Joseph Raz on autonomy


Below are some theses and arguments that Jonathan Quong attributes to Joseph Raz in chapter two of his book Liberalism Without Perfection. Note that the formulations of these theses and the reconstructions of the arguments are Quong’s, not mine. I have just extracted them from the chapter and put them here.


Two Theses

According to Quong, Raz is committed to the following theses:

Argument from Autonomy Thesis: Principles of liberal toleration are best, or most plausibly, justified by appealing to the intrinsic or inherent value of leading an autonomous life.

The Liberal Perfectionist Thesis (LPT): It is at least sometimes legitimate for a liberal state to promote or discourage particular activities, ideals, or ways of life on grounds relating to their inherent or intrinsic value, or on the basis of other metaphysical claims.


Raz on autonomy

According to Quong, Raz holds that the following are necessary conditions for autonomy:

a. Adequate mental abilities.

b. Adequate range of options.

c. Independence from coercion and manipulation.


Quong also says that the following are three other noteworthy features of Raz’s conception of autonomy:

d. Autonomous people have integrity.

e. Autonomy presupposes weak value pluralism.

f. Autonomy is only valuable when directed towards good or worthwhile ways of life.


Pluralism theses

Weak value pluralism is the thesis that ‘there are various forms and styles of life which exemplify different virtues and which are incompatible’. (Quong, quoting Raz)


Another value pluralism thesis is competitive value pluralism: this adds to weak value pluralism the further claim that some of these valuable ways of life are not only incompatible with other valuable forms of life, but also intolerant of those other forms. Raz appeals to this thesis in one of his arguments.


Raz’s argument from pluralism for toleration

1. Autonomy requires an adequate range of options, that is, a reasonable diversity of social forms available to choose from.

2. Competitive value pluralism means people who pursue different valuable forms of life will tend to be intolerant of other valuable forms of life.

3. Competitive value pluralism will, if unchecked, lead to intolerance and suppression, thereby reducing the number of valuable forms of life available, possibly to the extent that there is an inadequate range from which individuals can choose.

4. Competitive value pluralism is true.

5. Therefore a political principle of toleration is necessary to preserve one of the necessary conditions of autonomy.


Raz’s argument for the harm principle

The basic idea of the harm principle, according to Quong, is that the only reason which can serve to legitimate the use of coercion against someone is to prevent that person from causing harm. 


Quong attributes the following lengthy argument to Raz in favour of a qualified version of this principle. I think the argument is best split into halves:


6. Autonomous life is possible and valuable only when there is an adequate range of good options from which to choose.

7. We are all under prima facie moral duties to provide others with the minimal conditions necessary to lead a valuable autonomous life.

8. Therefore we are each under a prima facie duty to help provide others with good options.

9. Failing to provide others with what we owe to them is a form of harm.

10. The harm principle permits us to use coercion to prevent harm.

11. Therefore the harm principle permits us to use coercion to raise the taxes which are used to fund an adequate range of good options.



12. Preventing people from pursuing bad options is in principle consistent with the value of autonomy, since autonomy is only valuable insofar as it is spent in pursuit of good options.

13. But the state can only feasibly prevent people from pursuing bad options by threatening coercive sanctions (e.g. fines or imprisonment).

14. Coercive sanctions reduce people's negative liberty to choose good options.

15. Therefore coercive sanctions reduce people's ability to autonomously choose the good.

16. We should not reduce people's ability to autonomously choose the good in order to prevent them from choosing badly.



If we combine the halves we get this:

17. Therefore we should endorse the following version of the harm principle: it is wrong to coerce people in order to prevent them from pursuing bad options (via 13-16), but (via 6–11) it is not wrong to use coercion to force people to fulfil the moral duty they have to help provide others with good options.



Quong, J. 2010. Liberalism Without Perfection. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(You can find a paper on Quong’s objection to a perfectionist argument against political liberalism here.)