possibility of Practical Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000),
pp. 1“31.
53. Cf. John Martin Fischer and Mark Ravizza™s proposal that we take responsibil-
ity for acting from a particular kind of action-mechanism. In their view, I am
responsible for performing a particular action now by virtue of having taken
responsibility in the past for acting from mechanisms of the type on which I
am now acting. See Moral Responsibility and Control (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1998), pp. 214“7.
54. Bernard Boxill makes a similar claim when arguing that the moral func-
tion of protest is often to secure the protesters™ own knowledge that they
respect themselves or to con¬rm their own faith in their personal worth.
See “Self-Respect and Protest,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 6 (1976): 58“
55. These examples of the importance, in certain contexts, of explicit acts of self-
authorization indicate why autonomy requires self-authorization, not merely
the absence of agents™ withdrawal of authority from themselves.
56. Again, see Velleman, The Possibility of Practical Reason, pp. 1“31.
57. Invisible Man, pp. 580, 581.
58. Ibid., p. 579.
59. A similar point is sometimes made about identi¬cation. For instance,
Frankfurt maintains, most notably in “Freedom of the Will and the Con-
cept of a Person” and in “The Faintest Passion,” that higher-order volitions
need not be formed deliberately. Bratman also recognizes “an extended
sense” of identi¬cation that does not require an actual decision to treat de-
sires as reason-giving (“Identi¬cation, Decision, and Treating as a Reason,”
p. 13).


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