Fostering Autonomy

A Theory of Citizenship, the State, and Social Service Delivery

By (author) Elizabeth Ben-Ishai

Hardback - £61.95

Publication date:

06 February 2012

Length of book:

208 pages


Penn State University Press

ISBN-13: 9780271052175

In Fostering Autonomy, Elizabeth Ben-Ishai explores the role of the state in fostering autonomy in vulnerable citizens—such as people who are addicted to drugs, domestic violence survivors, welfare recipients, and undocumented immigrants—through social service delivery. Building on a feminist conception of “relational” autonomy, the book draws on empirical examples of service delivery to generate a rich theoretical account of the autonomy-fostering state.

Ben-Ishai's analysis focuses on four case studies. The first two cases, on “New Paternalist” programs and welfare policies for immigrants, present examples of programs and policies that fail to foster autonomy. This is in part because they are premised upon flawed notions of the autonomous individual and its relationship to the state. The second two cases, on services for domestic violence survivors and harm-reduction services for people who use drugs, turn the preceding autonomy-fostering failures on their head, pointing to unique instances of services that effectively enable autonomy. These cases demonstrate the ways government services shape citizens’ abilities to live autonomously—“to pursue their own ends or life plans.”

“Elizabeth Ben-Ishai’s work speaks in important ways both to normative theories of the liberal state and to ongoing conversations about the design and implementation of public policy. Her work reconstructs a notion of autonomy, usefully positioning this centerpiece of liberal commitments not as a mere bulwark against the state but as a kind of standard by which we can assess which forms of state interventions are quite compatible, and perhaps even required, in order to foster autonomy. Ben-Ishai’s work is conceptually sophisticated and commendably ambitious.”

—Julie White, Ohio University