I work on a casual basis at a couple of the local universities (all going well, by the end of the first semester next year, I will have worked at all three major universities in town – nothing like spreading myself around / too thin). In the semester just ended, I taught a course in professional ethics for students working in disability. My expertise is on the ethics side of that course, and I have been very, very grateful for the knowledge I’ve picked up around about the place from people writing specifically about living with disability.
I ran into problems in the last couple of lectures, with defining autonomy. It’s a critical value in Western liberal democracies, and highly relevant to people working in disability. It can be a yardstick, a constant question that can guide practice – does my action enhance or compromise the autonomy of the person I am working with?
But the students in this course are completely new to ethical analysis, and often they aren’t even sure what autonomy is. So I needed to come up with definitions for them, and given that they are normally very applied workers and thinkers (c/f the philosophy and political theory students I normally work with), the definitions need to be structured in a way that helps the students to connect with them. This is a common issue in professional and business ethics courses; it’s usually the first time many of the students have engaged with any formal study of ethics. Often it’s simply a matter of providing words and a conceptual structure so the students can articulate knowledge they already have intuitively, but in order to do that, I find it easiest to flesh out the very conceptual definitions of autonomy with more applied definitions.
And that’s where I suddenly realised that all the imagery I customarily used when talking about autonomy was just … wrong.
Very formally, and in very bare bones fashion, autonomy is the capacity for self-government. It’s the freedom to make and to act on choices.
Whatever. Often the bare bones definition doesn’t give students a sense of why autonomy is important. So from there, I talk about the idea of people being autonomous adults, of being independent and recognised as independent operators, of having a sense of themselves as being independent and worthy of respect, of being equals who are able to stand tall and look the other in the eye.
Ouch. As I opened my mouth to utter this phrase, one that I’ve used for many years, I suddenly realised that it was just wrong, not only for that class in particular, but for use in general. I stood there gaping like a goldfish, and eventually told the students that I was lost for words, and explained why.
I’m not likely to be teaching that particular course again: I was filling in for a semester while the person who usually teaches the course was on study leave. But given my areas of study, I’m highly likely to be lecturing on the value of autonomy again. So right now I’m working hard on coming up with something better to say. Any suggestions will be gratefully received, and carefully considered.