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Autonomy and Settling: Rehabilitating the Relationship between Autonomy and Paternalism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 March 2015

Kansas State


In this article I show the shortcomings of autonomy-based justifications for exemptions from paternalism and appeal to the value of settling to defend an alternative well-being-based justification. My well-being-based justification, unlike autonomy-based justifications, can (1) explain why adults but not children are exempt from paternalism; (2) show which kinds of paternalism are justified for children; (3) explain the value of the capacity of autonomy; (4) offer a plausible relationship between autonomy and exemption from paternalism; and (5) give political philosophers a justification for exempting persons from paternalism even if broad scepticism about the capacity for autonomy is justified.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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1 Christman, J. and Anderson, J., ‘Introduction’, Autonomy and the Challenges to Liberalism: New Essays, ed. Christman, J. and Anderson, J. (New York, 2005), pp. 126, at 3CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 See, for instance, Christman, J., The Politics of Persons: Individual Autonomy and Socio-historical Selves (Cambridge, 2009), p. 135CrossRefGoogle Scholar; O’Neill, O., ‘Paternalism and Partial Autonomy’, Journal of Medical Ethics 10 (1984), pp. 173–8CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Mackenzie, C., ‘Relational Autonomy, Normative Authority and Perfectionism’, Journal of Social Philosophy 39 (2008), pp. 512–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 512; Khader, S. J., Adaptive Preferences and Women's Empowerment (Oxford, 2011), p. 104CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 However, I do suggest later in the article that the justification might rule out even many instances of trivial paternalism.

4 Mill, J. S., On Liberty (Boston, 1863), p. 147Google Scholar.

5 Feinberg, J., ‘The Child's Right to an Open Future’, Freedom and Fulfillment: Philosophical Essays, ed. Feinberg, J. (Princeton, 1980/1992), pp. 7697, at 91Google Scholar.

6 Calhoun, C., ‘What Good is Commitment?’, Ethics 119 (2009), pp. 613–41, at 618CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 I take informed desire accounts to be the most plausible accounts of well-being, but due to space constraints, I cannot pursue this point here. My argument also holds for some more sophisticated types of objective list theories which allow that the content of lists may vary from individual to individual.

8 Goodin, R. E., On Settling (Princeton and Oxford, 2012), p. 32Google Scholar.

9 Goodin, Settling, p. 38.

10 Goodin, Settling, pp. 38–9.

11 Note that commitments are not prison cells. We will all give up and change some commitments over the course of our lives – and some commitments may be provisional from the start, as in the case of the person who knows that she wants to have several careers in her life. But rejecting a commitment also plays a role in one's sense of self that cannot be played by the rejection of a passing whim. It matters far more to who I am that I used to be (say) a Catholic than that I used occasionally to eat kale.

12 Goodin, Settling, pp. 64–5.

13 Goodin, Settling, p. 65.

14 Goodin, Settling, pp. 52–6.

15 Goodin, Settling, pp. 60–2.

16 Harman, E., ‘“I’ll Be Glad I Did It” Reasoning and the Significance of Future Desires’, Philosophical Perspectives 23 (2009), pp. 177–99, at 191CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 Of course, it may be much more likely that one's religion has reached the status of commitment than, say, her preference not to wear a seatbelt. Note again that I am offering a justification for the wrongness of paternalism when it is wrong, not an argument that all cases are in fact wrong. That said, given what I say here, there is at least some argument to be made against even trivial types of paternalism. See below for discussion.

18 And of course, everything that I say here remains consistent with the utterly uncontroversial practice of using coercive intervention to protect the interests of third parties.

19 Or at least that adults are owed it to a stronger degree than are children.

20 I propose a demanding account below.

21 I thank an anonymous reviewer for pressing me on these points.

22 Of course, autonomy may be important for other reasons as well, for instance because it allows us to act effectively, or because it allows us to be held morally responsible. I focus on this element of the importance of autonomy because it is the one most relevant to the question of well-being.

23 For interesting discussion, see Kagan, S., ‘Well-being as Enjoying the Good’, Philosophical Perspectives 23 (2009), pp. 253–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 This account of objective and subjective interests is suggested in Harsanyi, J. C., ‘Morality and the Theory of Rational Behavior’, Utilitarianism and Beyond, ed. Sen, A. and Williams, B. (Cambridge, 1982), pp. 3962, esp. 55Google Scholar.

25 Other similarly demanding accounts of autonomy could have been used here with the same effect. Less demanding accounts of autonomy will have a similar but more limited effect.

26 Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972) 406 U.S. 205.

27 Indeed, even those theorists who do not reject the Yoder ruling at least tacitly recognize the importance of these mechanisms for children's ability to leave their community. See Galston, W. A., Liberal Pluralism (Cambridge, 2002), esp. ch. 8CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Nussbaum, M., Woman and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 232–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mazie, S. V., ‘Consenting Adults? Amish Rumspringa and the Quandary of Exit in Liberalism’, Perspectives on Politics 3 (2005), pp. 745–59, at 755CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 See Raz, J., The Morality of Freedom (Oxford, 1986)Google Scholar and Kymlicka, W., Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights (Oxford, 1995)Google Scholar.

29 Reich, R., ‘Opting Out of Education: Yoder, Mozert, and the Autonomy of Children’, Educational Theory 52 (2002), pp. 445–61, at 459CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For other philosophers who emphasize awareness, see Macleod, C. M., ‘Conceptions of Parental Autonomy’, Politics & Society 25 (1997), pp. 117–40CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gheaus, A., ‘Arguments for Nonparental Care for Children’, Social Theory and Practice 37 (2011), pp. 483509CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 See Shachtman, T., Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish (New York, 2006)Google Scholar.

31 Mills, C., ‘The Child's Right to an Open Future?’, Journal of Social Philosophy 34 (2003), pp. 499509, at 501CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 For discussion, see Okin, S. M., ‘“Mistresses of Their Own Destiny”: Group Rights, Gender, and Realistic Rights of Exit’, Ethics 112 (2002), pp. 205–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 For theorists who argue that children are owed the chance to develop critical thinking skills including independence of mind, see Gutmann, A., ‘Children, Paternalism, and Education: A Liberal Argument’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 9 (1980), pp. 338–58Google Scholar; Andersson, E., ‘Political Liberalism and the Interests of Children: A Reply to Fowler’, Res Publica 17 (2011), pp. 291–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Cuypers, S. E. and Haji, I., ‘Educating for Well-being and Autonomy’, Theory and Research in Education 6 (2008), pp. 7193Google Scholar; Arneson, R. and Shapiro, I., ‘Democratic Autonomy and Religious Freedom: A Critique of Wisconsin v. Yoder’, Democracy's Place, ed. Shapiro, I. (Ithaca and London, 1996)Google Scholar; Reich, ‘Opting Out’; Macleod, ‘Conceptions of Parental Autonomy’. Even theorists who think that children are not owed the chance to develop these skills recognize that they are necessary to make a right of exit more than formal. See Spinner-Halev, J., Surviving Diversity: Religion and Democratic Citizenship (Baltimore, 2000), pp. 71–2Google Scholar.

34 For argument on this point, see Christman, Politics of Persons.

35 For more on this debate, see Nussbaum, M. C., ‘Perfectionist Liberalism and Political Liberalism’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 39 (2011), pp. 345CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 See, for instance Haidt, J., ‘The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment’, Psychological Review 108 (2001), pp. 814–34CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

37 Jaggar, A., Feminist Politics and Human Nature (Totowa, NJ, 1983), p. 29Google Scholar.

38 Jaggar, Feminist Politics, p. 29.

39 Some feminists prefer to reconfigure the capacity rather than reject its value wholesale. See Relational Autonomy: Feminist Perspectives on Autonomy, Agency, and the Social Self, ed. C. Mackenzie and N. Stoljar (Oxford, 2000).

40 See, for instance, Quong, J., Liberalism without Perfection (Oxford, 2011)Google Scholar.

41 I am grateful to many people for their feedback on earlier versions of this article. Versions were presented at the Australian National University Social and Political Theory seminar series and at the Political Theory Seminar Series at University of Amsterdam. I thank audience members for helpful feedback in both cases. Additionally, Christian Barry, Adrian Curry, Marilyn Friedman, Jonathan Herington, Amy Lara, Seth Lazar, Thomas Pogge, Jonathan Quong, Scott Wisor and an anonymous reviewer for this journal all provided helpful written or verbal feedback on various drafts of the article, for which I am grateful.