The Perversion of Autonomy

Overview

Civilization depends on the community's right to insist on certain conduct from its citizens. But today, a misguided reverence for individual freedom has denied the community this right, to the detriment of everyone. In the hallowed name of freedom, Americans have sanctified and legislated individual rights to a point that defies all common sense and offends all accepted principles of decency. Combining insights from modern psychological and political theory, best-selling author Willard Gaylin and co-author Bruce...
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Overview

Civilization depends on the community's right to insist on certain conduct from its citizens. But today, a misguided reverence for individual freedom has denied the community this right, to the detriment of everyone. In the hallowed name of freedom, Americans have sanctified and legislated individual rights to a point that defies all common sense and offends all accepted principles of decency. Combining insights from modern psychological and political theory, best-selling author Willard Gaylin and co-author Bruce Jennings argue powerfully that we in America are now beginning to see the dark side of a decadent, overripe individualism. That individualism - once the glory of our democracy - has been extended and distorted to the point where it now threatens the very institutions that are necessary to support it. Gaylin and Jennings tell us that we must change the everyday behavior shaping the landscape of modern American society. Our current culture of autonomy is predicated on rationality as the basis of human conduct. But, we are reminded here, man is not inherently rational; appeals to emotion are far more effective than logical argument in changing our conduct. Thus, in order to motivate socially desirable behavior, society has not just the right but the duty to invoke fear, shame, and guilt, as well as pride. Persuasion and even direct coercion have claims to moral legitimacy. The authors show us, through their compelling arguments and examples, specific coercions that must be put into place if we are to stop the undermining of our democratic way of life and to preserve a free and liberal society.
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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A muffled clarion call to deliberately vague action resounds in this philosophical and political attack on autonomy.

In recent times, the uneasy balance between individualist and communitarian values in America has been tipping in favor of community as a counterbalance to the perceived individualist excesses of the past decades. Or, as Gaylin (The Male Ego, 1992, etc.) and Jennings, cofounder and executive director respectively of the Hastings Center, an ethics think tank, put it with perfect leap-on-the-bandwagon timing: "The autonomy of the individual represents America's greatest moral strength and now, peculiarly, its most insidious moral danger." Communitarians have tended to cloak their beliefs in warm, fuzzy, "it takes a village" rhetoric, conjuring up sentimental visions of neighbor pitching in to help neighbor. But Gaylin and Jennings are not afraid to step out from behind the safety of platitudes. As they point out, the idea of community invariably entails a substantial amount of coercion. And this is not necessarily a bad thing: "Freedom and commitment, independence and dependence, rights and restraints—these are not, in the final reckoning, contraries." Despite the sinister Orwellian echoes here ("Freedom is slavery," etc.), the authors do illuminate a number of troubling autonomic excesses, from the de-institutionalization of the mentally ill to the restrictions placed on the release of HIV testing information. But while their diagnosis is acute, their prescriptions are vague. Short of intensive day-care for neglected children and life sentences for habitual criminals, they offer few concrete suggestions as to what forms coercions should take. And despite their carefully drawn philosophical models, this is the heart of the matter.

But as society reshuffles the balance between individual and community rights in the service of policy, this book—never mind its flaws—may just help pave the theoretical way.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684827841
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 5/7/1996
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.46 (w) x 9.57 (h) x 1.14 (d)

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
1 Freedom, Coercion, and Commonsense Morality 1
2 A Self of One's Own: The Meaning of Autonomy 29
3 Land of the Free: Autonomy in American Life Today 52
4 Seduced by Autonomy: Heeding the Grand Inquisitor and Other Critics 72
5 It's Only Human Nature 91
6 Growing Up Good 106
7 Irrational Man 127
8 The Multiple Meanings of Coercion 153
9 In Defense of Social Control: The Ethics of Coercion 177
10 Autonomy Gone Bonkers: The Mentally Impaired 202
11 Beyond Autonomy: Toward an Ethic of Interdependence 228
Notes 247
Index 257
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