Sunday, October 18, 2015

Is there a close relationship between autonomy and realism?

Is this an empirical question or a conceptual question?

If it is viewed as an empirical question the obvious way to answer it would be to define autonomy, define realism and then test for an empirical relationship. I have made a quick attempt to do that in the chart below, using the excellent data analysis facility of the World Values Survey. The autonomy index used is the sub-index constructed by Christian Welzel for his emancipative values index.  Welzel’s approach is based on survey respondents’ views of desirable child qualities: an emphasis on independence and imagination is considered to be positive in terms of the value placed on autonomy whereas an emphasis on obedience is considered to be negative. The realism indicator I used is based on responses to the statement: “We depend too much on science and not enough on faith”. The data shown are from an Australian survey conducted in 2012.

The chart seems to show that people who place high value on autonomy tend to be more realistic. However, this is a fairly frivolous piece of research. Questions can be raised about the relevance of an Australian survey to people in other countries, the small size of the sample etc. More importantly, for present purposes, the plausibility of the depicted relationship depends on the validity of the indicators of autonomy and realism used in the chart.

The empirical approach to answering the question cannot avoid conceptual issues relating to selection of appropriate indicators. Perhaps the question should be viewed as entirely conceptual.

In Well-being: Happiness in a worthwhile life, Neera Badhwar presents a philosophical argument that autonomy and reality-orientation are two facets of the same character trait. (In my last post I discussed another issue arising from this book, the question of whether human well-being should be viewed as objective or subjective.)

In brief, the argument is as follows. An autonomous person is self-governing. When we live autonomously, we “play an active role in shaping our individual selves, instead of slavishly following others, or surrendering direction of our lives to our fantasies, illusions, momentary urges or inertia”. Autonomous individuals have minds of their own – they rely on their own epistemic powers to form judgements about important issues, including the issue of how far they can rely on their own judgement. They are goal-directed and have a reliable self in charge - they not so self-confident as to be self-deluded. In order to have a reliable self in charge a person has to be reality-oriented. Autonomous individuals also accept responsibility for their actions, and in order to do that they must be reality oriented.

The difference between autonomy and reality-orientation lies only in their focus:
“The focus of reality-orientation is gaining the truth about, or understanding of, important things and responding accordingly, while that of autonomy is living by one’s own judgements and decisions”.

Much of Neera Badhwar’s discussion of the relationship between autonomy and realism is taken up with defence of her view against various possible criticisms. I found her discussion of claims that realism is bad for people to be particularly interesting. (The relevant chapter is based on a previously published article.)

The author concedes that when facts are devastating we might be better off remaining ignorant of them – some happiness based on ignorance is better than total misery based on knowledge. However, she is critical of empirical research which purports to show that holding positive illusions about oneself tends to promote happiness. She points to many problems with the research leading to these claims. She also implies that it is not possible to draw useful conclusions from the research findings, even if they are accepted at face value.  People who have positive illusions about their abilities could also be expected to have positive illusions about their happiness:
the emotions and evaluations that express or constitute their illusions about their abilities, achievements, and future prospects … together entail a sense of meaning and enjoyment of life. … It follows then that insofar as happiness consists of these unwarranted evaluations and emotions, the connection between happiness and illusions is a conceptual, and not a causal, one”.

I have to think more about what means in relation to neural research findings which suggest that it is normal for humans to have an inbuilt optimistic bias. When I look around me most of the people I see seem to have both a realistic orientation and tendency to look on the bright side of life. 

The author makes clear that she is not opposed to optimism. She recognizes that self-fulfilling attitudes, whether positive or negative, are a pervasive aspect of human psychology. The point she is making is that realistic optimism about oneself and one’s future beats unrealistic optimism – and thus recognizes that it is possible to have a realistic basis for optimism (as I have previously argued on this blog).

Neera Badhwar notes that Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, leaders of the human potential movement, viewed realism as central to mental health and well-being. She notes that in Rogers' view the fully functioning individual is open to experience, distorting neither his perceptions of the world to fit his conception of himself, nor his conception of himself to fit his perceptions of the world. I find this particularly interesting in the light of Rogers’ use of Alfred Korzybski’s notion that “the map is not the territory”. Carl Rogers recognized that our maps do not serve us well if they are not realistic.

No comments: