Autonomy Framework

The value criterion is...respect for autonomy.

Here are some of the best justifications for an autonomy framework.

1) Autonomy is a necessary part of a good life. Nicole Hassoun, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Birmingham University, comments in Arizona University’s 3rd International Conference on Philosophy:

[“Human Rights, Needs, and Autonomy” University of Arizona, ATINER 3rd International Conference on Philosophy]

Consider, first, why autonomy (understood here as just requiring reasoning and planning ability) is necessary for a minimally good life. Rewarding struggle, deep understanding, good relationships, significant achievement, virtue and so forth are some of the things that make a life go minimally well. Each of these things requires autonomy. People must be able to reason about, make, and carry out simple plans on the basis of their commitments to create and maintain good relationships. People must, for instance, be able to reason about, make, and carry out plans to talk with their friends and families for their relationships to flourish. Reasoning and planning are also necessary for developing important skills and character traits, deep understanding, significant achievement, and so forth. So, autonomy is necessary for a minimally good life. Autonomy is also partly constitutive of such a life. This is because personhood is, partly constitutive of a minimally good life and autonomy is partly constitutive of personhood. Consider, first, why personhood is partly constitutive of a minimally good life. As persons we ‘have a conception of ourselves and of our past and future. We reflect and assess. We form pictures of what a good life would be, often, it is true, only on a small scale, but occasionally also on a large scale. And we try to realize these pictures’ (Griffin, 2006, Ch. 2). These conditions for personhood are also conditions for a minimally good life. To live a minimally good life one must be able to hope and dream, to pursue one’s goals and carry out projects, to live life on one’s own terms. Those who lack a conception of being a self, persisting through time, with a past and future cannot hope or dream. Those who never pursue their conception of a good life cannot achieve their goals or carry out projects. Hence personhood is partly constitutive of a minimally good life. Consider next why autonomy is partly constitutive of personhood. Recall that autonomy requires the ability to reason, make, and carry out simple plans on the basis of one’s desires. These conditions for autonomy are also conditions for personhood. To reflect and assess in the way that personhood requires one must be able to reason. To pursue one’s conception of a good life, as persons do, one must be able to make and carry out simple plans. We can also see that autonomy is necessary for and partly constitutive of a minimally good life via examples. Suppose Aefa drifts through life making one choice then another randomly or letting others choose for her. Suppose that Aefa has not freely chosen to drift. He simply [One who] cannot reason about, make, or carry out [her] plans. Aefa cannot shape his [her] own life. He does not choose consistently enough to [and cannot] attain most of the things he [one] desires. He may end up subject to another’s will. Even if, by chance, Aefa secures many valuable things, his [One’s] life will still lack an important kind of value. His life will be like a prize won accidentally (Raz, 1998). Aefa [One without autonomy] cannot live a minimally good life because his [her] life is not truly her own.

2) Autonomy is a pre-requisite for people to pursue other desires and goals. Without autonomy, one cannot have the freedom of individual choice to try and obtain other desirable aspects of life. Moreover, regardless of what ethical principle is the best, people must be able to rationally choose that principle to obey it, which requires an expression of autonomy. This makes autonomy a pre-requisite to any other moral principle as well.

3) We must respect autonomy to truly value the worth of individuals. Robert Edmundson, Professor of Ethics at Washington University, illustrates in Key Ethical Principles:

[Robert Edmundson. “Principle of Respect for Autonomy”. Key Ethical Principles. Scension. Professor of Ethics. Washington University in St. Louis. January 26th, 2008.]

As commonly understood today, autonomy is the capacity for self-determination. Being autonomous, however, is not the same as being respected as an autonomous agent. When one respects a person’s capacity for self-determination they acknowledge the worth of that [an] individual as an independent agent. To respect an autonomous agent is to acknowledge that person’s right to make choices and take action based on that person’s own values and belief system.  The principle of respect for autonomy implies that one should be free from coercion in deciding to act, and that others are obligated to protect confidentiality, respect privacy, and tell the truth. The principle of respect for autonomy, however, does not imply that one must cooperate with another’s actions in order to respect that individual’s autonomy.