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First among equals? Adaptive preferences and the limits of autonomy in medical ethics
  1. Susan Pennings1,
  2. Xavier Symons2
  1. 1School of Philosophy, Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia
  2. 2Plunkett Centre for Ethics, Australian Catholic University and St Vincent's Health Australia, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Dr Susan Pennings, School of Philosophy, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia; susan.pennings{at}


Respect for patient autonomy is a central principle of medical ethics. However, there are important unresolved questions about the characteristics of an autonomous decision, and whether some autonomous preferences should be subject to more scrutiny than others.

In this paper, we consider whether inappropriately adaptive preferences—preferences that are based on and that may perpetuate social injustice—should be categorised as autonomous in a way that gives them normative authority. Some philosophers have argued that inappropriately adaptive preferences do not have normative authority, because they are only a reflection of a person’s social context and not of their true self. Under this view, medical professionals who refuse to carry out actions which are based on inappropriately adaptive preferences are not in fact violating their patient’s autonomy. However, we argue that it is very difficult to articulate a systematic and principled distinction between normal autonomous preferences and inappropriately adaptive preferences, especially if this distinction needs to be useful for clinicians in real-life situations. This makes it difficult to argue that inappropriately adaptive preferences are straightforwardly non-autonomous.

Given this problem, we argue that there are significant theoretical issues with contemporary understandings of autonomy in bioethics. We discuss what this might mean for the practice of medicine and for medical ethics education.

  • personal autonomy
  • ethics- medical
  • philosophy

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  • Contributors SP had the original idea for this paper and drafted the sections on adaptive preferences. XS drafted the sections on the medical ethics literature and medical education and practice. Both SP and XS approved the final draft. SP is the guarantor.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.