Monday, June 11, 2012

Biopolitics, Bioethics, and Autonomy

Coupled and intermingled at least since Aristotle, Politics and Ethics find as their 21st century counterparts Biopolitics and Bioethics.

Biopolitics, which in the Foucauldian sense is that form of government which regulates all aspects of human life, in many respects finds its clearest opposition in the notion of Autonomy. From the Greek Auto and Nomos, Autonomy at minimum means self-determination. In addition to its militant variants, autonomy - along with beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice - is one of the four principles of conventional bioethics. Unless a patient - in the standard bioethical context - lacks "decision-making capacity," it would be a transgression of bioethics to in any way determine the patient's life without his or her consent. In the biopolitical sphere, on the other hand, the consent of the governed is hardly considered whatsoever. The power blocs that own, and determine the course of the 'development' of, the world, in this respect, violate peoples' autonomy as a matter of policy.

However, while peoples' autonomy is invaded by the forces of Dominating Power, a serious question arises as to the relation between autonomy and Liberating Power. For example, in various radical circles, and among anarchists in particular, a contradiction arises between respecting autonomy, and practicing non-violence. Aside from the more immediate questions of self-defense - when one may justifiably use force to fend off an attacker - lies the question of the less immediate variety of self-defense. In other words, a political opponent may want to wage war, or to cut down a forest to convert its wood into paper towels, or may want to enact any number of programs violative of another's autonomy. Would not the obstruction of that unwanted program itself constitute a violation of the opponent's autonomy? Or is this only an apparent contradiction? And, if so, how can one distinguish between the two? At this point, the more conventional bioethical analysis would probably raise the bioethical exception to autonomy - the lack of decision-making capacity. Those lacking in "decision-making capacity" are not capable of exercising autonomy. It is interesting to note that this exception to autonomy has as its biopolitical correlate the Schmittian definition of sovereignty: the sovereign is s/he who decides upon the exception.

The twist that returns this to the bioethical, or perhaps integrates the biopolitical with the bioethical, is that historically the maxim that justifies the sovereign exception is salus populi suprema lex esto - the health of the people is the supreme law. Within this, the term people is tremendously problematic. In a world in which many people are denied the status of people altogether, and are reduced to the status of, among other things, property, it is imperative to explicitly state that all human people, throughout the world are - in order for the maxim to move from reproducing Dominating Power to Liberating Power - people. And while, for example, corporations are not actually people, but by way of legal fictions are included as people, when excluding corporations from the designation people one must be careful to not exclude non-human animals and other living things from the designation of people - if one is to apply the maxim in a manner that does not reproduce Dominating Power. Through a critical application of this maxim, one may be able to begin to move from a law supportive of harms to a more critical autonomy and justice.

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