The Journal Jurisprudence
Many of the legal and policy issues about which people today get most exercised turn on a little-understood relationship between two fundamental principles. On one hand is the principle of autonomy, which, for reasons explored in this article, is often employed in defense of greater freedom and less government intervention in matters of morals and self-harmful conduct. On the other hand is respect for basic goods, those ends and purposes that constitute ultimate, underived, and intelligible reasons for rational action, and which include knowledge, human life, and community, among others. Basic goods provide reasons for human purposing and action (as opposed to desires, emotions, and other sub-rational motivations for action), and are valuable in and of themselves. Thus, states act rationally, though not always fully reasonably, when they prohibit injury to basic goods, even by coercive laws and policies.
Renewed debates in the United Kingdom and the United States over decriminalization of physician assisted suicide have in recent months brought into sharper focus foundational disagreements about the relationship between autonomy and basic goods, such as human life. Careful attention to this relationship might enable productive discussion of this and other issues, such as the nature of marriage, the justness of abortion, and controversial uses of tax revenues. This paper attempts to reconcile respect for autonomy with respect for basic human goods. There exists reason to believe that this is not a futile project. Though consensus is certainly too much to hope for in the near future, recognizing and exploring the complexity of the relationship between autonomy and basic goods arguably supplies a way to think about controversial issues while avoiding the polemics that so often attend public debate.
Adam J. MacLeod, The (Contingent) Value of Autonomy and the Reflexivity of (Some) Basic Goods, 5 J. Juris 11 (2010).