Autonomy, ethical

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L007-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

1. Autonomy in the early modern period

Central to autonomy is the notion of self-governance. The earliest use of the term was by ancient Greek writers [autonomia (n.), autonomos (adj.) from autos – self, and nomos – law], for whom it was a political concept. A city-state had autonomy if it had authority to enact its own laws and to manage its own affairs, independently of any foreign power. Moral and political philosophy of the early modern period allowed autonomy to be a basic feature of persons, even where the term was not used explicitly. Many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century rationalists held that our moral capacities create the capacity for self-governance. They believed that reason or conscience gives all individuals the ability to discover objective truths either about duty, or about the good, without external guidance through revelation, the church or political authority (see Moral knowledge §3). In addition, they held that agents could be motivated to act simply by their knowledge of moral norms, without the imposition of rewards or punishment (see Moral motivation). Since the content of such norms is desire-independent, the capacity to be motivated by one’s moral knowledge gives one control over one’s desires. On the assumption that reason or conscience occupies an authoritative role within the self, action guided by one’s moral knowledge is self-determined.

Social contract theories of this period conceived of human beings as autonomous in a somewhat different sense, by attributing to them an ‘original sovereignty’ over themselves. The social contract theorists regarded individuals as by nature free, equal and independent, with authority to regulate their own conduct. It follows that one individual can become subject to the authority of another only through an act of consent or agreement, and that legitimate state powers are those it would be rational to agree to. In Locke’s view (1690), individuals in the state of nature are bound by a law of nature requiring them both to preserve themselves, and others in so far as they are able. But all individuals in the state of nature have equal authority to judge and to punish violations of the law of nature. This is the basis of political authority. Locke argues that rational individuals in the state of nature would agree among themselves to entrust this authority to enforce the law of nature to a central power, for the limited purposes of preserving one’s own life and liberty. Thus, his theory derives political authority from one’s original sovereignty over oneself, which in addition limits the legitimate uses of state power (see Contractarianism in ethics and political philosophy; Locke, J. §10).

Rousseau takes the idea of self-governance a step further, claiming that sovereignty – the power to enact laws – resides in the collective body of all citizens, and that legitimate laws must be self-imposed: ‘the people that is subject to the laws ought to be their author’ (1762: 67) (see Rousseau, J.-J. §3). Rousseau argued that the freedom and independence of each citizen could be preserved only when individuals agree to submit to the ‘general will’ – the will of society as a whole concerning matters of common interest. The general will is expressed in laws which preserve freedom and equality, and which are, accordingly, enacted by a political process in which all citizens participate (see General will). Thus his political ideal is a participatory democracy preserving the autonomy of each citizen, in which individuals are bound only to laws which they have a role in making, and which express each individual’s will. Rousseau’s famous remark that ‘freedom is obedience to the law one has prescribed for oneself’ (1762: 56) provided a model of autonomy for later theorists, in particular for Kant.

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

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