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 restraintsthese 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 booknever mind its flawsmay just help pave the theoretical way.