Taking back control: who will defend autonomy today?

Battle of Ideas festival 2022, Saturday 15 October, Church House, London


The idea that we are capable of making important decisions for ourselves seems to have fallen out of fashion. The left has long assumed that the results of elections are determined by the interests of billionaire media moguls rather than the interests of voters. The ‘nanny state’ directs us to change our bad habits, from smoking bans and strict gambling rules to sugar taxes and minimum prices for alcohol. Governments around the world have flirted with ‘nudge’ policies as a politically palatable version of paternalism.

For many on the left, autonomy and agency are myths. Instead of defending free will, many groups – from the poor to gamblers – are assumed to need intervention from experts. If those on the right traditionally lampooned ‘nanny staters’, there seems to have been a shift in regarding individual autonomy as problematic. Too much freedom is discussed as a threat to community, associated with selfishness, self-indulgent identity politics, and the unrestrained and corrosive passions unleashed by expressive individualism. Both sides seem to have lost faith in the capacity of individuals for moral decision making.

But if choices are taken away from us, some argue that there is little point in ethics and moral reasoning. We have no need to develop as adults, parents and citizens because all the important decisions are made for us. The upshot is a society that is morally weak with little capacity to shape the future.

Moreover, the rejection of autonomy is inconsistent. For example, battle lines have recently been drawn on two issues – abortion rights and vaccine mandates. Those who value choice on one of these issues are often vehemently opposed to allowing choice on the other.

Is autonomy a myth in a society where so many events and circumstances are beyond our control? What’s wrong with experts making the ‘right’ choices for us? Is there anyone willing to defend free will and autonomy today – and if not, why?


Dr Ashley Frawley
senior lecturer in sociology and social policy, Swansea University; author, Significant Emotions and Semiotics of Happiness

Ann Furedi
author, The Moral Case for Abortion; former chief executive, BPAS

Nina Power
philosopher; senior editor, Compact Magazine; author, What Do Men Want?: masculinity and its discontents

Christopher Snowdon
head of lifestyle economics, Institute of Economic Affairs; editor, Nanny State Index; author, Killjoys


Rob Lyons
science and technology director, Academy of Ideas; convenor, AoI Economy Forum