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Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism Hardcover – December 17, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


"For generations paternalism has had a bad odor, and individual autonomy has reigned supreme. Sarah Conly's book will change all of that. She argues in favor of paternalism with rigor and gusto, and persuasively shows how shedding our reflexive aversion to paternalism will make people better off. Some will be persuaded and others not, but this book will forever change the nature of the debates about paternalism, autonomy, and the role of the state in individual well-being."
Frederick Schauer, David and Mary Harrison Distinguished Professor of Law, University of Virginia

"Sarah Conly has written the best book about paternalism since Mill, and the best philosophical defense of paternalism we have to date. Tough-minded, resourceful, precise, and informed by knowledge of both psychology and the regulatory state, the book issues a challenge to which, from now on, anyone who objects to paternalistic government policies will have to respond. A marvelous achievement."
Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, University of Chicago

"According to Mill, 'Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.' Sarah Conly disagrees. In this lively, accessible, sensible, and well argued book, Conly makes a case for coercive paternalism that critics of the 'nanny state' will have to take seriously."
Alan Wertheimer, Professor Emeritus, University of Vermont

"... careful, provocative, and novel, and it is a fundamental challenge to Mill and the many people who follow him ..."
Cass R. Sunstein, The New York Review of Books

"... Sarah Conly's book Against Autonomy is the first full-length, philosophical exploration and defense of a much broader, and coercive, paternalism ... This is a well-written, thoughtful, informed, treatment of its topic. One test of the quality of a book's argumentation is to see, when a doubt arises in one's mind about some claim, whether the author, at some point, addresses it. Conly passes this test with high marks ..."
Gerald Dworkin, University of California, Davis, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

"... a timely and important addition to the literature on paternalism ... this is a well-written, well-argued volume that will be of interest to undergraduates, graduate students, and researchers ... Highly recommended ..."
J. S. Taylor, The College of New Jersey, Choice

"... a concise and coherent argument worth considering by students and the lay public interested in the intersection of philosophy, politics, and psychology. It is written in plain language with minimal philosophical jargon, and is both accessible and eminently readable ... Overall, the book is coherent and generally very well-argued ..."
Matthew A. Butkus, Metapsychology

"... a thought-provoking contribution (in every sense of the word provoking) both to general practical philosophy and to biomedical ethics in particular ... this book is worth reading because it poses the right questions and does not shy away from consequences which may be drawn from this although violating political correctness at first sight ... should be studied by everyone who is interested in defending autonomy and liberty for finite human beings."
Michael Quante, Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy

"... usefully illuminates the moral-ethical complexities and risks of community-based lawyering for pro bono attorneys who stand up in defense of impoverished communities."
Michigan Law Review

Book Description

Sarah Conly rejects the idea of autonomy as inviolable and argues that laws that enforce what is good for the individual's well-being, or hinder what is bad, are morally justified. Of interest to students and researchers of political philosophy, political theory and philosophy of law.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 216 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (December 17, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1107024846
  • ISBN-13: 978-1107024847
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 2.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,370,297 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

2.2 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

103 of 124 people found the following review helpful By Brian Massie on February 16, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Ever been at an expensive restaurant and wind up choking down an awful meal because you paid so much for it? That's what this book was like for me. "For Authoritarianism" would have been a more appropriate title, and that's what Conly suggests is best for everyone. Just so we're on the same page with respect to the use of the word, autonomy is the ability to make choices according to one's own free will. If we are coerced, even an internal pressure such as guilt or shame, our autonomy ls lessened. She has plans for everyone, under the assumption that everyone would be better off if we made similar decisions, or even better, were coerced into making those decisions. She implores that "we turn to a better approach, which is simply to save people from themselves by making certain courses of action illegal."

Finance: She argues that the best way to encourage people to have a certain amount of savings is to make it illegal for you to not have a certain amount in savings. She seems to forget that there are those who are working two jobs and making just enough money to be broke. Isn't the point of savings so that you have a "rainy day fund?" If that rainy day hits, causing you to deplete your savings, the result will be that you'll be in violation of the law. Her view that coercing people into saving will be addictive, thus causing people to save more than the minimum amount required. Yeah, okay.

Food: What if every food that was "unhealthy" was suddenly illegal? Ice cream? Too much sugar! Crackers? You don't need all those carbs! Bacon? Officer, arrest that man! Imagine: no size larger than Small, no more buffets, and say goodbye to Thanksgiving.
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110 of 136 people found the following review helpful By Chris Bray on February 19, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Human beings are irrational. As Sarah Conly writes, "The truth is that we don't reason very well, and in many cases there is no justification for leaving us to struggle with our own inabilities and to suffer the consequences" (pg. 1).

Fortunately, however, while human beings don't reason well, government officials do. This is because they are able to be more objective than we are. Again, Conly explains this very well: "Since we do better at estimating efficacy when we are in a relatively objective position, government, insofar as those in it are not the ones who are at present tempted by the rewards of the poor decision, can help us do better to reach our own, individual goals better than we would do if left to our own devices" (pg. 10).

And indeed, our history proves Conly's claim, as objective government officials have acted with the reason and balance of experts who are not tempted by direct involvement in the questions being decided: the Sedition Act of 1798, which led to the imprisonment of newspaper editors who criticized government. Indian removal. The Fugitive Slave Act. The Dred Scott decision. The Wounded Knee massacre. Plessy v. Ferguson. Jim Crow laws. The firebombing of Tokyo. The mass internment of Japanese-Americans. The secret bombing of Cambodia. Drone attacks on Pakistani wedding parties. Indefinite military detention. The wisdom of government is virtually infinite, and has created a world of steady progress. When we act individually, we are irrational and reckless. When government officials act upon the human society from which they ascended, they do better to help us all reach our proper goals.

Indeed, this is but a partial list, as it omits the deep wisdom of, say, the European state.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Currie-Knight TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 26, 2013
Format: Hardcover
First, despite my disagreement with the book, I am glad Sarah Conly has written it. Philosophy thrives on people's willingness to make controversial cases that can spur good dialogue. This book is a well-articulated (even if philosophically problematic) argument for 'coercive paternalism' by government - the ability of government to coerce us in cases where (one could argue) it is 'our own good.' To be clear, the author is not arguing for totalitarianism (briefly, because her views is that government will not enforce what we should value, but create legislation that help us realize values we actually do hold but often fail to actualize). Nor is she trying to make a case (that she finds uncontroversial) about whether government should be able to coerce us for OTHERS' good like speed limits, where speeding may kill innocents). Her focus is those more controversial cases where government may restrict, say, what foods we are allowed to eat or how much debt we can legally accumulate, because it will help us flourish later.

Conly first takes on the idea of autonomy itself: why do Western philosophers find it to be so valuable, such that we'd rather respect autonomy than help people actually live well? (Is it really better to respect autonomy by letting others drink themselves to death than to try and keep them alive by limiting their ability to buy alcohol?) Conly takes primary aim at John Stuart Mill's defense of liberty, arguing against Mill's idea that autonomy derives much of its value by allowing people to be heterodox and not have to conform to public opinion or authority.
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