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Autonomy and Self-Respect

by Thomas E. Hill


“Two things fill the mind with ever new

and increasing wonder and awe: the

starry heavens above me and the moral

law within me.” --Kant


Thomas E. Hill collects his essays, and voila, the best deontological work I have seen. Much of Autonomy and Self-Respect can be described as don’t do that to yourself, dammit. There are some things we should not tolerate and many are things we currently tolerate. In a famous essay, deservedly so, on servility and self-respect the semi-Kantian Hill argues that we have duties to ourselves, and avoidance of servility is one. He gives three examples of servility: The Self-Deprecator, the Uncle Tom, and the Deferential Wife. All three place little importance on what they value. They care and do little when others take advantage of them. They forget that they have a right and obligation to hold their heads straight, look others in the eyes, and speak up for claims.


The Uncle Tom has misplaced gratitude. The Self-Deprecator mistakenly believes that every right must be earned. We have some basic rights, notes Hill, that do not come from merit. The Deferential Wife has a duty to treat herself as a moral being and a duty and right to attach weight to her rights. (I once heard a merchant marine say we take enough shit from nature and uncontrollable factors. We should not take shit form things we can do something about.) Diffidence, obsequiousness, and self-deprecation are tightrope walking methods of trying to avoid criticism while at the same time attracting criticism for being a chump. All moral beings should give themselves moral laws and act on them.


Both consequentialist and deontological arguments find servility wrong, but deontological arguments find it wrong in a few additional cases where the servility would lead to a minor overall benefit. The consequentialist position argues that servility is wrong because it makes people unhappy, dependent, and dangerous to others. Servility encourages further exploitation, and the servile lose the mental rewards of standing up for rights. Instead of choosing quality autonomy and ennobling connectedness, many choose neither. They choose needy, desperate independence or dependence.


Hill exaggerates the likelihood of a utilitarian holding a pro-servility position, but some people benefit from servility. “There are undeniable pleasures in associating with those who are devoted, understanding, and grateful for whatever we see fit to give them—as our fondness for dogs attests.”


That benefit does not deserves little weight. As Eleni the Greek says, “The sunshine of my life I spent in the shade of others’ authority. Some flowers do not bloom in the shade.”


We should adopt the moral point of view. We should not only do what is right, but we should prize and respect morality, doing what is right with spirit. “[I]t involves holding the system in esteem, being unwilling to ridicule it, and being reluctant to give up one’s place in it.” The servile person does not respect morality and tolerates evils against her self.


The servile are unwilling to recognize or avoid the shit that is beneath them. They do not know or care about their moral status. They owe it to themselves to improve, even when others are partly or wholly to blame for screwing up the situation.


Hill argues that suicide is morally permissible when life becomes subhuman or is marked mostly by immense suffering. Suicides because of apathy, impulsiveness, self-contempt, intolerance of minor pain, or hedonistic calculations of a little more pain than pleasure are morally wrong. Those living lives as more than consumers of pleasure and pain, who make the best of bad situations, deserve admiration. A moral being should value her life for its own sake.


Hill explores various concepts of autonomy. Immanuel Kant saw autonomy as free will and being able to act even when desires prefer other actions--choosing for oneself without being wrongfully influenced by power, nature, tradition, authority, and popular opinion. Human dignity arises from this autonomy.


Many define autonomy as the ability and willingness to choose rationally without psychological obstacles and biases. Sartre equated autonomy with free will combined with moral relativism. Isolation and self-sufficiency make up another version. Others see autonomy as absence of restraints. Some definitions of autonomy are so broad they equate autonomy with moral character. Autonomous and good are seen as synonymous.


Self-control, lack of psychological biases, willingness and ability to reason, lack of external coercion and manipulation, and willingness to act without putting comfort first are elements in Hill’s version of autonomy. Manipulation, defined by Hill, is attempts to get individuals to make decisions in poorly reasoned ways, including omitting information and delivering misleading information.


An autonomous being, claims Hill, does not give unjust weight to his preferences and attachments, nor does he give zero weight to his preferences and attachments. The moral point of view depends on context. It includes regarding the good of others as an end in itself, not merely as a means to my own happiness, pleasure, and desires.



Turning to the environment, Hill argues that wrecking landscapes is wrong, not because trees have rights, but because those who do such things lack certain virtues, especially humility, aesthetic appreciation, and acceptance of their places in the universe.



Hill compares the “lesser evil” with “moral purity,” two phrases that do not serve a good purpose. Those who are willing to do the best alternative when all alternatives are harmful commit the “lesser evil” (for example, a cop shooting a murderer) while those who refuse to directly do a harm, even when all the alternatives are harmful, are “moral purists” (for example, a cop unwilling to shoot a murderer even though the murderer is still shooting at others). The use of the term evil to describe the best available alternative in a Hobson’s choice is unhelpful as is the use of the term pure to describe those who refuse to choose the least harmful alternative. When we choose the least harmful of harmful alternatives, we should, however, avoid carelessness. Many individuals are quick to allege they had no other alternative. Others take refuge in arbitrary, absolute rules, ignoring more important rules and consequences.



Rules first, rules only, and rules absolutely theories have flaws: They allow great harm to be done in name of minor rule. They prevent great benefit in the name of a minor rule. They tend toward absolutism, fanatical closure, and clumsy arguments. Almost all rules conflict with other rules. Many individuals ignore competing rules. Followers pretend that their allies are the only individuals with rights. The mere mention of a rule has a tendency to cause the gullible to acquiesce. Some evolve into cruel intuitionists or sophisticated defenders of the status quo or both.


Weakness of will is acting contrary to what you think you should do. The author discusses several varieties—half-hearted efforts, broken resolves, thoughtless weakness, fading resolves, and uncommitted sampling. Hill says the weak-willed have will power. The weak-willed, however, poorly exercise it.


Taking on merit snobbery, including moral merit snobbery, he argues that merit snobs judge individuals solely on merit and allow merit to completely dominate attitudes toward others. Merit snobbery is wrong because individuals deserve basic respect and dignified treatment regardless of merit. “[O]ur basic attitudes towards human beings should be as honorable fellow members of a common association.” It is easy to judge ordinary others hastily and make errors. Untangling what is really merit and what is due to other factors is difficult. Understanding our own motives and characters is incredibly difficult, let alone figuring out people we hardly know. Snobbery may make us lazy, self-satisfied, and self-congratulatory for no good reasons. We may become preoccupied with judging others and forget to fix ourselves. Snobbery and contempt go together. Contempt is difficult to hide. Verbal and nonverbal expressions of contempt wreck relationships.


Hill, however, overestimates the amount of merit snobbery in the world, especially moral merit snobbery. Old-fashioned forms of snobbery based on tastes, membership, possessions, and personal appearance greatly outnumber instances of merit snobbery, especially moral merit snobbery. Hill ends his work with a defense of affirmative action.


Among the weaknesses of this work: It is too deontological. Hill writes “unable to act” in questionable contexts where unwilling to act deserves consideration. Many of his claims would have benefited from research support.


Hill does not place enough emphasis on the self-respect that should come from taking valuable risks.




Book review by J.T. Fournier.


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