The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy

By Fletcher, David B. | Ethics & Medicine, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy


Fletcher, David B., Ethics & Medicine


The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy J. B. Schneewind Cambridge, U. K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997 ISBN: 0-521-47399-3; xv + 648 pp., hardcover $74.95, paper $27.95

Many who work in bioethics are frustrated by the way the concept of autonomy is used as a trump card to short-circuit debate about matters of ethical substance, particularly by those who would relax traditional moral prohibitions against abortion, physician-assisted suicide, and other practices. Autonomy, according to Beauchamp and Childress in Principles of Biomedical Ethics, is the acknowledgement of a "person's right to hold views, to make choices and to take actions based on personal values and beliefs." Yet, they argue that "respect for autonomy has only prima facie standing and can be overridden by competing moral considerations."

Recently, the late Fr. Richard A. McCormick has complained of what he calls "the absolutization of autonomy," arguing that "When the rightness or wrongness of choice is reduced to the single factor that it is this individual's choice, morality has been impoverished" ("Bioethics: A Moral Vacuum?" America, 180.15 (May 1 1999): 8-12). This absolutized autonomy is advocated by Dr. Jack Kevorkian, for whom "the highest principle in medical ethics - in any kind of ethics - is personal autonomy, self determination" (cited from Free Inquiry, Fall 1991, in McCormick's article).

Unbridled autonomy is defended by several prominent moral philosophers in Assisted Suicide: The Philosophers' Brief, submitted to the Supreme Court (New York Review of Books, March 27, 1997). The Brief's authors explain autonomy as the right of "every competent person ...to make momentous personal decisions that involve fundamental religious or philosophical convictions about life's value for himself," including "decisions about religious faith, political and moral allegiance, marriage, procreation and death."

This is autonomy to frame individualistic conceptions of reality, political allegiance and views of marriage and the family! One is hard pressed to imagine a society that could be truly indifferent to the choices one would make in these areas. How did autonomy come to prevail over all other important moral values? How did morality come to be identified with being independent and self-governing, rather than with being faithful and obedient?

In The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy, J. B. Schneewind tells the story of how in the past few centuries morality developed from a matter of obedience to that of autonomy. In particular, he explores the philosophical and historical contexts of the questions addressed by Immanuel Kant in his influential work in ethics, one in which autonomy is given pride of place. Kant "invented the conception of morality as autonomy" (p. …

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