Is respect for autonomy defensible?

Journal of Medical Ethics 33 (6):353-356 (2007)
Abstract
Three main claims are made in this paper. First, it is argued that Onora O’Neill has uncovered a serious problem in the way medical ethicists have thought about both respect for autonomy and informed consent. Medical ethicists have tended to think that autonomous choices are intrinsically worthy of respect, and that informed consent procedures are the best way to respect the autonomous choices of individuals. However, O’Neill convincingly argues that we should abandon both these thoughts. Second, it is argued that O’Neill’s proposed solution to this problem is inadequate. O’Neill’s approach requires that a more modest view of the purpose of informed consent procedures be adopted. In her view, the purpose of informed consent procedures is simply to avoid deception and coercion, and the ethical justification for informed consent derives from a different ethical principle, which she calls principled autonomy. It is argued that contrary to what O’Neill claims, the wrongness of coercion cannot be derived from principled autonomy, and so its credentials as a justification for informed consent procedures is weak. Third, it is argued that we do better to rethink autonomy and informed consent in terms of respecting persons as ends in themselves, and a characteristically liberal commitment to allowing individuals to make certain categories of decisions for themselves. Respect for autonomy is in trouble. In recent work in this journal1 and elsewhere,2 O’Neill has forcefully argued that respect for autonomy, as it has come to be used in medical ethics, is philosophically indefensible. If her arguments are sound, then, contrary to the standard view, respect for autonomy cannot be the source of the ethical requirement to seek informed consent before treating a patient or enrolling a participant in a trial. So her critique goes to the heart of contemporary medical ethics: if O’Neill is right, medical ethicists have systematically misunderstood two of the most fundamental concepts they deal with—respect for autonomy and informed consent. This paper has four sections. Section 1 distinguishes between three different ways of talking about respect for autonomy, and looks in more detail at the one that has come to be central to bioethical writing on informed consent—namely, the idea that we should respect autonomous choices. Section 2 argues, following O’Neill, that it is implausible to think that the purpose of informed consent requirements is to respect autonomous choices. Section 3 argues that O’Neill’s proposed reworking of autonomy and informed consent is inadequate. O’Neill’s approach requires us to adopt a more modest view of the purpose of informed consent procedures. In her view, the purpose of informed consent procedures is simply to avoid deception and coercion, and the ethical justification for informed consent derives from a different ethical principle, which she calls principled autonomy. I argue that contrary to what O’Neill claims, we cannot derive the wrongness of coercion from principled autonomy, and so its credentials as a justification for informed consent procedures is weak. Section 4 argues that we do better to rethink autonomy and informed consent in terms of respecting persons as ends in themselves, and a characteristically liberal commitment to allowing individuals to make certain categories of decisions for themselves.
Keywords Medical Ethics  Autonomy  Informed Consent
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