Autonomy, ethical

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L007-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

4. Normative dimensions of autonomy

In much contemporary ethical and political theory, autonomy plays both a foundational and a normative role, as illustrated by the structure of Kant’s ethical theory. The capacity for autonomy, as described in the previous section, is so central to agency that respect for persons is plausibly construed as respect for the exercise of this capacity. Thus in much contemporary ethical theory, a view of persons as having autonomy is the basis of a general right to act on one’s own judgment of what one has most reason to do, from which one can derive more specific principles, such as duties not to interfere with a person’s freedom, duties to refrain from coercion, manipulation, paternalistic interference, and so on, as well as positive duties to support autonomy. Many theorists hold that the wrongness of certain kinds of actions may be explained by noting how they interfere with, or deprive individuals of their autonomy. It is important to note that what autonomy-centred theories value is the opportunity to guide one’s actions by one’s exercise of the capacity for critical reflection. This is considerably more complex than simply acting on one’s own desires.

Similarly, autonomy is a central value in modern liberalism and democratic theory (see Liberalism §3). A conception of persons as having autonomy figures in liberal conceptions of justice, the liberal principle that the state should not promote any particular conception of the good, and in arguments against state paternalism (see Justice §5; Paternalism §3). It is the basis of those rights and liberties that are the institutional means necessary for individuals to exercise autonomy – including liberty of conscience, rights of free expression, liberty to develop one’s own plan of life (within the limits of justice), and rights of political participation. While autonomy is more prominent in the Kantian and social contract traditions, it can also play a role in utilitarian theories (see Utilitarianism). Mill, for example, argues in On Liberty (1859) that the exercise of judgment, choice and responsibility, and the development of individuality are essential to individual fulfilment. This conception of happiness permits him to argue on utilitarian grounds against state paternalism and for a set of civil liberties that allow individuals to exercise autonomy. His view, in short, is that institutionalized liberties protecting individual autonomy will promote general happiness (see Mill, J.S. §§11–12).

The importance of autonomy to contemporary liberalism is illustrated by features of Rawls’ theory of justice (1993). One of the organizing ideas of Rawls’ theory is a conception of persons as possessing two ’moral powers’, which they have a fundamental interest in exercising. These are a capacity to develop, revise and pursue a conception of the good and a capacity for a sense of justice. Possession of these moral powers is the basis of moral equality, entitling individuals to equal consideration. The principles of justice which Rawls derives set out the political and social conditions that guarantee to each individual opportunity to exercise these moral powers effectively, with the principle of equal liberty listing basic individual liberties, and the principle of equal opportunity together with the difference principle (that inequalities should benefit the least advantaged) spelling out further social and material conditions. In this way, a conception of persons as having autonomy plays a role in determining the content of a conception of justice. A further aspect of Rawls’ theory directly parallels Kant’s conception of autonomy. Kant held that rational agents are bound only by principles that originate in their own will. Similarly, in Rawls’ theory, the final standards of justice are those that persons would autonomously choose for themselves. Rawls supports his conception of justice by arguing that the two principles would be chosen in the ‘original position’ – a conceptual device representing a fair choice by free and equal persons, with an interest in securing the exercise of their two moral powers. This particular aspect of autonomy is seen in the fact that the agents in the original position are not bound by any antecedently given moral principles. They are free to choose whatever conception of justice will best advance their basic interest in the exercise of their moral powers, and whatever would result from such a choice determines what is just (see Rawls, J.).

The value placed on autonomy is not unchallenged. Many theorists have argued that the emphasis on autonomy ignores or fails to leave room for other important values, such as the value of ties and attachments to others, loyalty to groups, respect for tradition, or the value of community. Versions of this objection hold that within autonomy-centred theories, personal commitments and attachments and obligations to others become purely voluntary, and thus cannot be definitive of the self. But surely, the objection continues, we can have commitments, attachments and obligations that are essential to our identity (see Morality and identity §4). In reply, it is sufficient to say that autonomy need not be conceived in a way that makes it inconsistent with such values, and that viewing autonomy as central does not entail viewing it as the sole value (see Moral pluralism). Nothing in the conceptions of autonomy surveyed above precludes agents from deciding as a result of critical reflection to take on binding obligations or to affirm attachments to others, or from concluding that certain commitments and ties are inescapable because constitutive of who they are. We may conclude that autonomy is deeply embedded in the modern notion of the person and is an important modern value.

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

Related Searches


Related Articles