Autonomy, ethical

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L007-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 16, 2024, from

Article Summary

The core idea of autonomy is that of sovereignty over oneself, self-governance or self-determination: an agent or political entity is autonomous if it is self-governing or self-determining. The ancient Greeks applied the term to city-states. In the modern period, the concept was extended to persons, in particular by Kant, who gave autonomy a central place in philosophical discourse. Kant argued for the autonomy of rational agents by arguing that moral principles, which authoritatively limit how we may act, originate in the exercise of reason. They are thus laws that we give to ourselves, and Kant thought that rational agents are bound only to self-given laws. Much contemporary discussion has focused on the somewhat different topic of personal autonomy, and autonomy continues to be an important value in contemporary liberalism and in ethical theory.

It is important to distinguish different senses of autonomy because of variation in how the concept is used. Self-governance or self-determination appears to require some control over the desires and values that move one to action, and some such control is provided by the capacity to subject them to rational scrutiny. Thus, autonomy is often understood as the capacity to critically assess one’s basic desires and values, and to act on those that one endorses on reflection. In other contexts, autonomy is understood as a right, for example as the right to act on one’s own judgment about matters affecting one’s life, without interference by others. The term is also sometimes used in connection with ethics itself, to refer to the thesis that ethical claims cannot be reduced to nonethical claims.

    Citing this article:
    Reath, Andrews. Autonomy, ethical, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L007-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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