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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Conceptualizing autonomy for education Kerr, Donald


In this thesis I develop a conceptualization of autonomy that, I argue, is not only defensible within liberal theory, but does not succumb to prominent criticisms raised of that theory. To do this I examine the requirements for a conceptualization of autonomy provided by our understanding of the tenets of liberalism, and also by the legitimate criticisms of liberalism raised by feminist and communitarian theorists. In particular I consider concerns about relational as opposed to atomistic conceptions of the self. I outline the criteria that a conceptualization of autonomy must meet if it is to be both useful and defensible, and I examine several prominent versions of autonomy against these criteria and show how I believe they fail to fulfill them adequately. I argue that conceptualizations of autonomy as sets of cognitive skills and abilities do not capture the criterion that a useful conceptualization reflect the liberal requirements of demonstrating an ability to act congruently with the demands of justice and equality. And conceptualizations of autonomy that discuss it in terms of being able and willing to make good decisions, or the kinds of decisions necessary of citizens in liberal democracies, are unclear on whether an action or decision must itself be seen as good in order to be considered autonomous. I suggest that autonomy is best understood as a descriptor of decisions and actions that meet specific criteria, and I show that such a conceptualization is useful in our discussions about education.

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