The (Contingent) Value of Autonomy and the Reflexivity of (Some) Basic Goods

25 Pages Posted: 8 Jan 2010

See all articles by Adam MacLeod

Adam MacLeod

Faulkner University - Thomas Goode Jones School of Law

Date Written: January 7, 2010


Many of the legal and policy issues about which people today get most exercised turn on a little-understood relationship between two fundamental principles. On one hand is the principle of autonomy, which, for reasons explored in this article, is often employed in defence of greater freedom and less government intervention in matters of morals and self-harmful conduct. On the other hand is respect for basic goods, those ends and purposes that constitute ultimate, underived, and intelligible reasons for rational action, and which include knowledge, human life, and community, among others. Basic goods provide reasons for human purposing and action (as opposed to desires, emotions, and other sub-rational motivations for action), and are valuable in and of themselves. Thus states act rationally, though not always fully reasonably, when they prohibit injury to basic goods, even by coercive laws and policies.

Renewed debates in the United Kingdom and the United States over decriminalisation of physician assisted suicide have in recent months brought into sharper focus foundational disagreements about the relationship between autonomy and basic goods, such as human life. Careful attention to this relationship might enable productive discussion of this and other issues, such as the nature of marriage, the justness of abortion, and controversial uses of tax revenues. This paper attempts to reconcile respect for autonomy with respect for basic human goods.

This article begins by reviewing the efforts of two legal philosophers, Joseph Raz and Robert George, to reconcile the value of autonomy with the intrinsic value of other human goods. Raz and George provide reason to believe that understanding, at least, is possible. The article next considers some bold claims about the value of autonomous choice by two scholars who favour legalization of assisted suicide, Andy Olree and Ronald Dworkin. Though Olree’s and Dworkin’s treatments of autonomy and basic goods both fail to account for the full value of many basic goods, such as human life, their arguments suggest a reason why the argument over assisted suicide has become intractable. The article concludes by fashioning a framework for thinking about contested legal issues in a productive manner.

Keywords: jurisprudence, legal theory, autonomy, basic goods, reflexivity, assisted suicide

Suggested Citation

MacLeod, Adam, The (Contingent) Value of Autonomy and the Reflexivity of (Some) Basic Goods (January 7, 2010). Available at SSRN: or

Adam MacLeod (Contact Author)

Faulkner University - Thomas Goode Jones School of Law ( email )

Montgomery, AL 36109
United States

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