Front Page Titles (by Subject) II: Autonomy - Literature of Liberty, January/March 1979, vol. 2, No. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
II: Autonomy - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, January/March 1979, vol. 2, No. 1 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
This work is copyrighted by the Institute for Humane Studies, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia, and is put online with their permission.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Autonomy refers to the individual's capacity and freedom to be psychologically, morally, and socially self-governing. It encompasses self-esteem, self-awareness, self-acceptance, self-responsibility, and self-assertion—values difficult to achieve and sustain. What further complicates or impedes the demanding exercise of personal autonomy are various forms of social paternalism, controls, and interventions. The following summaries examine how various are the infantilizing constraints that infringe or deny individual autonomy. The fields surveyed are various: mental health law, state institutional supervision, medical paternalism, educational dictation, the psychology of privacy and rewards, and the use of mercenaries. The dominant antagonist to the full flowering of autonomous self-governance in these fields is the state or other experts that would subordinate the individual to a child-like status “for their own good.” In the final summary dealing with the Ferrer Center we glimpse the possibilities for human growth and creativity when social institutions respect individual autonomy.
Mental Health Law and Autonomy
“Crazy Behavior, Morals, and Science: An Analysis of Mental Health Law.” Southern California Law Review 51 (May 1978): 527–654.
Mentally disordered or “crazy” behavior is a complex, debated phenomenon in the Anglo-American legal system and needs to be clarified by social, moral, logical, and scientific disciplines. This need arises because mental health laws raise perplexing questions with assumptions concerning a “crazy” person's self-responsibility, legal status, rights, and autonomy.
Specifically, mental health law adjudicates three basic questions: “Is the person normal?; Could the person have behaved otherwise?; and How will the person behave in the future?” Mental health law should primarily deal with moral and social evaluations of human conduct, and should view persons as possessed of free will with moral and legal responsibility for their actions. Law “should not treat mentally disordered persons significantly differently from nondisordered ones because there is little persuasive scientific evidence that the former have significantly less control over their legal relevant behavior or are more predictable than the latter.”
Presently, however, law usually treats mentally disordered persons as less responsible and less autonomous than “normal” persons and thus relegates the “crazy” to moral, political, and legal disadvantages. Mental health laws discriminate—without justification—by depriving some persons “of liberty, autonomy, or dignity by confining him or by negating the usual legal significance of his actions.” It is more respectful and moral to treat “crazy persons like everyone else.” Many “normal” persons behave either incompetently or dangerously and have as much or as little control over their behavior as “crazy” persons.
Little scientific evidence supports special treatment of all the “crazy” on the grounds that they cannot control themselves or be truly autonomous. Some small fraction of “crazy” people may lack fundamental control over their behavior. But, nevertheless, “in nearly all cases it will be possible to devise other means of protecting society and caring for disabled people that do not stigmatize crazy persons and deprive them of their rights.”
Sexual Repression vs. Autonomy
“Sex and Confinement.” Civil Liberties Review 5 (July/August 1978): 6–16.
When, if ever, does the state have the right to intervene in the noncriminal sexual activities of its citizens? This question touches on an intimate area of personal autonomy and choice.
One of the least discussed issues of institutionalization involves controlling the sex lives of the confined. The magnitude of the problem becomes alarming when we realize that about 2.5 million Americans are confined in jails, prisons, mental hospitals, institutions for the retarded, and nursing homes. Of the 2.5 million, fewer than 400,000 are confined as punishment for wrongdoing. These institutions are typically “total institutions”; that is, they attempt to manage all aspects of the lives of those confined. Since these institutions strive to totally control their inmates' lives, privacy for inmates is virtually impossible. The lack of privacy and institutional policies intended to prevent sexual activity by the inmates make sex largely unavailable. Within those institutions designed for individuals in their sexually active years, institutional separation of the sexes is the rule.
In addition to concerns over institutionally imposed celibacy are many issues raised by laws which permit the state or guardians of the handicapped and the retarded to have such “deficient” persons sterilized. Also noteworthy is the fact that the government has frequently used the threat of withholding various kinds of benefits in order to encourage sterilization.
Since most of the institutions the author discusses are government institutions, and the overwhelming majority of those confined have done nothing more serious than perhaps being a nuisance, there is a clear question of the state's right to impose celibacy or encourage (or force) sterilization.
Medical Paternalism vs. Autonomy
“Medical Paternalism.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 7 (Summer 1978): 370–390.
The medical paternalist model of the physician-patient relationship corrupts both medical practice and the patient's autonomy in deciding on medical treatment. The defective arguments propping up the medical paternalist's practice of withholding information from patients and their families reveals the flaws of the paternalist model. Furthermore the distinction between ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’ therapy is a symptom of the pervasive influence of the paternalist model.
Three arguments seek to justify withholding information from a patient or his family about a physician's diagnosis, and the possible treatments or risks of each kind of treatment. The first or “Prevention of Harm Argument” defends a physician's withholding information to minimize the harm alleged which bad news would work on the patient. Scant evidence ever supports this complex judgment, nor are the harms alleged wholly clinical or medical. Some invoke the Hippocratic Oath, which mentions preventing harm to patients to justify the paternalist withholding of information even from patients' families.
A second or “Contractual Version of the Prevention of Harm Argument” alleges that the patient, by contracting for a physician's services, authorizes that physician to withhold information which he judges would harm the patient. But clearly not all patients subscribe to this stipulation as part of their agreement with the physician. Since contract between physician and patient is conditional and limited, the patient is entitled to judge the physician's performance, and to terminate the relationship if in his judgment the physician has failed to live up to his obligations.
A third argument holds (particularly in treatments of defective newborns) that the physician alone can understand and unemotionally evaluate the consequences of alternate treatments. The physician is obligated to make a reasonable effort to make consequences of alternatives understood; he is not and cannot be obligated to succeed in making them understood. Moreover, this tends to nurture in patients and their families the very medical ignorance used to justify paternalism.
The medical paternalist view also governs the troublesome distinction between “ordinary” and “extraordinary” therapy. This distinction separates those treatments that do not involve any grave burden to the patient or another from those treatments that do. However, although medical practitioners may be qualified to judge the medical complexity of a treatment, they are not especially qualified to make the moral judgment of what is extraordinary or gravely burdensome to a patient. For the physician to usurp the patient's moral evaluation and decision of the kinds of therapy he may desire is to impose medical paternalism in place of personal autonomy.
Deschooling and Autonomy
Imprisoned in the Global Classroom. London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative, 1976.
Autonomous education involves “deschooling” and “permanent education” (lifelong education based on human spontaneous social experience and exchange of data and skills) unprogrammed by institutional or professional mediators. However, several governments have perverted voluntary permanent education into a scheme of lifelong, compulsory, adult education directed by “the capitalists of knowledge and professionals licensed to distribute it,” and financed by an involuntary tax upon the wages of its victims, the working people.
This coercive permanent education involves France, but also threatens America where a 1974 panel of the President's Science Advisory Committee urged a similar policy for the United States. Dramatically underlining the influence of the Chinese Communist system of permanent education upon government and education officials, was a little noticed 1974 speech of President Ford that urged a closer coordination of industry and public education and praised the Chinese model.
One principle purpose of the perverted scheme of “permanent education” is to adapt, integrate, tame, and dominate the industrial working people to the needs of their political and economic rulers. Another aim is to sustain unemployed intellectuals by creating a new class, a new profession of “permanent” schoolteachers and administrators whose social status and privileges will be secured by taxing the wages of its victims, the workers. The role of these professionals will be to weaken the self-sufficiency and competence of the workers by monopolizing the technical knowledge needed in the new industrial society. Thus the autonomous ideal of replacing the monopolistic and debilitating professional expertise of the school with diffused sources of knowledge (in a spontaneous marketplace without formally institutionalizing such knowledge) has been perverted by a state institutionalization of so-called “permanent” education.
Illich foresees several results of this monopolized education. The subjection of full grown adults to compulsory job training or pedagogy will perpetuate a childlike sense of dependency and weaken autonomy. An infantilization of the adult worker occurs which further enhances and legitimizes technocratic domination and ruling elites. Existence becomes “scholarized”; life becomes a never ending apprenticeship. Society will become an enormous, planet-sized classroom watched over by a few satellites unless the “deschoolers” can prevent the perversion of their complementary ideal of education as a lifelong, spontaneous, unprogrammed, and noninstitutionalized human experience leading to autonomy or self-rule rather than perpetual dependence on technocratic experts.
Education and Family Autonomy
Family Choice in Education: The New Imperative. Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, 1978, 60 pp.
The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers hold the upper hand over education consumers. Faced with growing state power over the lives and destinies of their children, many parents have concluded that the public education system, by its very nature, cannot respond to the real needs and wants of education consumers. The state will be “responsive” only to the extent that it sees its political survival as dependent upon responding to public demands.
The “hidden curriculum” of any school plays a crucial role in forming the values of students. The standards of conduct, the peer ethos and influence, the teachers' adult example, all weave the complex web of relationships which form the hidden curriculum. Until recently, the hidden curriculum was assumed to be a matter of community consensus. The nineteenth-century American ideal of the public school system presupposed that local majorities would agree on sanctioning conduct, practices, and beliefs. However, modern trends have virtually eliminated local control over school content and programs.
School officials find it increasingly difficult to act for the good of the community in setting standards of conduct. For over a decade, the courts have usurped the function of adjudicating disputes between the school officials' exercise of authority and the “individual rights” of students. As a representative dispute, some students in Fairfax County, Virginia protested as a violation of their rights the presence of undercover agents in their schools. These narcotics agents were intended to stop the high rate of drug use in the public school which functions as a logistic, distributive, and contact center.
By its very nature, schooling involves the inculcation of values and beliefs. It cannot be “value free” even when “value free” is understood as the absence of standards of behavior or conduct. Increasingly, there is conflict between the rights of families who wish to exercise their liberty to control the educational destiny of their children.
Many courts have equated neutrality with secularism. And yet the founding fathers formulated the free exercise and establishment of religion clauses of the First Amendment in reaction to the religious oppression in their English home-land. They wished to prevent the state from taking sides on religious issues which should properly be left within the free realm of choice and debate. Courts have used the First Amendment to drive theistic religion into a closet. The choice left is to adopt secularist or humanistic religion or find oneself subject to alien indoctrination via public education, an arena where the state virtually emasculates family autonomy. Such policy violates the essence of American pluralism.
Consequently, one of the most salient issues concerns who shall have ultimate control over the child's education: the family or the “professional” educators acting as agents of the state?
One possibly fruitful avenue of litigation is the issue of whether compulsory education laws can warrant educators to impose upon students courses in value inculcation without the prior informed consent of parents. Also, a viable question is whether humanistic courses expressly designed to mold and develop non-theistic values violate the First Amendment rights of believers. A variety of “proposals for family choice” are reviewed. To suggest, as many “professional” educators have, that the choice is between state “standards” and illiteracy is an oversimplified and erroneous dichotomy.
State Paternalism vs. Family
“In loco parentis: A Relationship between Parent, State and Child.” Journal of Moral Education 6 (May 1977): 181–189.
The term in loco parentis, despite its quasi-legal tone, does not refer to a specific set of rights and duties which a parent somehow may delegate to another adult or agency. Quite often it is used by some adult or agency to violate personal autonomy and to maintain power and authority over either a child or even over a parent or guardian. This ideological doctrine has often been used in England to define the rights of parents in order for the state to more easily seize wider control over areas of the child's life and actions. As quasi-parental persons, god-parents, kinsmen, masters of apprentices, and neighbors lost their role in the care and protection of children, the way was open for the state to define, and appropriate responsibility for children. And parents themselves were displaced in many of their obligations and rights as the state defined enforcement of these in loco parentis whenever it deemed it necessary.
We need to devote more historical research to gathering empirical evidence of the parental behavior which led to the state's seizure of control of children under the doctrine of in loco parentis. One theory speculates that the underlying concept of patriarchial authority (in which the child is “owned” by the father) was transferred to the state, i.e., the King, and hence influences most legal and sociological attitudes in present day notions of children's and parents' rights.
Teaching vs. Student Autonomy
“Teacher Anxiety.” Review of Educational Research 48 (Spring 1978): 273–290.
Does the manner in which teachers tend to cope with their feelings of anxiety affect their individual liberties and those of others? Some reseachers have treated reductions in teacher anxiety as an end in itself. Of course the teacher regards reducing his anxiety as a positive gain. However, the method by which the teacher reduces anxiety may not actually be positive for the teacher's students or even for the teacher himself.
Research evidence suggests that one way in which beginning teachers reduce their anxiety is to become more dogmatic and less open to knowledge about their pupils, including their pupils' interests and concerns. This tends to be reflected in the teacher's teaching behavior. Such dogmatic explanations tend to be like “two plus four is six because it is” or “because I say it is.” A study has shown that student teachers under the supervision of senior teachers with six or more years of experience tend to become more dogmatic than their counterparts who teach under the supervision of less experienced teachers. This suggests that those older teachers may well have become more dogmatic.
Given this and other evidence, it is becoming clear that teachers tend to exhibit authoritarian behaviors while cultivating those students that work well under such a system and punishing those who are independent and nonconforming. This obviously has serious consequences for free societies. It also raises important questions about the systems of schooling that presumably support and encourage such behavior in the teachers themselves.
Privacy in Social Psychology
“Privacy: A Hidden Variable in Experimental Social Psychology.” Journal of Social Issues 33 (1977): 85–101.
Social psychology can help to answer a variety of questions relating to privacy including: “Under what circumstances will individuals seek to leave a state of privacy? When will they voluntarily and deliberately grant access to themselves, or information about themselves, to specific others?. . . Under what conditions will individuals try to achieve privacy? When will they express the desire to exert effort to prohibit access to themselves, or information about themselves?. . . What are the behavioral consequences of individuals' beliefs that their behavior or other self-related artifacts are private, unknown to anyone except themselves and to certain others to whom they have granted access to that information?. . . What are the behavioral consequences of an individuals' beliefs that their behavior is public to certain others?”
The areas of social facilitation, conformity, anonymity, reactance, attitude formation, and attitude change render important data for current social psychological research on privacy and autonomy. In addition, research could clarify the unrefined distinction between “private” and “public.” Finally, if we view the “need for privacy” through a sociobiological filter, we might ground this need to human nature in biological evolution.
Autonomy vs. Extrinsic Rewards
“Extrinsic Rewards, Congruence Between Dispositions and Behaviors, and Perceived Freedom.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 36 (1978): 588–597.
Studies of the conditions under which a person feels a freedom of choice in determining his or her behavior indicate that perceived freedom is greatest when: (1) the behavior alternatives are similar in attractiveness; (2) the behaviors are unpredictable rather than predictable; and (3) the options are highly attractive.
The present research assesses the role of intrinsic vs. extrinsic reinforcement and congruence with dispositions in generating perceptions of personal freedom. (Intrinsic reinforcements are rewards from the nature of a behavior itself, for example, enjoyment of the activity, whereas extrinsic reinforcements are rewards from contextual variables, for example, money or prestige.)
This research indicates that when extrinsic rewards are expected to determine a person's choice, he or she is seen as having relative freedom, even when the options involved are highly attractive. Such extrinsic rewards, however, are expected to prevent the actor from expressing personal dispositions. The effects of extrinsic rewards tend to equally reduce the perception of “decision freedom,” whether they are biased in favor of one's personal disposition or operate against it.
These results have some interesting implications for the consequences of governmental policies that offer subsidies to influence an individual's behavior. Such subsidies (extrinsic reinforcements) are likely to reduce the recipient's perception of his or her freedom of choice, even when the subsidy is used to further a behavior which the person has a prior disposition to perform. This agrees with the observation that as government operations increase, citizens progressively feel a decreasing sense of control over their lives.
Job Autonomy vs. Contract
“Winning Freedom on the Job.” Civil Liberties Review 4 (July/August 1977): 8–22.
It is incongruous and wrong that while Americans enjoy civil liberties and personal autonomy in many contexts, they do not do so at work. The primary obstacle to extending Constitutional guarantees of civil liberties to the workplace is the common law view of employment. Under common law, an employee is obliged to be obedient and loyal. While an employee can refuse to perform illegal or unethical acts, he may do so only by withdrawing from the firm. He has no right to refuse and to remain. In general, the law regards the relationship between employer and employee as one based on freedom of contract. Thus, in the absence of contractual provisions to the contrary, either side may terminate the employment relationship at any time for any reason.
The freedom of contract analysis of employment, the author argues, is outmoded and should be discarded because: (1) freedom of contract is premised upon substantively equal bargaining power, but such is not the case; (2) ‘actual’ freedom and constitutional freedom are not the same, and it is the former ‘actual’ freedom which is determined by the power of the employer; and (3) the distinction between private and public institutions makes no difference. In effect, large private companies affect the public interest as much as public institutions and therefore should not have sanction to be operated “selfishly.”
Employees should have a bill of rights affording: (1) the right to refuse to carry out directives that violate common norms of morality; (2) the right to criticize their employer's ethics without being fired; (3) the right to refuse to take personality, polygraph, or other tests in addition to prohibiting audio or visual recordings without prior knowledge and consent; (4) due process rights to a hearing if an employee thinks he has been discharged for asserting the rights given by the employee's bill of rights.
Student Press and Autonomy
“The Student Press: Institutional Prerogatives Versus Individual Rights.” Journal of College Student Personnel 19 (1978): 16–20.
Student newspapers have created numerous problems for college administrators while the benefits of such newspapers often appear dubious. Court decisions indicate that “public institutions have little leeway with respect to the First Amendment's prohibition against ‘abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.’” The college is limited in its powers even when a mandatory student activity fee is used in the financing of the student newspaper. This question also raises issues of autonomy.
Not only is political material appearing in student newspapers protected, but also materials which may be offensive to good taste or which violate conventions of decency. Only material that meets the Supreme Court's narrow definition of obscenity escapes protection. Further, it must be shown that actual harm would result from exposure to obscene material and that it “outweighs the danger of free expression in censorship without procedural safe-guards” (from Antonelli v. Hamond, 1970).
One recommendation suggests that college newspapers be set up as independent corporations, separately financed and not legally connected to the institution. However, it is doubtful how many campuses would be able to maintain a paper which did not receive financial support from the school or from student activities fees. It is true that such a system would provide legal protection to the school regarding material appearing in the student newspaper. But such protections may not be needed. The author reports being unable to find a single instance in which a university was held liable for defamatory words appearing in its student newspaper. (The individuals writing defamatory material are, of course, legally liable for what is published.)
Enrollment in a college or university does not convey special privileges upon a student. It does not “give them rights to immunity or special consideration and does not permit them to violate the constitutional rights of others.”
Private colleges and universities appear to have greater latitude in censoring student publications since they are not agencies of the state. This privilege, however, seems educationally indefensible to Gibbs.
Mercenaries and Autonomy
“The Recruitment and Use of Mercenaries in Armed Conflict.” American Journal of Jurisprudence 72 (January 1978): 37–56.
Mercenaries have been used throughout history in both international and civil disputes. Although they were once even looked upon as necessary components of war, attending the rise of modern nation states with their standing armies and powers of conscription, the importance of mercenaries has declined. The public's awareness of, and interest in, mercenary activity has similarly declined. However, recent events in Rhodesia and Angola have again brought mercenaries to the public's attention. More importantly, these events have also stimulated governments and international bodies to restrict the recruitment and organizing of mercenary forces. These recent developments call for reviewing existing laws and making some proposals for dealing with mercenaries and their recruitment.
Under traditional international law, neutral states are obligated to prevent the formation of armed expeditions or the operation of recruit offices on their territory. But states are not obligated to prevent their citizens or foreign nationals from leaving to enlist in the armed forces of a belligerent nation or in a mercenary organization. Further, international law generally does not impute responsibility to a state for the actions of its nationals serving as mercenaries unless there has been state complicity in their recruitment. In addition, some states have laws that prohibit or restrict travel abroad for the purpose of serving in the armed forces of other nations. Nevertheless, such statutes do not usually apply to traveling abroad for the purpose of serving as a mercenary or the recruiting of mercenaries.
Since the early 1960s conflict in the Congo, the United Nations and the Organization of African States have appealed to states to deter mercenary activity, particularly the recruitment of mercenaries by “colonial and racist regimes.” These proposals urge that: (1) the practice of using mercenaries against movements for “national liberation and independence” be made a crime and that mercenaries should be punished as criminals rather than as prisoners of war; (2) governments should enact legislation branding financing, recruitment, and training of mercenaries as a punishable offense; and (3) governments should prohibit their nationals from serving as mercenaries.
Although it is difficult to define what a mercenary is and antimercenary proposals would probably involve restrictions on the autonomous right of citizens to travel, Burmester supports governmental action to prohibit a state's citizens from mercenary activities on two grounds: (1) the use of foreign nongovernmental forces tends to bring into conflict the states whose nationals are involved and so the use of foreign private armed forces poses a threat to world peace; and (2) the liberties of citizens may be limited or denied for a “compelling” public purpose.
Autonomy, Creativity, and Radicalism
“The Ferrer Center: New York's Unique Meeting of Anarchism and the Arts.” New York History (July 1978): 306–325.
Historians have long noted a correspondence between periods of radical political activity and unconventional, autonomous, artistic experimentation. The early twentieth century saw political radicalism flourish alongside innovations in the arts. In New York City between 1912 and 1915 the Ferrer Center, an Anarchist-sponsored organization brought together political radicals and soon-to-be-famous artists and writers, all ostensibly committed to liberating the individual from the bonds of contemporary society.
Dedicated to the memory of the Spanish anarchist educator Francisco Ferrer, the Ferrer Association was sponsored by two distinct groups of political radicals: the Thomas Paine National Historical Association, composed of American radical liberals who promoted both civil liberties, and experimentation in the arts; the other group was the pro-Spanish Revolutionary Committee, a small cadre of anarchists such as Emma Goldman who desired political revolution, and viewed the arts as a breeding ground for radical activity.
The Ferrer Association opened a tumultuous “Modern School for Children” modeled on Ferrer's Spanish progressive school. Meanwhile, a vigorous adult education program brought lectures by Clarence Darrow, Lincoln Steffins, Margaret Sanger, Emma Goldman, and Will Durant.
The art students who came to classes held by Robert Henri and George Bellows, included many future well-known artists such as Man Ray and William Tisch. Henri applied his anarchist convictions to his teaching and art, and communicated it to his pupils. Austrian immigrant Moritz Jagendorf brought the European tradition of the “free theatre,” an experimental innovative theater, to the Ferrer Center. Plays by Lord Dunsany, Floyd Dell, and Maurice Maeterlinck introduced iconoclastic themes of social criticism. The participants later went on to pioneer popular drama in such famous groups as the Provincetown Players.
While the anarchist cultural milieu stimulated remarkable achievements among the artists of the Ferrer Center, the revolutionary politics of many participants provoked disputes. Gradually the Center lost its more creative talents and in the hostile political atmosphere of World War I, the Ferrer Center lost the magic of its earlier creative years.