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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Autonomy (Greek: Auto-Nomos - nomos meaning "law": one who gives oneself his own law) is the right to self-government. Autonomy is a concept found in moral, political, and bioethical philosophy. Within these contexts, it refers to the capacity of a rational individual to make an informed, uncoerced decision. In moral and political philosophy, autonomy is often used as the basis for determining moral responsibility for one's actions. One of the best known philosophical theories of autonomy was developed by Kant. In medicine, respect for the autonomy of patients is considered obligatory for doctors and other health-care professionals. Politically, it is also used to refer to the self-governing of a people.



Autonomy is a key concept that has a broad impact on different fields of philosophy. In metaphysical philosophy, the concept of autonomy is referenced in discussions about free will, fatalism, determinism, and agency. In How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time, philosopher Iain King developed an 'Autonomy Principle', which he defines as "Let people choose for themselves, unless we know their interests better than they can." King argues it is not enough to know someone else's interests better than that person; their autonomy should only be infringed if that person is unable to know their own interests on a particular matter. In moral philosophy, autonomy refers to subjecting oneself to objective moral law.

According to Kant

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) defined autonomy by three themes regarding contemporary ethics. Firstly, autonomy as the right for one to make their own decisions excluding any interference from others. Secondly, autonomy as the capacity to make such decisions through one's own independence of mind and after personal reflection. Thirdly, as an ideal way of living life autonomously. In summary, autonomy is the moral right one possesses, or the capacity we have in order to think and make decisions for oneself providing some degree of control or power over the events that unfold within one's everyday life.

The context in which Kant addresses autonomy is in regards to moral theory, asking both foundational and abstract questions. He believed that in order for there to be morality, there must be autonomy. He breaks down autonomy into two distinct components. "Auto" can be defined as the negative form of independence, or to be free in a negative sense. This is the aspect where decisions are made on your own. Whereas, "nomos" is the positive sense, a freedom or lawfulness, where you are choosing a law to follow. Kantian autonomy also provides a sense of rational autonomy, simply meaning one rationally possesses the motivation to govern their own life. Rational autonomy entails making your own decisions but it cannot be done solely in isolation. Cooperative rational interactions are required to both develop and exercise our ability to live in a world with others.

Kant argued that morality presupposes this autonomy (Template:Lang-de) in moral agents, since moral requirements are expressed in categorical imperatives. An imperative is categorical if it issues a valid command independent of personal desires or interests that would provide a reason for obeying the command. It is hypothetical if the validity of its command, if the reason why one can be expected to obey it, is the fact that one desires or is interested in something further that obedience to the command would entail. "Don't speed on the freeway if you don't want to be stopped by the police" is a hypothetical imperative. "It is wrong to break the law, so don't speed on the freeway" is a categorical imperative. The hypothetical command not to speed on the freeway is not valid for you if you do not care whether you are stopped by the police. The categorical command is valid for you either way. Autonomous moral agents can be expected to obey the command of a categorical imperative even if they lack a personal desire or interest in doing so. It remains an open question whether they will, however.

The Kantian concept of autonomy is often misconstrued, leaving out the important point about the autonomous agent's self-subjection to the moral law. It is thought that autonomy is fully explained as the ability to obey a categorical command independently of a personal desire or interest in doing so—or worse, that autonomy is "obeying" a categorical command independently of a natural desire or interest; and that heteronomy, its opposite, is acting instead on personal motives of the kind referenced in hypothetical imperatives.

In his Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, Kant applied the concept of autonomy also to define the concept of personhood and human dignity. Autonomy, along with rationality, are seen by Kant as the two criteria for a meaningful life. Kant would consider a life lived without these not worth living; it would be a life of value equal to that of a plant or insect. According to Kant autonomy is part of the reason that we hold others morally accountable for their actions. Human actions are morally praise- or blame-worthy in virtue of our autonomy. Non- autonomous beings such as plants or animals are not blameworthy due to their actions being non-autonomous. Kant's position on crime and punishment is influenced by his views on autonomy. Brainwashing or drugging criminals into being law-abiding citizens would be immoral as it would not be respecting their autonomy. Rehabilitation must be sought in a way that respects their autonomy and dignity as human beings.

According to Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about autonomy and the moral fight. Autonomy in this sense is referred to as the free self and entails several aspects of the self, including self-respect and even self-love. This can be interpreted as influenced by Kant (self-respect) and Aristotle (self-love). For Nietzsche, valuing ethical autonomy can dissolve the conflict between love (self-love) and law (self-respect) which can then translate into reality through experiences of being self-responsible. Because Nietzsche defines having a sense of freedom with being responsible for one's own life, freedom and self-responsibility can be very much linked to autonomy.

According to Piaget

The Swiss philosopher Jean Piaget (1896-1980) believed that autonomy comes from within and results from a "free decision". It is of intrinsic value and the morality of autonomy is not only accepted but obligatory. When an attempt at social interchange occurs, it is reciprocal, ideal and natural for there to be autonomy regardless of why the collaboration with others has taken place. For Piaget, the term autonomous can be used to explain the idea that rules are self-chosen. By choosing which rules to follow or not, we are in turn determining our own behaviour.

Piaget studied the cognitive development of children by analyzing them during their games and through interviews, establishing (among other principles) that the children's moral maturation process occurred in two phases, the first of heteronomy and the second of autonomy:

  • Heteronomous reasoning: Rules are objective and unchanging. They must be literal because the authority are ordering it and do not fit exceptions or discussions. The base of the rule is the superior authority (parents, adults, the State), that it should not give reason for the rules imposed or fulfilled them in any case. Duties provided are conceived as given from oneself. Any moral motivation and sentiments are possible through what one believes to be right.
  • Autonomous reasoning: Rules are the product of an agreement and, therefore, are modifiable. They can be subject to interpretation and fit exceptions and objections. The base of the rule is its own acceptance, and its meaning has to be explained. Sanctions must be proportionate to the absence, assuming that sometimes offenses can go unpunished, so that collective punishment is unacceptable if it is not the guilty. The circumstances may not punish a guilty. Duties provided are conceived as given from the outside. One follows rules mechanically as it is simply a rule, or as a way to avoid a form of punishment.

According to Kohlberg

The American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) continues the studies of Piaget. His studies collected information from different latitudes to eliminate the cultural variability, and focused on the moral reasoning, and not so much in the behavior or its consequences. Through interviews with adolescent and teenage boys, who were to try and solve "moral dilemmas," Kohlberg went on to further develop the stages of moral development. The answers they provided could be one of two things. Either they choose to obey a given law, authority figure or rule of some sort or they chose to take actions that would serve a human need but in turn break this given rule or command.

The most popular moral dilemma asked involved the wife of a man approaching death due to a special type of cancer. Because the drug was too expensive to obtain on his own, and because the pharmacist who discovered and sold the drug had no compassion for him and only wanted profits, he stole it. Kohlberg asks these adolescent and teenage boys (10-, 13- and 16-year-olds) if they think that is what the husband should have done or not. Therefore, depending on their decisions, they provided answers to Kohlberg about deeper rationales and thoughts and determined what they value as important. This value then determined the "structure" of their moral reasoning.

Kohlberg established three stages of morality, each of which is subdivided into two levels. They are read in progressive sense, that is, higher levels indicate greater autonomy.

  • Level 1: Premoral/Preconventional Morality: Standards are met (or not met) depending on the hedonistic or physical consequences.
    • [Stage 0: Egocentric Judgment: There is no moral concept independent of individual wishes, including a lack of concept of rules or obligations.]
    • Stage 1: Punishment-Obedience Orientation: The rule is obeyed only to avoid punishment. Physical consequences determine goodness or badness and power is deferred to unquestioningly with no respect for the human or moral value, or the meaning of these consequences. Concern is for the self.
    • Stage 2: Instrumental-Relativist Orientation: Morals are individualistic and egocentric. There is an exchange of interests but always under the point of view of satisfying personal needs. Elements of fairness and reciprocity are present but these are interpreted in a pragmatic way, instead of an experience of gratitude or justice. Egocentric in nature but beginning to incorporate the ability to see things from the perspective of others.
  • Level 2: Conventional Morality/Role Conformity: Rules are obeyed according to the established conventions of a society.
    • Stage 3: Good Boy-Nice Girl Orientation: Morals are conceived in accordance with the stereotypical social role. Rules are obeyed to obtain the approval of the immediate group and the right actions are judged based on what would please others or give the impression that one is a good person. Actions are evaluated according to intentions.
    • Stage 4: Law and Order Orientation: Morals are judged in accordance with the authority of the system, or the needs of the social order. Laws and order are prioritized.
  • Level 3: Postconventional Morality/Self-Accepted Moral Principles: Standards of moral behavior are internalized. Morals are governed by rational judgment, derived from a conscious reflection on the recognition of the value of the individual inside a conventionally established society.
    • Stage 5: Social Contract Orientation: There are individual rights and standards that have been lawfully established as basic universal values. Rules are agreed upon by through procedure and society comes to consensus through critical examination in order to benefit the greater good.
    • Stage 6: Universal Principle Orientation: Abstract ethical principles are obeyed on a personal level in addition to societal rules and conventions. Universal principles of justice, reciprocity, equality and human dignity are internalized and if one fails to live up to these ideals, guilt or self-condemnation results.

According to Audi

Robert Audi characterizes autonomy as the self-governing power to bring reasons to bear in directing one's conduct and influencing one's propositional attitudes. Traditionally, autonomy is only concerned with practical matters. But, as Audi's definition suggests, autonomy may be applied to responding to reasons at large, not just to practical reasons. Autonomy is closely related to freedom but the two can come apart. An example would be a political prisoner who is forced to make a statement in favor of his opponents in order to ensure that his loved ones are not harmed. As Audi points out, the prisoner lacks freedom but still has autonomy since his statement, though not reflecting his political ideals, is still an expression of his commitment to his loved ones.

Autonomy is often equated with self-legislation in the Kantian tradition. Self-legislation may be interpreted as laying down laws or principles that are to be followed. Audi agrees with this school in the sense that we should bring reasons to bear in a principled way. Responding to reasons by mere whim may still be considered free but not autonomous. A commitment to principles and projects, on the other hand, provides autonomous agents with an identity over time and gives them a sense of the kind of persons they want to be. But autonomy is neutral as to which principles or projects the agent endorses. So different autonomous agents may follow very different principles. But, as Audi points out, self-legislation is not sufficient for autonomy since laws that don't have any practical impact don't constitute autonomy. This motivation may be inherent in the corresponding practical judgment itself, a position known as motivational internalism, or may come to the practical judgment externally in the form of some desire independent of the judgment, as motivational externalism holds.

In the Humean tradition, intrinsic desires are the reasons the autonomous agent should respond to. This theory is called instrumentalism. Audi rejects instrumentalism and suggests that we should adopt a position known as axiological objectivism. The central idea of this outlook is that objective values, and not subjective desires, are the sources of normativity and therefore determine what autonomous agents should do.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Autonomy" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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