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"What Should Feminists Want from a Conception of Autonomy?" An Essay by Serene J. Khader

White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 108, no. 4 ("What is We?").

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Teen girls in sub-Saharan Africa have trouble completing school because “they are unable to negotiate and make decisions about their live and bodies” (Relebohile Moletsane). In Vietnam, it is because they “have little space to exercise their agency and imagine new futures” and are unable to “imagine expressing their own opinions” (Nicola Jones and colleagues).

Claims like these have become a staple of our storytelling about women in the global South. According to the familiar narrative, poverty, culture, and gender inequality prevent women from making decisions about their lives. Because of this, our stories continue, we should be sceptical about the status of women’s beliefs and choices. If someone has been socialized to accept their fate and has limited options, we wonder whether they “really” make choices at all.

There is a version of this line of thinking that is innocuous, or even liberatory, and one that is dangerous. A passage from Melinda Gates’ recent bestseller on women’s empowerment, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, straddles the line:

A low self-image and oppressive social customs are inner and outer versions of the same force. But the link between the two gives outsiders the key to change. If a girl can change her view of herself, she can change the culture that keeps her down. But it is not something most girls can do on their own. They need support.

If Gates’ point is that poor women facing oppressive situations could often use material, and even moral, support she is clearly right. But the talk of low self-image and outsiders suggests that she intends something more. Gates seems to say that because poor women and girls have been encouraged to view themselves as having lesser worth, they need outsiders to help them develop the “right” view of themselves. The broad idea that elements of a person’s existing self-image can be a barrier to her making feminist change in her society is, on its own, uncontroversial. But the stronger version of this view in which the desires of poor women can be ignored or overridden because they do not know what is good for them is both controversial and potentially harmful. Development practice that has ignored women’s desires has served to increase their (already exhausting) labour burdens, their economic vulnerability, and their vulnerability to violence. In the case of girls’ early school leaving (a practice that undoubtedly drives and expresses gender inequality), interventions that ignore the perspectives of poor women and girls end up targeting the wrong issues, as when they fail to see that the real issue is violence at school or that marriage promises more economic security than school. They can thus cause genuine harm by, for example, denying girls who leave school access to microcredit and other social programs.

In what follows, I will tell the story of how feminists came to define autonomy “relationally” and explain the perverse political prescriptions that can result.

Perhaps surprisingly, whether we are committed to the perilous view or the more neutral one hangs on how we define a philosophical concept. Simply put, if we think that the state of being subject to oppression is a state of lacking autonomy – as language about agency, decision-making, and limited self-concepts inclines us to do – we are likely to come out thinking that poor women are bad judges of what should happen to them. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, feminists have favoured redefining autonomy in just this way. In what follows, I will tell the story of how feminists came to define autonomy “relationally” and explain the perverse political prescriptions that can result.


Autonomy ascriptions carry with them judgments about the moral status of persons and preferences. Immanuel Kant, the philosopher whose work made autonomy central to liberal thought and practice, believed both that morality consisted in autonomous decision-making and that “the entire fair sex” was incapable of it. Kant’s remark was sexist, but focusing on his personal sexism would minimize the fact that the cultural coding of autonomy as a masculine value, and its colonial associations with the “Enlightenment of the West,” remain ubiquitous in Western culture. When we imagine an autonomous person, we almost invariably imagine someone independent and “rational”, as well as someone who rejects the straits of culture and tradition. Women, who are no strangers to dependency, have instead often become experts in navigating relationships, as well as reading and responding to emotions. Much of women’s dependency has undoubtedly been caused by injustice, but it seems an androcentric idealization to view dependency and actions influenced by the emotions as devoid of moral significance. As Eva Feder Kittay has observed, dependency is an ineluctable part of human life, and care is a key engine of all human societies. As anyone who has ever been cared for while sick or listened to by an empathetic friend can attest, connection and responsiveness have value.

The cultural coding of autonomy as a masculine value, and its colonial associations with the “Enlightenment of the West,” remain ubiquitous in Western culture.

Because it seems to idealize a form of life that has only ever been available to men (and especially white men of the upper classes), feminists have understandably developed a vexed relationship to autonomy. This vexedness is of two sorts. We have tended to dislike the way that the ideal of autonomy:

1) Assumes that our wills, rather than the social relations we find ourselves in, determine who we become. It is difficult to imagine creating oneself, Simone de Beauvoir argued, when one is constantly cleaning up after a child, or, as Charles Mills observed in a similar point about slavery, constantly reminded that one’s body is a use object for others. Further, as generations of feminists have observed, the “autonomous” man can only live the life of the mind because someone changed his diapers and cooks his meals.

2) Attributes a positive moral valence to independence and rational detachment. Isn’t it presumptuous to think that the values developed from the unjust prerogatives of white men are the morally good ones?

These concerns have led the feminist philosophers of the last 20 years to seek more relational conceptions of autonomy. Part of this project has simply been to make clear that an autonomous life does not have to be an independent or purely rational one, to emphasize that a life that prizes connection can be autonomous, and that oppressive social norms are often held in place by our reluctance to ask ourselves whether we want to identify with them. But there is another part of the project that is more worrisome, that leads to problematic political descriptions like the ones described at the beginning of this essay. This is the project of redefining autonomy relationally, so that certain social (or “relational”) components are necessary features of autonomy. Philosophers who redefine autonomy relationally claim that a person or decision cannot be autonomous if certain relational conditions are not met.


Feminists have introduced two different types of relational conditions. The first, which are called “substantive” conditions, are restrictions on the beliefs, desires, and values a person must have to count as autonomous. For example, feminists have often argued that a person cannot be autonomous if she does not have self-esteem or see herself as equal to others. Another example was developed by Natalie Stoljar in an impressive and now-classic paper called “Autonomy and the Feminist Intuition”. According to Stoljar, women do not act autonomously when they act in the thrall of internalized oppressive social norms, like those that say that women’s worth lies primarily in their beauty or those that say that, for women, having children is more important than an education.

The second type of relational condition feminist philosophers have introduced is what is widely called a “social constitutivity” condition. Something that is constituted by another thing is literally made what it is by it. Socially constitutive conceptions (hereafter abbreviated as “social” ones) literally say that a person can only act autonomously if certain social conditions are present. As in the example of the man who can live the life of the mind because his wife is cooking his meals, a social autonomy theorist might say that we cannot be autonomous if we have not received love or care. Social autonomy theorists, such as Marina Oshana, Natalie Stoljar, Catriona Mackenzie, and Maud Gauthier-Chung, often expand this notion and say that one cannot be autonomous if one is oppressed, or does not have access to basic well-being. If you have heard someone say that a person does not “really have a choice” because she does not have a path to economic security besides marriage, or would be penalized professionally if she stood up for herself, you are familiar with the intuition behind social conceptions of autonomy.

So far, so good, you might think. Women’s ability to do what they want is interfered with by lack of options (social constitutivity) and it is further interfered with by oppressive socialization (substantiveness). On the face of it, these observations are utterly sensible but the problem comes in when we realize that we are using them to define the concept of autonomy – a concept that it turns out has a very specific theoretical role. Autonomy is not just any old concept in the history of philosophy, or in our real-world social practices. When we say that a person or decision is not autonomous, we are not just vaguely pointing out that something is not right about them or their situation. Instead, we are making a very specific type of moral judgment, one about whether the person or decision I am discussing is worthy of respect.


It is plugging relational conceptions of autonomy into their traditional philosophical role that produces the perverse prescriptions I described at the beginning of this essay. The distinctive role of autonomy in moral and political philosophy is as a paternalism-limiting concept. One of the reasons that we defer to people’s judgments about what should happen in their own lives is that we see those judgments as their own. When we say that someone’s choices should be respected, or that we should defer to their judgment in interacting with them, we usually justify this claim with reference to claims about their ability to make decisions for themselves. When a doctor defers to a patient’s view about a course of treatment, or when we do not try to force others to vote as we do, our underlying reasoning is usually that the person is competent to make their own decisions; the etymology of autonomy is a combination of the Greek words for “self” and “law”. There are other roles for autonomy that also become troublesome when we plug “relational” conceptions in. For example, the concept of autonomy is used to authenticate participation in political processes (as in the idea that people in democracies deserve authority to represent themselves) and in feminist and critical race theory to explain the power of resistance (one is claiming the right to act for oneself).

Relational conceptions of autonomy end up licensing various types of paternalism to which feminists should object.

I began this essay with the observation that claims that women do not know what is good for them can lead to interventions and policies that do not actually help, and sometimes end up harming, them. The etymology of the term paternalism notwithstanding, feminists are not immune from engaging in harmful paternalism, especially across differences in power, such as those between the designers of development interventions and their intended beneficiaries. So, for example, even policies with feminist aims can be paternalistic and harmful, as, for example, when women’s and girls’ claims that poor economic opportunities are driving early marriage are ignored, and policymakers focus instead on raising their educational aspirations. Relational conceptions of autonomy end up licensing various types of paternalism to which feminists should object.

At bottom, relational conceptions of autonomy suggest that the oppressed are less autonomous than the dominant. If having access to acceptable social conditions is part of autonomy, and being subject to oppression is a way of lacking acceptable social conditions, the oppressed are, by definition, autonomy-deficient. Similarly, though the connection is not quite as logically tight, many substantive conceptions of autonomy defended by feminists argue that internalizing oppressive norms that treat one as subservient constitutes a lack of autonomy. But in oppressive societies it is clear who is likely to internalize norms that say they count for less and who is likely to internalize norms that say they count for more.

I have used the term “we” un-self-consciously in this essay, as philosophers often do, but one way to begin to get a purchase on the downsides of relational autonomy is to start to unpack more critically the question of who “we” are. Are “we” theorists the ones who are vulnerable to harm in the name of the wrong conception of autonomy? If not, are we well-placed to understand what is at stake in autonomy judgments about oppression? Much of my motivation for rejecting relational autonomy has to do with a concern about how the world looks from the perspective of those whose entire lives are spent negotiating unjust and tragic conditions, and those who are vulnerable to having the complexity, skill, and stakes of that negotiation ignored.

The idea that the oppressed are less autonomous than the dominant is, to me, intuitively noxious. But if it does not initially appear that way to you, thinking about the variegated “we” of our unequal social world can illuminate some epistemic reasons for why we should be careful about assuming the oppressed are less qualified to make determinations about their own lives and have those determinations respected. Simply put, oppressive systems impose complex choice situations on their victims, ones whose stakes are often difficult for others – even “beneficent” ones – to understand. Knowing that the practice of early school leaving ought to be stopped does not, on its own, tell us whether girls are leaving because of violence in school, lack of opportunity, desire for freedom from controlling parents, or something else. But the stakes of intervening wrongly are high: forcing a girl to stay in a violent classroom or to give up the marriage that may genuinely be the one possible ticket out of crushing poverty (early marriage rates seem especially to skyrocket in situations of war and natural disaster) can be disastrous.

Add to this the fact that the oppressed are often victims of what is called “epistemic oppression” (Kristie Dotson), such that they often find that language and other representational tools are ill-suited to describe their values and experiences, that they have literal reason to fear when they speak up for themselves, or that they are seen as unreliable witnesses or downright stupid because of their social identities. Theories that say that the oppressed are less autonomous than the dominant are likely to add fuel to a conglomeration of forces that suggests the oppressed know less just because of who they are.

Theories that say that the oppressed are less autonomous than the dominant are likely to add fuel to a conglomeration of forces that suggests the oppressed know less just because of who they are.

Major theoretical traditions outside of Anglo-American philosophy, including those led by groups outside of the dominant “we”, have long insisted that the oppressed are more autonomous than the dominant. Women of colour feminisms in particular suggest that being oppressed confers an autonomy advantage. Philosophers like Patricia Hill Collins, Maria Lugones, and Uma Narayan argue that being oppressed makes one especially attuned to the workings of the social world and how to assert oneself in it. This, I think, is partly rooted in recognition of the epistemic situation the oppressed find themselves in. They are vulnerable, have stakes in what happens that are difficult for others to understand, and they are often thought to be less competent to understand themselves and their social worlds than they actually are.

Consider the example of a teenage girl who accepts her parents’ proposed match because there are no decent jobs available to girls who complete schooling, while marriage offers some level of economic security. One way we might think of this example is as one about transition costs. The girl may dream of a career and a world in which finishing high school is economically “worth it”. She may also decide that, because she cannot make a world in which she is not grindingly poor, or where boys and girls have equal opportunities come about on her own or in the short term, “taking a stand” by not getting married is just too costly. What social conceptions of autonomy have to say about examples like this is triply troubling:

1) If we think that she is not autonomous, there is little reason to bother to find out why she is leaving school. We may try to dissolve this theoretical implication by distinguishing lack of options from a lack of cognitive capacity, but our world and our existing theories are definitely built to think of autonomy as an internal capacity of persons.

2) If we think that autonomy consists in opportunities, we will think that preventing her from getting married actually increases her ability to do what she wants. We may, in general, think that we can compensate for overriding people’s wills by providing them with opportunities they do not want in the short term. If we treat opportunities and the ability to do what one wants as parts of a single good, we lose a reason to care about what she wants and to give weight to what she wants just because she wants it.

3) If we think that autonomy consists in good opportunities, we will miss the fact that even “bad” opportunities can be instrumentally important for people under non-ideal conditions. Under such conditions, getting married young has become an opportunity that it may only make sense to remove if it is replaced with some other opportunity that is both realistic and recognized as such by the girl.

It is clear that feminists should want to end the practice of early school leaving among girls. But it does not follow from this that we should ignore the fact that engaging in it can be a genuinely self-interested strategy for surviving in the unjust short-term. We need instead to acknowledge that real-world oppressed agents face option sets with tragic structures. All options are either harmful or self-subordinating, and the best route to increasing one’s own well-being is often to comply with a self-subordinating norm. Thinking of autonomy as realizable only under conditions of gender equality implies that the girl in our example simply cannot be autonomous under her non-ideal conditions. Thinking of autonomy as consisting in non-compliance with, or non-internalization of, oppressive norms means suggesting that she should sacrifice her basic well-being to count as autonomous. But I think feminists should prefer moral and political concepts that allow us to see how women express ingenuity, reflectiveness, and self-valuing through their negotiation of unjust conditions. What may seem like oppressed people being mistaken about what would improve their lives is often their making correct judgments about the effects of social change on them, effects that others who do not occupy their social positions have difficulty detecting.


Most substantive theorists say that it is the process of internalizing, and not just acting on, oppressive norms that is non-autonomous. But it is difficult in practice to tell the difference. This is generally true because of the complexity of oppressive systems, but it is especially complex when we are talking about judgments across cultural difference and power, and when we inherit a cultural imaginary that associates autonomy with rejection of tradition. Even if some relational autonomy advocates allow that one can affirm traditional norms and still be autonomous, this does not change the fact that we live in an epistemic context where the default assumption is that adherence to a “traditional” norm like early marriage must manifest a lack of adequate reflection.

But even when cultural and colonial differences are not in play, substantive conceptions of autonomy stigmatize women who have merely undergone normal processes of socialization. Internalizing oppressive norms is often just the bad luck of having the social forms that surround one be those that devalue one’s group. A person who believes that marriage is the best path for women’s economic security may be right about the opportunities available in wartime or times of economic or natural disaster. They may also have internalized, and reflected on, the view that it is wrong for women to earn an income along with it. Something is wrong with these beliefs, but it seems strange to think that it is autonomy that makes the difference between this girl and the boy who has internalized the belief that he should work for income because he is a boy. After all, both have undergone socialization processes, and if socialization is inherently autonomy-undermining, it is unclear why we should value autonomy at all.

Internalizing oppressive norms is often just the bad luck of having the social forms that surround one be those that devalue one’s group.

Political prescriptions that justify paternalism toward the oppressed and that stigmatize their choices should not satisfy feminists. The term “relational” is appealing, and part of feminism is recognizing the effects of social structures and valuing relationships. But another part of feminism is caring about the real-world effects of our philosophical views. Instead of encouraging us to look closely at why oppressed people are doing what they are doing, relational conceptions of autonomy encourage us to treat their actual desires as not just problematic, but not their own. Put differently, by blurring the distinction between persons and contexts without questioning the theoretical primacy of autonomy, relational conceptions of autonomy end up suggesting that it is usually women, and not their social worlds, that are morally deficient. The political result is the failure to acknowledge that women have what Uma Narayan calls “real stakes” and exercise sophisticated deliberative capacity in choosing among their – admittedly, unjustly curtailed – options.

Critics of relational autonomy are often met with charges of political quietism. If we need to recognize the authority of oppressed agents, and oppressed agents face incentives to comply with and internalize oppressive norms, are we condemned to defend the status quo? But the problem with relational autonomy is not that it criticizes oppression. Feminists should criticize oppression. But recognizing the injustice of oppressive conditions should not come at the cost of stigmatizing and denying authority to oppressed individuals. If feminists think we have to see something as an impediment to autonomy to see it as wrong, it is perhaps a sign that we have let our moral vocabulary whither to libertarianism or something like it.

A better way to criticize oppression, one more compatible with respecting women’s agency in an unjust world, will have to begin from criticizing the primacy of autonomy itself. We should ask ourselves why we have come to need to portray oppression in relation to the harm it does to our capacity as agents in order to see it as bad. Insofar as we wish to retain a concept of autonomy, its function should partly be to encourage respect for the judgment and cognitive capacities of those who are vulnerable to having their agency overlooked by “us”.

Serene J. Khader is Professor of Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Centre and Jay Newman Chair in Philosophy of Culture at Brooklyn College. She works in moral and political philosophy, often with an emphasis on questions raised by transnational feminist praxis. She is the author of Adaptive Preferences and Women's Empowerment (2011) and Decolonizing Universalism: A Transnational Feminist Ethic (2018), and is currently at work on a book criticizing mainstream feminism’s preoccupation with freedom. Website: Twitter: @SereneKhader