From the outset, critical social theory has sought to diagnose people’s
participation in their own oppression, by revealing the roots of irrational and self-undermining choices in the complex interplay between human nature, social structures, and cultural beliefs. As part of this project, Ideologiekritik has aimed to expose faulty conceptions of this interplay, so that the objectively pathological character of what people are “freely” choosing could come more clearly into view. The challenge, however, has always been to find a way of doing this without arrogantly assuming special access to what is good for people. And this danger of paternalism is one to which social theorists have all too often fallen prey.
In this brief essay, I focus on contemporary instances of clearly self-defeating behavior in contexts of complex choices. I begin by discussing a recent attempt to diagnose and solve these failures of choices, namely the public policy recommendations of behavioral economist Richard Thaler and reform-minded legal theorist Cass Sunstein. Their influential “libertarian paternalist” approach is particularly interesting, both in what it includes (attention to the socially constructed nature of choice situations and the roots of the problems in human nature) and in what it leaves out (an understanding of the social construction of human nature and an adequate appreciation of the value of autonomy). After discussing it, I consider a broadly perfectionist alternative, to the effect that the problem lies in a failure to adequately appreciate the importance of developing autonomy. I then turn to sketching the outlines of a new approach, based on the concept of “autonomy gaps,” which approaches overly demanding policies in relational and action-theoretical terms. In the final section, I show how this provides the basis for an analysis both in terms of a critique of ideology and of social pathology.