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).

That sounds quite good to me. What do you think?

  1. Christman, like Velleman, Frankfurt, Stoljar, and many others, is certainly necessary to read if you’re interested in modern studies of autonomy. So although I haven’t read that particular book, I’m sure you’re in good hands.

    But even so, autonomy an enormously thorny (though rewarding) subject. It is a particularly troubling subfield because the very idea of autonomy has all the metaphysical pomp you’d expect from a discussion of agency, mixed with all the normative bluster you’d expect from a discussion of responsibility. Perhaps even more than in any other contemporary topic in philosophy, the student of autonomy has to be completely up front and self-aware about their political ideology, and try to really respect the idea of autonomy as a subject in its own right.

  2. I’m afraid it’s turtles all the way.

    An agent is: “someone”
    Not a thing then? Must it be living, conscious, a human? This needs further definition.
    whose capacities
    Which capacities? Are any critical? Could a collection of non-critical ones add up to enough to make them critical?
    and viewpoint
    Viewpoint on what? Compared to whose?
    “should matter as the sources of valid claims
    Valid on whose say so?
    in collective decisions
    Which collective? Can one be an agent in one collective but not another?
    and toward whom paternalistic intervention would be disrespectful”
    Disrespectful? To who? In whose eyes?

    Sorry, ‘agent’ requires a bit more than this. Frankly, it appears to be much like pornography: I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it. (Or, at least, it’s worth treating things as if they have agency if they appear to have it.)

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