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Autonomy (Greek: Auto-Nomos—nomos meaning "law:" One who gives oneself his own law) means freedom from external authority. In moral and political philosophy, autonomy is often used as the basis for determining moral responsibility for one's actions. The concept of autonomy is also found in education, medicine, psychology, and so on, to which it is applied to come up with its more precise criteria. Within these contexts, autonomy refers to the capacity of a rational individual to make informed, uncoerced decisions. In medicine, respect for the autonomy of patients is considered obligatory for doctors and other health-care professionals.

One of the best known philosophical theories of autonomy was developed by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who defined it as the capacity of a person to freely assess and endorse or reject moral principles in accordance with his own will. Subsequent philosophers developed a more radical concept of autonomy as the freedom to choose one’s own moral principles.

This raises a fundamental question on the origin of autonomy. Many modern philosophers, in fact, came up with the notion of autonomy in order to liberate human beings, and make them independent, from God. Theists, however, attribute autonomy to God, saying that humans, created in the image of God, received it as a divine gift. This kind of autonomy is understood to be such that the more autonomous one is, the closer one becomes to God. It also usually encourages one to take care of not only oneself but also others even by going beyond oneself altruistically. Interestingly, this reminds us of the Buddhist notion of "selfless" autonomy, and casts a new insight when we reassess the conventional notion of autonomy.


Political self-government

The ancient Greeks used the word “autonomy” to refer to the independent self-governance of city-states. In a political context, a state has autonomy if its government has complete control over its affairs, without the intervention of or control by any other power. The political concept of autonomy was used to counter the authoritarianism of larger and more powerful conquering states, and was considered a condition for the satisfaction of the national pride of the citizens of a particular city or nation. Autonomy is an essential aspect of nationalism, which seeks to establish the independence of a national group based on language, political history, and cultural heritage.

Moral autonomy

Immanuel Kant developed correlative concepts of autonomy and heteronomy in the context of moral law. Autonomy refers to a moral agent’s capacity to freely and rationally adopt moral policies. Kant believed that a person’s moral principles, the internal authority which imposes restrictions on how that person acts, originate in the exercise of reason. People are offered the choice of many possible principles, but they reject all principles which "cannot accord with the will’s own enactment of universal law."[1] Autonomous moral principles are laws which we, as rational beings, give to ourselves through consciously identifying ourselves with them.

Heteronomous principles are all those which are imposed, or commanded, from without, such as the moral dictates of the state, the society, a religion, or a deity. Heteronomy extends to principles and actions which originate from some psychological drive or emotion, such as an addiction, and implies that the agent is passive under some command or compulsion that he does not initiate. According to Kant, moral maturity requires the recognition of autonomy. Self-governance and self-determination require some control over the desires and impulses that motivate action, and that control is imposed through reason.

Kant’s interpretation of autonomy involved the use of reason to discern, accept and enact common moral laws. More extreme existentialists and analytical philosophers reworked the concept of autonomy to mean the rational agent’s complete sovereignty over his or her choice of moral values. These concepts of autonomy raise a number of problems, including the definition of what constitutes a moral principle, the extent to which a moral agent is actually capable of enacting his or her choices, and the validity a self-constructed moral system which is completely at odds with society.

Personal autonomy

Personal autonomy in various areas

Modern thinkers have broadened the concept of autonomy in discussions of applied ethics.

  • Political science—In political ethics, the concept of personal autonomy is used in efforts to define certain inalienable political rights, such as personal liberty, freedom of speech, and property ownership, which should be guaranteed to every citizen. Personal autonomy in this context implies that these rights are protected unless a citizen actively forfeits them, either by breaking a law and invoking punishment, or by consciously choosing to give up some of his liberty in exchange for some other advantage. The idea of persons as autonomous agents underlies some liberal theories of justice. Autonomy is considered a necessary condition for political equality. Autonomy is also a barrier to paternalism both in politics and in personal life. Autonomy implies respect for each person’s ability to make decisions about his own life and absorb the consequences.
  • Education—The promotion of personal autonomy has been identified as one of the principal aims of the philosophy of education. A student is to be provided with access to a wide range of choices and experiences, at the same time as he or she is given the rational tools to evaluate these choices intelligently. Upholding the personal autonomy of a student implies that the student will be allowed to experience the consequences of his choices with minimal interference. Guidance and education will take the form of broadening the student’s awareness and exposing him to additional choices. Protecting the autonomy of a student is believed to encourage active thought and exploration, rather than mere acceptance of knowledge and ideas. A student with autonomy feels more freedom to experiment with new ideas, but must also take responsibility to ensure that his contributions have value.
  • Medical ethics—In medical ethics, patient autonomy refers to a patient’s authority to make informed decisions about his or her medical treatment. The idea of "informed consent" is important to the relationship between medical practitioners and their patients. Out of respect for patient autonomy, the medical expert should provide enough information for the patient to evaluate the personal consequences and possible outcomes of different treatments. A treatment should not be carried out without the consent of the patient. Problems in medical ethics include determining whether a patient who is suffering from illness has the capacity to make rational decisions, and whether autonomy extends to allowing a patient to refuse treatment when such a refusal jeopardizes the patient’s life.
  • Psychology—To be autonomous is to be directed by considerations, desires, conditions, and characteristics that are not imposed from without but are part of what can somehow be considered one's authentic self. It implies a conscious intention to act in a certain way, and to take responsibility for any consequences of those actions. In psychology, the issue is defining what is the "authentic self." Within self-determination theory in psychology, autonomy also refers to "autonomy support versus control," hypothesizing that autonomy-supportive social environments are inclined to facilitate self-determined motivation, healthy development, and optimal functioning. Certain personality disorders, such as adult attention deficit disorder, manifest themselves in behaviors which a person rationally endorses under the influence of the disorder. If the person receives treatment for the disorder, they no longer endorse the same behavior. Efforts to define autonomy in the context of the personality have given rise to two types of conditions required for autonomy: "Competency" and "authenticity." The definition of competency includes the capacity for various types of rational thought, self-control, and the absence of self-deception or pathological disorders which affect perception of the self. "Authenticity" conditions involve the capacity to reflect upon one’s desires and consciously endorse or reject them. Some thinkers such as Harry Frankfurt distinguish between "first-order" and "second-order" desires. First-order desires arise from impulse and emotion, but an autonomous person assesses these first-order desires, by endorsing, rejecting or modifying them in accordance with his will, and then acts on the selected and modified desires that constitute second-order preferences.[2]

Degrees of personal autonomy

Personal autonomy exists in degrees: Basic autonomy and ideal autonomy. Basic autonomy is the status of being responsible, independent and able to speak for oneself. It implies that any adult who is not politically oppressed or restricted, and who is not physically impaired in a way that interferes with his independence, is autonomous. An ideal state of autonomy serves as a standard of evaluation but is a goal which few, if any, humans achieve; it would involve not only material independence and complete physical and political freedom, but freedom from psychological influences and a total intellectual understanding of truth.

Autonomy and freedom

There is a distinction between personal autonomy and personal "freedom." Freedom implies the ability to act without external or internal restraints, and according to some definitions, includes having sufficient power and resources to realize one’s desires. Autonomy refers to the independence and authenticity of the desires that motivate a person to action. Some thinkers insist that freedom concerns particular actions, while autonomy refers to a person’s state of being.

Human autonomy and God

Many philosophers such as Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), Ludwig Feuerbach (1829-1880), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1890), and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) have maintained that human autonomy and God contradict each other. For them, the fact that people are autonomous means that they do not need God, and that God even does not exist. This is the so-called "argument from autonomy" against God's existence, and it has been quite widely accepted since the time of the Enlightenment.

Kant would not go so far as to agree with those atheistic philosophers, since he believed in God. But he did not relate autonomy to God, nor did he attribute it to God. Autonomy of the will is rather independent of all constraint including God. Even the "categorical imperative" is not of divine origin. For Kant, God as a moral postulate is only supposed to guarantee that the morally righteous be led to happiness beyond the earthly world.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, autonomy has basically been understood to be a gift of God, thus not being contradictory to, nor independent of, God. Human beings, created in the image of God, are endowed with autonomy by which to freely accept to realize God's plan as his moral and spiritual co-workers. Here, there is no human autonomy without God. Although this autonomy, insofar as it is within the realm of creation, may onstitute only the "secondary cause" vis-à-vis God as the "primary cause," nevertheless when it is fully exerted on humanity's part, it even breaks its finiteness to join the presence of the infinite God. The more autonomous people are, the closer they become to God. This is the kind of experience people such as Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) had: "And while I am quietly reflecting in this manner, You, 0 Lord, answer me in my heart with the words: 'Be your own and I will be yours.' 0 Lord, Sweet Agreeableness of all sweetness, You have placed within my freedom my being my own if I will to. Hence, unless I am my own You are not mine."[3]

Many historians of religion observe that Buddhism has no concept of God because it liberated itself from God from the beginning 2,500 years ago. For Buddhists, therefore, the self is already an autonomous decision-maker. But then, Buddhists realized that the self caused a lot of problems. So, they found that they must liberate themselves from the self. Hence came the notion of "selfless" autonomy in Buddhism.[4]

The Judeo-Christian notion of autonomy as a divine gift, as long as it encourages one to serve others beyond oneself like God does, seems to be compatible with the Buddhist notion of selfless autonomy. This comparison seems to cast a new insight, when people reassess all kinds of notions of autonomy accepted and practiced, thus far, in all kinds of areas of life especially in the West.

Uses of the term "autonomy" in non-human fields

  • In computing, an autonomous "peripheral" is a function, such as printer or a drive, that can be used with the computer turned off
  • In mathematical analysis, an autonomous ordinary differential equation is one that is time-independent
  • In linguistics, an autonomous language is one which is independent of other languages, for example has a standard, grammar books, dictionaries, literature, and so on
  • In robotics, autonomy refers to the ability of a robot to make “decisions,” situate itself, acquire new information and act independently of control by a designer or operator


  1. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. and ed. Herbert James Paton (New York: Harper and Row, 1956).
  2. Harry Frankfurt, "Freedom of the Will and the Concept of the Person," Journal of Philosophy 68 (1971):5-20.
  3. Jasper Hopkins, Nicholas of Cusa's Dialectical Mysticism: Text, Translation, and Interpretive Study of De Visione Dei, 3rd ed., 16. Retrieved July 25, 2007.
  4. Shoyo Taniguchi, "Early Buddhist Understanding of 'Autonomy': From 'Self-centered Autonomy' to 'Self-less Autonomy,'" Journal of the Japan Association for Bioethics 12, no. 1 (2002): 154-160.


  • Agoston, Vilmos et al. Autonomy. Buffalo-Toronto: Matthias Corvinus Pub., 1995. ISBN 188278507X.
  • Dinstein, Yoram. Models of Autonomy. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1981. ISBN 0878554351.
  • Fineman, Martha. The Autonomy Myth: A Theory of Dependency. New York: New Press, 2004. ISBN 1565849760.
  • Frankfurt, Harry. "Freedom of the Will and the Concept of the Person." Journal of Philosophy 68 (1971): 5-20.
  • Hopkins, Jasper. Nicholas of Cusa's Dialectical Mysticism: Text, Translation, and Interpretive Study of De Visione Dei. 3rd edition. Minneapolis: Arthur J. Banning Press. Retrieved July 25, 2007.
  • Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated and edited by Herbert James Paton. New York: Harper and Row, 1956.
  • Lindley, Richard. Autonomy. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1986. ISBN 0391034294.
  • Paul, Ellen Frankel et al. Autonomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. ISBN 0521534992.
  • Taniguchi, Shoyo. "Early Buddhist Understanding of 'Autonomy': From 'Self-centered Autonomy' to 'Self-less Autonomy.'" Journal of the Japan Association for Bioethics 12, no. 1 (2002): 154-160.
  • Winch, Christopher. Education, Autonomy and Critical Thinking. New York: Routledge, 2006. ISBN 0415322375.

External links

All links retrieved November 29, 2012.

General philosophy sources


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