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Heal, Jane, , . Mental disorder and the value(s) of ‘autonomy’
2012, In Autonomy and Mental Disorder, Lubomira Radoilska (ed.). New York: Oxford University Press, 3-25.
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Summary (from Introduction of Autonomy and Mental Disorder, Radoilska ed.): In ‘Mental disorder and the value(s) of autonomy’, Jane Heal identifies and critically examines a form of thought which is implicit in discussions about what we, as a society, owe to people with mental disorder. This form of thought builds upon intuitions which link respect for a person with respect for a person’s autonomy. In light of these intuitions, the issue of how to treat a person with mental disorder may seem to revolve around the question whether or not this person has the capacity for autonomy. However, Heal argues, inquiries that share this logical form are methodologically inappropriate and potentially unhelpful in answering either of the questions they put together: what we owe to people with mental disorder and what is involved in autonomy as a capacity. The reason for this is twofold.
Firstly, the apparent consensus about autonomy as a capacity for self-determination that ought to be protected from interference by a corresponding right to self-determination is too shallow to ground a coherent course of action in terms of respect for autonomy. Even if we work with the assumption that autonomy is part of the Enlightenment project, we face an important dilemma since we have to choose between a Kantian or rationality oriented and a Millian or well-being oriented take on the nature and significance of autonomy. Secondly, even if we were to reach a substantive consensus on the concept of autonomy, it would arguably require an intricate array of mental capacities, outside the reach of at least some people with mental disorder. Getting clearer on what autonomy is will not help us find out what it means to treat these people respectfully.

Comment: This text would be a good candidate for inclusion in a course about autonomy, philosophy of disability, or the ethics or political philosophy of mental health or aging (due to discussion of dementia). If assigned as part of a course on autonomy, students will benefit from considering Heal’s approach to breaking down the logical components of the concept and her nuanced discussion of the limitations of autonomy as a moral principle for understanding our obligations toward people with mental disorders. This second element is the central question of the paper and would be of interest when examining disability or mental health from a philosophical perspective.

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