Personal autonomy

Personal autonomy or self-government is not an easy idea to pin down. Usage of the term can be ambiguous; is the emphasis on the self or is the emphasis on the government? Is it much the same thing as agency? How closely is it connected to ideas about rationality, independence, liberty, psychological unity and accountability? The survey on the topic in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy demonstrates the difficulty of applying the term as a diagnostic label.

The significance of personal autonomy for both ethics and politics means that, while there is wide disagreement, the concept cannot be avoided. There is an ethical question connecting autonomy to values. What ethical constraints and principles will autonomous agents regard as authoritative for their own decision-making? Is autonomy necessary for accountability, or is agency sufficient? Accountability would appear to be a feature of agency rather than autonomy. Making it a feature of autonomy would mean that accountability for ones’ action could be sloughed off through negligence and carelessness, which can’t be right.

Personal autonomy is not the same thing as liberty or independence. The exercise of autonomy can be frustrated and undermined by external constraints. There is a natural and cultural situatedness to the exercise of autonomy that will limit the scope of what can be done. These constraints may be benignly intended. Children usually become autonomous agents before they are permitted to be independent, both to protect them and to protect others.

Somewhat differently, autonomy may be frustrated through manipulation in situations where the exercise of autonomy is being frustrated covertly rather than overtly. The outward appearance of autonomy is a façade which hides from the autonomous agent the degree to which the exercise of their autonomy is being manipulated through, for example, the control of information.

The intersection of liberty and autonomy is fundamental to the political question. Is a society of autonomous agents desirable, or even possible? Must the expression of an uncompressible autonomy of individuals be contained and frustrated to some extent, maybe even undermined, in order for any society to function. Are autonomous agents inevitably in conflict? This is the question of liberty in its multiple dimensions: containment, direction, imposition, intrusion, impersonation, exploitation, exclusion and dependency.

These ethical and political issues are largely concerned with autonomy versus heteronomy, with government-from-the-inside in contrast to government-from-the-outside. I will consider these questions separately. In this essay, the question I want to ask is what are the alternatives to self-government.

For self-government to mean something, there has to be a gap between the state of being a self and the state of being a governed self, a level which might be called self-direction which falls short of self-government?

This is another of those topics which concern a graduated spectrum which can lead to unresolvable demarcation and line-drawing arguments. My view is that, however these issues are analysed, they will tend in the end to cohere around two possibilities, either that the exercise of agency is too rigid and unresponsive to events or that it is too wayward and impulsive to be considered autonomy.

Taking these in order, at one end of the spectrum is the situation where the possibility of alternative courses-of-action isn’t recognised, resulting in a way of life lived in inward conformity to the routine and the repetitious, an inner dialogue which doesn’t move beyond the question how else could it be.

Most animals’ lives are internally coordinated; they can be said to have a point-of-view and an agenda. That is what it means to be an animal rather than, say, a plant. However, for the most part animal lives follow a routine conformity. Stretching the concepts of agency and autonomy to an insect or a gastropod would empty them of meaning.

Among other groups such as cephalopods and mammals such as cetaceans and primates, behavioural patterns are diverse and sophisticated enough, there are sufficient degrees of freedom, that alternative courses of action are genuinely possible, implying that something akin to agency, though not necessarily of a self-aware kind, extends beyond human beings.

However, we can consider agency to be a human capability without prejudging the evaluation of animal capabilities, which it is always possible that we underestimate. Using the term human-style agency rather than human agency avoids the difficulties of trying to align the model with biological and physiological classifications.

Human-style agency implies a reflective grasp of the idea of personal identity through time and the use of abstract language, that is, communication detached from the here and now, to conceptualise. The detachment made possible by language also creates the opportunity to be insincere, to say one thing and mean another, to make a commitment without the intention to honour it.

This level of agency is something that human beings will find very difficult to throw off. It would require a labour of self-destruction.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are the situations where alternative courses-of-action are recognised and acted upon but in a wayward and impulsive manner without a plan or strategy to connect present and future states of affairs.

The self-aware decisions of human-style agents don’t have to be good decisions. They don’t have to follow from any process of rational deliberation or result in decisions that can be justified and explained to anyone, including the decision maker. Agents can be wayward and impulsive, chaotic and unpredictable. This is the exercise of a human-style agency but of a kind not guided or constrained by any ordering principles.

The underlying causes can vary. In some cases, autonomy can be lost through akrasia or weakness of the will, where the intention to do something is not accompanied by the ability to carry it through.

It is also possible for someone to be in the grip of an obsession or a compulsion to the extent that their actions are no longer under control and self-government is lost.

There is third possibility which is that the avoidance of autonomy springs from a deep-seated character trait, an aversion to consequentiality in any form. This leads someone to the rejection of rules and principles, even when they are their rules and principles and made for themselves.

Approaching the concept in this fashion by the negative way, autonomy or self-government can then be characterised as the recognition of the possibility of alternative courses-of-action and ways-of-living accompanied by an integrated approach to judgement, decision making and the carrying through of a course-of-action.

Agency becomes autonomy when discretionary choices are guided and constrained by ordering rules and principles that generate a synchronic and diachronic unity.

It’s always possible of course that not-having-a-plan is the plan, a conscious decision to act impulsively becoming the strategy.

These considerations point to a degree of psychological unity as something that is necessary to the exercise of autonomy. It’s not so much avoiding conflicts and contradictions, which is not possible, but an inability to resolve the tensions sufficiently to pursue a consistent and coherent course of action. Internal conflicts lead to loss of autonomy if they cannot be resolved.

There is a similar bagginess to the requirement for rationality. The concept can mean many different things. Irrationality, seen as a form of waywardness, would undermine the exercise of autonomy and, in this sense, rationality is a requirement for autonomy. Can someone who acts irrationally be said to be in control of what they are doing?

However, rationality is another graduated spectrum, and there is a distinction to be drawn between errors and mistakes and a flawed process that means the reasoner is no longer in control of the outcome. It may also be the case that an apparent rationality is a façade, a Potemkin structure of rationalisations and pretexts rather than the actual decision-making process.

One error in this context is to identify rationality with public reasoning, either as a form of instrumental rationality in the spirit of utilitarianism or as a requirement for universality in the Kantian tradition.

I think it is an error because I don’t see public reasoning as a necessary feature of personal life. Public reasoning is an attribute of life in the public domain. In the private domain, practical reasoning is reasoning from the inside of a concrete individuated experience. For an individual, practical reasoning from outside a specific predicament has nothing to motivate or guide it.

Unlike agency, which is difficult to escape, autonomy must be exercised. The advantage of this model is that it recognises both components of personal autonomy, the self component and the government component, and also recognises that while the self part is extraordinarily difficult to lose it is not so difficult to mislay the government part. Exercising personal autonomy requires effort.

Buss, Sarah and Andrea Westlund, “Personal Autonomy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.