The word autonomy stems from two Greek words: autos (self) and nomos (law). The resultant has taken on the meaning in today’s world of being able to make one’s own decisions, independently of the influence or coercion of outside agents.
The idea of autonomy undoubtedly has had a profound influence in many areas of life including law, healthcare, and ethics. Many policies are grounded in the notion of the autonomous being, that people have a right to govern themselves.
For example, respecting the autonomy of the patient is one of the chief values in healthcare ethics. In an article on patient autonomy for the Journal of General Internal Medicine, Dr. Entwistle et al. write, “Personal autonomy is widely valued: most people think it is preferable to somehow be their own person and shape their own lives than to live under the control of others. Recognition of the particular vulnerability of patients’ autonomy has underpinned the inclusion of respect for autonomy as a key concern in biomedical ethics.”
In law and politics, the autonomy of the individual is often considered a basic right. In more philosophical and even theological discussions, there is the persistent debate over the existence of free will or whether the decisions of human agents are determined. Are humans morally responsible for their actions?
I think autonomy is an interesting topic to explore because of its frequent presence in so many of our conversations (I’m thinking especially of healthcare issues and bioethical questions). Where does the popular conception of bodily autonomy come from? How was the word “autonomy” initially used and applied? Does the concept of autonomy make sense? What are autonomous rights? Is there a limit to autonomy? There are many other questions that arise.
Especially, though, when we talk about the hot-button issues like abortion and assisted dying and genome editing, the freedom to choose and autonomy are often big points of contention. What is so frequently missing when those concerns are raised is a definition of the terms used, how those concepts may be consistently applied, and even a baseline argument for the mere existence of bodily autonomy.
I wanted to begin a series on this very subject with the intention that each post will delve into a sub-topic or idea that somehow relates to the issue of autonomy and choice and hopefully helps us in our understanding of it.
I don’t want to limit this series to moral philosophy though I will certainly try to get into Kant, Mill, and a few others. I also want to bring in the perspectives of more scientific thinkers like Hawking, political theorists like Locke, healthcare professionals like Atul Gawande, and perhaps I’ll even interact with philosopher-theologians like Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin.
Who knows how long this series will go on for. I don’t have planned set of posts to share. So, my expectation is that this will go on for some time until I feel like I’ve covered enough material that a conclusion is due.
My first post (part 2) will concentrate on Immanuel Kant’s ideas of moral obligation and universal moral principles as they relate to the responsibility of the individual.