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Is respect for autonomy defensible?


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.

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