Autonomy is the idea that every person is in control of their own thoughts and actions and can be motivated by ‘internal’ forces like choice and reflection.

Ethically, autonomy aims to protect individual choice, rights, and freedoms against the control of organisations, the state or other people. Basically, it lets us be our own rulers.

The importance of autonomy rose to prominence during The Enlightenment, when thinkers like Immanuel Kant started to see it as the defining characteristic of humanity. For Kant, human beings’ autonomous nature was the basis for all morality – if we weren’t autonomous, we couldn’t be held responsible for anything we did. If that were true, there’d be no point for ethics.

 

Stopping someone from acting autonomously would be to disrespect something essential to their humanity. For this reason, Kant believed we have a duty to respect the autonomy of others and ourselves. Willingly giving up our autonomy would make us slaves.

The prominent role autonomy has played in ethical and political philosophy has meant most of our ethical concepts are built on ideas of individual rights and liberties.

For example, the harm principle, a central idea in modern Western societies, requires a person’s freedom to be restricted only when they might harm another person.

Some other communities see the will and rights of the individual as less important than the overall flourishing of society – this is partly due to prioritising other values alongside or above autonomy.

A clear example of this is in the field of medical ethics, where decisions must respect four ethical principles: autonomy, justice, benevolence, and inflicting the least harm.

When these principles clash with one another, different communities have different norms on which takes precedence. In the West, autonomy almost always comes out on top. Other ways of thinking may approach clashes differently.

One of the most practical applications of autonomy in ethics is the idea of informed consent, a concept used from law and medicine, to research and sex. Informed consent means you can’t do something to someone unless they give you permission. They can’t give you permission unless they understand what you’re going to do – including all the possible consequences.

Autonomy is one of the ethical foundations to many moral and political rights we take for granted today. It shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. However, it can be tempting to reduce every ethical debate or conflict to a question of autonomy and consent, which is short sighted.

We should always be prepared to question whether the things we’re choosing or consenting to are consistent with all our values, rather than simply being an exercise of our personal freedom.

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If consent is there, should anything be allowed?