Autonomy in Political Philosophy
- Jakob ElsterJakob ElsterNorwegian Centre for Human Rights, University of Oslo
The concept of autonomy is one of the key concepts of political philosophy. It plays an important role in discussions of the limits of state coercion, in particular in arguments against paternalistic laws and policies, and in questions concerning the legitimacy and authority of the state. Although the term “autonomy” is used in different ways, a common understanding of the concept of autonomy relates to the idea of leading one’s own life: the autonomous person develops her own understanding of how her life should be and acts accordingly, without interference by others.
Autonomy plays three main roles in political philosophy. First, autonomy provides a goal, to be realized through political means; this requires that the state protect people from interference with their autonomy, ensure the availability of sufficient resources, and foster the mental abilities necessary for autonomy. Not least, promoting autonomy can entail that the form of government be democratic, as citizens’ autonomy is best protected in a democratic regime.
Next, autonomy can impose a set of constraints, limiting the legitimate use of coercion in realizing political goals. First, coercion can only be used for certain purposes. The most well-known constraint of this kind involves the rejection of paternalism: coercion may never be used to promote a person’s own good against her will. Next, there are constraints connected with the kind of justification that can be given for coercive actions: in order to be compatible with autonomy, these must be justified in ways that the coerced have actually accepted or could have accepted.
Finally, autonomy can play a role in arguments about the grounds for political authority. Although authority and autonomy might seem to be inimical, autonomy can ground the right to command either through citizens’ consent or through their voluntary actions by which they become committed to follow a common set of rules.
Autonomy can only play these roles if it is valuable, and there are several arguments why autonomy is valuable. First, there are instrumental reasons: the good both of individuals and of society is best served if people have a large degree of autonomy. Next, people have an interest in their choices and actions being their own, representative of who they are. Also, there is a strong symbolic and relational aspect to the right to autonomy: being denied this right is insulting and amounts to a denial of one’s equal standing. Finally, there might be an intrinsic value to autonomy, as only autonomy allows us to be fully human.