- Seeking the Everyday Meaning of Autonomy in Neurologic Disorders
The Socratic aphorism that the unexamined life is not worth living and dictums like "Know thyself" remind us of the centrality of self-understanding in the history of philosophical reflections on autonomy. These traditional concerns with autonomy may seem far removed from the neurologic impairments to which Joel Anderson and Warren Lux draw our attention. Nonetheless, Anderson and Lux have provided an important discussion that links the traditional philosophical commitment to self-knowledge with an account that parses these concepts in the context of neurologic disorders. Theirs is a potentially productive approach for improving our understanding of autonomy, one that Emilio Mordini and I advocated in a paper entitled, "Autonomy and the Ethics of Neurosurgery" (Agich and Mordini 1998, 54). We argued that the focus of bioethics on issues such as informed consent misses the more challenging and potentially fruitful collaboration that neurosurgery and neurology affords for advancing the philosophical understanding of the conditions of autonomy. The challenge is in the integration of concepts used in one context of meaning with other domains of discourse. A good example of the challenges embedded in pursuing this kind of project can be found in Anderson and Lux's discussion of the concept of accurate self-assessment.
Anderson and Lux argue that accurate self-assessment is a requirement for one to act autonomously. On first hearing, this phrase sounds unsurprising and consistent with standard approaches that assume a higher degree of awareness of one's capacities. Their characterization, however, derives from their observations of cases involving severe neurologic impairments, which point to more basic processes than the reflective awareness or knowledge that is often assumed. Paradoxically, the language of accurate self-assessment sounds remarkably like an intellectual function. It appears to fall squarely within the traditional philosophical tendency to define autonomy in terms of ego-centered, intellectual functions involving relatively high-level reflective capacities. Despite their terminology, Anderson and Lux stress that their account requires a type of reflexivity that is not the same as self-conscious reflection understood in the highest degree. They stress this in a number of places. For example, they see the neurologic concept of executive function as involving basic feedback mechanisms that are "broadly isomorphic with capacities associated [End Page 295] with autonomy;" these include anticipation, goal seeking, planning, initiation, sequencing, monitoring, error detection, self-correction, as well as initiation of novel responses, a clearly heterogenous set of capacities (Anderson and Lux 2004, 285). These capacities are not capacities of the "mind," but basic neurologic functions of the intact embodied agent who is actively engaged in the world. Thus, these concepts capture or express a practical (or clinical) as opposed to a theoretical understanding of the basic conditions or capacities defining autonomy. Similarly, their talk of "self-assessment" does not need to be understood as explicit or conscious; rather, it typically operates in the background (Anderson and Lux 2004). They term this character of self-assessment "mundane" (Anderson and Lux 2004, 289), which strikes me as exactly the right way to characterize this key feature of autonomy (Agich 1995). Their phenomenological and clinically based insights are quite sound, but the reader struggles with a terminology that seems to run in a different direction. To be sure, they stress that they intend their language of "autonomy" and "accurate self-assessment" to involve ordinary, background, and everyday functions that do not require high levels or significant capacities for reflective self-assessment, but their very insistence underscores the problem inherent in this terminology.
Anderson and Lux argue that the capacity for self-assessment has a task-relative dimension that requires a degree of "accuracy." They characterize accuracy in a way that may promote rather than forestall misunderstanding. They state that "an adequate degree of precision" (281) is required in such assessment. For example, in assessing whether one is able to jump a hurdle, they say "one must accurately estimate not only the strength of one's legs but also the height of the hurdle" (Anderson and Lux 2004, 281). They further characterize their account of "accuracy" as involving an epistemological externalism, which might lead some readers to assume...