Understanding autonomy relationally: Toward a reconfiguration of bioethical principles

Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 26 (4):365 – 386 (2001)
Abstract
Principle-based formulations of bioethical theory have recently come under increasing scrutiny, particularly insofar as they give prominence to personal autonomy. This essay critiques the dominant conceptualization of autonomy and urges an alternative formulation freed from the individualistic assumptions that pervade the prevailing framework. Drawing on feminist perspectives, I discuss the need for a vision of patient autonomy that joins relational experiences to individuality and acknowledges the influence of patterns of power and authority on the exercise of patient agency. Deficiencies in the current models of science and social relations guiding medical practice are analyzed, particularly (1) the tendency to disregard the patients self-knowledge and (2) failure to recognize limitations on the generalizability of medical knowledge. Models of social relations such as mothering and friendship are explored to advance a conception of autonomy better suited to the practical activities of medicine. In conclusion, I consider how acknowledgement of the specificity and complexity of social relations can contribute to reconfiguration of other principles comprising the standard framework of bioethics, particularly beneficence, justice, and equality.
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