To be autonomous is to be one’s own person, that is, to be directed by preferences, motivations, and characteristics that are a part of or ‘internal’ to one’s self. It may also refer to the capacity of a rational individual to make informed, self-determined decisions – to ‘self-rule.’
Some moral theories – Immanuel Kant’s, for instance – ground our obligations to ourselves and others in our (and their) autonomy. Thus, treating another person as a means rather than an end is wrong because it fails to respect that person’s autonomous will. Likewise, killing is wrong because it violates the autonomy of the victim.
On this Kantian view, we owe ourselves (and each other) moral respect in virtue of our autonomy.
John Stuart Mill, a classical utilitarian, also held autonomy to be an important consideration – and value – in utilitarian thought, claiming that autonomy is an element of well-being. Holding this view allows the utilitarian to consistently view morality through a utilitarian framework while still allowing for the importance of autonomy and self-determination in life.« Back to Glossary Index