How Autonomy Can Legitimate Beneficial Coercion

In Jakov Gather, Tanja Henking, Alexa Nossek & Jochen Vollmann (eds.), Beneficial Coercion in Psychiatry? Foundations and Challenges. M√ľnster: Mentis. pp. 85-99 (2017)
Download Edit this record How to cite View on PhilPapers
Respect for autonomy and beneficence are frequently regarded as the two essential principles of medical ethics, and the potential for these two principles to come into conflict is often emphasised as a fundamental problem. On the one hand, we have the value of beneficence, the driving force of medicine, which demands that medical professionals act to protect or promote the wellbeing of patients or research subjects. On the other, we have a principle of respect for autonomy, which demands that we respect the self-regarding decisions of individuals. As well as routinely coming into opposition with the demands of beneficence in medicine, the principle of respect for autonomy in medical ethics is often seen as providing protection against beneficial coercion (i.e. paternalism) in medicine. However, these two values are not as straightforwardly opposed as they may appear on the surface. In fact, the way that we understand autonomy can lead us to implicitly sanction a great deal of paternalistic action, or can smuggle in paternalistic elements under the guise of respect for autonomy. This paper is dedicated to outlining three ways in which the principle of respect for autonomy, depending on how we understand the concept of autonomy, can sanction or smuggle in paternalistic elements. As the specific relationship between respect for autonomy and beneficence will depend on how we conceive of autonomy, I begin by outlining two dominant conceptions of autonomy, both of which have great influence in medical ethics. I then turn to the three ways in which how we understand or employ autonomy can increase or support paternalism: firstly, when we equate respect for autonomy with respect for persons; secondly, when our judgements about what qualifies as an autonomous action contain intersubjective elements; and thirdly, when we expect autonomy to play an instrumental role, that is, when we expect people, when they are acting autonomously, to act in a way that promotes or protects their own wellbeing. I then provide a proposal for how we might work to avoid this. I will suggest that it may be impossible to fully separate paternalistic elements out from judgements about autonomy. Instead, we are better off looking at why we are motivated to use judgements about autonomy as a means of restricting the actions of patients or research subjects. I will argue that this is a result of discomfort about speaking directly about our beneficent motivations in medical ethics. Perhaps we can reduce the incentive to smuggle in these beneficent motivations under the guise of autonomy by talking directly about beneficent motivations in medicine. This will also force us to recognise paternalistic motivations in medicine when they appear, and to justify paternalism where it occurs.
PhilPapers/Archive ID
Upload history
Archival date: 2018-07-24
View other versions
Added to PP index

Total views
582 ( #9,477 of 2,439,463 )

Recent downloads (6 months)
39 ( #18,183 of 2,439,463 )

How can I increase my downloads?

Downloads since first upload
This graph includes both downloads from PhilArchive and clicks on external links on PhilPapers.