Philosophy Autonomy
James Stacey Taylor
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0167


In recent years the concept of autonomy has risen to prominence both in action theory and moral philosophy. The term “autonomy” stems from two Greek roots, autos (“self”) and nomos (“rule”), and originally applied to self-ruling city-states. This term is now more usually applied to self-ruling persons, although precisely what it is for a person to be “self-ruling” is a matter for considerable debate. Yet, while the concept of autonomy has really risen to prominence only since the early 1970s, it has a respectable historical pedigree. The first major philosopher in whose work this concept was prominent was Immanuel Kant, who argued that a person was autonomous only when she acted from the essential nature of her will. Thus, since a person’s desires are not part of this, a person will be autonomous only when she is motivated by impersonal considerations—when she acts out of respect for the moral law. In contrast to Kant’s impersonal account of moral autonomy, most current writers focus on what is required for a person to be autonomous in the sense of directing her own life in accordance with her own desires and values. This approach has primarily focused on what criteria must be met for a person’s desires and values to be her “own” in the sense required for her to be autonomous with respect to them, rather than to be alienated from them or else merely possessing them agentially, as a small child might possess her desires. Various analyses have been offered here, including those that focus on the agent’s endorsement of her desires, those that focus on the historical process by which she came to have them, and those that focus on their internal coherence. More recently, writers have addressed the role that a person’s social environment might play in determining whether or not she is autonomous with respect to her desires. The debate over what is required for a person to be autonomous is accompanied by a debate over how autonomy is to be valued: whether intrinsically, instrumentally, or some hybrid combination of the two. It is, however, generally agreed that autonomy is valuable, and this is reflected in the prominence of this concept in current discussions of moral and political philosophy, ranging from bioethical discussion of the moral basis of informed consent to issues in political liberalism.

General Overviews

There are several volumes that offer overviews of the current discussion of the nature of autonomy, the way in which it should be valued, and its importance for contemporary moral and political philosophy. An excellent early overview of the current discussion of autonomy is provided in Christman 1989. In addition to providing a helpful overview of the debate over personal autonomy up to 1989, Christman also provides a useful outline of the current debates concerning Kantian autonomy, autonomy and utility, and the value of autonomy. A similar but more recent overview of the discussion of autonomy is contained in Taylor 2005, in which the discussion of autonomy and its role in moral philosophy (to 2004) is outlined. An overview of the discussion of autonomy within modern liberalism is provided in John Christman and Joel Anderson’s “Introduction” to their anthology Autonomy and the Challenges to Liberalism (Christman and Anderson 2005). An overview of feminist approaches to autonomy, agency, and the socially embedded self is given in Mackenzie and Stoljar 2000. The most recent overview of current discussions of autonomy is provided in Sneddon 2013.

  • Christman, John. “Introduction.” In The Inner Citadel: Essays on Individual Autonomy. Edited by John Christman, 3–23. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

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    Christman provides a very useful overview of the debate concerning the nature and value of autonomy that was current until the time of publication.

  • Christman, John, and Joel Anderson. “Introduction.” In Autonomy and the Challenges to Liberalism: New Essays. Edited by John Christman and Joel Anderson, 1–23. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511610325.003Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Christman and Anderson provide a very useful outline of autonomy theory to 2004, linking this to issues within discussions of political liberalism.

  • Mackenzie, Catriona, and Natalie Stoljar. “Introduction: Autonomy Refigured.” In Relational Autonomy: Feminist Perspectives on Autonomy, Agency, and the Social Self. Edited by Catriona Mackenzie and Natalie Stoljar, 3–31. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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    Mackenzie and Stoljar place the relational analyses of autonomy that are outlined within their volume in the context both of feminist thought and contemporaneous analyses of autonomy.

  • Sneddon, Andrew. Autonomy. Bloomsbury Ethics. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

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    This is primarily an introduction to current autonomy theory, although Sneddon also develops his own account on which deep connections to others can make a person more rather than less autonomous.

  • Taylor, James Stacey, ed. Personal Autonomy: New Essays on Personal Autonomy and Its Role in Contemporary Moral Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511614194Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Taylor provides an overview of current discussions both of the nature of personal autonomy and its role in discussions of moral responsibility, and applied ethics.

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