Great Expectations – Autonomy, Responsibility and Social Welfare Entitlement

This thesis is motivated by the phenomenon of sub-optimal decision-making, where a person is unable to make effective choices that promote her best interests and as a result her life goes badly, and asks how a just social welfare policy should respond to it.  Accordingly, it is concerned with two conflicting sets of expectations, both of which are at the heart of current debates concerning welfare reform in Britain.

Firstly, that people should be responsible for meeting their own welfare needs through the prudent exercise of their right to personal autonomy.  Secondly, that the state should provide a safety net of publicly-provided welfare goods for those who are unable to satisfy their own needs.

Policymakers have sought to regulate the tension between these with the principle of welfare conditionality, which holds that those deemed culpable for their own welfare needs, or their inability to satisfy them, are disqualified from public assistance.  However, I will argue that these expectations, and the public policy principle they have given rise to, are precariously founded on a mistaken assumption; namely, that individuals who have mental capacity as defined in current law are necessarily autonomy-competent, and, as such, equipped with the skills and dispositions required for effective decision-making that promotes their best interests.

I locate autonomy-competence on a continuum of personal autonomy in the neglected terrain between moral failure and mental incapacity and claim that, insofar as welfare conditionality fails to acknowledge this gap, it is prone to holding sub-optimal decision-makers unjustly responsible and perpetuating the prudential failures it claims to discourage.  Accordingly, I argue that the state has a role in promoting the conditions for prudent self-government, and that autonomy-enhancing intervention, not traditional forms of welfare conditionality, is the best means through which the great expectations of personal autonomy and responsibility can be realised.



Ashley, V.

How to cite this document:

  • Ashley, V.

(2014) Great Expectations – Autonomy, Responsibility and Social Welfare Entitlement. Unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Essex.