This morning, a block over and ten blocks north of here, there was a woman tweaking out on something, probably meth or fentanyl. I’m reasonably certain something similar is happening a few blocks from your house too. I take it you don’t like to see this any more than I do. But I’m not sure our discomfort makes her behaviour actionable. 

If it did then “There be dragons!” I’m guessing there are people made uncomfortable by my behaviour. And for sure by yours. The John Stuart Mill liberal in me says each to her own, provided she’s no danger to others. The law, at least in most liberal democracies, adds nor to herself. And it’s that addition that leaves the gates wide open to paternalism. 

Some people argue that her behaviour is not her own, because her addiction has robbed her of her autonomy. And that the same can be said of the circumstances that robbed her of the choice to become addicted in the first place. Others argue that most people in like circumstances don’t take the route she has, and that this ‘proves’ she freely chose as she did. 

I’ve learned that trying to resolve the autonomy debate is a fool’s errand. It involves an undoable thought-experiment. To put oneself in another’s shoes achieves nothing save a change of footwear. But to be that other is to be her, and from what she did we already know what she would do. So the only honest way to think about an other is as an other. Even to imagine her suffering is to put one’s self in her place, and then it’s no longer her suffering one’s imagining.

At some point, as likely as not, she’ll overdose, and if she’s not given Narcan in time she’ll be dead. Whether they’ve given up on her or not, the family she’s alienated will grieve. And that will be the end of it. As for the rest of us, we too have decided that there’s no x-strikes you’re out. As often as we find her unconscious, we’ll administer the Narcan. To what purpose we try not to ask.

But some people do ask, and very few of them are Ebenezer Scrooge. Rather it’s their genuine compassion that fuels their recommendation that these people be institutionalised, very likely against their will, until they’re clean, and until we as a community are able to offer them circumstances less likely to rob them of their autonomy than those that in fact did. And so once again paternalism rears its ugly head. No one is in her right mind unless she’d choose as I would. I’ve always thought that’s self-evident!

Time to fess up. These reflections were inspired by that woman, but they’re not really about her. They’re about my doubts – doubts shared by a number of philosophers – about whether autonomy might be just another faux concept, by which is meant a concept that purports to do yeoman service but in fact does nothing at all. 

I say “just another” because autonomy is hardly alone. Some philosophers, myself among them, suspect the same can be said of consent. And here indeed there be dragons! If consent is a faux concept, what happens to our understanding of rape?

Did I mention that philosophy is not for those likely to get the vapours?

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy

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