Over at Read React Review, Jessica has been posting about the concepts of autonomy and agency which she’s teaching in her course on feminist philosophy. She notes that one way of defining “autonomy” would be to think of it as being “realized by the right sort of reflective self-understanding or internal coherence along with an absence of undue coercion or manipulation by others.” Later, she adds that
it is conceptually impossible for there to be autonomy without agency. Agency is the bare capacity to act. It’s not a normative conception. A brainwashed person is still an agent, for example. I think in romanceland and everyday speech, “agency” means something more along the lines of autonomy, but that’s not how I use the terms [...]. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the conflation of agency and autonomy in romanceland is predictable given the general reluctance to look beyond individual psychology to structural, social conditions of choice and action.
Thinking about whether autonomy can only exist in the “absence of undue coercion or manipulation by others,” and whether this is an issue which is shied away from due to a “general reluctance to look beyond individual psychology to structural, social conditions of choice and action” reminded me of the following quote from Rose Lerner’s In for a Penny. Penelope, the heroine, is the daughter of a successful brewer who’s recently married an almost-bankrupt aristocrat. Her encounters with the impoverished workers on her husband’s estate make her “look beyond individual psychology to structural, social conditions of choice and action”:
Penelope had always believed that if you put your mind to it, worked hard, and didn’t whine, there was no reason you shouldn’t solve nearly any problem. She was beginning to realize that she had never had such huge, hopeless problems as this woman. (106)
Lerner, Rose. In for a Penny (New York: Dorchester, 2010).