Accounting for the Relationship of Autonomy and Ability

I gave a presentation, provocatively titled “Does Disability Decrease Autonomy?”, at the Justice and Political Psychology symposium (University of Turku, October 15th through 16th). My aim was to sketch out the kinds of abilities that individual-centered, rationality-based accounts of autonomy present as prerequisites for the capacity for autonomy, and then to problematise that taxonomy from the point of view of relational autonomy.

In the individual-rational accounts, autonomy is perceived as a trait of the individual: that of being self-governing. This self-government requires some degree of rationality. What I mean by rationality here is practical reason: the ability to reason about what one is to do. On a minimal level, this can simply mean that one knows to walk left if they wish to look out of a window that is to the left. On a more complex level, this can mean considering various courses of action in an effort to determine which one is best.

A cause for deep concern in these accounts is that those who do not fulfil the rationality requirements, such as those who are severely mentally disabled, are therefore left outside the circle of autonomous agents. However, it is not at all clear that this would be a justified place to draw the line between autonomy and non-autonomy. The relational account of autonomy strives to answer this concern.

The relational account of autonomy stresses that autonomy arises within a context. The lack of autonomy that some disabled individuals may experience is due to the fact that society is organized around the able-bodied and that we fail to accommodate for and enable disabled individuals sufficiently. Likewise for the able-bodied: Laura Davy points out that we are mistaken in placing the capacity for autonomy of the able-bodied individuals in their bodily abilities, when in fact, complex networks of interdependence and care have enabled their autonomy. According to relational autonomy, these same networks do not work to such extent with the disabled, because of the deep-running discrimination in our society.

Relational autonomy stresses that relationships of interdependence do not undermine autonomy, and that no man is an island. It strives to articulate for autonomy in such a way that would accommodate for those subjects that are often left outside the circle of autonomous agents, and to verbalize this in a way that demonstrates respect for diverse forms of life. It draws our attention to how the autonomy of the disabled is often limited much more by the ableist, discriminating character of society than it is by their somatic bodies. I consider these points of view valuable and definitely agree that our abilities do not end where our skin meets the air around us.

However, I also found some aspects of the relational account puzzling. First, it appears to encounter some difficulty in delineating how to distinguish between factors that contribute to autonomy and factors that undermine it. An account of autonomy must be able to distinguish between autonomy and non-autonomy, and to delineate how autonomy can be enabled. The texts I’ve read so far on relational autonomy gesture towards both, but I have not yet found clear criteria for these. Secondly, it appears to me that relational and individual-rational accounts share a lot more in common than appears at first sight, although this requires further inquiry. More specifically, the practices that advocates for relational autonomy often praise (and rightly so) as enabling autonomy in disabled individuals, such as home care, and enabling the making of personal decisions, seem to me to support forms of life that look a lot like individual-centered, rationality-based kinds of agency. Perhaps there are certain normative judgments shared by autonomy theorists across the spectrum?

A few sources:
Davy, Laura. “Philosophical Inclusive Design: Intellectual Disability and the Limits of Individual Autonomy in Moral and Political Theory.” Hypatia 30(1) (2015): 132–148.
Ho, Anita. “The Individualist Model of Autonomy and the Challenge of Disability.” Bioethical Inquiry 5 (2008): 193–207.
Lillehammer, Hallvard. “Autonomy, Value and the First Person.” In Radoilska (ed.), Autonomy and Mental Disorder, Oxford University Press 2012.
Schaefer, G. Owen, et al. “Autonomy and Enhancement.” Neuroethics 7 (2014): 123–136.


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Doing a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Turku. My interests lie at the intersections of ability, agency, and ethics: what kinds of agents ought we to be? Is there anything normative to be said about abilities? More specifically, I'm currently interested in autonomy and self-control, disability, and human enhancement.

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