If you’ve studied bioethics, you know that the principles of bioethics are autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice. You also know that autonomy, especially in the early days, got most of the press. I was one of the people who saw bioethics and ethics generally, really, as a matter of respecting autonomy. And I still think it is typically wrong to do things to people that they wouldn’t reasonably want done.
As it often happens when changing points of view, I first began to question the value of autonomy in the most extreme cases—those where someone had no autonomy at all. How do you show the proper respect to a cadaver for example? How should we go about respecting the autonomy of someone who is no longer conscious and may never regain consciousness? It seems that showing respect for a person’s life may not always mean respecting the person’s autonomy.
Even in those cases, though, we still try to preserve the notion of autonomy by calculating what would have been correct for that person if that person were a conscious being with autonomy. To what would a rational person want or be entitled? And here is a bit of muddy water already. Kant described respect for autonomy as respect for universal laws, not respect for individual wishes, for respecting someone’s wishes might only be to help them use themselves as a means (see: physician-assisted suicide). For Kant, respect for autonomy would mean that no one could morally choose to die, so certainly no one could morally help someone to die.
But we don’t adhere to Kant so closely, do we? So, respecting someone’s autonomy has come to mean respecting that person’s wishes by getting their consent before doing anything to them or not doing anything to them, as the case may be. But even having someone’s full-throated consent does not make it okay to do whatever we please, and we mostly recognize that. We have laws against doing things to children, for example, or to people with limited cognitive abilities because we recognize that some people are extremely vulnerable to exploitation.
We spend a lot of time trying to identify vulnerable populations, but my problem comes with trying to figure out who might not be subject to exploitation. It seems to me that even the most mature and intelligent people in the world are subject to exploitation at least some of the time. I can think of many examples, but one example is certainly whenever anyone gets sick.
I would say that anyone with even a minor illness has lost a degree of freedom. If I have something as simple as a stuffy nose, I will make decisions I would otherwise not make. You know, I may decide to give money to some stranger who promises that some chemical or other might make my breathing easier. If I will give away my money to avoid slightly congested breathing that will likely correct itself in a short time, what might I do to avoid rapidly approaching death?
If I’m frightened enough of dying, and most of us do want to avoid an early death, I might agree to almost any treatment dangled in front of me, and I might go to extreme measures to procure the treatment. Getting my consent to give me my only chance of relief seems a little strange, which is why neither healthcare providers nor their clients pay much attention to the whole informed consent process in routine cases. We generally go to healthcare providers with the intention of making use of the services they provide.
Yes, I know patients do need the information that makes up the “informed” part of informed consent, and sometimes genuine decisions must be made in collaboration with the doctor or other caregiver. Even in those cases where decisions must be made, most patients assume the doctor is in a better position to know what choice is best. Which is why so many of us respond with, “What would you do, Doctor?”
What we don’t say, though, is, “No, I don’t want any treatment. I only came in because I had a bit of free time and thought I’d spend it in an examining room.” It is only suffering, whether minor or extreme, that drives us to see a doctor. And it is that suffering that makes us vulnerable to exploitation, and that vulnerability renders the concept of free consent or undiminished autonomy questionable.
So I don’t think autonomy can shoulder the moral burden it is expected to carry. In fact, autonomy may not mean anything useful at all. Respecting a person’s wishes, especially in situations where wishes are so easily manipulated, may not be of any moral value at all.