‘Moral duty’ to allow family and friends to make big life choices, says Cambridge philosopher

‘Self authorship’ is a right, argues Dr Farbod Akhlaghi, and people should make their own decisions on new jobs or having children

Trying to stop friends and relations from making certain life choices such as whether to take a new job or start a family could “violate a crucial moral right”, according to a new paper by a Cambridge philosopher.

Dr Farbod Akhlaghi, a moral philosopher at Christ’s College, argues that everyone has a right to “self authorship”, so must make decisions about transformative experiences for themselves.

In a new paper for the philosophy journal Analysis, he argues that this right to “revelatory autonomy” is violated even by well-meaning advice from friends and family about crucial life decisions.

Akhlaghi argues that it is impossible to know if a friend’s life will benefit from a transformative experience – such as new job, the birth of a child, or a university course – until after the event. It is for them to find out, he says.

Crucially, he argues, it is only by making these choices independently that we can know ourselves.

In the paper, entitled Transformative experience and the right to revelatory autonomy, Akhlaghi writes: “It is not the value of making a choice as such but, rather, that of autonomously making choices to learn what our core preferences and values will become. For autonomously making transformative choices when facing them, deciding for ourselves to learn who we will become, gives us a degree of self-authorship.”

The paper says this right creates a correlative “moral duty in others not to interfere in the autonomous self-making” of their friends.

Akhlaghi argues it is only justifiable to interfere in someone else’s transformative choice by competing moral considerations, such as if harm is likely to be done others.

Commenting on the paper he said: “The ability to see that the person we’ve become is the product of decisions that we made for ourselves is very import.

“There are lots of different reasons why we might seek to intervene – some selfish, others well-meaning – but whatever our motivation, we can cause significant harm, including to the people we love most.”

He argues that even those who accept the right to revelatory autonomy in others risk violating this right if they attempt to advise friends on a particular course of action.

Akhlaghi says: “Offering reasons, arguments or evidence as if one is in a privileged position with respect to what the other person’s experience would be like for them disrespects their moral right to revelatory autonomy.”

Akhlaghi suggests that the more likely a choice is to affect someone’s “core identity and values”, the stronger the moral reasons required for interfering in their decisions. So advising a friend on whether to eat a cheeseburger or not is easier to justify than advising them on whether to go to university, he writes.

• The headline and introduction to this article were amended on 26 January 2023 to better reflect the views expounded in Akhlaghi’s paper.


Matthew Weaver

The GuardianTramp

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