Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sarah Conly's "Against Autonomy"

Sarah Conly is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bowdoin College. Her book, Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism, has just been published by Cambridge University Press.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to Against Autonomy and reported the following:
We make bad decisions all the time. Even when we are properly informed—we know what our BMI should be for health and a longer life, we know how many calories are in our McDonald’s meal, and we know that excess calories make us fat-- we go ahead and eat. When we know what our income is, we still buy the house we’ll only be able to afford if we win the lottery; and instead of saving, our plan for a solvent retirement is to cross our fingers and hope for the best. In these and other familiar areas, when we are left to our own devices, we do things that undercut our ability to reach the goals that we, ourselves, really care about. The argument of my book is that we should be stopped: that it is sometimes permissible—even obligatory—for the government to interfere in what we normally think of as our personal lives. While it’s true that we typically talk about the importance of our ability to decide for ourselves how to live, about what we call our autonomy, I think that autonomy is overrated. When our decisions keep us from doing what we want to do in the long run, it’s time for the government to step in. Paternalism— a system of laws that prevent us from doing what is harmful to ourselves—is justified.

Page 99 of my book addresses the typical response that is made to arguments in favor of paternalistic laws: that even if those laws help us reach our goals, they will make us unhappy. I respond that this danger is overrated:
All in all, the dangers of paternalistic regulation per se for psychological health are not great. While it does constitute a loss of control in some areas, those losses are not likely to be experienced as significant, and are furthermore compensated for by improvements that may allow more meaningful choices. The recognition that we need help in certain areas is not itself destructive, especially when the help we need is provided.
How much does it bother us to wear seat-belts? Not much, and the results are worth whatever irritation we may feel. Why not extend such legislation into many more areas of life?

Of course, this is not the only danger we perceive in paternalism. Against Autonomy systematically addresses the various dangers of paternalism, and systematically shows that they are not so great as we fear: that in the end, the state in which we surrender more control over our lives is the one in which those lives are much, much better.
Read an excerpt from Against Autonomy, and learn more about the book at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue