Personal Autonomy and Perpetuating
Religious Tradition
Geoffrey C. Bowden

In American constitutional thinking about religious freedom, there exists a fundamental conflict between two kinds of rights—the rights of groups of people to teach their beliefs and practices to their children so as to perpetuate these beliefs and practices over time, and the rights of individuals to make their own decisions about religious and moral issues. This last set of rights garners its clearest expression in the concept of personal autonomy while the former set of rights struggles to find its place under the headings of “parental rights” or the “free exercise of religion.”

American ideas about religious freedom are heavily tinged with concern for autonomy and individualism. Christians once presumed that their influence over American society would provide the necessary protection for the beliefs and practices of Christian groups and institutions. This presumption quickly faded as the American religious landscape came to be characterized by tremendous diversity, first of kinds of Christians and later of Christians and non-Christians alike. Because of the early emphasis on protecting the individual from the oppression of the group, concern for the scope and extent of the rights of groups to teach doctrine and practices to their children and new converts lagged behind. As the religious homogeneity of American society and culture continues to break down, religious groups, shorn of the protection of a larger cultural shield, increasingly need to explore how to ensure that their beliefs and practices endure in a potentially hostile cultural and intellectual climate.

A recent debate among liberal political theorists about the nature of religious liberty has brought this tension into the foreground. Some contemporary liberal theorists—the neutralistliberals—argue that governments are not rationally, theologically, or morally equipped to educate children, and thus should remain neutral on those sorts of questions. More recently, a strand of liberal political theory has rejected the claim that governments must remain neutral on moral questions. This perfectionistliberalism contends that governments have no choice but to advocate some conception of the morally upright life, although this conception must serve the purpose of enhancing the central characteristics of a liberal society, such as freedom and toleration. Governments can and should actively promote liberal and moral values that enhance the individuals and citizens well-being and further the betterment of larger society. This essay explores two different perfectionist liberal theories, one that emphasizes personal autonomy over against the freedom of the group to freely express and perpetuate its beliefs to later generations, and one that affords expressive freedom to groups and recognizes the threat that advocating personal autonomy poses for groups.

Joseph Raz has taken the lead among liberal theorists in rejecting neutralist liberalism in favor of a perfectionist political morality. He contends that governments not only cannot be neutral between different visions of well-being, but that they should not try to be neutral. Governments have a moral responsibility to promote the well-being of their citizens, but can do so without abandoning the liberal commitment to individual freedom.

William Galston essentially agrees with Razs critique of neutralist liberalism, but has argued in his more recent writings that Razs commitment to personal autonomy and individual well-being belies the essential dynamics of families, communities, and particularly religious groups. Before giving a summary of these theories, I will introduce a Supreme Court case that engages the tension in perfectionist liberal theories in order to make these abstract theories more complete. Utilizing an actual Supreme Court opinion will also strengthen the connections between contemporary liberal theory and the practice of religious freedom in the United States.

It is my contention that Galstons perfectionist liberalism is much more compatible with religious freedom than is Razs, precisely for the reason that Galston can account for the freedom of the religious community in ways that Raz cannot.

Wisconsin v. Yoder

In 1972,the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its decision in a dispute between several Amish families and the state of Wisconsin. Wisconsin, like many states, requires that all children attend a public or private school until they reach the age of sixteen, at which time they may drop out if they so choose. A problem arises for the many Amish families that live in Wisconsin, as many, if not most of them desire that their children not receive formal education beyond the eighth grade, which is usually completed around the age of fourteen. Three members of an Amish community were convicted of violating the compulsory education laws in Wisconsin because they refused to send their children to school beyond the eighth grade. A group of lawyers challenged the convictions even though the Amish refused to defend themselves against the charges. The claim was simply that requiring the parents to send their children to school beyond the eighth grade was a violation of the rights of the parents to freely exercise their religion under the First Amendment of the Constitution.

The Court decided in favor of the Amish families, utilizing a number of arguments to justify their decision. Justice Burger, writing for the Court, emphasized the religious traditions and beliefs of the Old Order Amish. The threat, according to the Court, is the potential undermining [of] the Amish community and religious practice as they exist today (Wisconsin v. Yoder,218). Amish families know that sending their children to high school exposes them to:

worldlyinfluence in conflict with their beliefs. The high school tends to emphasize intellectual and scientific accomplishments, self-distinction, competitiveness, worldly success, and social life with other students. Amish society emphasizes informal learning-through-doing; a life of goodness,” rather than a life of intellect; wisdom, rather than technical knowledge; community welfare, rather than competition; and separation from, rather than integration with, contemporary worldly society. (211)

Exposure to worldly valuesendangers the continued acceptance of the families and their children in the Amish community. Even more problematic, according to the Amish, is the threat a high school education poses to the salvation of the families and their children. Constant exposure to the values of the world risks eliminating the necessary separation that must exist between the Amish community and the contemporary world. The Ordnung, or rules of the church community, would meet a significant challenge to their authority as a standard of conduct from the orders of the larger society.

Burgers handling of the tension between the individual and the community leaned toward the authority of the community, as he explicitly challenged the individualism of the day when he stated, “the traditional way of life of the Amish is not merely a matter of personal preference, but one of deep religious conviction, shared by an organized group, and intimately related to daily living(216). Because the Amish life is not essentially a matter of personal preference, ”the religious group emerges as a significant factor in First Amendment jurisprudence, according to the Courts decision.

The concurring opinions and the dissent took different approaches to this case, however. Justice Whites concurring opinion sought to balance the potential future interests of the Amish children as autonomous beings with the interests of the Amish community in practicing their religious beliefs and securing the survival of their sect.At issue is not the ability of the Amish child to choose, while in grade school, whether or not they want to continue participating in the life of their insular community, but whether or not the children receive adequate training and exposure to different forms of life to be able to make informed decisions about their futures and to have the skills to follow through on that decision. White claims,

It is possible that most Amish children will wish to continue living the rural life of their parents, in which case their training at home will adequately equip them for their future role. Others, however, may wish to become nuclear physicists, ballet dancers, computer programmers, or historians, and for these occupations, formal training will be necessary…. A State has a legitimate interest not only in seeking to develop the latent talents of its children but also in seeking to prepare them for the life style that they may later choose, or at least to provide them with an option other that the life they have led in the past. (240)

White concluded his concurrence by asserting that the state of Wisconsin had not proven that Amish children, by leaving the system of formal schooling at the age of fourteen, will not be capable of developing further knowledge or skills to meet the demands of any future occupational or lifestyle choice. White saw a need for his concurrence because the decisions of the children cannot be eliminated from the discussion, even if those decisions will come years into the future. Community concerns do not trump the present need to prepare children for futures in which they possess personal autonomy. Despite a different balancing scale, White and his co-signers found that the threat posed to the childrens future was not sufficient to outweigh the interests of the Amish community in ensuring its survival and practicing its beliefs faithfully.

Justice Douglas fashioned a dissenting opinion in this case that attempted to reclaim the rights of individuals, namely of the Amish children in this case, to choose their own religious beliefs and ideas. Douglas lamented the fact that the Courts opinion failed to give adequate weight to the religious positions of the children in this case, and contended that the positions of the Amish community writ large and that of the parents of the children are less important under the Constitution than the individual whose life will be most affected by the decision. As opposed to allowing the Ordnung of the Amish communities under consideration or the parents of the children to inculcate and train the future generations of this tradition, Douglas avers, “Religion is an individual experience(243). Not only should the state take care to protect the ability of the child to exercise his or her own personal autonomy in the future, the child currently possesses the right under the constitution to make his or her own decisions about religious beliefs and how those beliefs should be implemented in the childs life, including whether or not the child should continue with a formal education beyond the eighth grade.

With these Supreme Court opinions in the foreground, this essay now will explore two different political theories of liberalism that seek not to justify a government that is neutral between conceptions of the good but advocates a conception of the good that warrants the creation of a liberal, tolerant society.

Joseph Raz and the Value of Autonomy

Jospeh Raz is a legal, moral, and political philosopher at Oxford University who has constructed a liberal political theory that explicitly advocates a moral conception of the good life as opposed to neutralist liberal theories. He grounds his perfectionist conception of toleration on the fundamental intrinsic value of personal autonomy. For Raz, “the ruling idea behind the ideal of personal autonomy is that people should make their own lives. The autonomous person is a (part) author of his own life(Raz 1986,369). Personal autonomy is an intrinsic value that provides a necessary condition for living alife of well-being. Human beings who possess personal autonomy also possess the requisite abilities to make decisions independently of coercive forces and have an adequate range of options from which to choose. This last requirement of personal autonomy begins to reveal how Raz’s theory would manifest itself in the various opinions of Wisconsin v. Yoder. Justice White’s concurrence actually raises the issue of “adequate range of options” in a pointed fashion. White’s concern is that real choice for young adult Amish children requires that they have a basic understanding of the non-Amish forms of life availableto them. While he is convinced that they will acquire the requisite understanding of alternative lifestyles by being educated through the eighth grade and perhaps through continued interaction with the outside world in their daily routines, White affirms Raz’s position that autonomous choice demands a sufficient range of options. How can an Amish girl make a real choice between remaining Amish or becoming a nuclear physicists if she has no knowledge of nuclear physics?

Raz understands government to have the responsibility of promoting a liberal/tolerationist conception of the human good, conceived primarily in terms of well-being. Personal autonomy serves as a constituent element of well-being, and, therefore, Raz concludes, individuals, if they are to live lives of well-being, must possess a measure of personal autonomy, i.e. they must be part author of their lives. Governments have the duty to promote the well-being, and thus, the personal autonomy of citizens. They can and must do so in both positive and negative ways. The negative path demands that governments not coerce individuals to pursue particular goals, religious identities, or moral lifestyles. Individuals must be free to choose the course of their own lives. Acquisition of the virtue of personal autonomy also mandates that governments attempt to ensure that each and every citizen is sufficiently liberated from insular religious and moral traditions and that they encounter alternative forms of life from which to make their choices. The positive path requires governments to provide an adequate range of morally acceptable options from which individuals may choose their life-courses.

Raz further argues that autonomy, in order to be valuable, must be exercised toward morally upright ends. It is not sufficient for governments to advocate the development of autonomy in its citizens independently of the moral contexts in which that autonomy is valuable. Governments should take great measures to ensure that there exist options available to citizens, from which they may choose the path of their lives, and that those options are morally upright. Again, White’s concurrence in Yoder constructs a concrete example of what this need for options entails for real citizens in constitutional controversies. Also, for Raz, governments do not have the responsibility to provide either morally repugnant options, or any one particular option. Rather, governments may attempt to eliminate morally repugnant options through non-coercive means (advertising campaigns, etc.) without violating the autonomy of the citizens associated with these options. It is important to note that the autonomy of these citizens, while Raz thinks it ought to be respected,does not contribute any value to the worth of the individual’s life because it is being used in pursuit of morally repugnant options.

One of the problems with Razs approach in The Morality of Freedom is that he does not provide the larger moral framework within which one can determine whether or not autonomy is being exercised toward morally upright ends. (Much of Razs later work is devoted to providing the moral theory that seems to be absent in Morality of Freedom. See Raz 1994, 1999, 2001, and 2003). In one sense, this gives further support to Razs contention that moral goods are incommensurable and often conflicting. His commitment to incommensurability is born out of his dissatisfaction with consequentialism, and, as will be seen in the next section of the paper, Raz is not alone among the perfectionist thinkers in this regard. The goods of human life exist in such a diverse array of forms that to think that human goods could be rank ordered, or assigned some sort of value so that one could calculate the highest good to be achieved in a given set of circumstances seems implausible.

But Razs thesis is stronger than this. He contends that among the morally upright and diverse lifestyles available to human beings in modern liberal societies, many of the lifestyles and goods implicit therein conflict with one another, and are therefore incompatible, constituting what Raz calls value pluralism (1986,395–399). So it is no wonder that Raz refrains from giving a fuller explication of the demands of the morally upright life, given that many of the demands that he could articulate contradict one another. But the morally incompatible goods thesis lends weight to his defense of toleration in that it gives philosophical support to a scenario in which an agent, whether it be an individual or an institution, advocates a legitimate good that is in direct contradiction with a good that the government advocates (non-coercively). In this case, the government has no legitimate reason to coerce the agent to not pursue the good that contradicts the good that the government advocates. In fact, not coercing the individual bolsters the good of the autonomy of the agent. And because the good that the agent pursues is morally upright, that it is pursued autonomously adds value to the well-being of the agent.

Raz develops a refurbished version of Mills harm principle, based upon the value of autonomy, to establish the limits to government coercion (412). The government may use coercive force only to prevent harm. Notice that the good of autonomy is used both to establish the legitimate use of force, in that preventing harm to an individual is likely to increase the individuals autonomy, and to establish the limits to that same use of force, in that using force to coerce an individual, whether it be to prevent harm or not, invades the autonomy of the person coerced.

Razs perfectionist liberalism constitutes one of the most complex attempts, to date, to defend a liberal conception of toleration with a perfectionist account of morality. He clearly understands his moral theory to lie within the tradition of Plato and Aristotle, as it finds its foundation in a conception of the human good that applies to all people. Personal autonomy is one of the constituent values of that conception and mandates that governments tolerate a substantial amount of difference and also provide an adequate range of life style options from which individuals may choose the course of their lives.

Galstons Perfectionist Toleration

While Razs perfectionist liberalism provides theoretical justification for favoring individual freedom over communal freedom, consistent with Whites concurrence and Douglass dissent, William Galston fashions a theory that makes space for communal freedom which does not necessarily advocate personal autonomy. In a recent book, Galston provides an implicit challenge to Razs conception of perfectionist toleration, arguing that diversity, not autonomy, should be considered the fundamental value of liberal societies. Galston immediately seeks to head off detractors who would reply that diversity and autonomy are naturally and always compatible with one another in a liberal state, and that much of his philosophical defense of liberal pluralism is an attempt to refute this compatibility thesis.

He defines autonomy and diversity in the following way:

By “autonomy” I mean individual self-direction in at least one of many senses explored by John Locke, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and Americans writing in an Emersonian vein. Liberal autonomy is frequently linked with the commitment to sustained rational examination of self, others, and social practices—whence Mill’s invocation of Socrates as liberal hero. By “diversity” I mean, straightforwardly, legitimate differences among individuals and groups over such matters as the nature of the good life, sources of moral authority, reason versus faith, and the like. (Galston 2002, 21)

Galston, contrary to much liberal thinking, asserts that autonomy and diversity so conceived do not always, or usually, cohere(21). The problem with autonomy as the fundamental principle of liberal toleration is that many people within so-called liberal democracies do not consider autonomy to be very valuable. It is safe to say that the Old Order Amish communities at stake in Yoder do not hold autonomy to be a preeminent value that the community must deliberately seek to safeguard and cultivate. If a larger political society is constructed around the premise that it is valuable to enhance the individual choices of citizens, then many institutions and cultural traditions within that society may be alienated because they do not emphasize individual choice with regard to ones course in life. While the Amish should take some of the responsibility for the extreme nature of their separation from society, American societys heavy emphasis on personal freedom and choice leaves many groups with little option in the choice between integration and separation. Many parents, religious leaders, and the like, opposed to promoting the value of individual choice, teach their children their traditions and beliefs and hope that those children will continue the perpetuation of those traditions and beliefs. Promoting individual choice as a fundamental value may serve to erode those traditions and beliefs that they hope to sustain.

Galston advocates a theory of liberal pluralism, drawn from three distinct sources. First, expressive liberty, understood as the ability to live ones life in a way that expresses ones deepest beliefs and convictions without being subject to coercive constraints that make this type of life possible (28). This first source of liberal pluralism unveils Galstons attempt to provide a certain integrity and unity to the life of the individual by making it possible for beliefs and actions to cohere. Toleration obviously results from the idea of expressive liberty, as individuals, groups, and the government recognize that this principle dictates that all have the freedom to live their lives in accordance with their most fundamental beliefs. Justice Burger contends that the coherence between the beliefs and the lifestyle of the Amish solidifies the conclusion that education, occupation, and social life are all deeply embedded in their religious tradition.

The second source of liberal pluralism is value pluralism. The complexity of value pluralism reveals its fundamental importance for Galstons theory of perfectionist toleration. He offers five basic theses to explain the nature of value pluralism. First, “value pluralism is offered as an account of the actual structure of the normative universe. Second, value pluralism does not necessarily entail moral relativism. There is a minimum content of the natural law of morality that is contained within any legitimate moral theory. Third, “above this domain of basic goods are found a multiplicity of genuine goods that are qualitatively heterogeneous and cannot be reduced to a common measure of value. There is no single measure of value by which the diverse forms of goods can be compared. Fourth, “these qualitatively distinct values cannot be fully rank-ordered; there is no summum bonum that enjoys a rationally grounded priority for all individuals. Finally, for the purpose of guiding action, there is no

single value that trumps or guides all other values in the decision-making process (30–31). The third and final source for liberal pluralism is political pluralism. As opposed to thinking

about the state as the sole authority operative in the lives of its citizens, political associations should recognize multiple sources of authority that hold sway over citizens. The demands of citizenship, such as developing a measure of loyalty to the state and ensuring that children are properly educated for a progressive technological society, must not be so rigorous that alternative sources of authority are displaced by the plenipotentiary state and citizens no longer are free to express those convictions they hold most deeply. Galston advocates a conception of political society in which the state recognizes that there exist other important sources of authority in the lives of citizens and that the state has the obligation not to trump those alternative sources of authority. However, those other authorities, such as parents and religious groups, must also recognize that the state has an interest in developing citizens of a certain sort, however minimalist this conception may be, and that the state legitimately can make demands from time to time that compete with alternative sources of authority. There should be a give-and-take relationship between the multiple sources of authority weighing on citizens. It must be assumed that any necessary minimalist conception of citizenship would require people to refrain from harming others and to obey all generally applicable laws that do not directly contradict their religious convictions. If a belief were to conflict with a generally applicable law, any exception made to the law should not result in physical harm that would have been prevented by the law. If this is what Galstons minimalist conception demands, it appears that the Amish meet its requirements.

It should be clear that Galstons theory of liberal pluralism, drawing on the three sources mentioned above, contains an explicit theory of toleration that has sweeping implications for minority cultures and religious groups. In order for groups to exercise expressive liberty, they must be free to develop their ideas, beliefs, and practices and propagate those to their children. Furthermore, the fact that the normative structure of the universe contains a diversity of values dictates that there exists some normative principle requiring the toleration of those values that are legitimate parts of the normative structure of the universe, but may be in conflict with other values within the same structure.


Neutralist liberalism no longer constitutes the only force in contemporary liberal theory. Perfectionist forms of liberalism have begun to emerge and are staking out a diverse terrain for themselves. One tension embodied in perfectionist liberalism—a tension which remains in neutralist types as well—is that between preserving individual freedom to choose the course of ones own life and affording groups the freedom to express and educate their younger members according to the dictates of their beliefs.

Joseph Razs perfectionist liberalism elevates the value of personal autonomy so high that groups like the Amish are found to commit a moral failure by not nurturing the characteristic of personal autonomy in their young people. The very existence of the Amish community depends on their being able to wield significant theological and social influence over their children and young adults. Raz asserts that neglecting to develop the ability to choose the course of their lives diminishes the well-being of future generations and so causes moral damage. But, as we have seen, and as the Supreme Court has recognized, the Amish do not value personal autonomy in any significant way, nor do they consider it a moral failure to raise children who follow in the tradition of their ancestors without considerable reflection on the other options available to them. The Amish seem to have no place in Razs liberal society, which, intuitively, seems to highlight a failure in his theory, as the Amish pose no threat to the American version of liberal society. While the Amish certainly do not desire that their young people live unhappy and miserable lives as Amish as a result of feeling trapped in that lifestyle without any other options, they also realize that constantly exposing their young people to non-Amish forms of life and encouraging them to make a choice between a range of options for the purpose of nurturing personal autonomy will be the death knell of the Amish lifestyle. Adeliberate plan to cultivate personal autonomy has no place in the Amish community or any community that seeks to safeguard and perpetuate a form of life that is contradictory to the American emphasis on individual freedom. This is the primary reason the Amish refused to send their children to a formal school beyond the eighth grade, as recognized by Burgers majority opinion in Yoder.

William Galstons liberal pluralism acknowledges the problems advocating personal autonomy will cause for religious groups, and thus his theory is superior to Razs in that respect. Groups need expressive freedom, the ability to express their beliefs in specific actions and lifestyles. The Amish, indeed, do find a place in Galstons liberal society, and so Galstons theory appears more amenable to a large liberal society like America, which values religious tradition in many different forms. However, Galstons theory has other confusions and other underdeveloped elements that keep it from supplying a comprehensive theory of religious freedom in a liberal society. Though Galstons rejection of personal autonomy as the preeminent moral value for liberal political theory seems more compatible with the Courts opinion in Yoder, his advocacy of pluralism as the normative structure of the universe,” and as such, a value to be pursued, generates theoretical problems of its own. How could it be normatively upright in the universefor people to hold directly contradictory moral views, only one of which can be the truth, constituting pluralism? Certainly it is a fact of our existence that moral pluralism exists, but to deem that existence the normative structure of the universe comes close to advocating moral relativism. To discover or express moral truth that garners consensus would diminish pluralism in Galstons sense. So, Galston needs to do considerable theoretical work to relieve the apparent tension between a general conception of truth and his conception of pluralism.

American constitutional traditions of defining and defending religious freedom prove to be fertile ground for exploring the concrete implications of perfectionist liberal theory. The enduring conflict between individual freedom and a religious groups attempt to educate and train in their doctrinal and moral tradition finds stark expression both in Wisconsin v. Yoder and in the different theoretical emphases in the liberal theories of Joseph Raz and William Galston.

Geoffrey Bowden is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Malone College.


Galston, William. Liberal Pluralism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Raz, Joesph. The Practice of Value. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

___. Value, Respect, and Attachment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001

___. Engaging Reason. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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