From Obligation to Autonomy: The Role of the Aesthetics of Existence in Foucault’s Ethical Views 

Based on Foucault’s frequent remarks concerning the ethical importance of his idea of an “aesthetics of existence,” I argue that the role of the latter within his ethical project was to provide the rudiments of a novel conception of the binding force of ethical norms (of what we usually think of as reasons for complying with ethical norms). Foucault’s enquiry into the history of ethics lead him to identify an ongoing shift in Western culture away from an ethics of obligation and towards an ethics of autonomy, a shift that, on his view, rendered necessary a reconceptualization of the normativity of ethical claims. The role of the idea of an ‘aesthetics of existence’ is to address this need, to offer an account of the type of binding force that ethical claims have over individuals within an ‘ethics of autonomy.’ On his view, rather than prohibitive boundaries that parse the space of possible action into the permissible and the impermissible, and which individuals are under an obligation to comply by virtue of some ontological fact about what it is to be human, ethical norms are to be conceived as productive instruments for the individual’s active self-constitution as a genuinely autonomous subject.