My dissertation asks, “what is relational autonomy?” Unsatisfied with answers that are either too psychological and individualist or too structural, forgetting the agent, my dissertation begins “from scratch” and reframes how we pose this question. I argue that autonomy is the ability to form your own character. I focus on embodiment, habit and automatic action because they represent the meeting place of our own personal influence on our character through everyday self-creation as well as society’s structural influence through early education and our routine interactions with institutions.

In the first chapter, I lay the conceptual ground work for the rest of the dissertation with the framework of what I call “Foucaultian Virtue Ethics.” I look back to Michel Foucault’s late work on the “Care of the Self” tradition of the Ancient Greeks and Stoics where he concentrates on askesis or the embodied work that has to go into self-transformation of character. I argue that Foucault can be thought of as, what David Solomon calls, a Radical Virtue Ethicist along with Alasdair MacIntyre or G.E.M. Anscombe. Like them, he uses the work of the Ancients to critique modern philosophy. A distinctively Foucaultian virtue theory has much to recommend it. It is a theory that eschews reductive naturalism, idealism and, transcendent norms or essentialist human nature and is therefore free of metaphysical baggage. Because of this, it lends itself more easily to analysis of contemporary movements of self-transformation. Foucault’s work also goes well with more holistic, “developmentalist” approaches to evolutionary biology and finally, Foucault emphasizes that power productively constitutes much of people’s character and subjectivity whereas traditional virtue ethics often avoids talking about this. In trying to make a Foucaultian Virtue Ethics, there are a number of conceptual gaps that I fill exegetically from the current philosophical literature on friendship, community, perception, habits, and affordances. Most importantly I outline a biological Jamesian theory of affect/emotion that makes room for the idea that emotions are also socially constructed.

Chapter two expands on the exegetical work begun in chapter one with my own work on emotion, perception, affordance and habit. I do this by looking at “automatic action”, a concept that links all the previous concepts. Traditional virtue theory, while very well versed in empirical work in psychology, has missed out on contemporary empirical work in cognitive science and so has assumed that habit and automatic action are not cognitive and are only trainable in the most primitive, behaviouristic way. This assumption leads to a dilemma of explaining how in coordinating action, representational intentions can control, non-accidentally, nonrepresentational motor processes. If one answers using Enactivist work, starting from the body and the nonrepresentational and working up to intentions, this challenge becomes a dilemma. The other horn being “how is it that the environment doesn’t always trigger movement.” This is called the interface problem. My strategy to answering one horn of the dilemma of the interface problem is by bringing intention and motor processes conceptually closer together. Automatic action, while not open-endedly cognitive, is still “not uncognitive” and is often intentional such that motor processing often vetoes representational intention. But also, using a new theory that the brain is a “predictive processor” that works astonishingly like Bayesian updating and linking this to work on “pervasively socially penetrated perception” and affordances, I argue that intention is often not as fully deliberative and propositional as traditionally assumed either. I answer the second horn of the dilemma, about Enactivist answers, by enhancing my outline of emotion from the first chapter by arguing that affect is also predictively processing which changes perception and affordances from the inside such that identical environmental triggers at a different time will yield different actions or no action at all. This answer to the interface problem opens up the possibilities of training one’s body and character in new ways that I illustrate in the next chapter. I have submitted part of this chapter as an article titled “Affect, Habit, Predictive Processing and ‘Not-Uncognitive’ Automatic Action: A New Approach to the Interface Problem” to the journal Philosophical Studies.

Virtue ethics allows us, in Chapter three, to better look at two problems of the passivity of our own character formation. These two problems can be illustrated well by the “Situationist Challenge” to virtue ethics. Social psychology has multiply replicated experiments that small things outside our consciousness change our actions by changing our moods. Examples of this are, finding a dime or smelling cinnamon buns. This kind of passivity of our character formation goes further, because most of what we do in daily life is not paradigmatic deliberation, it is automatic, routine and habitual. Situationists wonder if we even have characters and even if we do, how do we engage in self-transformation and character change? I call this the micro-situationist challenge. I answer the micro-situationist challenge by first turning to Merleau-Ponty’s work on behaviour to talk about the inextricable intertwining of passivity and activity in all action. I do this in order to argue that virtue ethics cannot answer the situationist challenge because they assume that character resides only inside a person and that character is an intrinsic disposition. I illustrate this concretely with my work on automatic action from chapter one and by using anthropological work on Islamic female piety groups to show their strategies of reckoning with the automatic and passive side of our character through the affective and bodily habit training they use. Their use of Islamic virtue theory allows them to look at the deeply biological nature of habit but also that the environment or umwelt is constitutive of much of our action and so our senses must also be trained. My solution to the micro-situationist problem is under review as “Passivity and Character: Proposing a Virtue Politics Beyond the Situationist Debates” to the journal Ethical Theory and Moral Practice.

I then turn to the second problem of passivity by looking at the Millgram experiments. Situationists conclude, much to the shock of virtue ethicists, that the fact that someone in a lab coat could convince most ordinary people to deliver a lethal shock to another human just by acting like an authority figure means that ordinary people do not have characters. I argue that this result is intuitive to most political theorists, sociologists and anthropologists who know about society’s ability to inculcate humans with a “second nature.” Acquiring a second nature happens to all who grow up and live in a particular culture through a variety of ways, such as interactions with institutions, interpersonal contact, early childhood formation, habituation to norms, oppression etc. I call this the macro-situationist challenge. I argue that this challenge shows, instead, the ineradicable constitutive luck of our character that we must come to grips with. Although this is a much larger problem to wrestle with, and I give a fuller answer in chapters 4-6, I begin to frame the macro-situationist challenge better through Aristotle’s Politics and biology as well as Merleau-Ponty’s work on passivity and institution. Although the structural, background conditions of possibility of who we are and our character is out of our personal control, we should not see this as a negative but an opportunity for action as a community to begin a new instituting. This shifts the focus away from personal responsibility toward relational autonomy but also takes the focus away from thinking about constitutive moral luck as pure dumb luck, because within the virtue ethics tradition, talk of luck tends to reify changeable social and biological background conditions or oppression.

            Chapter Four argues against one way of answering the macro-situationist challenge by bringing up what I call the problem of the totalization of ideology. The problem at its most simple is that it is hard to prise our personal norms from the normative resources our societies supply for us. This first problem has a relation to what is called the problem of adaptive preferences. Feminists point out that because of habit and our social embeddedness, women’s conditions and choices are not just shaped, but distorted through emotions like shame, through confining child rearing that leads to restricted and feminized bodily habits, and through institutionalized goals such as impossible ambitions of beauty and domestic bliss etc. Looking again at the concrete example of veiled women, if we only focus on a structural analysis of adaptive preferences, we can see how domination constrains women’s choices, but we cannot know how particular women deal with these constraints. What would a woman in this situation do if we were to “subtract” this domination? This assumes, externally, that we already know what these women should be doing. Too often this method smuggles in the analysts’ normative assumptions. Without the “distorting” force of oppression, there is an assumption that these women would just “naturally” take off their veils. The problem of the totalization of ideology puts a constraint on any answer to the problem of adaptive preferences. Whatever substantive normative principle that gives us an answer to “which actions are adaptive” are embedded within a culture and particular systems of oppression and are not free from their influence. Another way of saying this is that any answer we give cannot be transcendent or come from “outside” of our practices, since there is no outside, “God’s-eye” view that we can approach our own goals from. Any answer must be immanent to the practice and be constituted by the conceptual resources we have at our disposal, as John McDowell argues, like Neurath’s mariner repairing his ship while afloat. One might despair that no substantial concept of autonomy can be given if we cannot lay down an external, objective ideal in advance nor start from ideology free principles, but I disagree. I look to “habit” for a better framework to begin looking at autonomy. Habit is the place where both personal, individual agency and structural concerns meet. We can see this through the medium of the everyday routines of these veiled women the ways they train themselves for self-transformation through slowly changing their habits and their affects. It is through observing habit formations and the techniques used for changing entrenched habits that we get a view at both the individual’s agency as well as the structural constraints on these women at the same time. By taking on the everyday perspective of these women we get to see what problems they face in becoming pious and also how they creatively reshape their world to support their goals of transformation.

Chapter Five answers how normative change can occur if our metaphor from chapter four of how this should happen is of a boat being replaced piecemeal rather than starting anew. This is done by questioning the relationship between norms and habit. Judith Butler argues that every reiteration of a practice undermines the norms of that practice, even if just slightly. Saba Mahmood, the main anthropological voice behind my focus on veiled Muslim women, disagrees with Butler and argues instead that if one trains to become better at a practice, through reiteration and hard work, one will eventually meet and in fact “inhabit” that normative ideal. I argue that there is a way to agree with Mahmood’s argument about getting better at a practice while still affirming the kernel of Butler’s argument that reiteration has the creative possibility of changing a practice. I argue, using empirical work on expertise, that as one approaches virtuosity of a norm through repeated practice, one not only inhabits the norm, but pushes it immanently in unexpected ways. Then, within a community and through pedagogy, others take over and push the norm handed to them in further unexpected ways. We can think of Paganini who was considered such a virtuoso on the violin in the 18th century that many thought we would never see a figure like him again. Yet in the present, his techniques are mastered by children first learning the violin. I generalize this argument by thinking through a strand of Wittgenstein’s famous arguments for “following a rule” and how a norm never contains its own meta-instructions. I conclude by thinking about how important this might be for political movements. Often it is posited that the only solution to structural oppression is given in the language of “rupture”, revolution or even, in queer theory, complete anti-normativity. Instead, learning from these small piety groups and other small movements described by Foucault, I posit a different way that takes the form of communities that become “experiments in living” for individuals. The norms cultivated within the soil of these smaller groups push norms not in the opposite directions of dominant norms in a sudden break, but in creatively different directions, slowly from within a culture. I show this concretely with the example of “prefigurative” political movements that attempt to organize their current social relationships striving in order to reflect the future society being sought by the group.

I conclude in Chapter Six by looking at the philosophy of biology because adaptation is a concept in evolutionary theory as well that can be used in political philosophy. With our focus on “adaptive preferences,” we assume that organisms always conform to environmental pressure or that women only adapt their preferences to their circumstances, which makes us miss a second strategy taken by organisms in response to environmental pressures called “niche construction.” We can see this when birds build nests or beavers build dams or even when people pass on cultural artifacts like houses or the internet to their young. What I am claiming isn’t just that organisms can change their environment and therefore break free from adaptive preferences, but instead that niche construction and adaptive environmental pressures work dialectically. When the beaver builds the dam, they have a fitness advantage, but this shapes the environment of the river which changes, which then reciprocally changes the pressures on the beaver that bring up new problems to solve in a feedback loop. Bringing together arguments made in Chapters One to Three, I argue that veiled women are autonomous because they change their environment which allows them to change their character rather than adapt to secular environmental pressure. Firstly they “affectively scaffold” their environment with Islamic soundscapes they set up as well as the change in the body schema the hijab introduces. Secondly, they scaffold their habits in other people they meet. Friendship both forms habits but also reciprocally shapes their habits. They begin to keep good habits with their piety group, but as they become more expert at piety, this affects who they keep as friends and they change and reshape their family life, just as a person who is quitting smoking does. Third, as I argued in Chapter Five, in training themselves in piety and becoming experts, there is a reciprocal relationship between norms and the expert individuals that is then scaffolded in the community as they all begin to take up these new norms and techniques. So, they therefore change the normative environment. All of this, I conclude, is a type of “niche construction” that operates outside the logic of resistance and subversion of norms. Inhabiting the norm does not necessarily mean adapting to a norm because norms are plastic and so are people. While this may not be satisfactory for some because it does not operate from a transcendent ideal nor is it revolutionary in the traditional sense of a sudden break, I think there is much to be said about this slow, more immanent work of norm transformation.

I use anthropological work on Muslim women who veil in this dissertation for two main reasons. Firstly, the intention of the anthropologist is the same as the experimental philosopher, but the anthropologist achieves this aim better. Both the experimental philosopher and the anthropologist want to challenge the groundwork of intuitions that ethics and political philosophy trade in by expanding whose intuitions get counted as important. What counts as taken for granted intuition is different for people who are not so called Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) people. But just surveying other kinds of people only scratches the surfaces and often gives simplistic stereotyped answers that fit the surveyor’s intuition such as “Western people are individualists while East Asians have a strong commitment to social harmony.” My work grants priority to a different view on autonomy. Looking at material that those who have genuinely taken the time to inhabit the worldview of an other way of life pushed back and offered genuine resistance to my own assumptions about the concept of agency. Secondly, going beyond why I chose anthropology, to why I specifically chose Muslim women’s group in a dissertation about virtue ethics, Christian Miller argues that an over emphasis on Aristotelian and Christian virtue ethics has left a large gap in the literature on other types of virtue ethics such as Buddhist or in my case, Islamic virtue ethics. I chose this group not just to fill in an unexplored niche in the literature, but because Islamic virtue ethics, or what is called the akhlaq tradition, inspired by such philosophers as Miskawayh, concentrate much more on embodiment, habit and, affect than does traditional virtue ethics. As my dissertation concentrated on worries of automatic action on character, this viewpoint allowed me a different and deeper way of answering the question about strategies that normal people use to change their character.


Short Term Research Objectives


As an extension of my doctoral work I have a paper about thinking about character not just ethically, but politically entitled “Order, Symmetry and Limit: Beauty as a Regulative Ideal in Aristotle’s Politics” currently under review at the Journal of the History of Philosophy. I also have work that naturally bridges my doctoral work and my post-doctoral work. The first pushes forward my work on multiculturalism by rethinking the grounding of such terms our history, our tradition and ownership of collective actions by arguing a new way of thinking of who the “we” is of our community. I illustrate what I mean by this by suggesting that the founding of the European community always already included the Islamic community. This work is under review at the European Journal of Philosophy and is entitled, “The “Holy Fire” to the “Clarity of Presentation”: What Europe and Islam Can Learn from Heidegger’s Juxtaposition of the Ancient Greeks and Modern Germans.” Most importantly I have tied my work on women who wear the veil to questions about religious freedom in a published article entitled “Change Your Look, Change Your Luck: Religious Self-Transformation and Brute Luck Egalitarianism” in the journal Res Philosophica. Here I argue religious self-transformation, such as veiling, is irreducibly both chosen and not and so using the rubric of allowing legal exemptions for reasons that something was beyond the agent’s control, as in the case of race or sex, does not work with religious accommodation.

Beyond publishing chapters of my dissertation, my short-term plans are to publish two journal articles that show my work on self-transformation goes beyond the single case of Muslim women who veil. Instead this work can help us solve more general philosophical problems about character and feminist worries about reifying gender in queer communities.

My first article is Nudging Us Across the “Character Gap”: A Theory of Virtue Architecture. In it I argue that although on the face of it they make strange bedfellows, virtue ethics should be thought together with “choice architecture” (also known as “nudging”). This is because both theories have weaknesses that can be addressed by each other. Psychological studies undermine the project of virtue ethics by arguing that we have no characters and are completely shaped by our situations which leaves virtue ethics with a “character gap.” Meanwhile, nudging has an impoverished view of individuals as ideally rational, preference bundles. Choice architecture theory can teach virtue ethics that even a cursory look at Aristotle’s Politics and biology shows that we are shaped passively, yet this is not a reason to abandon the idea of character if our situations are more rational and therefore shape us to be more rational. Virtue ethics can teach choice architects that choice is not the correct target for “nudging” but that instead it is habit and emotion that should be more intrusively targeted such that we can begin to “bridge the character gap.”

The second article is entitled Kinship is Burning. In this article, I take Judith Butler to task over her critique of queers of colour involved in the voguing scene in New York in her famous article Gender is Burning. I argue that by concentrating solely on whether these voguing competitions subvert or reify gender, Butler misses out on the self-transformative aspect of training for these competitions. I show that queer kids that have been disowned by their biological parents form a unique kind of kinship system based on the apprenticeship of “children” who are amateur voguers by “mothers” who are experts. The complex of “mother” and “child” here makes up what are called “houses” in which each child takes on a new last name, that of the “mother”. These “mothers” not only teach their “children” to compete but they also inaugurate “children” into a community and mentor them on how to be a queer person of colour. So, while not undermining gender, I show that as a new “experiment in living”, this group creatively undermines and changes our notions of kinship, an important step in any feminist theory of liberation. I plan on submitting this article to the journal Feminist Philosophy Quarterly.

Long Term Research Objectives


Ten years after the Taylor/Bouchard report, anxiety about religious and cultural accommodations continue to be high, not just in Quebec, but in all of Canada. It is clear that fundamental questions about the state’s relationship to religion need to be revisited. Claims for accommodation are as wide-ranging as protection for traditional practices, as a mode of association, for conscience-based obligations, and for Indigenous claims that land is sacred. How do we make sure that Protestantized belief systems do not get preferential treatment over all these other, radically diverse claims? Is religion a special category such that we should accommodate it but not secular practices such as conscience objectors or vegans? And if religion isn’t special, how do we protect religious freedom?

My answer is a project entitled Relational Pluralism: Non-State Group Sovereignty without Libertarian Assumptions that uses my work on veiling and relational autonomy and applies it to problems in law and religious accommodation. The plan of the book is to both defend legal pluralism and show that it is a better theory than its closest rivals but also to change our conception of legal pluralism by making it a relational theory rather than one based on libertarian foundations. The stakes of this is that this allows us to rethink the relationship between the state and groups within it as well as completely transfigure the concept of sovereignty.

The first chapter, “Against ‘the Moral System’ as a Standard for Religious Accommodation” currently under review in the Journal of Political Philosophy, clears the table conceptually of standard accounts of religious accommodation. Most work on law and religion blames the “protestantization of religion” or protecting belief and not protecting its “manifestation” for the unfair advantage of conscience-based religion over others. Uniquely, I point to the entwinement of what Bernard Williams calls “the moral system” with accommodation as the real culprit. By exploring legal cases involving the hijab, I argue that other practice-based religions, such as Hinduism, Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism etc., get unfairly ruled against. This is because “the moral system” only recognizes obligations as the threshold for exemptions from law. I argue that between mere subjectivity and objective duty, there are many actions we consider valuable and that we should protect through law. If we want a theory of religious accommodation that can be inclusive of practices such as Indigenous claims that land is sacred and what I call “practices of self-realization and virtue” (PSRV) we cannot rely on a single principle, such as “conscience” or “integrity,” to arbitrate.

From the first chapter we are left with two kinds of theories of accommodation: disaggregate approaches, such as Cecile Laborde’s and legal pluralist approaches. I focus exclusively on Laborde’s theory of religious accommodation in the second chapter and argue that it is not enough to protect PSRVs. Laborde’s disaggregative approach takes current values that we legally protect and extends them to the different values that go by the umbrella term “religion.” But, I argue, this reinstates the hierarchy of obligation over practice when two disaggregated values clash. Just as when two rights clash, one must trump the other in order to come to some decision, so must the disaggregated values have a hierarchy when they clash and Laborde hints that in this hierarchy, PSRVs would lose out.

The third chapter attempts to solve the central tension of the title of the book, putting together the concept of “legal pluralism” with “relational autonomy.” The reason that legal pluralism seems right is because government interference on self-realization, whether individual or as a collective, is wrong. Yet, as Jennifer Nedelsky points out: the foundation of a legal theory based on relational autonomy is that, rather than interfere, law in fact offers the conditions of possibility for any relations at all. This is true not just for relations with the state, but individuals’ relations to each other, groups’ relations to other groups and individuals’ relations to groups. How can we determine which interferences are “wrong” when all relations are constituted through law? Although this is a particularly difficult philosophical problem, I believe the work on relational autonomy from my dissertation as well as Avigail Eisenberg’s work on relational legal pluralism will allow me to get traction on this problem.

In my fourth chapter, I dismiss strongly neutral liberal theories as well as libertarian legal pluralism. Ronald Dworkin argues that the normative significance of strong theories of autonomy, like mine, is that only a very thin concept of the good can be enforced such that we might not even be able to fund such things as the arts or long term environmental protection. On the other hand, Victor Muniz-Fraticelli argues that the only way to make sure that the government stays out of our normative way is to take the monopoly of authority out of the state’s hands and give groups authority over their members. In the case of Dworkin, I critique his view of autonomy for giving us an impoverished view of the individual and in the case of Muniz-Fraticelli, I argue that he gives us an impoverished, hierarchized and reified view of groups.

The fifth chapter defends relational legal pluralism from the charge that it does not protect vulnerable minorities within minorities. Claire Chambers, Jean Cohen, and Seyla Benhabib all argue that a focus on groups means that protection of individuals is contingent on independent groups responding. The problem with this is that a liberal state owes all its individual citizens a guarantee of protection from the groups they are a part of. While this critique is apt for a libertarian-based pluralism like Muniz Fraticelli’s, relational legal pluralism is more robust in promoting groups that can challenge this kind of vulnerability. What relational pluralism does, that libertarian pluralism does not, is to help vulnerable and minority groups check and adjust other groups. Minority groups get help from the state to balance power asymmetries between groups. Protections come from the groups themselves, challenging and negotiating with each other. Every state has different groups and this means that every state’s protection of minorities will be different as different webs of groups come up with particular and contextual protections for themselves from other groups. The legal pluralist argues that this is better than “franchising” a single way of allowing groups to have authority over their members to every group, no matter how differently they are organized.

I conclude by putting my theory in touch with Indigenous scholars such as John Borrows, Dale Turner and Joanne Barker’s work on sovereignty. It was assumed that the concept of sovereignty had withered away as irrelevant due to the rise of globalism, but native political thinkers have brought sovereignty back by transfiguring it into a relational concept. This solves the problems brought up earlier about PSRVs and land considered sacred. But also, through unmooring the concept of sovereignty from its colonial European roots, we can avoid the contemporary critique of sovereignty begun by Markell (2003) and Krause (2015) that sovereignty as control gets individual and group agency wrong, both normatively and descriptively.