Exchanging Autonomy

September 13, 2016

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Background and aim of the analysis

This article is aimed on one hand at defining some dimensions of individual autonomy, on the other at proposing exchanges of values and metavalues as a possible way to promote such dimensions.

The end of communism in the last decade of XXth century  contributed to the idea that the entire world could easily enjoy freedom, and let markets provide benefits to growing parts of humanity. On the other hand, Francis Fukuyama’s claim that history had ended was followed by events such as 9/11 and the contraposition between Western countries and the terrorist threat, among other challenges. And, beyond the existence of players such as Al Qaida and Isis, which tend to undermine the stability of a system which is considered well-functioning under normal conditions, climate change is an issue seriously challenging the whole humanity.

Our democracies face a significant contradiction between forces which see freedom in terms of deregulated economic initiative, and which are often restrictive when it comes to ethical issues, and, on the other hand, forces which are progressive in the domain of bioethics and civil rights, and more sensitive to social justice concerns. It is virtually impossible to hear about any famous public leader changing his or her mind with regard to any of these issues, and, in general, identification with one’s beliefs prevents individuals from any constructive interaction with people of different orientations. We could say that our cultural and political systems are more grounded on contraposition and uncritical self-identification than on cooperation. As far as I can see, most of the time spent in interacting through social media, for instance, is aimed at confirming one’s point of view, and not to promote a rational assessment of the different arguments proposed in a given discussion.

What could explain such rigidity and inability to engage in an open dialogue with one’s opponents? Why does politics seem to be so divisive?

Kinds of individual autonomy

In the current juncture, there still is a serious lack of understanding of the value of autonomy, which goes beyond negative freedom, and mere non- interference by public authorities. Starting at least from Kant, autonomy is typically perceived as the ability to give oneself laws for acting, without external influences. From this point of view, the growing possibilities offered by technology allow individuals to freely choose the products they want to purchase, and, in a similar way, information gives the opportunity to align oneself with a given political party or cultural movement. In these practical areas, it is often possible to escape the conditioning of one’s socio-economic environment, and share the ideals of people who live in different states or even continents. Therefore, the  global dimension of our times can promote what I call “relational autonomy”, meant as the possibility to choose one’s relations on the basis of the role that one chooses to assume in a given context. If I want to consume some products or to visit some places, nowadays I have much more choice than in the past, and the identity of people that I consider friends is more the result than the cause of my interests. At the same time, the power of fashion is still very significant for a large portion of humanity, and, when it comes to choosing one’s work, for instance, relations with other individuals can play a very significant role, both in terms of connections or of social pressure.

But, as far as convictions and ideals are concerned, another level of individual autonomy is particularly significant: functional autonomy.

Such concepts requires the definition of values as criteria for judging one’s reality, and which include: moral values, which indicate how our choices can be made right or acceptable, with regard to ourselves and other people (e.g., environmentalism, honesty, and altruism); organizational values, which represent the means through which one can plan, carry out, and assess personal and professional activities (e.g., dynamism, negotiation skills, and the propensity to innovate); cultural values, which indicate an individual’s preferences regarding the political and economic choices of a society (e.g., liberalism, collectivism, and multiculturalism).

If by functional autonomy we mean the possibility to assume a certain role on the basis of one’s judgment of reality, and, therefore, of one’s values, we could see how difficult it is, in many instances, to be functionally autonomous. How many people have the possibility to choose their work because they consider it useful for their country, or needed by their community? And how many people decide (or have the possibility) to change their consumption habits because of the importance they attach to the respect for environment? My idea is that most of people debating on social media and even in parliaments live their moral, organizational and cultural values not as the origin, but as the consequence of their particular social role, such as unemployed, entrepreneur, politician. This is why it seems so difficult to challenge one’s convictions: there is the idea that changing one’s conception of the world could undermine one’s status and safety. On the other hand,  organizational values are, for instance, particularly relevant in the context of professional as well as personal activities. Therefore, it is possible to argue  that a lack of functional autonomy implies also that the culture of many firms remains static and dictated by their particular business model. 

However, beyond the relational and the functional dimension of autonomy, there is also what, in my book “Exchanging Autonomy. Inner Motivations as Resources for Tackling the Crises of Our Times”, I defined an existential dimension, which consists in accepting (and judging) reality because one is aware of one’s dignity. Indeed, it is possible to be functionally autonomous, but, at the same time, to remain faithful to some values only because they have been transmitted by one’s family. For instance, while a person might decide to be a forest conservation volunteer because he or she strongly believes in environmentalism, the latter might be lived simply as an external duty, or as a form of custom. On the other hand, in my opinion, existential autonomy implies the definition of metavalues, as elements protecting the dignity of human existence and guiding the choice of values. Such elements might include loyalty to a historical identity based on respect for nature, for instance.

A possible option to promote individual autonomy

I think that, among options aimed at enhancing our autonomy, it might be possible to think of transactions involving inner motivations. If individuals were allowed to exchange values and metavalues, they would have the opportunity to acquire criteria for judging reality independent of their social role (and, therefore, they could be functionally autonomous), and to perceive one’s dignity as something independent of these particular criteria (and, therefore, they could be existentially autonomous).

To this aim, every transaction could imply the transmission from a subject to the other of a document specifying some information.

In particular, in the case of any given value, such information would include: a) one or more or more significant experiences, attesting to the usefulness of the value in certain situations; b) actions in which the value has been previously expressed; c) the number of individuals who have previously had significant experiences relevant to the value in question; and d) values which have previously been exchanged with the value in question.

For metavalues, the information would include: a) significant experiences attesting to the usefulness of a given metavalue; b) values that have been fostered by the metavalue; c) values and/or metavalues which have previously been exchanged with the metavalue in question.

A concrete example proving the social utility of such exchanges is the following. Let’s imagine that a multinational company produces a polluting product X, and offers it to the consumers living in a country A. Moreover, these consumers, who are sensitive to the need to protect the environment, would like to find a less polluting product on the market. The company might be ready to undertake R&D activities aimed at creating a less polluting product Y, but only on condition that it’s possible to cover the costs which arise from this project. If the latter were so high to imply an excessively high price for the consumers in the country A, the company could ask them to transfer a set E of some relevant experiences, concerning the value of environmentalism. For instance, a given percentage of consumers might have benefited from an increase in tourism arising from reforestation, while another group might have found decent jobs in the alternative energy sector. After receiving the set E, the company could transfer it to the consumers living in a country B, who are relatively indifferent to the protection of the environment, with a view to convincing them to purchase the product Y. Therefore, the transfer of E would have the role of an advertising campaign, and the extension of the market to country B could ensure a sufficient profit margin.

It is easy to observe how the social mobility of individuals could be greatly improved if it was possible to provide them with an economic incentive to realize any activity or experience, in whatever professional area, deemed to be consistent with a value such as environmentalism. Moreover, while currently we tend to refuse the point of views provided by someone who does not share our social role (such as voter, consumer, worker), if we decided to adopt the perspective of autonomy, we would be open to interact with a much wider set of individuals, because we would not perceive as a defeat the change or enrichment of our convictions.

The confrontation of political cultures would no longer be considered as a source of instability, but as an opportunity to highlight the importance of metavalues capable of motivating different approaches to economic and social issues. For instance, safeguarding one’s historical identity could be perceived as a worthy motivation by policymakers who want to protect some industrial productions but also by the ones who want to preserve humanistic institutions.

Moreover, to the extent that, as highlighted by Habermas, communicative rationality differs from strategic rationality in that it seeks understanding and consensus, such condition could be greatly promoted by exchanges of values and metavalues, which would allow the possibility to assume the perspective of other individuals, as wished by the German philosopher.

To conclude, I find that, in order to help citizens transcend the mainly utilitaristic dimension (for which politicians can only think about strategies to maximize consensus, and any difference of opinions if perceived as a threat), it would be essential to promote the functional and existential dimension of autonomy, and therefore, to focus on inner motivations behind human actions. Our free market economies, indeed, allow the possibility to exchange goods and services, as the result of those conditions that Hannah Arendt called “animal laborans” or “homo faber”. On the other hand, the aim to be fulfilled through these actions is implicitly identified only in the possibility to consume or produce.


Arendt, H. The Human Condition, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Fukuyama, F. The End of History and the Last Man: Free Press, 1992.

Habermas, J. The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society. Translated by T.McCarthy. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1984.

Kant, I. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Ed. by Mary Gregor. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Senatore, M. Exchanging Autonomy. Inner Motivations As Resources for Tackling the Crises of Our Times: Xlibris, 2014. 

Marco Senatore

Economist with a passion for philosophy, writer, citizen. Author of the book Exchanging Autonomy http

Tags: building resilient societies, cross-cultural exchange, values