What is relational autonomy? Unsatisfied with answers that are either too psychological and individualist or too structural and forget the agent, my dissertation novelly reframes this question. I argue that autonomy is the ability to form your own character. Unlike many virtue ethicists, I use work in cognitive science to focus on habit and automatic action because they are the meeting place of our own personal influence on our character through everyday self-creation and society’s structural influence through our routine interactions with institutions. I have an article under review in Philosophical Studies entitled “Affect, Habit, Predictive Processing and ‘Not-Uncognitive’ Automatic Action: A New Approach to the Interface Problem” based on this philosophy of mind work.
Autonomy as character formation leaves us with two problems. What I call the micro-situationist problem is the skepticism that we can change our current character since our actions are so influenced by the environment or situation. The second, which I call the macro-situationist problem has two parts. The first, which is called the problem of constitutive moral luck, is the worry that if we are not just shaped but completely formed by our society, how can we own our characters? The second part is the normative worry of adaptive preferences, feminist worry that not only are we constituted by society but often this constituting leaves us entangled in oppression that disables our autonomy.
I look at anthropology of Muslim women who veil and are part of piety groups to illustrate contemporary Islamic virtue ethics solutions to the micro and macro-situationist problem. I use evolutionary theory to argue that with our focus on adaptive preferences, we miss a second strategy taken by organisms in response to environmental pressures called “niche construction.” We can see this when beavers build dams instead of evolving or simply leaving an adverse environment. Niche construction and environmental pressures work dialectically. When the beaver builds the dam, it has an advantage, but this shapes the environment which changes, which then reciprocally changes the pressures on the beaver that bring up new problems for the beaver to solve starting a feedback loop.
I argue the women who veil use niche construction to solve the micro-situationist problem by, for example, “affectively scaffolding” their environment with Islamic soundscapes they set up as well as the change in the body schema the hijab introduces. They also scaffold their habits in other people. Friendship is a form of reciprocal habit formation and shaping. 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 these women change and reshape their family life, just as a person who is quitting drinking does. This 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.
These women solve the macro-situationist problem by changing the character they have been endowed with. This change happens not by an overturning of society’s norms that shape them, instead these women cultivate themselves such that as they become experts in piety through repeated practice, they not only inhabit that norm but become the norm such that they push it immanently in unexpected ways. There is a reciprocal relationship between norms and the expert individuals that is then scaffolded in the community. As these women begin to take up these new norms and techniques they change the normative environment. All of this, I conclude, is a type “niche construction” that operates outside the logic of resistance to norms. There is much to be said about thinking of autonomy as this slow, more immanent work of norm transformation that cannot happen alone or as a whole state, but only within a small group. Importantly it shows that political change does not have to come from a transcendent ideal nor revolution in the sense of a rupture, or definitive break from dominant norms.
My published work naturally bridges my doctoral work on self-transformation and my post-doctoral work on religious freedom in, “Change Your Look, Change Your Luck: Religious Self-Transformation and Brute Luck Egalitarianism” in Res Philosophica. I argue that using the rubric of allowing legal exemptions for reasons that something was beyond the agent’s control, as in the case of race, does not work with religious accommodation. Beyond my dissertation, 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.
If law is general and applies to everyone equally, how can we protect religious freedom when the claims for protection are as diverse as wanting accommodation for traditional practices, as a mode of association, for duty bound obligations, and for Indigenous claims that land is sacred? Is religion a special category such that we should accommodate it but not secular practices? I will answer these questions with a six chapter monograph, Relational Pluralism: Non-State Group Sovereignty without Libertarian Assumptions. I propose combining “legal pluralism” and “relational autonomy” from my dissertation into what Avigail Eisenberg calls “relational pluralism.” Normally legal pluralism is grounded on worries of the state interfering with groups, yet relational autonomy starts with seemingly the opposite assumption, that law offers the conditions of possibility for relations. Novelly, relational pluralism combines the two theories by using the government to equalize power asymmetries between intra-state groups, but then allows these groups to negotiate with each other about accommodation rather than centrally forcing all groups to conform to one law.
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. I do this by critiquing the entwinement of what Bernard Williams calls “the moral system” with religious accommodation. This system recognizes only obligations as important enough to allow a person an accommodation from law. If we want a theory of religious accommodation that can be inclusive of practices such as Indigenous claims of sacred land and what I call “practices of self-realization and virtue”, we cannot rely on a single principle, such as “conscience” or “integrity,” to arbitrate.
In the rest of the book, I argue relational pluralism both protects the autonomy of radically different groups and because of power equalization before negotiation, no group feels other groups are being unfairly advantaged. I defend relational pluralism from three rival theories: 1) Cecile Laborde’s disaggregation breaks up “religion” into different values in order to protect each, but this recreates hierarchies when values, such as obligation and PSRVs, conflict; 2) A minimal state does not work since one cannot even defend the arts or environmental protections and gives an impoverished picture of the individual; 3) I argue that legal pluralism grounded in a libertarian foundation gives a hierarchized and reified view of groups while not being able to protect vulnerable minorities within minority groups. I conclude by putting my theory in touch with Indigenous work on sovereignty. This allows us to answer an initial question of what it means to protect sacred land and transfigure the concept of sovereignty by unmooring it from its more colonial, European roots.