i-dolatry: The cult of autonomy is degrading the prospects for relationships

Analysis is a highbrow journal published by Oxford University with a history dating back to 1933. Its homepage claims it is the world’s ‘most established and esteemed journal for short papers in philosophy’. Earlier this year it published a paper with the dedicated purpose of valorising ‘revelatory autonomy’. Invoking the religious en passant—‘revelatory’ is a very particular term—the primary concern of the paper’s author, Cambridge philosopher Farbod Akhlaghi, was the ethics of interpersonal relationships. Reasoning that autonomy should be attributed an ascendant status, he argued that it is immoral for an individual’s significant others to try and influence those they care for. ‘Self authorship’, said the philosopher, is a bedrock principle—so much so that one’s right to ‘revelatory autonomy’ is compromised by even well-meaning, thoughtful feedback from family and friends concerning one’s lifestyle choices. They should not interfere. One dog one bone.

Less posh in language and provenance, Carrie Cooper-Moore, the subject of a Sunday Age feature on 22 January 2023, made a similar point. She said, ‘When I was in a relationship, I’d never feel fully comfortable and happy—almost a little tied down’. Ms. Cooper-Moore’s lived experience, so the reader is told, recoils at inputs that threaten to compromise her freedom. Extolled by the journalist as an adventurer who is ‘flying solo’, this woman wanted to have—as the journalist apparently thought it proper she should—unilateral control in any relationship to which she was a party.

What a crock. No one person in a relationship is, or should be, in control. Strictly observed hierarchies may operate in the military, the workplace and feudal and fascist regimes, but if one or both parties in a relationship expect to be the boss, there goes the possibility of democratic sociality. There is no place for mutuality and curiosity in an autocracy.

Something uncanny is afoot in the above. In both cases the allure of autonomy utterly defies good sense. Up and down the registers of formality, like the little black dress, the dream of the autonomous subject exerts its appeal. Irrespective of the setting—it could be academic or round the campfire—cargo-cult like, gnostic, autonomy enthrals.

Instances of this all-purpose aesthetic are all about. For example, a loony infatuation with autonomy pervades bourgeois psychology: developmental theorists assert that independence is the proper end-point of the maturation process; school reference texts elevate ‘self-actualisation’—a construct defined as an indifference to the opinions of others—as the highest form of human need; trainee practitioners are indoctrinated to equate psychological health with the client having ‘firm boundaries’ and ‘an internal locus of control’. More broadly, the autonomy rhizome has infiltrated all segments of health and human services: well-meaning youth services organise themselves around the principle that their clients should become independent; disability advocacy and support services routinely frame their business around the goal of consumers achieving independence, autonomy, control.

Of course, this fetish has a larger context. Capitalist ideology has long decreed that the individual, not the collective, is where it’s at. The notion that we are well into what Zygmund Bauman, among others, has termed the process of individualisation has sprayed accelerant on the longer-term capitalist evolution of its consumer subjects. Information and communications technology’s (ICT) agency has, of course, played a key role in this evolution; first-person ‘I am in control’ positioning is a key feature of the ICT user’s experience. Particularly vitalised by the rise of ICT, and allied to a range of broad movements, the longer-term process of individualisation has seen more concentrated attention given to, and glorification of, the ‘I’ than has previously been seen.

A key outcome of the individualising process is that ever more heat is being applied to established categories, several of which are, before our eyes, losing their historical form. For example, traditional gender expectations, once a mainstay of social organisation, are converging: Shania Twain’s Queen of Me, a paean to autonomy and the bitter-sweet celebration of being the one in the driver’s seat, simply recycles the older male-stream ideology of Frank Sinatra’s I Did It My Way. Far from objecting to this convergence, the market welcomes an expanded participation. Female, male, of diverse sexuality, black, yellow, metis—whatever—the market is all for the unfettered consumer-citizen. Let’s be clear: commerce is not prejudiced. It not does not discriminate on the basis of the sex, faith or ethnicity of its sovereign selves. And popular culture simply does its job in following the money.

Marx observed 150 years ago that the self is ‘an ensemble of social relations’. More recently, feminist and cross-cultural scholarships, among a far larger set of knowledge streams, have completely scuttled the idea the self is an autarkic item. Critical reflection (e.g. fiction and biography) points to the same conclusion. Defying this good sense, the fantasy of the autonomous subject indomitably rises up as a tireless phoenix. Despite its impossibility, i-dolatry continues to bedazzle.

What is to be made of the fact that autonomy has such a mis-taken status? How is it that the general populace, like the posh, reflexively bow to this totem? Addressing this anachronism would make for a fun project if the phenomenon were not so consequential in its effects. Dynamic and multi-dimensional as the outcomes of this ideological trapdoor may be, the present attention is particular: what effect does a preoccupation with autonomy—with the i-me-my-mine—have on the prospects for ethical relationship and reliable attachment? Perhaps the answer is straightforward: the prospects for interpersonal connection recede in so much as the citizen’s stream of consciousness is i-centred. The more I am thinking about me, the less attuned I am to the rights and feelings of others. Repurposing an idea of Walter Benjamin’s, the other cannot be held as a mystery if I am preoccupied with myself.


We all know there is a gap between what we say we are—our ‘espoused self’—and how we act and feel—our ‘in-practice self’. Mindful that the latter, at best, reasonably approximates the former, difficulties arise to the extent that the former is inconsistent with, or in extreme cases contradicts, the latter. This is especially at issue if the difference is not recognised by—or even more problematically, is incompatible with—what the observing ego tells me I am. For example, the espoused self may contend that I am the injured party, am a genius, etc., but if the in-practice self is an aggressor, of ordinary intellect, etc., there will be friction. As Charles Frazier wrote in Thirteen Moons, ‘identity is what you say you are and who the world says you are’. Mindful one’s that inner life is only ever influenced by the scripts we run, not fully discursively determined, if the espoused self is running an inner monologue premised on the subject’s right to autonomy, the stream of consciousness will tend to be populated by i-referenced categories of attention—‘How do I feel?’; ‘What about my self-care needs?’; ‘I should be in charge’, etc. In so much as this is the pattern of thought, this suite of terms aggregates a sensibility that tends to be incompatible with mutualistic relations.

There is a sleight of hand in play here. No one, except to a degree the psychopath, is really independent. We are social beings, not autarkic items. If we think we are, or should be, autonomous we have been hoodwinked and, having put our ontological interdependence out of bounds, perforce will come to judge ourselves inadequate, inauthentic, failures. It is impossible to meet the criteria that have been set: to be self-determining, to be in full control, to not feel vulnerable to others.

However much it is a male-stream fantasy, the jargon of autonomy assembles into a normalising discourse with a disciplining, and actively sickening, effect. Separated from others and our own needs and feelings, supposedly, this constitutes psychological health. More than alienating, this mindset is naive. Akhlaghi, the Cambridge philosopher quoted earlier—the fellow who wants to prohibit my friends and family from trying to influence me—is shallowly Newtonian in thinking that interpersonal inputs always have a linear effect, i.e., that the speaker is in charge of the outcome of an interaction. Clearly, this confuses the domain of the human with that of the material. Conversing, arguing, even yelling at a person have indeterminate, even paradoxical, effects. This action is not like stacking bricks or reducing the size of a pile of screenings one shovel at a time. At minimum the listener co-regulates—is an active participant in—the action. The bi-personal field is, by definition, not unipolar.


Willard Gaylin, the a recently deceased psychoanalyst and professor of psychiatry, wrote The Perversion of Autonomy: The Proper Uses of Coercion and Constraints in a Liberal Society in 1996. In this book he emphasised the importance of guilt and shame. These so-called ‘negative emotions’, he argued, have a key role in keeping individuals socially responsible. No doubt controversial—Hey, this guy wants to put a brake on my claim to autonomy—his ideas remain timely as they broaden the debate beyond the simplistic No one is going to tell me what I can and can’t do.

Personal control and power will always be at issue. So too are access to, and the distribution of, intimacy and affirmation, regard for the other, reciprocity and fairness. The narrator in Zadie Smith’s The Embassy of Cambodia sums up the debate with a question: ‘Surely there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle. But how large should that circle be?’ Sports stars, macro-influencers, tech entrepreneurs, all today’s high-profile role models know the answer. Draw that circle tightly. Control is what I need. Put me in charge of how I think and feel and act. This reply is a tell denoting a specific cultural logic. Standing back, this logic beggars all of us.

The above is an exert from an imagined book: ‘The future of relationships: Can intimacy and affirmation co-exist with the instruction to put yourself first?’

About the author

Mark Furlong

Mark Furlong is an independent scholar, and thinker-in-residence at the Bouverie Centre, La Trobe University: .

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