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Autonomy (Greek: Auto-Nomos - nomos meaning "law": one who gives oneself his own law) means freedom from external authority. Autonomy is a concept found in moral, political, and bioethical philosophy. Within these contexts it refers to the capacity of a rational individual to make an informed, uncoerced decision. In moral and political philosophy, autonomy is often used as the basis for determining moral responsibility for one's actions. One of best known philosophical theories of autonomy was developed by Kant. In medicine, respect for the autonomy of patients is considered obligatory for doctors and other health-care professionals. Politically, it is also used to refer to the self-governing of a people.


The word autonomy has several usages in philosophical contexts. In ethical philosophy, autonomy refers to a person's capacity for self-determination in the context of moral choices. Kant argued that autonomy is demonstrated by a person who decides on a course of action out of respect for a moral demand. That is, an autonomous person acts morally solely for the sake of doing "good", independently of other incentives. In Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant applied this concept to create a definition of personhood. He suggested that such compliance with moral law creates the essence of human dignity. In metaphysical philosophy, the concept of autonomy is referenced in discussions about free will, fatalism, determinism, and agency. Autonomy is the basic concept of Cornelius Castoriadis' philosophy.


In a medical context, respect for a patient's autonomy is considered a fundamental ethical principle. This belief is the central premise of the concept of informed consent. This idea, while considered essential to today's practice of medicine, was developed in the last 50 years. According to Beauchamp and Childress (in Principles of Biomedical Ethics, 5th ed.), The Nuremberg trials detailed accounts of horrifyingly exploitative medical "experiments." These incidences prompted calls for safeguards in medical research. In the 1940s the phrase "informed consent" appeared but didn't become widely used until the 1970s. Initially, discussions about informed consent focused almost exclusively on research subjects, but in the last ten years has come to apply to the conventional physician-patient relationship as well. The seven elements of informed consent (as defined by Beauchamp) include Threshold elements (Competence and Voluntariness), Information elements (Disclosure, Recommendation, and Understanding) and Consent elements (Decision and Authorization.)


In politics, autonomy refers to self-governance. In this sense, only governments and its people are autonomous.


The Abrahmic religions' debate over Free Will vs Predestination is a debate about Autonomy. If there is Free Will, mankind is a society of autonomus beings, at least as far as their time on Earth.

Restrictions on autonomy

Autonomy can be, and usually is to one extent or another, waived to another authority, such as by agreeing to follow governing laws. The actions available to an autonomous unit can be restricted by a more powerful authority, such as when a cattleman sets a fence around his herd, or a court sentences a criminal to prison. The decisions of an autonomous unit can be coerced, and its actions forced. Autonomy can be restricted through the aspect of the ability to act, as in the case of a newborn or through the aspect of the ability to decide as in the case of a person in a coma.

Various uses

  • Within self-determination theory in psychology, autonomy refers to 'autonomy support versus control', "hypothesizing that autonomy-supportive social contexts tend to facilitate self-determined motivation, healthy development, and optimal functioning."
  • 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 etc.
  • In robotics "autonomy means independence of control. This characterization implies that autonomy is a property of the relation between two agents, in the case of robotics, of the relations between the designer and the autonomous robot. Self-sufficiency, situatedness, learning or development, and evolution increase an agent’s degree of autonomy.", according to Rolf Pfeifer.

See also

  • Autonomism
  • Propriate functional autonomy
  • Teaching for social justice
  • Post-autonomous art
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