A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Sunday, 13 September 2015

A Quick Thought on Hassoun and Autonomy

I'm part-way through listening to the New Books in Philosophy interview with Nicole Hassoun, in which she discusses her book on Global Justice. One claim she makes is that people subject to coercive institutions ought to be in a position to consent (or not consent, for that matter) to these institutions. In order to meaningfully consent, she says, they must be autonomous - which requires that they already possess various basic goods such as healthcare.

The first sentence seems sensible enough. The second worries me somewhat. Suppose I pick up a stone and attempt to skim it across a lake. I am, in a sense, behaving coercively towards the stone. I am taking control of it for my own ends, and not paying any attention at all to whether the stone might like this or not. This is not, however, something we take to be immoral. Stones are incapable of autonomy.

Suppose it were in some way possible to give the stone a form of agency, so that it might or might not consent to my skimming it. Would I be obliged to do this and to actually obtain consent before skimming it? Surely not. Why, then, might we be required to ensure that other people are autonomous in Hassoun's sense before we interact with them?

There's an obvious, gaping worry with what I'm saying. I seem to be suggesting that it may be acceptable to treat people as objects. I think that there are two ways for me to resist this, both of which are entirely comfortable positions, compatible with each other, and both of which display a great deal more respect for the people of the third world than Hassoun's account.

The first is to object that people in general already are autonomous. Perhaps not as autonomous as we might wish, but nevertheless capable of making their own choices, trades and sacrifices. They do not need a white knight to come in and make them autonomous with provision of free healthcare and education.

The second is to suggest that, even when people fail to be (to use a piece of philosophical jargon) "persons", possessing a morally important type of autonomy, there are still limits to what may be done to them - perhaps not that much less stringent than the limits on what may be done to persons. This is hardly an unusual position - after all, without such a view it is hard to explain how children and the severely mentally ill have rights.

In sum, I'm highly sceptical of the idea that, in order to obtain valid consent from all people for coercive institutions, it is necessary to bring them up to a particular level of autonomy.

NB: It is not my aim to defend third world states. The coercive institutions I have in mind to defend are those of global capitalism, those institutions which say "This car is mine, and if you try to take it from me then I have the right to use violence in order to keep it in my possession."

NB2: As mentioned, I have not read Hassoun's book and I am only part way through the podcast. It is possible that I have misrepresented Hassoun's position, in which case I can only apologise and note that it is not my intention to do so.

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