Ignorance, information and autonomy

Theor Med Bioeth. 2001 Sep;22(5):415-36. doi: 10.1023/a:1013058801622.


People have a powerful interest in genetic privacy and its associated claim to ignorance, and some equally powerful desires to be shielded from disturbing information are often voiced. We argue, however, that there is no such thing as a right to remain in ignorance, where a fight is understood as an entitlement that trumps competing claims. This does not of course mean that information must always be forced upon unwilling recipients, only that there is no prima facie entitlement to be protected from true or honest information about oneself. Any claims to be shielded from information about the self must compete on equal terms with claims based in the rights and interests of others. In balancing the weight and importance of rival considerations about giving or withholding information, if rights claims have any place, rights are more likely to be defensible on the side of honest communication of information rather than in defence of ignorance. The right to free speech and the right to decline to accept responsibility to take decisions for others imposed by those others seem to us more plausible candidates for fully fledged rights in this field than any purported right to ignorance. Finally, and most importantly, if the right to autonomy is invoked, a proper understanding of the distinction between claims to liberty and claims to autonomy show that the principle of autonomy, as it is understood in contemporary social ethics and English law, supports the giving rather than the withholding of information in most circumstances.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Confidentiality
  • Freedom
  • Genetic Counseling*
  • Genetic Privacy*
  • Humans
  • Patient Rights*
  • Personal Autonomy*
  • Social Responsibility*
  • Truth Disclosure*