Epistemic Autonomy

Expanding Autonomy: Scaffolded, Embedded and Distributed

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Grant details

AHRC Grant Ref: AH/W005077/1 | Project dates: Sept 2022 - Aug 2025

Epistemic Autonomy Project Team

PI: Professor Neil Levy; CO-I: Professor J Adam CarterOscar PiedrahitaMatthew Vermaire

Project Description

We value being autonomous: we want to make important decisions for ourselves and being free of coercive influences. Our high valuation of epistemic autonomy is manifested by our rejection of propaganda and our insistence that reporting be free from bias and fair.

But we also rely on others pervasively. When we are ill, we go to a doctor; when our car breaks down, we go to a mechanic. We accept their expert judgment, because they know more than we do. The puzzle of epistemic autonomy consists largely in reconciling our dependence on others with governing ourselves. 

The significance of this project is made clear by ongoing debates about expertise in public life. Recall debates about lockdowns during the pandemic. We each needed to decide whether to follow the advice of health authorities, or instead accept competing claims made by protestors and social media posts. But how do we make up our minds in these cases? Health authorities claimed to convey the science, but dissenters argued that the advice focused too narrowly, on the harms caused by Covid and not on the toll on mental health and the economy. The health authorities cited experts, but so could the dissenters. How is the epistemically autonomous agent to decide in such cases? Should she ‘do her own research’? Surely the layperson can’t do better than the experts?

We aim to reconceptualize epistemic autonomy by rethinking it in the light of our pervasive dependence on others. We explore the extent to which autonomy should be thought of as scaffolded: dependent for its development and exercise on environmental supports (ranging from the provision of information through to the provision of cognitive tools and even other people). We will investigate means of better scaffolding autonomy by providing environments and supports that support agency. Using standard philosophical methods, empirical data and feedback from ordinary people, we will explore when such scaffolding ceases to support agency and instead becomes paternalistic.

We will also explore the value of epistemic autonomy. While we value deciding for ourselves, we also value having knowledge (all the more so since knowledge allows us to pursue our goals more effectively). Inevitably, these are values that can conflict: sometimes, thinking for ourselves leads us away from truth. How should we value autonomy relative to knowledge? Are there some spheres in which autonomy is more important than others? Deferring to others about facts seems much less problematic than deferring to others about values. It is one thing to believe that vaccines are safe and effective because an expert told me so. It is quite another to think that individual welfare should take a backseat to the community on the same sort of grounds.

Contact us

Questions or comments about the project can be directed to the principle investigator, Prof Neil Levy.

Project outputs


1 September 2022: The Epistemic Autonomy project, a collaboration between the universities of Oxford and Glasgow, was launched with the support of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. This project will lead to a better understanding of autonomy and thereby a better justified account of the constraints that autonomy places on nudges and allied interventions. 

Public Philosophy articles

The project team, as part of its knowledge exchange objectives, have written three public philosophy articles during Year 1 for the project website:

J. Adam Carter, Brainpower: Use it or Lose it?

Neil Levy, Outsourcing without fear?

Oscar A. Piedrahita & Matthew Vermaire, Nudging for better beliefs

Rebecca Brown, Expertise and Autonomy in Medical Decision Making


Workshop 1 (Glasgow, 11-12 December): Speakers: Carolina Flores, Neil Levy, Adam Carter, Matt Vermaire, Oscar Piedrahita, Jesús Navarro, Mona Simion (hosted in collaboration with COGITO at Glasgow).


Allen, J., Earp, B., Koplin, J. and Wilkinson, D., (2024), 'Consent-GPT: Is it ethical to delegate procedural consent to conversational AI?', Journal of Medical Ethics, Vol: 50(2): 77-83 [PMC10850653]

Brown, R. and De Barra, M., (2023), 'A taxonomy of non-honesty in public health communication', Public Health Ethics Vol: 16(1): 86-101

Brown, R (with de Barra M) (2023). Public-health communication should be more transparent. Nature human behaviour. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-023-01574-0

Brown, R (with Mulligan A.) (2023). ‘Maternal request’ caesarean sections and medical necessity. Clinical Ethics. DOI: 10.1177/14777509231183365

Brown, Rebecca (accepted) ‘Deferring to Expertise Whilst Maintaining Autonomy’, Episteme

Carter, J. A. (with Titus, L.M.) (2023). What the tortoise should do: A knowledge-first virtue approach to the basing relation. Noûs,1–26. https://doi.org/10.1111/nous.12460

Carter, J.A. 2023. Stratified Virtue Epistemology: A Defence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://www.cambridge.org/core/elements/stratified-virtue-epistemology/73E31E9E7616E70A4511C1BADCC03AE5

Carter, J. A. (with J. Shepherd) (2023) “Knowledge, Practical Knowledge, and Intentional Action”, Ergo an Open Access Journal of Philosophy 9: 21. doi: https://doi.org/10.3998/ergo.2277

Carter, J.A. (with J. Shepherd) 2023. Intentional action and knowledge-centered theories of control. Philosophical Studies 180, 957–977 https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-022-01904-4

Carter, J. A. (2023). Understanding, Vulnerability, and Risk. In Óscar Lucas González-Castán (ed.), Cognitive Vulnerability: An Epistemological Approach. De Gruyter. pp. 177-192. https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/9783110799163-011/html

Levy, N., (accepted), 'Believing in shmeliefs', Ergo

Levy, N., (forthcoming), 'Against Intellectual Autonomy: Social Animals need Social Virtues', Social Epistemology, Vol: online Feb 2023 

Levy, N., (forthcoming 2023/24), 'Too humble for words', Philosophical Studies, Vol: online 11 Sept 2023

Levy, N (2023) It’s Our Epistemic Environment, Not Our Attitude Toward Truth, That Matters, Critical Review, 35:1-2, 94-111, DOI: 10.1080/08913811.2022.2149108

Levy, N (with N. Brancazio). (2024). Do we still need experts? In Mirko Farina and Andrea Lavazza (eds). Philosophy, Expertise, and the Myth of Neutrality. Routledge.

Levy, N (2024) No Trespassing! Abandoning the Novice/Expert Problem. No Trespassing! Abandoning the Novice/Expert Problem. Erkenntnis https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-024-00794-8


We are grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for funding this collaborative project with the University of Glasgow.

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