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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 December 2003

Bernard Berofsky
Philosophy, Columbia University


Autonomy, we suppose, is self-regulation or self-direction. There is a distinct idea that is easily confused with self-direction, namely, self-expression, self-fulfillment, or self-realization. (I do not mean to suggest that the latter three terms are all synonymous. But in this essay, whatever differences there are among them play no role, so I will use them interchangeably.) Although it will turn out paradoxically that autonomy is neither self-regulation nor self-realization, it is reasonable to suppose that the former is a superior candidate. My teacher of Indian religion, Dr. Subodh Roy, blind from birth, chose not to undergo an operation that would have made him sighted because he believed, perhaps rightly, that the ability to see would interfere with his religious quest. He thereby chose not to realize one of his fundamental human capacities, one whose cultivation has produced some of the finest fruits of civilization. Joseph Raz describes a case in which a man places his life in jeopardy by undertaking a trip to deliver medical aid to a group of people in a distant place. Since he will be unable to secure food for several days, he, in effect, subordinates one of his own basic needs or interests to a goal that he deems more important. There is no reason to believe that, in refusing to express or realize a dimension of self, either Dr. Roy or Raz's philanthropist have failed to act autonomously.

Research Article
© 2003 Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation

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