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Relational Autonomy and Paternalistic Interventions


Relational conceptions of autonomy attempt to take into account the social aspects of autonomous agency. Those views that incorporate not merely causally, but constitutively necessary relational conditions, incorporate a condition that has the form:

(RelAgency) A necessary condition for autonomous agency is that the agent stands in social relations S.

I argue that any account that incorporates such a condition (irrespective of how the relations, S, are spelt out) cannot play one of autonomy’s key normative roles: identifying those agents who ought to be protected from (hard) paternalistic intervention. I argue, against objections from Oshana, that there are good reasons for maintaining the notion of autonomy in this role, and thus that such relational conceptions should not be accepted. This rejection goes beyond that from John Christman, which holds only for those relational conditions which are value-laden.

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  1. 1.

    The considerations I raise here are consistent with, but should be separated from, a distinct concern: that conceptions of autonomy in general (including many ‘internalist’ conceptions) are too demanding to be able to play the normative roles demanded of them. This is a different worry, and one I do not address here. It is important to note, however, that an ‘externalist’ or constitutively relational account might be relatively undemanding, but will nonetheless be ill-suited to play the role of protecting from paternalistic intervention as I shall argue.

  2. 2.

    I do not mean that autonomy has merely instrumental value, such that we want autonomy in order to secure these other goods.

  3. 3.

    See Christman (2004) for discussion of these three roles. Note, though, that Christman does not talk of the ‘normative goods’ that attach to autonomy, and (as I later argue) that my concern is importantly different––being broader in scope––than that he expresses in this paper.

  4. 4.

    The reason for which I focus on Oshana's view, further, is that other purported constitutively relational accounts are in fact causally relational, as I set out in the section below, “Paternalism: ‘the core case’ and an Internalist Conception of Autonomy”.

  5. 5.

    The account Oshana specifies in her Oshana 2006 (at pp. 83–90) builds on the relational condition she sets out in her (Oshana 1998) paper.

  6. 6.

    I mean here the mental act of choice, rather than an action of choosing by pointing or taking.

  7. 7.

    There is, of course, a precedent for separating these aspects of agency out in the literature on morally responsible agency: we have a common-sense understanding of what it is to regard an agent as morally responsible, whilst such an agent may fail to be morally responsible for particular choices or actions (due to the presence of false beliefs, or problems in execution of intention, and so on).

  8. 8.

    See Mill (1962, p. 135): ‘the only purpose for which power can rightfully be exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others’.

  9. 9.

    Regarding claims about the relationship between paternalism and autonomy, we should note that Christman and Dworkin do not appear to agree that autonomy sets the bounds for paternalism: Christman holding that all autonomous agents should be so protected, Dworkin arguing that soft paternalism can be justified. But given that Christman’s conception of autonomy (1991) incorporates the counterfactual condition to the effect that were the agent to reflect on the source of her disposition to do action p, she would endorse it, we can see the views of the two aligning. In cases of soft paternalism, the agent would endorse the source of her motive to act––namely, the coercive pressure, for the sake of some good that she herself endorses. Thus the seeming disagreement disappears.

  10. 10.

    Clearly, how much further reflection one might demand will need to be settled. I do not intend this clause to build in ‘ideal observer’ conditions. The precise extent might be guided by the procedural conditions specified by one’s preferred account of autonomous choice.

  11. 11.

    The Mental Capacity Act, 2005 decrees that whether or not an agent has the relevant decision-making capacities should determine whether an agent should be able to make her own decisions.

  12. 12.

    By ‘deserving’, Oshana means simply one who is not, by their action, violating the harm principle.

  13. 13.

    We should be clear here that Oshana is on the one hand offering a descriptive claim––that failing to stand in the relevant social relations might erode the basis of respect and make more likely interference by others (as I mention shortly, the role of de jure autonomy may block any such erosion, however). On the other hand, Oshana is clearly offering a normative claim: that paternalistic intervention can sometimes be justified, when agents do not stand in the appropriate social relations. This much is clear from the language in the quoted passages: ‘I believe a case can be made that strong [hard] paternalistic intervention is sometimes needed’; ‘The failure of people to decide accurately about their autonomy might offer one reason in favour of paternalistic interferences’; autonomy ‘must be preserved’ (my italics). I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for raising this possibility.

  14. 14.

    Narayan for example discusses how the imposition of certain practices (motivated to further the good of a group of agents) can worsen the situation of those whom the imposition intends to help.

  15. 15.

    One may, of course, hold that whilst it would be in the interests of the agent to be pushed towards social-relational autonomy, other considerations––liberty, say––speak against this. But then we return to the worries just aired, under option B; it is no longer autonomy that is grounding such normative goods.

  16. 16.

    Benson's view is developed, to give role to the agent’s authorisation of her own will, in his 2005. To be clear, Benson is concerned not with choice or action (‘local’ autonomy): ‘the authorisation is an authorisation of agents with respect to their wills, not, in the first instance, authorisation of their motives or courses of action’ (2005, p. 107). His condition is for autonomous agency.

  17. 17.

    It is worth noting, however, that insofar as an ‘externalist’ condition is rejected, the burden remains for the internalist to make sense of the intuitions concerning the non-autonomy of agents who choose deferential or subservient roles. Without wishing to deny that there is some difficulty with such cases, I find persuasive the line of thought that, in fact, the class of agents who opt for such roles might be diverse, psychologically speaking, and some such agents may be more troubling than others. This indicates, at least, that an internalist account might indeed be better placed to make sense of any such intuitions than the blanket (negative) diagnosis of an externalist account. I owe this observation to Andrea Westlund (personal correspondence pertaining to her forthcoming ‘Rethinking Relational Autonomy’).


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This paper has benefited from generous feedback from Jenny Saul and Jimmy Lenman, as well as from audiences at The Joint Sessions in Aberdeen, 2008, and a SWIP-UK conference in Nottingham, 2007. I am also grateful for the comments from anonymous referees for this journal.

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Correspondence to Jules Holroyd.

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Holroyd, J. Relational Autonomy and Paternalistic Interventions. Res Publica 15, 321 (2009).

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  • Autonomy
  • Relational conditions
  • Paternalism
  • Marina Oshana
  • John Christman