Beware of the vanity of “autonomy”

Important words easily become totalitarian. They begin with communicating some humanly important point, so we listen with attention. But then it is as if the words suffered from vanity and assumed that our attention was directed at them; not at what they were used to say.

Over time, the words become like grammatical codes of importance in human life.

A word that underwent such a process in bioethics is autonomy. It was first used to communicate an urgency, namely, that patients and research participants must be respected. They have a right to information about what is about to happen, and to decide whether they want to undergo some treatment or participate in some experiment.

Patients and research participants have this understandable right to autonomy.

But as the word was used to communicate this urgency, the importance seemed to move into the word. If patients have a right to “autonomy,” mustn’t autonomy be a valuable trait that can be supported so that we increase the value?

Is autonomy perhaps even the most valuable aspect of the human: our characteristic when we are in our most rational state as rational animals. Perhaps autonomy is human essence?

From having been a comprehensible right, autonomy assumed the appearance of a super important value to constantly look for, like for a holy grail.

The question arose: Should we restrict people’s freedom to make own choices, if the choices threaten future autonomy?

We occasionally do disrespect people’s choices: for their sake. What I’m blogging about today is the tendency to replace “for their sake” with “for the sake of future autonomy.”

A new article in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy deals with the question. You find the article by clicking the link below:

The article is written by Manne Sjöstrand, Stefan Eriksson, Niklas Juth and Gert Helgesson. They criticize the idea of a paternalistic policy to restrict people’s freedom in order to support their future autonomy.

The authors choose to argue from the opponent’s point of view. They thus start out from the interpretation of autonomy as super important value, and then try to show that such a policy becomes self-defeating. Future autonomy will be threatened by such a policy, much like the dictatorship of the proletariat never liberated humans but chained them to a totalitarian order.

The article is well-argued and should alert those enchanted by the word “autonomy” to the need of checking their claims.

Even though the article does not disenchant the concept of autonomy through the philosophical humor that I described in a previous post, I was struck by the tragicomedy of claiming that the ultimate reason why healthcare staff should not comply with a patient’s request for help to die is that… assisted death would destroy the patient’s autonomy.

Pär Segerdahl

Minding our language - the Ethics Blog

One Response to Beware of the vanity of “autonomy”

  1. […] are two tempting pictures of the human. One is that we (ideally) are autonomous individuals who make rational choices on the basis of information. The other picture is that our individuality […]

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