Autonomy (pronounced aw-TAW-nuh-mee) is Greek for “self-rule,” and it’s basically another word for liberty. If you have autonomy, you are able to make your own choices and go your own direction. It’s a central idea in modern political theory, closely related to the ideas of political freedom and democracy. Autonomy is all about thinking for yourself and acting on your own desires, while living in a free society whose laws give you the liberty to make your own decisions.
Autonomy is often considered a form of individualism. Most proponents of autonomy (in the modern world at least) argue for individual freedom as opposed to “collectivism,” which prioritizes the group over the individual. However, as we’ll see in the next section, some forms of autonomy are more collectivistic than others.
Outside philosophy, “autonomy” often has the same meaning as “freedom.” For philosophers, however, these terms are quite different. In §3, we’ll discuss one of the differences. However, bear in mind that many philosophers use such terms in unique ways! Autonomy and freedom have pretty vague definitions in philosophy, so you have to be careful and try to understand each author in her own terms.
II. Types of Autonomy
There are two basic types of autonomy: individual and collective.
Autonomy belongs to each human person. Individuals should make their own choices about how to live their lives, and should be independent from the group. In the modern world, this view of autonomy tends to be more popular.
Autonomy belongs to the group. Communities (such as cities, tribes, or families) should be allowed to govern themselves and make their own collective decisions. However, the individuals within those groups should not be autonomous — individuals should make decisions based on what is best for the group. This view of autonomy was much more common in the ancient world, and still plays a role in nationalist revolutions, wars of independence, etc.
III. Autonomy vs. Free Will
Autonomy is often confused with free will, but actually they are slightly different ideas. Free will is a metaphysical idea, whereas autonomy is a moral/political idea.
The ability to make choices “on your own”: a being without free will is forced to do whatever the physical world causes them to do, while a being that has free will can deal with these causes successfully and make unrestricted choices based on the being’s own desires. Free will is about metaphysics, meaning the basic rules governing existence in the physical world.
Most people who believe in autonomy do believe in free will, but actually the ideas are independent, and you can hold one without the other. All of the views in this table are logically viable. Which one do you like best?
|Free Will||No Free Will|
|Autonomy||Human actions are determined entirely by the individual, and therefore we should create political systems that leave people free to follow their own choices.||Human actions are determined by external causes. However, the political system should still give people individual liberty. Human beings might be constrained by external causes, but there’s no reason why the government should be one of those causes.|
|No Autonomy||Human actions are determined entirely by the individual, but all too often we choose wrong! Therefore, we should have a political system that restricts people’s choices. (see Paternalism)||Human actions are determined by external causes. Therefore, it is senseless to offer people political freedom.|
IV. Autonomy vs. Paternalism
Paternalism is the idea that people should be denied autonomy for their own good. It comes from the Latin word pater, meaning “father,” and it’s basically the idea that some authority figure should play a parental role, safeguarding the needs of others. Clearly, paternalism is opposed to autonomy. Paternalism is closely related to colonialism: when one country rules another, the dominant country usually justifies this practice by saying “we have to take control of this country for the benefit of its people, who would otherwise make bad decisions.” Understandably, the victims of colonialism have not been convinced by this justification.
Yet some amount of paternalism is probably inevitable in any political system. Thus, autonomy and paternalism usually coexist in some sort of balance.
Most modern governments have laws against child labor. In a system of full autonomy, children (or their families) would have the freedom to work in a factory or even to sell themselves into slavery! But most governments prevent this sort of behavior because it is seen as immoral — this is a limitation of the child’s autonomy, but it’s considered to be in the child’s best interest.
V. Quotes About Autonomy
“I’m worried that students will take their obedient place in society and look to become successful cogs in the wheel… I’m concerned that students not become passive acceptors of the official doctrine that’s handed down to them from the White House, the media, textbooks, teachers and preachers.” (Howard Zinn)
Howard Zinn is a very famous historian whose books argue against the “official story” of American history. He says that his purpose in writing these books is to help students see both sides of the story and make up their own minds — an exercise in educational autonomy. Zinn is worried that without this sort of writing, students will lose their autonomy and become “passive.”
“How happy is the little stone
That rambles in the road alone,
And doesn’t care about careers,
And exigencies never fears;” (Emily Dickinson)
This is part of a short poem by Emily Dickinson, and it expresses a somewhat sad view on autonomy. On one level, Dickinson is celebrating autonomy, praising the stones in the road because they are not slaves to their careers or to any society. But at the same time, these stones are stones, not people! By contrast, Dickinson is suggesting that people lack the autonomy of stones because they are constantly rushing around trying to follow rules, please authority figures, and advance their careers. Perhaps Dickinson is subtly suggesting that she would prefer to be a stone than a human being!
VI. The History and Importance of Autonomy
Individual autonomy was a highly unpopular idea for most of human history. Most philosophers, historically speaking, have believed that human beings need to discipline themselves and follow higher authorities — the gods, the rulers, etc. Philosophers throughout the ancient world tended to be more collectivist than Europeans and Americans are today, and so there are very few examples of ancient philosophers who argued for individual autonomy. However, the Ancient Greeks were strong believers in collective autonomy. That is, they believed that each individual city-state should rule itself and set its own laws without being under the control of any external authorities. Within that city-state, though, each citizen should prioritize the needs of the group over their own desires — individual autonomy was to be tightly controlled.
Individual autonomy came to the fore in Europe during the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther defied the Catholic Church and argued that individuals didn’t need to live under the Church’s authority. Luther believed that God wanted individuals to follow their own conscience, and that this would lead them to eternal salvation. In the wake of this revolutionary idea, hundreds of Protestant sects appeared, each with its own religious and philosophical views. But nearly all of them shared an emphasis on individual autonomy.
This notion of autonomy was essential to the rise of modern democracy in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in France and America.
The US Bill of Rights was designed to protect individual autonomy by securing freedom of religion and freedom of speech, limiting the powers of the police, guaranteeing a trial by jury, etc.However, the American founding documents also adopt collective autonomy. The Preamble to the Constitution lists “the general welfare” as one of the founding principles of the nation, while the Declaration of Independence is all about a group separating itself from another group, not about individuals separating themselves from the collective. In our era of intense individualism, we often forget that the early defenders of democracy believed in a balance between individualism and collectivism.
In the 20th century, the idea of collective autonomy played a major role in nationalist and anti-colonial revolutions. People from Africa to Latin America to Asia rose up against the European powers that had ruled them throughout the colonial period, and these uprisings were often inspired by various philosophies of collective autonomy.
Gandhi’s nonviolent war against the British Empire was based on the idea of swaraj, or self-rule — basically a translation of “autonomy.” Gandhi’s philosophy of swaraj included a collective element (nations such as India should rule themselves instead of being ruled by foreign powers) and an individual element, which we’ll discuss in section 7.
VII. Examples of Autonomy in Pop Culture
“You will be assimilated.” (The Borg, Star Trek)
On Star Trek, the Borg are a constant threat to the Federation. Unlike other alien races, the Borg are made up of countless species, all of whom have been “assimilated” into a collective hive mind. When that happens, they are deprived of all individuality, personality, and autonomy. Arguably, however, the Borg still have collective autonomy since the hive mind does not answer to any higher authority such as the Federation of Planets.
In the Assassin’s Creed video games, the main conflict is between the Templars and the Assassins, and their disagreement is all about autonomy. The Templars believe that peace and prosperity can only be achieved if ordinary people are ruled by powerful authorities who make decisions for them. The Assassins, on the other hand, believe that people must be free to make their own decisions, including their own mistakes, and that in the long run this will bring about greater harmony and prosperity. In other words, the Templars espouse paternalism while the Assassins espouse autonomy.
How can we know if your desires are really your own? After all, we learn from childhood what society deems desirable and we always buy into at least some of those teachings, even if we reject others. Many philosophers have argued that there is no such thing as autonomy because there is no such thing as a lone, unattached individual. These philosophers say that every desire, every thought, is ultimately learned from somewhere else, and that autonomy is therefore a selfish delusion — one that leaves us blind to the many bonds connecting us with friends, family, and community.
In Western culture, people tend to believe in autonomy, and most people in this tradition are uneasy with the idea that their thoughts and desires are all learned from others. But think about that for a second: the Western tradition teaches us that we are autonomous. Therefore, maybe the idea of autonomy itself is not an autonomous thought! This is a difficult argument to counteract logically, which is why the idea of autonomy is highly controversial.
If autonomy means “self-rule,” then we also have to raise the question of what is included in that “self” and what is not. Take the emotions, for example: American philosophers like Ralph Waldo Emerson have considered the emotions to be an essential part of the self. Emerson’s idea of autonomy was that individuals based their decisions on individual desires and emotions. By contrast, Gandhi’s idea of swaraj excludes the emotions from the self: for him, the self refers to the powers of reason and compassion, and the emotions are seen as external forces which must be quieted in order to achieve true autonomy. So if a person is autonomous, does that mean that she listens to her emotions, or does it mean that she masters them?