Wotton’s Society Dr Ben Colburn (Corpus Christi, Cambridge) on ‘Autonomy, Equality and Liberal Education’

Dr Colburn made clear that autonomy is of primary concern for his form of liberalism and defined it as the agent deciding on his or her values and being able to live life in accordance with them. Having set out and rejected various forms of liberalism, he outlined his theory of ‘equal access to autonomy’ by which a state can be run. It aims to ensure that all people are as autonomous as possible and any inequalities are the result of individuals. It therefore addresses the tension between egalitarian maximisation and responsibility sensitivity. He gave the audience an IOU to explain the conditions for responsibility.

The theory was then applied to private education which he indicated is highly beneficial in terms of autonomy as it gives pupils a greater chance to be exposed to different values which they might adopt. However whilst the non-positional advantages it offers are acceptable, the positional ones which allow pupils to be more competitive, for example, in gaining jobs or places at university are not; they put those who go to state schools in a disadvantaged position in terms of realizing their autonomy. As children cannot be held responsible for their parents’ inability to send them to private school the state must eliminate this inequality.

The audience then questioned his theory and offered counter-veiling arguments. He was challenged with problems ranging from the tension between egalitarianism and autonomy to there being so many things constituting positional advantages such as intelligence. In the end each issue came down to achieving a compromise to secure an even distribution of autonomy.

Will Ryle-Hodges OS (RGGP)