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Conditions of Autonomy: Legal, Political, and Philosophical Perspectives

A one-day Research Workshop (20 May 2022), organized by the Centre for Political Thought, the School of Law and the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health (University of Exeter).

The Research Workshop investigated ideas of autonomy, power and domination in institutions and the community, exploring the conditions for autonomous agency. In particular it looked at vulnerable and disadvantaged subjects. Capacity for autonomous agency is an important question in discussions of social justice and the treatment of persons with dignity. It has been at the centre of feminist debates, and it poses practical and theoretical difficulties in cases involving vulnerable people such as people with disabilities and children. It is a topic that cuts across philosophical, political and legal studies, intersecting other conceptual issues, such as liberty, power, domination, and mental capacity. 

Image copyright: Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels

Conditions of Autonomy – Legal, Political and Philosophical Perspectives

One-day Research Workshop, 20 May 2022, Reed Hall (Upper Lounge), 9.30-16.30


Workshop Programme


9.30 Book Discussion

Lucy Series (Cardiff) Deprivation of liberty in the shadows of the institution.

Chair: Robin Durie (Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health)

Discussants: Anne Barlow (Law School, Exeter), Dario Castiglione (Centre for Political Thought, Exeter),


11.20 Perspectives on Autonomy I

Disability, Domination and Dependency: Legal and Republican Perspectives.

Chair: Dario Castiglione (Politics, Exeter)

Beverly Clough (Law, Leeds), Freedom/Deprivation of Liberty: The Logics of Liberty in Mental Capacity Law

Tom O’Shea (Philosophy, Roehampton), Disability and Domination: Lessons from Republican Political Philosophy


13.20 Perspectives on Autonomy II

Autonomy, Agency and Relationality

Chair: Kate Goldie Townsend (Politics, Exeter)

Sarah Lucas (Politics, Exeter) Anna Stenning (School of English, Leeds), Relational Narrative Agency and Neurodivergent Selfhood: Beyond the Epistemic Injustice Paradigm

Jack Griffiths (Politics, Exeter), Autonomy, Development, and Relationality (via J. S. Mill and Harriet Taylor)


14.30 Perspectives on Autonomy III

Resistance, Justice, and Conditions of Autonomy

Chair: Sarah Lucas (Politics, Exeter)

Nora Jaber (Law School, Exeter) Disrupting discursive homogenisation:  The Saudi gender debate beyond ‘oppression’ vs ‘empowerment’

Herjeet Marway (Philosophy, Birmingham) Procreative justice and genetic selection for skin colour

Kate Goldie Townsend (Politics, Exeter) Autonomy, culture, and liberal policy; the case of intersex child genital modification


16.00-16.15 Concluding remarks

On Friday, 20th May 2022, the University of Exeter’s Centre for Political Thought, together with the School of Law and the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health, arranged a day-long conference on “Conditions of Autonomy”. The event was supported by the University’s SSIS ADR fund. Under the broad ambit of autonomy, the participants’ focus was how someone who can be said to be deprived in some manner of her liberty, might realize her autonomy, in practice. The presenters combined juridical, political, and philosophical insights on what autonomy might look like, when realized in action by a such a subject.

Given the broad theme of the conference, the classification of the subject of autonomy in a singular, collective identity, was impossible. Although, the feature common among the presentations was that each broached the topic from the perspective of a subject that falls outside of a definitional ‘normal’. For example, Dr. Lucy Series who presented her book The Deprivation of Liberty in the Shadows of the Institution, spoke of the confining and surveilling aspect of ‘care’ facilities for subjects with intellectual disabilities. Their incapacity in the eyes of the law to exercise autonomy justifies their domination, down to the minutiae of their everyday lives. They are therefore dominated by the very ‘care’ mechanisms purported to be an emancipation from the carceral institutional arrangement. Relatedly, in a later discussion of their paper Narrative Agency and Neurodivergent Selfhood, Dr. Sarah Lucas and Dr. Anna Stenning critiqued the medical/juridical codification inherent in using labels such as neurodivergence to refer, for example, to autistic subjects. The discussants proposed “narrative agency” as a way of relating people to one another that allows individuals to appear as unique selves in the world, rather than as ‘deviances’ for this or that ‘incapacity’ based on a standard.

Within this broad legal-practical-philosophical terrain, the conference also probed into the problem of defining domination.  Whether in terms of an institution, or a relation between agents. In the case of the second, during her presentation, Dr. Beverly Clough argued that the discretionary authority of a carer over one who is vulnerable, invariably breeds a relationship of dependency and control. Following from this, Dr. Tom O’ Shea related disability and domination to political philosophy. He delineated the adequacy, i.e., the merits and limitations, of the Republican ideal of non-domination for all citizenry as a liberatory device for disabled subjects.

Perspectives on gender, race, and even other demographic categories, such as children also featured as points of discussion under the theme of conditions for autonomy. In this respect, the spectrum of discussion was broad. It included a post-colonial critique of the homogenizing tendency of a liberal ‘rights’ framework in Dr. Nora Jaber’s presentation on the “Saudi gender debate”.  But also, an appeal to the liberal ideal of equal rights in Dr. Katie Townsend’s closing presentation on the problem of a discriminatory outlook on the bodily autonomy and integrity of both female and male children with respect to genital cutting.