Steven Wall is a philosopher at the University of Arizona, a member of the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom, and a member of the Politics, Philosophy, Economics, and Law program. His experience and interdisciplinary focus provide a powerful lens through which issues related to freedom and personal liberty can be studied.

Wall’s current work tackles two weighty subjects: the enforcement of morality and autonomy as an ideal of the good. Both issues are important and have real-world applications. He provided two book chapters from forthcoming publications summarized below as a preview.

Morality (Enforcing Morality – forthcoming 2023 or early 2024)

How far should governments uphold or aim to improve the morality of those subject to their authority, and should this be done through incentives, sanctions, or other means? And what about the increasing role of non-governmental organizations, as well as organized groups of ordinary citizens, acting on moral issues that could be construed as impeding individual freedom?

Wall starts with the fact that all governments enforce morality.  The important issue is not whether they should do so, but what moral norms are appropriately subject to legal enforcement.  He explores these issues, in part, by considering the differences between “narrow” and “broad” morality. He notes that narrow morality is limited to interpersonal norms of conduct, such as “duties not to kill, harm, or deceive and duties to keep one’s promises.” In contrast, broad morality includes narrow morality and is expanded to address questions of how to live, “instructing people on what makes for a successful, meaningful and worthwhile life.”  As broad morality is pluralistic, an account of its proper enforcement must be sensitive to the wide range of good ways of living.

The chapter then turns to a discussion of social morality, a system of demands and aspirations that apply and resonate with a particular group of people at a specific time.  Social morality contrasts with critical morality, which consists of standards that can be used to assess or evaluate the norms of social morality.  Social moralities change as societies change.  Critical morality provides a standpoint for assessing whether the changes constitute progress or backsliding.

Wall’s work in this chapter previews a much deeper and more thorough analysis of morality in the remaining chapters of the book, and – as one would imagine from an accomplished scholar – it gives reason for pause, thought, reflection, and the consideration of how philosophy can help shape reality. Along the way, Wall’s discussion casts light on discussions of right and wrong, what issues require a governmental solution, and what role society should play in establishing and enforcing morality.

Autonomy (“Autonomy as an Ideal of the Good,” published in The Routledge Guidebook on Autonomy, 2023)

Similarly, Wall’s exploration of autonomy is significant and noteworthy. Controlling one’s destiny is a powerful ideal; conversely, feeling like one does not have that power can be extraordinarily deflating.

Wall’s focus is on the claim that “autonomy is an aspect or component of a good human life.” Again, there is great diversity in what contributes to a good life and is valued by individuals. Many things are worthwhile, but not universally valued. One example Wall uses is the following:

“I judge ballet to be a valuable activity, one that contributes to the goodness of a human life, but it leaves me cold. I find that I have no inclination to engage with it either as a participant or as a spectator. Ballet, I say, is valuable, but not something that I value.”

This speaks to a larger and more significant point about the importance of autonomy in Wall’s analysis. Suppose there are different alternatives, all of which constitute a good and constructive life. Autonomy is exercised in the choice between the alternatives, a choice that reflects one’s own assessment of what is important and what one finds most fulfilling.  But is this kind of self-governance compatible with deference to others?  Routinely, we defer to others when we judge them to have more knowledge or understanding on the matter at issue.  We defer to our physicians about our health, and to our accountants about our taxes, for example.   Still, Wall argues, too much deference on issues that are central to one’s conception of what matters in life is not compatible with being autonomous, and sometimes it is better to make one’s decisions oneself, even when deferring to others would lead to better outcomes.

Wall drives home the point that to be autonomous, a person must have legitimate options and alternatives from which to choose.  He explores in detail what would be required for us to have a sufficiently robust range of options.  His discussion establishes an essential bridge between autonomy and freedom.  To realize autonomy in our lives, we must have the freedom to choose our paths and take responsibility for our futures.