FEATURE — Spring 2006


Philosopher Explores Autonomy as Self- Determination

Professor Marilyn Friedman reflects on the big questions regarding female autonomy, and she recognizes that the answers have the potential to make a positive impact on many social and political problems.

By Kristin Tennant

The two words most closely associated with philosopher Marilyn Friedman’s work are “feminism” and “autonomy.” But the images that perhaps best illustrate her approach carry a different tone: bridges and community, not islands and stoic self-reliance.

Friedman, who is professor of philosophy in Arts & Sciences and the author of Autonomy, Gender, Politics, is adept at connecting numerous shores, such as academic pursuits and real-world issues; feminist thought and mainstream approaches; autonomy and community; and old and new ways of thinking.

She wasn’t always out in front, pushing at the edges of the day’s important issues. Growing up in Chicago as the only child of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, she was an avid fiction reader who also loved math. In 1964, while Friedman was taking a year off from college, she was awakened from what she calls “a kind of political ignorance and apathy” by the political turmoils of the day. She decided to study political science, finishing her undergraduate degree at Washington University in 1967 before earning a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Western Ontario in 1974.

“Autonomy” became her primary scholarly focus in the mid-1980s and has since continued to captivate her interest in many variations around the theme, including autonomy and gender hierarchy, autonomy and social disruption, autonomy and emotion, romantic love and personal autonomy, and autonomy and social relationships.

“Many feminists thought that the moral ideal of autonomy represented male but not female modes of moral reasoning,” Friedman says. “Most people saw autonomy as a separation of self from loved ones—a kind of selfishness. I see it in terms of self-determination, and I didn’t think it had to carry specifically masculine associations.”

Friedman’s understanding of autonomy centers on people living their own lives in accord with their own ideals, rather than living according to someone else’s values. She spent much of her time in the 1990s and early 2000s responding to feminists who criticized the concept, showing how her self-determinist approach was congenial to feminist ideals. At the same time, other feminist thinkers began suggesting that autonomy could be reconstructed to take account of its social context, another theme that Friedman says “seemed exactly right.”

“Autonomy has to be understood as embedded in social relationships,” Friedman says. “It’s about self-determination—living a life that reflects your values and wants and needs. The sources of self-determination include socially available options and socialization that enables us to be self-reflective about what matters most to us. If that means being in a committed relationship, or having children, it is still autonomy.”

Friedman, whose own daughter is 17 and whose husband is also a professor at Washington University, has demonstrated through her life how following your own dream—doing things “your way”—doesn’t have to rule out being part of a family or community. In her early forties, at a time when she had a tenure-track teaching position at another university, she left it in order to have a child and move to the town where her husband was teaching—so they would not have to commute with a young family.

“This wasn’t about giving up a dream of mine,” she says, “it was all about living out the life I wanted.” Later, Friedman was happily hired and tenured at Washington University.

Autonomy is more than an academic concept or personal pursuit for Friedman. She sees the potential it has to have a positive impact on many social and political problems. In her book Autonomy, Gender, Politics, one of seven books she has either authored, co-authored, or edited, Friedman puts forth her argument for how an autonomous existence improves the lives of women in many political and social realms.

The book addresses very real issues in chapters such as “Romantic Love and Personal Autonomy,” “Domestic Violence Against Women and Autonomy,” and “Cultural Minorities and Women’s Rights.” The conclusions Friedman draws are both theoretical and practical, especially for those in social services and health care. At its essence, Friedman’s argument promotes self-reflection and critical assessment of cultural practices but also respect for the perspective of others, especially women.

“We need to change social institutions and practices so that women have a greater variety of opportunities to live fulfilling lives,” Friedman says. “But we should base those changes mainly on women’s perspectives on how their lives should be lived. Our culture needs to value autonomy for women, not just for men. If we followed these guidelines from a political standpoint, we would enlarge and diversify women’s social integration and improve the ways in which we socialize girls in our society.”

Friedman’s most recent research has shifted focus slightly. In one current project, she analyzes some of the work of Princeton University’s Philip Pettit, who promotes what he calls “non-domination” as an important political value in democratic societies. Friedman is examining such questions as what it means to be dominated, whether a political system should secure its people against all domination, and, especially, whether male domination is different from domination in general. Friedman plans to connect this new set of issues with the work she began in her book chapter about women and cultural minorities.

“What should we do when the traditions of cultural minorities in liberal democratic societies appear to be violating women’s rights?” Friedman asks. “How do we weigh the rights of cultural minorities against the rights of women within those minorities? These questions hint at how we are in the process of what I like to call a ‘globalization of morality,’ an emerging and progressive global dialogue about morality among people with diverse cultural and moral perspectives.”

“Critical reflection and open creative thinking are at the very core of a liberal education,” Friedman says. “Those of us who are committed to this approach to exploring ideas and issues also believe that it is our best hope for finding solutions to the moral problems we face.”

In the midst of her rigorous scholarship, Friedman’s role as a teacher and mentor has also flourished. Sophie Fortin, a philosophy graduate student and one of Friedman’s advisees, says her adviser has inspired her “without question.” Fortin plans to write a dissertation addressing the political recognition of different cultural identities.

In her course Present Moral Problems, Professor Marilyn Friedman covers numerous everyday ethical dilemmas, ranging from abortion and euthanasia to gender roles and race relations.

“I’m interested in looking at how a political system can legitimately accommodate the needs of different cultural groups, while also upholding its commitment to general rights and liberties, especially with regard to women’s rights,” Fortin says. “Marilyn’s style is inspiring because she’s very theoretically analytical and respected for that, but she also focuses on relevant practical issues, which adds great depth to her ideas. She excels at asking theoretical questions that have genuine political import.”

Chair of Washington University’s philosophy department, Mark Rollins, agrees, pointing to Friedman’s ability to bridge real-world issues and philosophical theory.

“People often see philosophy as remote from their interests,” Rollins says. “It’s often hard to see how it connects with everyday concerns. However, Marilyn’s work on friendship, citizenship, community, gender, and politics brings philosophy to bear on matters that affect everyone. She gives the issues a grounding in careful analysis, which is the hallmark of the discipline, without ignoring the social contexts in which the issues arise. In this way, she has done a lot to link traditional approaches to epistemology and ethics with feminist philosophy.”

Rollins adds that Friedman also makes an impact through teaching and in her role as director of undergraduate studies.

“As both a person and a philosopher, Marilyn is very thoughtful,” Rollins says. “This makes her a solid scholar and a valued colleague. She’s also one of our best teachers, who has a big impact on our students. Marilyn promotes the relevance of philosophy in a way that encourages students to think critically.”

Part of what appeals to students, perhaps, is the personal, probing, and relevant nature of Friedman’s topics and teaching style. In her course Present Moral Problems, Friedman covers numerous everyday ethical dilemmas, ranging from abortion and euthanasia to gender roles and race relations. Encouraging students to examine their moral intuitions is at the heart of the process, whether they are examining the position of an assigned author or taking a direct stand of their own.

“Critical reflection and open creative thinking are at the very core of a liberal education,” Friedman says. “Those of us who are committed to this approach to exploring ideas and issues also believe that it is our best hope for finding solutions to the moral problems we face.”

Friedman hopes her students take many practical, lifelong tools away from her courses, including familiarity with new viewpoints, improved critical and creative skills, and a sense of the importance of moral and political issues in their lives. While philosophy is an excellent foundation for law school or any career that highly values critical thinking and analysis, Friedman points out there is much more to studying philosophy than building a specific career.

“Philosophy makes a profound contribution to living a life,” she says. “Philosophy encourages people to ask the big questions about human life and our world that cannot be answered by experiments or statistical data. To fail to reflect on these aspects of human existence is to miss out on an endlessly challenging life adventure.”

Kristin Tennant is a free-lance writer based in Urbana, Illinois.