The Mystery of Life in the Laboratory of Democracy: Personal Autonomy in State Law
48 Pages Posted: 10 Aug 2011 Last revised: 11 Aug 2011
Date Written: August 9, 2011
Recent controversies, such as enactment of an individual mandate to purchase health insurance and the legalization of assisted suicide in Washington and Montana, have renewed the war over personal autonomy. Debates about the value and limits of personal autonomy also play major roles in the controversies over abortion, same-sex intimacy, and same-sex marriage. On one side of the autonomy war, advocates of unfettered individual freedom assert that by her un-coerced and autonomous choice the individual person determines the value of human goods such as life, health, and marriage.
On the other side, proponents of strong government restrictions on personal choice hold that personal autonomy conflicts with personal responsibility. This view is used to support strong government restrictions not only on assisted suicide and marriage, but also on the consumption of drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol; and recently on economic activities, such as the decision whether to purchase health insurance.
This article attempts to carve a path between the two sides in this autonomy war. It begins by bringing into dialogue with each other four of the most influential legal philosophers of our day, Joseph Raz, Ronald Dworkin, John Finnis, and Robert George. Each of these four makes bold and instructive claims about the value and limits of personal autonomy. The article then examines several different areas of state law where one might expect a principle of autonomy to be implicated, and articulates six important lessons that one can glean from state law about the relationship between personal autonomy and other human goods.
Keywords: jurisprudence, legal theory, personal autonomy, basic goods, property, state law, Raz, Dworkin, Finnis, George
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