Autonomy: A society of adults


One of the things Chris and I like about the Phoenix area of Arizona is the University of Arizona. In particular we found it is nice to be close to a major university. The university had a wonderful array of activities from plays to concerts and above all world class professors and speakers. All open to the public and usually at no cost to us. I am amazed at how many of them we got to hear.  One of those very interesting speakers was Dierdre McCloskey. We heard her speak in 2020.

Deirdre McCloskey is Distinguished Professor Emerita of Economics and of History, and Professor Emerita of English and of Communication, adjunct in classics and philosophy, at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Educated at Harvard as an economist she has written 24 books and numerous articles. This is how she describes herself: a “literary, quantitative, postmodern, free-market, progressive-Episcopalian, ex-marxoid, Midwestern woman from Boston who was once a man. Not ‘conservative’! I’m a Christian classical liberal.” I did not agree with everything she said, but everything was very interesting. She was a very interesting speaker.

She talked to us about innovation. According to McCloskey, “liberty is the theory of adult.  At first that seemed like a strange description.  Eventually I think I caught on. Adults are free. Youngsters are not. Adults have the right to infringe on the rights of young people in their care for their own good and protection, but only while they are in need of such interference. At some stage, minors get to be treated like adults and then have the same freedoms as adults. According to McCloskey, “Liberalism is the theory of the society of adults.” Other theories, such as socialism, treat adults as children. They assume we, or the government, know what’s best for you. She wants a society where adults make their own decisions.  So do I, subject to the qualifications.

McCloskey argues for a very strong autonomy. We should be able to make all decisions about our own welfare on our own terms without interference from others. No one should tell us what to do in other words. That is autonomy. I quite agree that autonomy is a very important social value, but like all values it is not absolute. In some circumstances the public’s right to ensure that its members are given reasonable security and that actions of its citizens won’t harm them unnecessarily. Each of us has a right to live in a healthy and safe society.  Again, like all values, this right must be balanced against other rights as well. I shall try to clarify a test that can help us establish whether or not a particular infringement of a right is justified or not. To do that. I want to turn in my next post to the classic liberal philosopher of all time—namely John Stuart Mill.

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