Autonomy under Lockdown

By Ben Colburn.

In my philosophical work I mostly think about the nature and value of personal autonomy. Autonomy consists in an individual deciding for herself what is valuable, and living her life in accordance with that decision. Living an autonomous life means living a life which is valuable for you in your own eyes. It means being (at least in part) the ‘author’ of your own life, to borrow Joseph Raz’s evocative phrase.

In the past I have worked with palliative care practitioners, thinking about how to protect and promote autonomy when it is under threat at end of life. (You can find some of my conclusions about that in a recent JME article published here, which I also summarised in a previous blog post here.) Now, I find myself asking: what about the new threats posed by the Coronvirus pandemic? What effect is that disease, and the associated public health response, having on our autonomy?

There are lots of reasons why what we’re facing is a human tragedy on a massive scale: pain, suffering, death, bereavement. Another, perhaps more easily missed, is that it threatens our autonomy. It’s very hard for all of us – even if we’re not ill, but just enduring the lockdown – to be the authors of our lives just now. We are disempowered: lockdown dramatically limits our choices about what to do and where to go. We are isolated: we miss the everyday social ties and interactions that give our lives meaning. We are stuck: for many of us (especially when our work has suddenly and dramatically changed) our core projects, the things that we’ve decided make life valuable for us, have just been put on hold. Maybe we’re afraid that we’ll never get them back.

How can philosophy help, in this situation?

To begin with, it can provide clarity by naming this aspect of our predicament, and thereby acknowledging that almost all of us are facing loss of some kind. Some of us will be comparatively lucky in that we won’t lose our jobs, our health, our loved ones, or our lives. Things are obviously worse for people who do suffer those further catastrophic consequences! But we can recognise those further catastrophes and yet also see that losing the ability to be the authors of our lives is dreadful, even if we don’t suffer any other kinds of loss. We are losing, or are in danger of losing, something really fundamental. All the negative emotions people have about the lockdown – grief, anger, fear, resentment, frustration, boredom – are appropriate responses to that potential loss.

Philosophy can also help us reflect on how other threats to autonomy have been understood and tackled, in theory and in practice, drawing inspiration for how to claim back space for self-authorship. There’s a lot to say here, but I’ll give just two examples of what I’ve been thinking about recently.

First, it’s worth emphasising that physical distancing shouldn’t mean social isolation. The autonomous life is not a life of isolation, but one in which we develop deep ties with others, through valuable relationships and shared ambitions. We are lucky that new technologies give us ways to maintain our web of connections with others even if we can’t, for now, be in the same places as them. Finding ways to maintain and deepen those connections can counteract the unravelling of our shared lives.

Second, it can be empowering to find new things to do. Autonomy means deciding for yourself what is valuable and living your life in accordance with that decision. Finding new things to value in these (painful) new circumstances opens up new ways of being autonomous that don’t need the external conditions from which we’re currently cut off. There’s a limit to how far such adaptation is good for us, because it can easily internalize unjust social constraints, or unconscious self-sabotage. It’s hard to draw the line! But at least some conscious character-shaping and adventurousness about goals is empowering when faced with inevitable restrictions like these.

There’s more to say. Many political philosophers worry about the extraordinary restrictions we currently face, and how we determine the balance between individual autonomy, public health, and the economy. My work on palliative care has me thinking about how this crisis has disrupted the normal patterns of dying. What is the moral cost of having so many people die alone? How does the process of grieving change when we also lose the social rituals that usually help us reconstruct ourselves in the wake of bereavement? These are difficult and upsetting questions, and I’m not finding it easy to focus on them. But I hope I can. I remain optimistic that being clear-sighted about our predicament might help us: in this case to be the authors of the ends of our lives, even in these dark times.


Author(s): Ben Colburn

Affiliations: University of Glasgow

Competing interests: None

Social media accounts of post author(s):@autonomaniac

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