A Critique of Autonomy

by Benjamin Studebaker

If this appears to be “moral philosophy week”, bear with me–I just keep having interesting conversations on the subject. On a couple occasions this week, the topic of autonomy has come up, usually as a principle to contrast with my favoured principle, utility. It is said that when we prioritise what is useful, we invariably use other people as means to ends, and in so doing violate their autonomy, which deontologically held to be sacrosanct and inviolate. While I have made arguments concerning “using people” in the past, I find myself ultimately dissatisfied with the contractualist appeal I have often resorted to (i.e. that rational people in a Rawlsian original position would agree to be used from time to time for the benefit of others on condition that everyone else agreed to be used from time to time as well). What I would like to do is refute the value of autonomy more totally, and, thanks to an idea I had late last night, I think I am in a position to do it.

First, allow me to provide an understanding of autonomy that I hope we can agree upon. “Autonomy” is the condition of being able to make meaningful choices for oneself independent of coercion. Consider the following case:

I live in a village of 100 people, including Shaquille O’Neal. One day, my village is attacked by raiders. If Shaquille O’Neal defends the village, the raiders will be repulsed by his fantastic strength and athleticism, but Shaquille O’Neal will be killed. If however the village goes undefended, everyone in the village except for Shaquille O’Neal will die–he will escape in the confusion. Shaquille O’Neal does not desire to defend the village because he wishes to live, and does not consider the village a worthwhile cause for his self-sacrifice. Fair enough–I do not hold that people are morally compelled to choose of their own volition to sacrifice themselves for others. However, is the village permitted to forcibly conscript Shaquille O’Neal and make him defend the village, knowing he will be killed? I argue yes, because the social interest of the village outweighs Shaquille O’Neal’s individual interest. If, however, autonomy is an inviolate value, then I must permit the village to be slaughtered so as to protect Shaquille O’Neal’s autonomy–his freedom to make his own meaningful choices independent of coercion.

Now, if you’re like me, it just seems intuitively obvious that the village is permitted to conscript Shaquille O’Neal. I am even inclined to say that it is required, because the village government has moral obligations to protect as many of its members as possible. However, for some people, the intuitive appeal of the case is not enough. For these people, there are two positions I have come to on autonomy, either one of which is sufficient for the refutation of the value. This means if you agree with either one of these arguments, it makes no sense to care about autonomy or “using people” beyond a very limited scope. They are:

  1. Argument from Anarchism
  2. Argument from Determinism

I should like to consider each argument in turn.

Argument from Anarchism:

Usually when proponents of autonomy bring up the value, they bring up cases in which the person being coerced will die as a result and try to invite a sense of guilt on the part of the one making the moral decision for having brought this about. The trolley case is a famous example. In the trolley case, a trolley is going to kill five people. One has the option of throwing one very large individual in front of the trolley, resulting in the death of the large individual, but saving the other five. While in terms of utility, the lives of the five outweigh the lives of the one, many people nonetheless feel moral unease about this case, because it requires them to commit what they see as murder. Interestingly, people often feel quite differently about the trolley case when it is a matter of pushing a button (i.e., if you do not push the button, the trolley will kill five people, but if you push the button, the trolley will switch onto a different track and kill one person). The difference between the the case in which the large individual is pushed and the case in which the button is pushed is consequentially nil. Instead it is argued that the real problem is that the large man’s autonomy is violated when he is pushed in front of the track.

Arguments of this type are taking advantage of the predisposition among some people to be emotionally opposed to killing in general, which results from the popular moral norm that “killing is just wrong, it’s always wrong, don’t kill people”. They are not properly isolating the autonomy value–they are attaching it to a scenario in which the person being interrogated must either embrace autonomy as a higher value than utility or feel the guilt of murder. In this way, the moral choice is obscured. So what about a case where autonomy is not intimately connected with a moral issue about which people are independently extremely passionate?

How about taxation? When the state taxes someone, it diminishes that individual’s autonomy. Instead of having a meaningful choice independent of coercion about how to spend the money, the individual is coerced into handing the money over to the state for uses determined by the state. Even if the individual gets a vote in that decision, unless the outcome of that vote is always what he would have chosen to do with the money anyway (and this, empirically, has never been so), invariably taxation will lead to a loss of autonomy. The libertarians and anarchists fume about this coercion, it is a central premise in their political theories, and if you sympathise with the libertarian or anarchist position, I can see this argument failing to sway you. If, like me, however, you think that the state can redistribute, that it can regulate, that it can make some behaviours legal or illegal for the good of society, then what you are saying is that if diminishing autonomy produces a given amount of good consequences, then it is justified to diminish autonomy. This means that you think autonomy is a good–it is a part of utility–but not that it countervails utility. It is one thing to say that letting people make their own decisions is good, quite another to say that this is the most important value, more important than any good results one might derive from coercion.

If you would still deny that the state can coerce people for the benefits of others, then you must accept a libertarian or anarchist political theory as the only possible outcome. One cannot be an egalitarian, prioritarian, sufficientarian, social conservative, utilitarian, Keynesian, Marxist, social liberal, any number of things, while simultaneously believing that autonomy is a more important value than consequences. This is not to say that autonomy does not count, or that one cannot take it into consideration, it is merely to say that it cannot countervail all other values. It must be treated as part of a utility equation, not independent of one.

Argument from Determinism:

This second argument will require that one agree to a broadly determinist world view. I think it is reasonable to be a determinist, and will offer up a brief explanation of why the reader should give it consideration, but then I will move on to the argument.

All human behaviour can be summed up by the following equation:

Nature + Nurture = Outcome

Nature is fixed from birth, and nurture is comprised entirely of experience. There’s plenty of room to argue for which has greater influence, but there is no place in this equation for an independent will. How could there be? When we are born, we are born with a nature, a set of characteristics, and those characteristics that determine how we view the world and make decisions are from then on influenced entirely by things that happen to us. We cannot make a decision independent of our own experience and of our own nature. On what basis would such a decision be made?

For this reason, I do not hold people responsible in a metaphysical sense for their actions. If the way I behave is a result of my genetics and socialisation, nothing more, then there is no will over which I have control to play the decisive role in my behaviour. This does not develop into an excuse for bad behaviour because my knowing that I do not have control over the way I behave cannot by definition change my behaviour unless it were such a profound experience so as to cancel in its entirety my personality. In my experience being a determinist, such is not the outcome. One continues to behave the very same way whether one knows one has no free will or not. Since I view all people to be products of their genetics and socialisation and see no role in their behaviour for a will over which they have control, I can blame no one for anything. I can despise a person’s effect upon the world, but to despise the individual personally is a nonsense. It is the action that aggrieves, not the actor.

If you accept determinism, no one is ever truly autonomous no matter what. All “autonomy” is is the sense that one is in control; it does not correspond to the a metaphysical reality; it is illusory. I think it a rather daft thing to put an illusion before the lives of people, before much more serious consequences. One cannot make meaningful decisions in the absence of coercion if one’s every thought, behaviour, tendency, and action is determined by the interaction of the physical laws upon oneself through genetics and experience.

If you accept the argument from anarchy, the autonomy principle leads to an anarchic or libertarian state of affairs that is undesirable because it results in abominable consequences which are far greater in their severity than autonomy is good.

If you accept the argument from determinism, the autonomy principle is an illusory fiction.

The only way to hold to autonomy is to embrace the minimal or non-existent state alongside a view of human action that provides some accounting for an independent will. The result would be twofold:

  1. Having to embrace a political ethos the outcome of which would be horrifying for millions of people in so far as it would always forbid reductions in autonomy no matter what resulted from it.
  2. Having to embrace a fallacious metaphysics that unnecessarily inserts a will into a place where there is neither evidence for it nor need for it, in defiance of Occam’s Razor.