Reassessing paternalism: is autonomy a myth?

Saturday 17 October, 13.45 until 15.00, Cinema 1, Barbican Keynote Controversies

‘If I have a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve as my conscience, a physician to determine my diet for me, and so on, I need not exert myself at all.’ Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment? (1784)

When One Direction announced they were splitting up, child psychologists offered parents of grieving tweenies advice on how to console their offspring. In the same month, parents were also told by researchers how long they should read to their children each day. Business Secretary Sajid Javid has ordered university heads to establish a taskforce to take on sexist ‘lad culture’ and guide students to conduct their interpersonal relations in line with enlightened mores. Of course, not everyone follows expert advice on any of the above. Policy advisers and academic experts frequently complain about those who refuse to acknowledge their wisdom and carry on smoking, drinking sugary pop, being laddish. Cutting-edge techniques of behavioural psychology are being marshalled to deal with this problem. The UK’s Behavioural Insights Team, now a private company, has quadrupled in size since it was spun out of government in 2014. It is now working for the World Bank and the UN, while ‘nudge’ teams are being established in Australia, Singapore, Germany and the US.

The ubiquity of nudge heralds a new renaissance for unapologetic paternalism. But where does that leave the great Enlightenment breakthrough, the idea that individuals should be self-determining and capable of making their own choices? Kant’s description of ‘mankind’s exit from his self-incurred immaturity’ seems strangely at odds with today’s enthusiasm for paternalistic intervention. For Kant, the outcome of any particular choice was less important than the cultivation of moral autonomy. The Enlightenment idea was that we should stop ‘outsourcing’ decisions about how to live to external agencies, whether the church, the monarchy, or some natural order. Today, though, new forms of authority have taken their place, leaving us just as childlike in relation to the new experts.

Sceptics about the idea of autonomy suggest breakthroughs in neuroscience have revealed we are less rational than Enlightenment thinkers suggested. They argue it is wrong for strong-willed individuals to run rough-shod over vulnerable groups with less power. In a complex world of multiple choices, what is wrong with people seeking help to make informed decisions? Is autonomy really undermined if students themselves demand university authorities provide safe spaces, issue trigger warnings on course materials, make lessons in consent compulsory? If we are nudged into the good life, what harm is done? Should we grow up and accept new paternalism or does this mean sacrificing self-dominion and consigning ourselves to a life of permanent dependence? Is individual autonomy an outdated myth?

Watch the debate
Listen to the debate

Dr Tim Black
editor, Spiked Review

Dr Katerina Deligiorgi
reader in philosophy, University of Sussex; author, The Scope of Autonomy

Dr Daniel Glaser
director, Science Gallery London, King's College London

Professor Mike Kelly
senior visiting fellow, Behaviour and Health Research Unit, Institute of Public Health, University of Cambridge; researcher in nudge theory and choice architecture

Georgios Varouxakis
professor of the history of political thought, Queen Mary University of London; author, Mill on Nationality

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
Recommended readings
Essex Autonomy Project

The Essex Autonomy Project is a collaborative, interdisciplinary research initiative of the Philosophy Department at the University of Essex. Its aim is to investigate the ideal of self-determination in human affairs.

University of Essex

It’s All for Your Own Good

What becomes of the self-respect we invest in our own willed actions, flawed and misguided though they often are, when so many of our choices are manipulated to promote what someone else sees (perhaps rightly) as our best interest?

Jeremy Waldron, New York Review Of Books, 9 October 2014


The SEP was designed so that each entry is maintained and kept up-to-date by an expert or group of experts in the field

Gerald Dworkin, Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, June 2014

Nudge, nudge

Paternalism and the English language

Economist, 10 August 2013

Defending moral autonomy against an army of nudgers Frank Furedi, spiked, 20 January 2011

The Value of Autonomy and Autonomy of the Will

Whatever value autonomy has as part of well-being or as a constituent of valuable outcomes, we also claim or demand autonomy as part of respect for the dignity of persons. So when we do, we must assume autonomy of the will also.

Stephen Darwall, Ethics, 2006

follow the Academy of Ideas


Keep up to date with Academy of Ideas news and events by joining our mailing list.

Next year's festival will be packed with more debates like this one. If you would like to come, get your ticket now via our 2016 tickets page.
in association with