Perplexed by autonomy

PÄR SEGERDAHL Associate Professor of Philosophy and editor of The Ethics BlogDuring the seminar this week we discussed an elusive concept. The concept is supposed to be about ordinary people, but it is a concept that ordinary people hardly use about themselves.

We talked about autonomy, which is a central notion in ethical discussions about how patients and research participants should be treated. They should be respected as persons who make their own decisions on the basis of information about the options.

The significance of this is evident if we consider cases where patients are given risky treatments without being informed about the risks and given the opportunity to refuse treatment. Or cases where vulnerable persons are forced to function as research subjects in various experiments.

“Respect people’s autonomy!” is comprehensible as a slogan against such tendencies.

What makes the concept more elusive, however, is that increasingly it is used more speculatively as the name of a valuable quality in the human, perhaps even the superior and most distinctive one. Instead of functioning as a comprehensible slogan in a real context, the notion becomes utopian, demanding that individuals constantly be informed about options and making decisions.

Autonomy becomes the superior imperative in all areas of human life.

Such a totalized imperative displaces the meaning of these areas of life, for example, the meaning of health care. Health care no longer seems being primarily about treating people’s diseases (while respecting their autonomy), but as being about developing diagnoses and treatments that give individual patients more information and options to choose between.

The concept of autonomy becomes a utopian construct that does not face the real-life challenges that made the slogan comprehensible, because it aims towards an ideal solution without need of the slogan. Every human practice is turned into an arena that first of all supports autonomy.

The speculative concept is somewhat self-contradictory, however, since it is imposed paternalistically as the essence of the human, while the humans concerned hardly use it to understand themselves. Well, then we’ll have to turn them into such individuals!

No, I confess I’m quite perplexed by the utopian-intellectual refinement of otherwise comprehensible slogans like autonomy, justice and freedom. These efforts appear like the noblest efforts of humankind, and yet they run amok with our words and displace the meaning of every human practice.

Pär Segerdahl

We like real-life ethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se

2 Responses to Perplexed by autonomy

  1. Amal Matar says:

    Sometimes I feel autonomy is a luxury or a concept applicable only for few specific individuals who have reached the level of self actualization.

    • Thanks for comment! Yes, maybe the focus on autonomous persons and autonomous decisions needs to be counterbalanced by a focus on the vulnerable persons in need that we also are.

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