Autonomy and Dignity

In Ben Colburn (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Autonomy. Routledge (forthcoming)
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Like the ‘thoughts and prayers’ so commonly offered by politicians in the aftermath of disaster, it is incredibly common to hear ‘autonomy and dignity’ invoked together in response to some threat to human wellbeing. As such, it seems natural to assume they must bear some kind of relation to one another. But are they merely two core human interests, that happen to be vulnerable to the same kinds of threat? Or are they interrelated in a deeper way? What I aim to do in this chapter is draw on the philosophical literature on both concepts to consider how they might be connected, and explore whether certain ways of connecting them are more fruitful than others. I argue that the two most prominent connections drawn in the philosophical literature – that dignity is grounded in autonomy, and that respect for dignity is synonymous with respect for autonomy – are both highly problematic. Instead, I suggest we see autonomy and dignity as mutually supportive. Doing so has both practical and theoretical benefits: it can help us identify threats to both autonomy and dignity; and it exposes theoretical lacunae, especially within the autonomy literature.

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Suzy Killmister
Monash University


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