Back in March, I had a very nice debate with someone named Paul C over at my good friend’s blog. The context of the debate was morality, specifically abortion. Paul C is a moral skeptic. He presented a view that an ethical code must maximize individual autonomy. Based on my interactions, this seemed to be his overarching guide in these sorts of things. It was my first exposure to the argument, and I have been thinking about this off and on since the debate ended. I decided to gather my responses here, mostly so I have access to them when I need them again. They are getting buried deep in the nether-reaches of Rhoblogy.

In the discussion, Paul C defined autonomy as “the free exercise of choice.” Furthermore, “maximizing autonomy means giving people a) a wider range of options for their decisions and b) more information on which to base their decisions.” The argument was then made that maximizing autonomy will increase well-being, both personally and corporately. However, Paul C contradicted this, “my goal is to maximize autonomy, not well-being, and for everybody, not personally.” In my opinion, the point of an autonomy-based ethic would be to increase well-being. If not, why pursue such an ethic? At any rate, I argue that an autonomy-based ethic fails for the following reasons:

  1. There no reason to accept that having more autonomy will provide more information for decision-making. Increasing the range of options available does not mean that information is increased as well.
  2. The idea that increasing choices will increase well-being is flawed.
  3. Maximizing autonomy for one individual affects the autonomy of others, by changing the range of options available to other people. In this sense, the goal of maximizing autonomy paralyzes decision-making because we do not have appropriate knowledge of the contingencies involved nor are we able to realistically determine whether or not one autonomous decision increases the autonomy of the whole. It is important to note that the summation is required to apply an autonomy-based ethic to a group of people. Ignoring this problem because we do not have the information or are the calculations are too cumbersome to evaluate is shortsighted because we may be making decisions that actually reduce overall autonomy.
  4. Long-term consequences must be known to effectively use an autonomy-based ethic. I argue that if we are in the business of maximizing autonomy, specifically to increase well-being, then it should be over the long haul. The fact that we can’t actually make this assessment counts against this methodology.