Thomas Szasz (was Re: Anti-Depressants)

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Thu Aug 31 12:46:30 PDT 2000

Gordon wrote:

>It's curious that personal autonomy is found, even assigned,
>to the Right, given that the Right is the party of
>authority, power, status, private wealth, order, and
>conformity, the friends of the King of France, while the
>Left is the party of freedom and equality. How'd that
>happen, anyway?
>Because autonomy is what Szasz is on about, mostly -- the
>autonomy of persons in the face of institutions, for example
>to ingest what drugs they please. Conceded a lot of what he
>says is silly -- that's not the issue I'm raising.

Autonomy, along with freedom & equality that Reese mentioned, is one of those keywords in modern political discourse that nearly everyone wants to claim for his or her side. Therefore, meanings of the word differ greatly depending upon who defines it & for what purpose. The idea of autonomy that Szasz is in favor of is the autonomy of individuals to enter into contractual relations in the market, (imagined, in a libertarian fashion, to be) free from the state (subsidies, regulations, social insurances, etc.). That is why Szasz is not against psychotherapy _if the patient pays the therapist directly out of his or her own pocket_, even tough he thinks that mental illness is a myth, just a stigmatizing label applied for the purpose of social control of behaviors considered deviant (Szasz is a constructivist when it comes to the idea of mental illness -- stigmatizing labels construct stigmatized social facts -- and that is why he has little to say about the reality of mental illnesses & how to help people who suffer from them).

Based upon the idea of autonomy defined by Szasz, sufferers of paranoid schizophrenia, for instance, should be properly left alone -- even if the consequence of being left alone is sufferers wandering in the streets, feeling persecuted by the voices in their heads, unable to take care of themselves -- unless & until they get into trouble with laws, and when they do, they should be treated as autonomous moral agents like everyone else (hence his opposition to the insanity defence). This is a cruel & absurd notion of autonomy that denies the fact that concrete human individuals -- not just sufferers of mental illnesses -- cannot live _absolutely independently_ of one another.

We on the left need to work out the meanings of autonomy different from Szasz's.


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