We are pleased to present the fourth installment of PEA Soup's collaboration with Ethics, in which we host a discussion of one article from an issue of the journal. The article selected from Volume 120, Issue 4 is Mikhail (Mike) Valdman's "Outsourcing Self-Government" (open access copy here). We are very grateful that Steve Wall has agreed to provide the critical precis of Mike's article, and his commentary begins below the fold.
Thanks to the editors of Pea Soup for inviting me to comment on Mikhail Valdman’s excellent paper, and thanks to Dan Boisvert for posting these comments for me. I am not an active blogger myself, but I am an admirer of the high level of discussion regularly found on Pea Soup.
Mikhail Valdman’s paper advances a provocative thesis. The thesis is that there is no intrinsic value in being autonomous – that is, there is no intrinsic value in running one’s own life and making one’s own decisions. As he explains, the value in question is prudential. His thesis is that the goodness of our lives need not be set back in any way if our decisions about how to lead our lives were turned over to an appropriate individual or committee. Among other things, an appropriate individual or committee would need to be one that respected our deepest commitments. What we want, Valdman claims, is not just to fare well, but to fare well on our own terms. The upshot is that it is not autonomous self-government that has intrinsic value, but rather the leading of a life that reflects one’s deepest commitments and values.
Even if autonomy has intrinsic value, Valdman may be on to something important. It may be true that a large part of why we value self-government is that we want to lead lives that reflect and give expression to our deepest commitments. It also may be true that in discussing the value of self-government many writers overstate the importance of being a decider in relation to the importance of leading a life that is acceptable to us. These more modest claims could be true, even if Valdman’s thesis were false.
Let’s call someone who believes autonomy has at least some intrinsic prudential value an autonomy proponent. Valdman suggests that autonomy proponents must see at least some cost in outsourcing self-government. I am not sure about this. What exactly is involved in outsourcing self-government? Valdman mentions two ideas. We outsource self-government when we cede final decision-making authority over our lives to others and we outsource self-government when we cease to exercise managerial control over our lives. Valdman’s discussion suggests that the first of these ideas is the more fundamental one. But an autonomy proponent need not think that a life in which a person had ceded final decision-making authority to others is worse in any respect. Suppose you cede decision-making authority over your life to a committee. The members of the committee might think autonomy has intrinsic value. If so, then they may decide, on this or that occasion, to let you make a less good decision when they could have effively intervened. The committee retains the final authority to make decisions of this kind. As far as I can see, the autonomy proponent can allow that committees that do this job well – committees that give proper weight to autonomy – need not impose any prudential cost on those over whom they rule.
Turn next to the second idea. When we outsource self-government, we cease to exercise managerial control over our lives. We no longer make decisions about how to lead our lives. Others make these decisions for us. Does the exercise of this kind of control have intrinsic value? Valdman says ‘no;’ but his discussion at points suggests otherwise. In responding to the objection that if we outsource self-government we will not really be living our own lives, Valdman reassures us that his favored outsourcing agency – the Personal Expert Committee (PC) – need not be especially interventionist. If the committee intervened extensively in many aspects of your life, he says, then you wouldn’t be leading your life. The PC, then, is designed to respect the decisions of those over whom it rules when their decisions are not mistaken. But this suggests that there may be value in letting people making their own decisions. So long as their decisions are not mistaken, people should be left free to make them.
Consider now the decisions we each face for which there is a range of options that reason does not rank as better or worse. To borrow some terminology from Joseph Raz, call these eligible options. The autonomy proponent can say at least this much is true. It is valuable for people to make their own decisions about which eligible options to take up, particularly if the options in question are not trivial. In doing so, they determine, or help to determine, who they are and what matters to them. At one point, Valdman suggests that choices between options of this kind are arbitrary and so it should not be important that we make them. But this is a little misleading. They are arbitrary in the sense that reason does not require that we make them. But they need not be arbitrary in the sense that there is no good reason to make them. (Notice that the same is true of the deep commitments that Valdman highlights. I might know that my deep commitments are not required by reason and I might know that if I cared about very different things my life would go just as well, but it would not follow that I have no reason to care that my life is one that reflects my deep commitments.)
Suppose it is indeed important for us to make our own decisions about which eligible options to take up. This would require explanation. It is well explained by the fact that autonomy has some intrinsic prudential value. Now it is possible that autonomy has only conditional intrinsic value. It contributes to the goodness of a person’s life only if it is not misused. And it is misused whenever a person makes decisions for himself that are not optimal. I find this difficult to believe, however. If autonomy has some value in cases in which a person confronts a choice between two eligible options, then it likely has some value in cases in which a person confronts a choice between two good options where one option is only slightly better than the other. Valdman’s PC, having already committed itself to respecting the decisions of people when they don’t make mistakes, might well have reason to let them make their own decisions when they do make mistakes, at least when the mistakes are not too egregious.
Valdman’s case for PC government, in any event, does not establish his thesis. The autonomy proponent can accept PC government without reservation. Still, Valdman is surely correct in claiming that many who value autonomy will think, special cases aside, it would be a serious mistake for a person to turn his life over to a committee that never allowed him to make a mistake. Can more be said on behalf of autonomy? Valdman distinguishes the PC from an expert committee (EC) that would impose values on you when it judges that this would improve your welfare. Unlike the PC, this latter committee is not concerned with allowing you to have a life that is acceptable to you (one that reflects your deep commitments).
We need to ask what explains the evaluative difference between submitting to these two committees. To appreciate this difference, we need to know more about how people come to have the deep commitments that the PC must honor. (I assume that deep commitments are actual commitments that people have.) If a child submits to PC rule, then in all likelihood the PC will not govern in a way that differs substantially from the EC. The conditions for the child’s well-being remain substantially undetermined. By contrast, if a 30 year old submits to PC government, then it will be significantly constrained to govern in ways that reflect her deep commitments. Yet I imagine that this would amount to an important difference between PC and EC government only if the person had come to have her deep commitments in the right way. I won’t try to say anything precise about this. I take it that if her deep commitments were the product of hypnosis or tampering with her brain, then PC government for her would not be preferable to EC government. Here, then, is a suspicion: to explain the evaluative difference between submitting to the two types of government we need to appeal to the value of people being governed by deep commitments that have not been imposed on them – deep commitments that are, in some sense, their own. And to explain the process by which people come to have commitments of this kind we need to appeal to past decisions they have been allowed to make for themselves. Some of these decisions may be ones that involve identifying with certain aspects of one’s psychology, but others will involve making choices, such as what goals to pursue or what relationships to enter into, that shape the kind of person one will become. These are the kinds of decisions the autonomy proponent believes it is valuable for us to make for ourselves. If this is right, then an adequate defense of PC over EC government will need to appeal to the value of autonomy. Moreover, the process by which we come to have deep commitments that are our own is, at least for most of us, an on-going process. So, if there is a value to making decisions that play a role in determining one’s deep commitments, then there will be a cost to PC government. The cost will diminish as one’s deep commitments become more fixed as a result of past autonomous decisions.
Two final comments can be made briefly. Valdman often characterizes outsourcing self-government as a decision we make. We empower others to make our decisions for us. This raises a familiar puzzle about autonomy. Can we autonomously surrender our autonomy? Some autonomy proponents will answer ‘yes’. They will think that a decision to cede authority over one’s decisions would be one of the most important, if not the most important, decisions a person could make. And they will insist that it is vital that this decision be an autonomous one. I don’t mean to endorse this view, but only to point out that it is one that is consistent with the claim that autonomy has intrinsic value. Valdman’s case against self-government is cleaner if we imagine that we do not get to decide for ourselves whether to outsource our decision making. Second, Valdman points out that many autonomy proponents hold that self-government has intrinsic value, irrespective of a person’s desires. This is true, but the autonomy proponent need not be an objectivist about well-being. She might think that to the extent that you care about not only faring well, but faring well on your own terms, then you have reason to value autonomy. Valdman thinks that you can fare well on your own terms without making autonomous decisions. An acceptable life will do the trick. The autonomy proponent, who is also a subjectivist about well-being, can claim that that it is not so.