Cover: Autonomy, by Beate Roessler


In everyday life, we generally assume that we can make our own decisions on matters which concern our own lives. We assume that a life followed only according to decisions taken by other people, against our will, cannot be a well-lived life – we assume, in other words, that we are and should be autonomous. However, it is equally true that many aspects of our lives are not chosen freely: this is true of social relations and commitments but also of all those situations we simply seem to stumble into, situations which just seem to happen to us. The possibility of both the success of an autonomous life and its failure are part of our everyday experiences.

In this brilliant and illuminating book, Beate Roessler examines the tension between failing and succeeding to live an autonomous life and the obstacles we have to face when we try to live our life autonomously, obstacles within ourselves as well as those that stem from social and political conditions. She highlights the ambiguities we encounter, examines the roles of self-awareness and self-deception, explores the role of autonomy for the meaning of life, and maps out the social and political conditions necessary for autonomy. Informed by philosophical perspectives but also drawing on literary texts, such as those of Siri Hustvedt and Jane Austen, and diaries, including those of Franz Kafka and Sylvia Plath, Roessler develops a formidable defense of autonomy against excessive expectations and, above all, against overpowering skepticism.

Beate Roessler is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam.


For Rebecca

“Me wherever my life is lived, O to be self-balanced for contingencies”

Walt Whitman, “Me Imperturbe”


An Essay on the Life Well Lived

Beate Roessler

Translated by James C. Wagner


Preface to the English Edition

Since the initial publication of my book on autonomy by Suhrkamp in 2017, I have had many opportunities to give lectures and take part in discussions about the propositions found in it – and I am enormously grateful to all the participants for their many suggestions and critical contributions. For the English translation, then, I was faced with the choice of either thoroughly reworking large parts of the book, incorporating the most recent literature, and thus almost writing a new book – or having the book translated and published in its original form, in full awareness of its shortcomings. I decided on the latter option, changing only a few details here and there, and I hope that I can nevertheless count on a similarly positive reaction to the one I was so happy to see the German edition receive.

I owe great thanks to the many bilingual friends and critics who read, commented on, and discussed the book and parts of the translation with me – including and especially those who helped to get the translation going. I only want to mention two here: Robert Pippin, who encouraged me enormously and at decisive moments; and Hannah Ginsborg, whose enthusiasm and whose assistance and support in discussing the translation of some of the more unwieldy words (like Unhintergehbarkeit or Lebenslüge) were a huge help.

At Polity, Elise Heslinga was always patient and endlessly helpful during these difficult pandemic times. I would also like to thank my translator James Wagner, who transformed my sometimes rather long sentences into shorter English units meticulously and with great dedication, and who tolerated my at times unhappy search for what I really wanted to express with an abundance of patience and persistence.

Finally, I am very grateful to Maarten van Tunen, whose bibliographical assistance with the many footnotes was invaluable.

Amsterdam, July 2020


This book is about the contradictions or tensions between our conception of ourselves as autonomous persons and our everyday experiences of a not particularly self-determined life. It is not a purely academic treatment but rather aims to be accessible also to readers who haven’t studied philosophy but are interested in the idea of autonomy and the life well lived. Hence on the whole, I have tried to write this book differently than I would have were it only for my philosophical colleagues; this was certainly easier to manage in some chapters than in others. I also frequently use an inclusive “we,” in the hope that I have in fact written this book for the people who may pick it up and find themselves in it.

I have been occupying myself with the problem of autonomy for many years now. During this time, I have had frequent opportunities to deliver lectures on the topics covered in this book. I profited greatly from the discussions that followed these talks, and I thank all those who participated for their critiques and suggestions. Particular gratitude is owed, however, to those friends and colleagues who read earlier versions of some of the chapters and those who patiently discussed numerous problems with me again and again: Joel Anderson, Katharina Bauer, Gijs van Donselaar, James Gledhill, Eva Groen-Reijman, Elisabeth Holzleithner, Naomi Kloosterboer, Thomas Nys, Andrew Roberts, Kati Röttger, Holmer Steinfath, and Henri Wijsbek. Their constructive comments were a great help to me.

I would also like to give special thanks to Robin Celikates and Stefan Gosepath, who were markedly consistent critical readers. They, along with Catriona Mackenzie and John Christman, belong to our autonomy workgroup, whose meetings and discussions were always highly instructive for me. My long conversations with Catriona Mackenzie about autonomy and the meaning of life – in Amsterdam and Sydney as well as in the Australian desert – also helped me immensely.

Thanks to my brothers, Martin Roessler and Johannes Roessler, for faithfully providing their respective expertise, and to Elke Rutzenhöfer for her advice as well as for her loyalty and friendship.

Large parts of this book were written in the Library of Philosophy at the University of Amsterdam, which is a wonderfully quiet place to work, especially in the summer, and I owe great thanks to Lidie Koeneman for her quick assistance in cases of bibliographical emergency. Lara von Dehn helped me with technical details at the very beginning, but the lion’s share of the editing of every chapter was carried out by Johannes Sudau – I am deeply grateful to him for his care and diligence. Finally, I would like to thank Eva Gilmer for her critical reading and numerous suggestions for improvements, and Philipp Hölzing for his patience as I was completing the book.

Amsterdam, December 2016

Introduction: Autonomy in Everyday Life

In liberal societies in the West, we generally assume that we are autonomous. We take it to be self-evident that we have the right to make autonomous choices and live a self-determined life. We believe that we are capable of living such a life, of reflecting on what we want to do and how we want to live, and then converting these thoughts into action. And we value this, for a heteronomous life – a life in which I would have to live and do existentially important things against my own will and my own choices – could never be a good, well-lived life.

Autonomy has long been a fundamental theme of philosophy, especially since Kant. The contemporary theory landscape thus features, on one side, normative theories that describe in detail the conditions – frequently idealized – under which an autonomous life is possible, including, of course, theories that declare leading an autonomous life to be utterly unproblematic. On the other side, however, we find fundamental doubts about the possibility and meaning of autonomy, for instance in positions that seek to establish that leading an autonomous life is impossible by demonstrating just how much each and every one of us is dependent on circumstances and relations that we do not choose ourselves. So, while autonomy is morally and legally fundamental to our societies, what exactly this means for our lives remains largely unclear. It is therefore a pressing question how to develop and substantiate a plausible concept of autonomy between the detailed normative theories and their defenders, on the one hand, and the fundamental skeptics, on the other. Interestingly, both normative concept and fundamental skepticism can be described from the perspective of the autonomous person herself – at which point we are dealing no longer with two opposing theories but with the tension between our normative understanding of ourselves and our everyday experience.

Although we most often proceed from the assumption that it is possible to lead a self-determined life, there are countless situations and aspects of our lives that we precisely did not choose for ourselves, in which we ask ourselves how it could come to this, in which we decide that fate or, more simply, our own carelessness is to blame. The possibility that we succeed or fail in shaping our own lives is part of our everyday experience. Nevertheless, there are very different reasons why this tension is connected with the idea of autonomy. On the one hand, we can describe this tension as that between the individual pursuit of self-determination and events that have always already happened, that simply occur and seem to present us with accomplished facts. On the other hand, it is more specifically a tension that concerns our embeddedness in social relationships and the resulting obligations and demands of others from which we cannot and do not want to free ourselves, but which nonetheless can often be subjectively understood as a failure of autonomy.1

In this book, I shall take up a range of different perspectives to consider these various forms of conflict between the possibility and the impossibility of self-determination, between the idea of self-determination and everyday experience. As a normative ideal, individual self-determination or autonomy is constitutive of our self-understanding and of our understanding of the law and politics – individual self-determination at least in the sense that we can think about what we really want in life, that we can relate reflectively to our own desires and beliefs. The fact that we often cannot achieve this kind of autonomy in our everyday lives, why and in what contexts this is the case, and why this difficulty nevertheless changes nothing about the necessity and persuasive power of autonomy: these are the major themes of this book.

The tension between our pursuit of autonomy and our everyday experiences can be illustrated and clarified through literature. For precisely when it comes to understanding the phenomenology of our everyday entanglements, literary texts can often be of greater help to us than philosophy. The writer I would first like to consult is Iris Murdoch, who was both an author and a philosopher:2

It’s not like that. One doesn’t just look and choose and see where one might go, one’s sunk in one’s life up to the neck, or I am. You can’t swim about in a swamp or a quicksand. It’s when things happen to me that I know what I evidently wanted, not before! I can see when there’s no way back. It’s a muddle, I don’t even understand it myself.3

This call for help out of the chaos of life, this wrestling with the idea of whether one can determine one’s own life, is a central theme of Murdoch’s novels. The reality that we are always already up to our necks in it is, she writes, “basically incomprehensible.” Elsewhere, Murdoch opines: “The message is ‒ everything is contingent. There are no deep foundations. Our life rests on chaos and rubble, and all we can try to do is be good.”4

Chaos and rubble are the opposite of self-determination and justifiability. This is, first and foremost, a reference to the fateful coincidences that frequently plunge Murdoch’s protagonists, ominously and hopelessly, into the tangled disorder of life. These contingencies give expression to the impossibility of planning out one’s own life. We experience them as an overwhelming power, as circumstances that confront us over the course of our lives that we simply have to accept. This is the first tension that I described above, that between the idea of self-determination and the feeling that we are always presented with accomplished facts. Murdoch has in mind here not so much the contingencies of birth and ancestry but those of the social entanglements that we are confronted with in the course of our adult life in the form of unforeseen, unfortunate events or undesired consequences of our own actions that we were unable to predict and therefore often experience as acts of fate.

Let us consider, for example, Hilary Burde, the protagonist of Murdoch’s novel A Word Child. Hilary comes from poor, even miserable circumstances but is able to work his way up thanks to his exceptional talent for languages, becoming a student at Oxford, winning every possible prize, writing a brilliant final exam, and being made a fellow at one of the university’s colleges. Then he falls in love with Anne Jopling, the wife of his benefactor and doctoral supervisor. The two have a passionate affair that ends with a car accident caused by Hilary, in which Anne dies. Of course, Hilary has to give up his position at the college. Twenty years later – dull years spent leading a sad life as a minor civil servant at a nondescript government office in London – he runs into his former doctoral adviser Jopling, who has since remarried. Once again, entirely against his own intentions, Hilary falls in love with Jopling’s wife Kitty. Once again there are intimate encounters that, once again, end with an accident and the woman’s death.

Murdoch, writing in Hilary’s voice, describes why this is interesting in the context of being skeptical about the possibility of planning out one’s own life: “Yet such things happen to men, lives are thus ruined, thus tainted and darkened and irrevocably spoilt, wrong turnings are taken and persisted in, and those who make one mistake wreck all the rest out of frenzy, even out of pique.”5

The events with which Hilary is confronted are almost exaggeratedly fateful. They seem to be entirely out of his hands, contingencies that make a determinable life, a self-determined life, impossible because it is utterly unclear what autonomous, authentic decisions would actually look like under such catastrophic conditions, what acting with plans and goals would even mean. “Yet such things happen to men” – and things that happen to us are the exact opposite of those aspects of life that we determine ourselves.

Fate, however – and Murdoch suggests this, too – is not such a simple matter. “The strange thing about fate,” the philosopher and psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear writes, “is that it does not fit neatly on either side of the me/not-me divide.”6 That is, the extent to which such events are not also due to our own actions, our own complex, difficult identities, remains unsettlingly open. Hilary’s repetition compulsion, for example, may be attributable to his own obsessions to a far greater degree than he recognizes or would like to recognize. And in any case, these extraordinary coincidences – the love affairs, the tragic accidents, the catastrophic repetitions – are only one side of the coin. The other, more important form of contingency – or bad planning – is the utterly common and familiar one that entangles and binds the protagonists in different and instructive ways in their own personal, ordinary chaos, their totally normal daily lives. Above all, it is the everyday problem of dealing thoughtfully and sensibly with our own decisions, intentions, possible choices, social relationships, and social obligations that throws a skeptical light on the scope of self-determination.

This “fatalistic feeling of helplessness,” as Murdoch calls it, is especially clear in the case of one of her other unfortunate protagonists, John Rainborough, another midlevel civil servant in a dubious public administration job, from the novel The Flight from the Enchanter:

Rainborough was sitting in his drawing-room trying to make up his mind to telephone Agnes Casement. He had promised to ring her during the afternoon, but had kept putting it off. It was now becoming, in equal degrees, both essential and impossible that he should do so at once; and as he meditated upon this, turning it into a problem of metaphysical dimensions, it gave him the image of his whole life. For Rainborough was now engaged to be married to Agnes Casement. How this thing had happened was not very clear to Rainborough. Yet it was, he was determined to think, quite inevitable. That much was certain. Must face up to my responsibilities, said Rainborough vaguely to himself as he contemplated the telephone. Need ballast. All this wandering about no good. Must root myself in life. Children and so on. Marriage just what I need. Must have courage to define myself. Naturally, it’s painful. But best thing really. That’s my road, I knew it all along.7

Rainborough’s reflections come too late. He is already stuck in a muddle that he isn’t entirely sure how he got into. His fatalistic feeling of helplessness leads him to ex post rationalizations (“Must root myself in life. Children and so on. Marriage just what I need.”) that are of course not particularly authentic because they only feign decisions and desires that are not actually entirely his own. Rainborough evidently knows that he must act, that he has to determine his life through these very social relationships. But he does not do so. It has always already been too late.

Now one might argue that this merely demonstrates a lack of reflection and good sense, a simple failure on the part of Murdoch’s middle-class or lower-middle-class agents. These are people who fail because they do not even meet the standard that they themselves very well could meet. This standard of reflection and having good reasons for acting, of decisiveness and strength of will, is by no means too demanding. Basically every moderately sensible person could live up to it, and if they don’t, that’s their own fault. These are agents who don’t know themselves well enough, although they could if they put in sufficient effort, actors who are alienated from themselves, not one with themselves, not authentic – although they could be.

But this argument falls short, or at least does not get at the whole truth. For the true-to-life entanglements of Murdoch’s protagonists demonstrate that confronting the contingencies and social complications that arise in our own lives can indeed lead to justified doubts about our ability to determine our lives ourselves. It is precisely the ordinariness of these characters and their experiences that casts doubt on the prospect of self-determination. For if my life is defined not by my decisions or my actions but by contingency and indeterminacy, by the social ties and relationships that I am always already entangled in, then it becomes difficult to believe that my own reasoning and my own actions can be decisive factors in my life. The abysses into which Murdoch’s protagonists often fall, along with the melancholy apathy that goes hand in hand with their doubts about the use or point of life and their ability to determine their own lives, make it clear that lived everyday experiences – whether autonomous or precisely not – have a phenomenology and plausibility all their own, one that for the most part is better described by authors of fiction than through contrived – at times downright clumsy – philosophical examples. That is why I will continue to draw on examples from literature in the ensuing chapters.

Despite all of these illuminating descriptions of the non-self-determined aspects of everyday life, however, it is also clear that, in important dimensions of life, self-determination remains our guiding principle – this is the only reason why we and Iris Murdoch can even describe the failure of self-determination as such. It is only in contrast to the normative idea of autonomy that contingencies, obligations, psychological inabilities, and structural obstacles can be characterized as such. Autonomy, I want to argue, has value and significance for us because it is constitutive of our ability to shape ourselves and the world and adopt them as our own. Yet ambivalence, self-alienation, our own inscrutability to ourselves, and structures that impede or obstruct autonomy are all part of our autonomously lived everyday experience – and this is precisely why we are confronted here with tensions.

Personal autonomy, however, also has a decidedly political side. As the Lebanese author Samir Frangieh explains:

I believe that the most important phenomenon that we have witnessed during the revolutions is the rediscovery of personal autonomy. In other words: people are conscious that they can become the makers of their own history. In fact, this is rather new in a region where for decades the individual has been reduced to groups, groups to parties representing them, and parties representing them to their leader. As a result, we found ourselves in a situation in which entire countries were reduced to one person. Examples are Assad’s Syria and the entire Arab world, which was merely defined by 10 names. We are talking about 500 million people here, reduced to between 10 and 15 names. This is precisely what the Arab Spring has changed.8

This political side of personal autonomy still proves to be explosive, not just as a call for change in non-democratic countries but also within liberal-democratic societies: when the limits placed on government encroachments on personal autonomy become structurally compromised, when rights have only formal rather than any material validity, when intrusions by the state threaten to undermine personal autonomy. Such intrusions include government surveillance operations and other violations of informational privacy, as well as social structures, such as patriarchy, that can impede autonomy. This makes it clear that political conditions secure not only negative freedom but positive freedom as well, and that only if both together can ensure autonomy. Therefore the relation between freedom and autonomy will also play an important role in this book.

What I am primarily interested in pursuing in the following chapters, however, is the problem of individual autonomy in everyday life, the side of individual experience and individual capability. We can call this an ethical question as it concerns the possibility of leading an autonomous, well-lived life. I use the term “ethics” here in the broad (Aristotelian) sense that Bernard Williams and others have refamiliarized us with, which deals with questions not only of morality but also of the good life. In later chapters, however, I will also take into account the social and political side of autonomy, which shows how the idea of personal autonomy both is made possible and at the same time can be threatened by social and political conditions.

At this point, I should briefly introduce the various perspectives that I will take up in this book regarding the problem of autonomy. How is the idea of autonomy to be understood, and what tradition is it a part of? In chapter 1, I want to address conceptual issues and elucidate in what sense autonomy is related to individual freedom, what capacities we should ascribe to an autonomous person, and what the limiting cases of such ascriptions are. We will also see that we are only ever autonomous together with others.

Are autonomous action and autonomous reflection necessarily free of any ambivalence? Must an autonomous person always be able to say, “Here I stand, I can do no other”? I consider the problem of the ambivalent person in chapter 2, in which I hope to make clear that ambivalence is by no means always a threat to our autonomy. On the contrary, it is a natural part of our self-determined – and rational – everyday life.

In chapter 3, I ask why autonomy is in fact so valuable and important. I pose this question as the question of the relationship between autonomy and the meaning of life. Is a life meaningful only if it is autonomous? And can it be meaningful – and autonomous – without being happy? Must it be objectively meaningful, or is it enough if it can be understood as autonomous and subjectively meaningful? Here again, I shall draw on literary examples in order to better understand these tensions or contradictions and to demonstrate the constitutive connection between self-determination and meaning in one’s own life.

Persons who act autonomously know what they think and know what they want. That is, in order for individuals to be able to act and live autonomously, they must know themselves. But how – after Freud – can we demand self-transparency as a condition of autonomy? Chapter 4 considers the question of what form of self-awareness and self-knowledge we can reasonably attribute to an autonomous person, given the widespread phenomenon of self-deception. I also discuss whether or not new “self-tracking technologies” are in fact capable of contributing to self-knowledge and thus promoting autonomy.

I take up a different perspective on the tensions in our autonomously lived everyday lives in chapter 5. In the course of interpreting selected passages from various diaries and blogs, I investigate whether the process of reflection that I earlier described as characteristic of autonomy can be found in such writings in exemplary form. If we accept the premise that at least the classic diary is a paradigmatic space of everyday confrontation with one’s own life, then such accounts should be able to help us show what autonomy actually means in everyday life. And looking at modern blogs and vlogs, we can further ask whether this form of confronting one’s own autonomy has changed within and through these new media.

The focus of chapter 6 is the question of the relation between autonomy and the good life. Is post-Kantian moral philosophy capable of developing a substantive theory of the good life at all? Is it ethically defensible to create standards to judge whether a life is good or well lived? With the aid of the concept of alienation and an analysis of why it is that autonomous choice is so critical for the good, autonomous life, I want to probe whether we can make critical statements about the good life without at the same time casting doubt on the autonomy of those who have chosen it or in any case live it.

Chapter 7, on the relation between autonomy and privacy, concerns the ethical as well as the political question of the necessity of protecting individual privacy if living an autonomous life is to be possible. I would like to consider the question of why a free, autonomous – and well-lived – life is dependent on the protection of privacy, and why we cannot and do not want to imagine a life lived only in the public sphere. Why would a society where privacy was no longer respected be suffocating and unfree?

In chapter 8, I discuss more generally the necessary preconditions of individual autonomy, the political and social conditions that are required if one is to be able to live an autonomous life. My focus here is the relation between individual autonomy and the conditions associated with a liberal-democratic social order. I want to show that there is no necessary, direct connection between these liberal-democratic prerequisites and the possibility of an autonomous life. One important question in this context is how to best analyze the dual nature or Janus-faced character of social conditions that are capable of both enabling and structurally impeding autonomy. Here I will therefore also discuss the problems of structural oppression and discrimination as well as the question of whether people with “false consciousness” or “adaptive preferences” can be considered autonomous.

I said at the outset that in western liberal societies we take it to be self-evident that we can live autonomously. In chapter 9, at the end of our journey through the many tensions of the autonomously lived everyday life and the difficulties of achieving a life well lived, I defend my argument for the idea of autonomy by spelling out the self-understanding of such a notion against those critics who deem neither free will nor personal autonomy – nor moral responsibility – to even be possible. I shall not refute these theories, but I want to show what the price of denying the possibility of autonomy would be. Since throughout this book I take autonomy to be possible at least in principle, it will be useful to conclude with an attempt to defend the reality of autonomy one last time against this fundamental skepticism.

The different topics covered in these chapters each require a different approach. Some must be discussed against the backdrop of recent, at times rather complicated, philosophical debates; this is less the case for other questions, such as how to interpret autonomy in diaries. Writing about the autonomous life means at the same time writing about the possibility of a life well lived. This is my thesis, which I seek to substantiate sometimes explicitly, but for the most part implicitly, in the ensuing chapters. In the process, I define autonomy as a necessary but not sufficient condition of a life well lived. And I shall not begin by outlining a specific theory of autonomy or of the well-lived life that I then apply to everyday situations in order to see whether we are in fact autonomous here. I instead take the opposite path, offering only a general clarification of concepts before looking at different problems and contexts involving autonomy along with the various ways in which autonomy can fail. Along the way, a theory of personal autonomy in fact emerges, but in a sense surreptitiously. I would like to close with a remark on terminology: I speak of a “life well lived” only when it is not merely autonomous but also meaningful and happy.9 Philosophical texts tend to speak primarily of the good life – and the pursuit of the good life as a happy life. I opt not to use this terminology because the good life (at least in the literature) can also be one that is not self-determined, and it is important to me to make clear this potential difference between the good life and a life well lived. To complicate the matter a bit further: a life can be meaningful, but not happy, as meaning is more in our own hands than happiness is. And young children, for example, can have a good, happy life that is, however, not self-determined and, because it has not yet been reflected upon, not meaningful (although it certainly is for others). This will all become clear in the course of the chapters that follow.

I develop this theory, as I have said, little by little – but not with the goal of, having it now in hand, indicating the precise conditions of a life well lived, as in a self-help book. I am rather far more interested in the tension between our understanding of ourselves as autonomous persons and our experience that this autonomy, for a variety of different reasons and in a number of different respects, often fails. And I am also interested in what both – the autonomy and the tension – mean for successfully leading a well-lived life.


  1.  1  I am not referring here, however, to the paradox of autonomy allegedly found in Kant, which argues that the ideal of autonomy itself cannot even be articulated without contradiction. I will return to this below. See Thomas Khurana, “Paradoxes of Autonomy: On the Dialectics of Freedom and Normativity,” Symposium 17(1) (2013): 50‒74. For a critique of this presumed paradox, see also Pauline Kleingeld and Markus Willaschek, “Autonomy without Paradox: Kant, Self-Legislation and the Moral Law,” Philosophers’ Imprint 19(6) (2019): 1‒18.
  2.  2  I learned a great deal about Murdoch’s work from A. S. Byatt’s book Degrees of Freedom: The Early Novels of Iris Murdoch (New York: Vintage, 1994).
  3.  3  Iris Murdoch, Nuns and Soldiers (New York: Penguin, 2002), 352.
  4.  4  Quoted in Cheryl K. Bove, Understanding Iris Murdoch (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993), 194.
  5.  5  Iris Murdoch, A Word Child (London: Chatto & Windus, 1975), 221. Cf. ibid., 126.
  6.  6  Jonathan Lear, “The Freudian Sabbath,” in Rachel Zuckert and James Kreines (eds), Hegel on Philosophy in History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 230‒47 (235).
  7.  7  Iris Murdoch, The Flight from the Enchanter (London: Chatto & Windus, 1956), 246f.
  8.  8  Samir Frangieh, “The Arab Revolts and the Rise of Personal Autonomy” (interview), Resetdoc, August 20, 2014,
  9.  9  For a different view, cf. Susan Wolf, Meaning in Life and Why It Matters (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 3. Wolf differentiates between the meaningful, the happy, and the moral life, a distinction to which I will return repeatedly below.