Autonomy Rights and Liberty

The concept of rights presupposes that right-holders are beings who have the capacity for autonomy, who make choices and can use discretion to exercise a right or not. Basic liberties in a liberal democracy are protected by constitutional and other legal rights. The idea of a right has three elements: the right-holder (the person who has the right); the object of the right (the activity or thing that the right-holder has a right to); and the duty-bearer (the person or institution who must do what the right requires). Negative rights are rights not to be interfered with; for example, everyone has the right not to be given medical treatment without consent, and all healthcare providers must respect this right. Positive rights are rights that a person be provided with something—for example, the right of all senior citizens in the United States to Medicare payment for healthcare, a right that is binding on government agencies and healthcare providers.

Recognizing the negative right to autonomy imposes on everyone the obligation not to coerce or otherwise interfere with the action of another. This protection of autonomy is not as costly to social institutions as recognizing positive rights to autonomy. If there is a positive right to X, this means that someone is under an obligation to provide X to the right-holder(s). For example, if every citizen has a fundamental positive right to the best-quality medical care, then the state must provide full access to medical care to all citizens. While there cannot be a positive right to autonomy per se—for autonomy as capacity is not something that can simply be given to persons who do not have it—there can be rights to other things that are required for, or supportive of, autonomy. Among them are rights to a decent minimum of healthcare, education, a decent standard of living, political participation, freedom of inquiry and expression, and equal opportunity to compete for positions in society. These goods contribute to autonomy in two ways: First, they make possible the development of the capacity for autonomy; second, they make autonomy meaningful by establishing the personal and social powers and range of options for autonomously chosen projects and plans. Discrimination against minorities and women decreases their autonomy by explicitly excluding them from desirable positions in society and by implicitly agreeing to the limited range of options offered to minorities and women.

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