Understanding Autonomy: An Urgent Intervention

Journal of Law and the Biosciences 1 (7) (2020)
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In this paper, I argue that the principle of respect for autonomy can serve as the basis for laws that significantly limit conduct, including orders mandating isolation and quarantine. This thesis is fundamentally at odds with an overwhelming consensus in contemporary bioethics that the principle of respect for autonomy, while important in everyday clinical encounters, must be 'curtailed', 'constrained', or 'overridden' by other principles in times of crisis. I contend that bioethicists have embraced an indefensibly 'thin' notion of autonomy that uproots the concept from its foundations in Kantian ethics. According to this thin conception, respect for autonomy, if unconditioned by competing principles (beneficence, justice, non-maleficence) would give competent adults the right to do anything they desired to do so long as they satisfied certain baseline psychological conditions. I argue that the dominant 'principlist' model of bioethical reasoning depends on this thin view of autonomy and show how it deprives us of powerful analytical tools that would help us to think seriously about the foundations of human rights, justice, and law. Then, I offer a brief sketch of a 'thick', historically grounded notion of autonomy and show what we could gain by taking it seriously.

Author's Profile

Samuel Reis-Dennis
Rice University


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