Autonomy + Freedom

I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. I wish to be an instrument of my own, not of other men's, acts of will. I wish to be. . . moved by reasons, by conscious purposes, which are my own, not by causes which affect me, as it were, from outside. I wish to be a doer. . . deciding, not being decided for, self-directed and not acted upon by external nature.” --Isaiah Berlin

  1. Autonomy is a psychological capacity to which we have a moral right. It refers to how one makes choices

2. Freedom is a capacity to which we have a moral right that refers to whether one can carry out one's autonomous choices.

Autonomy and freedom work together to ensure that there are decisions that are solely one's own to make and act on, decisions that should not be interfered with, either in the state of making up one's mind (autonomy) or the stage of acting after one has made up one's mind (freedom).



  1. Autonomy.

    A) Autonomy as a capacity is where an individual is able to make her own choices through deliberation. It's one's ability to be self-directed, to make choices free of bad information or deception and in control of one's mental faculties. Choices made while drunk or under the influences of certain drugs, deeply grieved, insane, conned, having access to limited information, would count as non-autonomous. That is, autonomous choices must

    1. be made while in full possession of one's rational faculties

    2. be made while in possession of all necessary information to make an informed decision.


It helps to understand the capacity for autonomy if we examine ways in which autonomy may be lessened or destroyed.

a) one may not have developed the full rational capacities necessary to make one's own decisions: children do not have these capacities but develop them as they mature. Adults with Down's syndrome or other mental problems may permanently lack the necessary ability to think for themselves.

b) the rational capacities may be temporarily blocked due to excessive emotions such as grief or anger or due to drugs, liquor, or other substances that may interfere with the ability to think clearly.

        c) they may be taken from one by deceit and misinformation.

        d) one may give them away to another (a person, a book, an institution), allowing the other to make one's choices for you. Cult behavior is like this.



B) autonomy as a value and respect for autonomy

As a value, autonomy holds that thinking for oneself, making one's own choices, is a good thing that should be respected by others.


Those who do not respect autonomy typically believe that what counts is not who makes the choice, but whether it's the right choice. People who are convinced they know the truth about how others should behave will not value their autonomy and will be willing to violate their autonomy so see that they make the right choice.

One fails to respect the autonomy of another by

  1. substituting one's own moral values for theirs

  2. substituting one's judgment about what is wise or sensible to do for theirs

  3. acting paternalistically to protect them from harm that they do not wish to be protected from.


Respect for autonomy takes these forms:

    1. Negative respect is to refrain from interfering with other's autonomy by getting them drunk, brainwashing them, depriving them of information and the like.

    2. Positive respect is to assist others in developing their autonomy, by sobering them up or educating them, e.g.


Some of the most difficult cases involving autonomy occur during old age when various forms of senile dementia may set in. Children will notice an aging parent becoming less and less capable of looking after themselves or of making good choices. At some point they will have to decide that their parent is no longer able to make such choices for himself, that their parent has lost his capacity for autonomous choice, and the children will have to begin to make those choices for them. They can be hard choices: when is a parent no longer able to be in his own home and when might a move to a nursing facility or hospice be necessary? When is a parent no longer able to determine for himself what medical care he should be getting? Is a parent capable of deciding whether he wishes to not be resuscitated upon suffering a heart or respiratory attack of fatal stroke?


    2. Moral autonomy is the capacity to choose one's moral principles in an authentic manner.

    autonomy. . . is a property of the wills of all adult human beings insofar as they are. . . prescribing general principles to themselves rationally, free from causal determination [of an inappropriate sort]. . . first,having autonomy means considering principles from a point of view that requires temporary detachment from the particular desires and aversions, loves and hates, that one happens to have; second, autonomy is an ideal feature of a person. . . reviewing various moral principles and values, reflecting on how they may conflict and how they might be reconciled, and finally deciding which principles are most acceptable.”- Thomas Hill.


Moral autonomy is more specific than autonomy in general because it refers to the formation of one's moral principles rather than simply choices in general.

Moral autonomy is sometimes thought of as the source of a person's moral worth and what entitles them to equal moral respect.

  1. Freedom is the partner of autonomy. To be free is to be able to act on one's choices after one has autonomously made them.

      Able to act” is ambiguous and corresponds to two different kinds of freedom

      a. Negative freedom: is to not interfere with others when they act on autonomous choices. It is to allow others the freedom to do as they see fit, regardless of whether one agrees with them or not. One is “able to act” in the sense that no one gets in one's way. It is to have others be tolerant towards your actions.

      b. Positive freedom: to be capable of doing what one wants when there are no interferences. (A paraplegic may have the negative freedom to leave her bed if he is not tied down, but not the positive freedom.) One is able to act in the sense that one has the capability to do what one wants. In some circumstances it is to have others be positively tolerant towards one's autonomous choices.

      Scope of freedom: three important theories on when freedom may be limited or interfered with.

      1. the Harm Principle: One has the right to do any act that does not harm someone else. Put the other way around, the Harm Principle says that we may interfere with someone's freedom only when they are about to do something harmful to others.

      2. The Paternalism Principle: One has the right to do any act that does not harm oneself or others. Put the other way around, the Paternalism Principle says that we may interfere with someone's freedom only when they are about to do something harmful to others or to themselves.

      3. The Moralism/Offense Principle: One has the right to do any act that is not immoral or offensive to common decency. Put the other way around, the Moralism Principle says that we may interfere with someone's freedom only when they are about to do something immoral or offensive. (Since harming others is generally considered to be immoral, the Moralism Principle includes the Harm Principle but goes beyond it to allow the prevention of harmless immoral acts.)


Notice that none of these principles is absolute. For example, there are circumstances in which it is morally acceptable to harm someone: when that person consents, in order to protect oneself, and perhaps in order to prevent a greater harm.