Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).
(Originally published at Talking Philosophy (2012). Despite the final "What do you think?", I'm not opening this reposting to further discussion, just preserving the post as it stood.)
Of late, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of autonomy: the idea that we are, or can be, self-governing persons. This idea has great philosophical and practical importance. In particular, it is a fundamental one in modern medical ethics/medical law/bioethics. Medical practice and health policy are supposed to be constrained in substantial and important ways by ideas of autonomy. Beyond that, such ideas seem to be important in social and political philosophy.
Even people who deny the existence of free will (perhaps conceiving of it in a metaphysical sense that sounds conceptually confused, or as just implausible when matched up against our best image of reality) appear to work with some conception of personal autonomy, however deflationary. I might deny the existence of free will, yet still protest if a doctor treats my problems in a way that she refuses to explain to me, or which I resent but am, for some reason, unable to resist.
I’m currently reading John Christman’s 2009 book on the subject, The Politics of Persons. This represents the state of the art, I guess, and it does seem to have its share of insights (though the prose is often clumsy and seldom inspired). Christman has some interesting discussion of what is actually at stake when we talk about autonomy in this sense.
For Christman, the issue seems to be when we can consider an agent to be someone whose capacities and viewpoint “should matter as the sources of valid claims in collective decisions and toward whom paternalistic intervention would be disrespectful” (p. 162).