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Common Misconceptions, Objections, Bibliography

Autonomy was first used by the ancient Greeks to describe city-states that had the power to legislate their own laws and direct the course of their own affairs. The etymology (auto [self] nomos [law]) suggests self-governance or the imposition of law on oneself. The original implication of autonomy was pejorative when applied to the individual. When, for example, in Sophocles' tragedy, the chorus uses the word autonomos to describe the actions of Antigone, the audience is meant to understand that she has placed her own judgments above the laws of the city—a clear violation of Greek norms.

By the seventeenth or eighteenth century, however, people as well as governments came to be viewed as autonomous agents. If human reason is able to discern the difference between right and wrong, each person can formulate his or her own conception of how to live without relying on religious or secular authorities.

This idea had a decisive impact on liberal political philosophies, which claimed that each person is sovereign over himself, so that the only way governments can exercise control over their citizens is on the basis of consent, implicit or actual. In this way, authority flows not from the ruler downwards but from the citizens—conceived as free rational agents with an equal share in society—upwards. Along these lines, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) argues that freedom for the individual consists in obedience to self-imposed law, and the sovereignty of the state derives from laws that the people, as expressed in the general will, impose on themselves.

It is generally agreed that the classic formulation of the doctrine of autonomy occurs in Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). While God or a national leader can command certain actions and threaten punishment if we do not obey, each person is responsible for the actions he performs. In fact, Kant took this idea to its logical conclusion: every moral agent is both an end in itself and a being capable of legislating morality for itself.

Suppose God or a political leader orders us to do something. Why should we obey? No one doubts that life will be uncomfortable if we do not. But the question is not "What is it in our interest to do?" but "What are we obliged to do?" Kant's point is that obligation must derive from within: no external source can create obligation for us. Rather than say, "Do this" and "Don't do that," a person in authority must allow us to see for ourselves what is right. Not to do so is patronizing or degrading.

Kant therefore proclaims: "The will is thus not merely subject to the law but is subject in such a way that it must be regarded also as legislating for itself and only on this account as being subject to the law, of which it can regard itself as the author" (p. 38). Once we can regard ourselves as authors, reward and punishment no longer matter. The only thing that matters is whether we are convinced our action is right.

Even for as vocal a critic of Kant as John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), autonomy plays a central role. The best way to maximize the happiness of the greatest segment of society is to restrict the authority society can exercise over the individual and grant the individual sovereignty over his thought and person. The only warrant society has for interfering with this sovereignty is if the actions of one person impinge on the rights of another. Barring that, each person has the right to pursue his own happiness in whatever way he judges best.

Finally, one can find the doctrine of autonomy in the thought of John Rawls (1921–2002), for whom a just society is one which free and equal agents would choose for themselves if they had to take a place in that society but did not know what place they would be assigned—rich or poor, gifted or challenged, religious believer or atheist. This is simply a modern way of expressing the idea of implicit consent and saying that each person has the right to formulate and pursue his or her own conception of the good life.

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