I agree with the autonomy liberals’ take on dissonance, but my rationale for this is cognitive instead of primarily philosophical. The concepts that drive my belief in the cognitive dissonance argument are the sociological theory of diffusion and Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s self-determination theory. As argued by Festinger in his “A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance”, I believe that there are consonant, irrelevant, and dissonant relationships between our cognitions where:

  1. In consonant relationships, two cognitions are consistent with each other.
  2. In irrelevant relationships, two cognitions don’t have an influence on each other.
  3. In dissonant relationships, two cognitions are directly in conflict with each other.

Growing up, we acquire many beliefs from our parents that have consonant relationships with each other: religious beliefs that inform the values system they pass down, etc. When our parents act as our primary guardians and caretakers they also essentially become our arbiters of truth, and at an early age, we aren’t organically exposed to other ways of thinking, behaving, or living.

As we age and engage with people that live differently from us, many of the beliefs we inherited from our parents begin to occupy dissonant relationships with the new information we acquire. Maybe country music is actually good, our neighbors are actually super nice, and the state of California doesn’t suck. When we develop some level of cognitive dissonance with our parent’s beliefs, we begin to form our own, whether that’s a rejection of what they taught us, acceptance of what they taught us, or somewhere in between. Someone could arrive at the conclusion that their parents were right about religion and education, but only kind of right about politics, for example. These are all opinions that can only be formed if we know that an alternative exists.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with inheriting beliefs, independently choosing a belief is characteristic of exercising one’s own autonomy. This is true even in the case of someone returning to an inherited belief they initially rejected, such as rejecting a parent’s religion during adolescence and returning to it independently as an adult instead of unquestioningly accepting it. Although the end result of practicing the parent’s religion is the same, the former is the result of an autonomous choice driven by the conclusions of the independent agent, and the latter is merely an acceptance of the normed behaviors present in one’s environment.