My Philosopher: Charles Dworkin


Gerald Dworkin is a modern philosopher. Currently he is a professor at the University of California in Davis, where he teaches legal, moral, and political philosophy courses. Dworkin earned a Ph.D in 1966 at the University of California, Berkley. Dworkin has also taught courses at Harvard, the University of Illinois in Chicago, and MIT. As a philosopher his main areas of study include autonomy and paternalism.

Although Dworkin did not invent the idea of autonomy he has adapted the definition. In order to understand autonomy you must first understand that freedom and autonomy (although similar) do not have the same meaning. Freedom is defined as the state of being that is reasonable unconstrained by the outside forces and that allows us to pursue our own interests and visions of happiness. Autonomy refers to not only what we can do but also what we ought to do; moral autonomy refers to our ability to control the reasons for our actions in ways that show an understanding of our obligations as moral beings (Plaisance, 2014). Autonomy is based on an individual living and acting as a moral agent. This requires moving away from just political definitions and restraints and leaning more toward what we should be doing if we are serious about our role in society as a moral agent. Dworkin warns that autonomy should not be considered paramount to other values and placing too much importance on this theory alone could be destructive. Without autonomy other values can still exist. Dworkin states “What is valuable about autonomy is that the commitments and promises a person makes be ones he views as his, part of the person he wants to be, so that he defines himself via those commitments.” (Plaistance, page 154).

Another theory that Dworkin uses to support his work is paternalism. Paternalism is interference; this interference is against the wishes of the party involved. This behavior is often justified that they interferer is protecting the other person (or organization, etc) from unnecessary harm. Paternalism can also include the state or government interfering in order for the well being of the parties involved. Dworkin defends paternalism by stating that the interference will help the individual make a better decision later on in their life. Another defense of paternalism he talks about is that it will protect people form making irrational decisions that are harmful to themselves or others. Examples of paternalism could be laws requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets and motorists to wear seat belts. The law is trying to protect people from unnecessary harm. Autonomy says that people want to make good decisions, however paternalism protects them when they don’t make the perceived “correct” or “right” decision.

Dworkin’s studies can be useful to those studying media ethics because he details the necessity for balance between autonomy and paternalism. Dworkin believes that people should have choices and that they will choose the right option (autonomy) however he believes that some things should be mandated as legislation for the protection of others (paternalism). Any code of ethics in the field of communications (or any other profession) can be seen through Dworkin’s ideas. The codes of ethics guide you to be able to make the correct decision in your professional life, giving you the freedom to make the right choice, however if you break a code of ethics there will be consequences. These codes of ethics are not necessarily binding rules however if broken negative ramifications will follow.


Plaisance, P. (2014). Autonomy. In Media ethics: Key principles for responsible practice (2nd ed., pp. 152-154). SAGE Publications.

Dworkin, G. (2002, November 6). Paternalism. Retrieved February 13, 2015, from

Philosophy Department. (n.d.). Retrieved February 13, 2015, from

Lawrence C. Becker, Crimes Against Autonomy: Gerald Dworkin on the Enforcement Of Morality, 40 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 959 (1999),

[Untitled image of Gerald Dworkin]. Retrieved February 12, 2015 from



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