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Kenneth Head

Personal autonomy and individual moral growth

The term 'autonomy', from the Greek roots 'autos' and 'nomos' [self + law] refers to the right or capacity of individuals to govern themselves. Agents may be said to be autonomous if their actions are truly their own, if they may be said to possess moral liberty. The necessity of this moral liberty is made clear in the work of many philosophers, in that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, in whose Social Contract are discussed what Rousseau sees as the centrally important relationships between what he terms the general will, liberty, equality and fraternity. From this work also comes that most famous of all revolutionary rallying-cries, Rousseau's memorable and epigrammatic, "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains".

The term is also a cornerstone of Kant's ethical theory, in which the possession of autonomy of the will is a necessary condition of moral agency. For Kant, autonomy functions as the ability to know what morality requires of us, rather than as the freedom to pursue our ends. The possession of autonomy permits an agent to act on objective and universally valid rules of conduct certified by reason alone. In Kantian terminology, this idea is quite separate from 'heteronomy', the term Kant uses to refer to the condition of acting on desires which are not legislated by reason. In Chapter 2 of his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Ethics [Abbott: p. 46] Kant argues that we should repudiate all maxims that do not accord with the will's own enactment of universal law and "Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law". For Kant, any account grounded on the view that moral law is commanded from without is 'heteronomous', quite literally the law of 'another', from the Greek root 'heteros' [other].

For a Kantian moralist, moral maturity cannot be achieved without the acceptance of the need for autonomy as defined above. Acceptance of heteronomous theories which, for example, require obedience to the imperatives or commands of state, society or religious faith, necessarily place individuals in positions of passivity, commanded or impelled to behave in ways which they cannot and do not initiate. If, on the other hand, individuals autonomously recognize and make their own a particular moral value, then, when they act in obedience to it, they are doing so with a deep sense of their own freedom to decide upon the course of their own actions. To act in this way, as Kant himself would have argued should be the case, is to act in such a manner as to make use of the rational faculties common to all human beings for the purpose of discovering the moral law which is also commonly and universally applicable.

This position is not synonymous with the view that autonomy represents the total sovereignty of the individual over his choice of moral values, actions and personal self-development. The difference between these two positions, the Kantian and what might be described as an extreme existentialist version of it, clearly bears importantly upon our view of the related concepts of freedom and responsibility. 'Freedom', in this latter sense, accords the greatest importance to 'authenticity' and the avoidance of mauvaise foi, or 'bad faith'. According to Heidegger, for example, authenticity is the condition of those who understand the existential structure of their lives, whose Angst has led them to take responsibility for their lives and thereby, in some sense, for selecting their own identities and for living in a significant, emotionally appropriate way. 'Inauthenticity', on the other hand, Heidegger defines as a state in which life is denuded of purpose and responsibility and so is depersonalized and dehumanized.

In ways that go beyond the Kantian origins of the notion, moral autonomy in this Heideggerian sense of "understanding the existential structure of their lives", rather than passively depending upon conventional value systems, helps individuals towards an awareness of the value and significance of their own unique and particular experiences and so offers positions from which to engage as individuals with complex moral questions such as those brought up by the need to apply ethical analysis to new, expanding and still morally contentious areas of human knowledge.

Reluctance to accept uncritically received moral positions regarding fundamental questions can be seen as a desire on the part of individuals to base philosophical thought less upon the authority of others than upon their own experience of life and of issues of the day. Such a development, though not new, clearly represents a revival of the tradition of ethical enquiry reflected, for example, in the thinking of Greek and Roman philosophers about such questions as how we should live and how we should die. Likewise, Hume wrote on suicide and, in the nineteenth century, all of the major Utilitarian philosophers wrote on issues in applied ethics.

That the preoccupation with the relationship between personal autonomy and ethical issues should be regarded as so central is indicative also of the on-going nature of two related debates: firstly, the debate as to whether or not ethics itself is autonomous, able to provide objective moral truths that do not derive their authority from non-ethical sources, such as divine command, facts of nature or the dictates of pure reason; secondly, the separate (since it is not necessarily the case that belief in objective reasons for action entails a morally absolutist conception of moral values) question of the extent to which morally absolutist, rather than relativist, approaches to contemporary moral issues seem acceptable. In the event that individuals come to believe that moral truths are, in fact, determined by occurrences in other realms of activity, or that relativist moral positions do offer a more rationally acceptable means by which to attempt the analysis of what represents right or wrong conduct in a particular situation, what seems likely to emerge among such individuals is a much more open, consequentialist, if, perhaps, fragmented climate of moral discussion.

Whereas a moral absolutist will argue, in a way that demonstrates some deontological elements in his thinking, that certain kinds of actions are always wrong or always obligatory, whatever the outcomes, a moral relativist will take the view that moral appraisals are essentially dependent upon the standards that define a particular moral code, the practices and norms accepted by a social group at a specific place and time. Given the existence of a plurality of such social groups, each with its own mores, a relativist will argue that there exists no point of reference from which these codes can themselves be appraised, no 'absolute' criteria by which they can be criticized. In support of his position, a relativist would be likely to refer to anthropological evidence of cultural diversity and to point out that a great deal more is now known about the world and its occupants than was the case during the lifetimes of, for example, Kant or Hume.

Clearly, there does exist the possibility that a counter-argument might be raised, that, for example, it is possible that the relativist exaggerates the implications of his data, or that there do exist among otherwise greatly divergent cultural groups some common basic human values, such as the moral condemnation of leaders who exploit and abuse their people, or the recognition of the need for some form of impartial, authorized arbitration and judgement in disputes involving property, perhaps, or particular rights. Whether or not, however, such an argument is persuasive as a critique of the relativist position remains an open question.

The members of a society undergoing rapid and perhaps de-stabilizing transformations in its traditional way of life will always need more time in which to adjust and to re-consider the bases on which they have, habitually, made their decisions than is available to them. As change throws up new and complex problems and dilemmas in areas for which neither habit, custom, nor law exist as moral fall-back positions, new criteria for conduct and legislation require to be evolved. Sometimes these need to be achieved as fast as the changes that provoke them, in order that they may keep pace with and continue to control, attempt to control, or, for reasons of social or political order and stability, appear to control, events. In situations such as these, the individual who wishes to retain his sense of engagement with this process must find a means by which the new can be absorbed into the already-existent body of his values, or he must challenge the new: "What ought I to do?" "What position should I adopt?" "What kind of actions ought I to perform?"

For the individual who, for all practical purposes, perceives himself as an autonomous person bearing responsibility for his decisions and for their consequences, the implications of all of these and a myriad of other, related questions may be very considerable. They may, for example, lead to a sense of the necessity considering the extent to which it is possible to continue to observe the conventions and customs adhered to within his social group, a process of self-analysis that may cause him to suffer accusations of criminality or deviance, a sense of alienation, marginality or persecution. It may seem necessary, too, to adopt positions regarding moral issues that require participation in acts of civil disobedience, a challenging, or even breaking of the law.

A person who takes seriously the sense of his own autonomy as a moral agent does not approach such dilemmas lightly, or without an awareness of the extent to which his actions in attempting to define the scope and quality of his own rights and obligations may, at the same time, represent a challenge to the rights of others or to the fabric of the social contract which forms the basis of the society within which he lives. The complexity and high seriousness of this position are made very clear by Alexander Solzhenitsyn who, in his One Word of Truth ... I Glover: p. 22] , speaks of there being, "several different scales of values in the world, if not many: there is a scale for events near at hand and a scale for events at a distance; there is a scale for old societies and a scale for young ones; a scale for happy events, a scale for unfortunate ones. Glaringly, the divisions of the scales fail to coincide, they dazzle and hurt our eyes ..." .

The point that Solzhenitsyn is making is clear. The infinite complexities of the world make it difficult for individuals to discover the values by which they should live or to be sure of the actions which they either should or should not perform. As a consequence, it is not easy for a society to design processes, systems and institutions which properly meet the needs of its citizens or to be certain that it has understood correctly the nature of the future into which it is moving. Hence, it is difficult for individuals to achieve moral consensus or, for example, the certitude of G. E. Moore, when, in his Principia Ethica [MacIntyre: p. 249], he argues that the criterion by which a morally good action should be judged is the extent to which it will cause more good to exist in the universe than any possible alternative. Moore goes on to argue that such goods are intrinsically good and so ought to exist for their own sakes. He asserts also that it is impossible to fail to recognize such intrinsic goodness when in its presence, even though neither proof nor disproof is possible, given that, for Moore, the nature of 'good' is unanalyzable.

For the engaged individual concerned to maximize his personal autonomy, to find a way through the moral complexities of life and yet to remain fully integrated within the fabric of society, the world does not seem to fit so straightforwardly against such a frame of reference. Indeed, it might be argued that scepticism as to the utility of moral principles in daily life stems from just such unworldly and, in the words of Maclntyre pp. 250], largely "unwarranted and unwarrantable" theorizing as Moore's.

In developing a sense of how to respond to ethical dilemmas, individuals need to feel confident of their grasp of the facts of particular moral situations, to feel as assured as possible, not that they must interpret their situation in the light of moral principles taught to them as children, but that their moral vision is as clear and focused as possible. Such particularity of response seems vital. In dealing both with new knowledge and with its attendant moral dilemmas, there is a clear need for realism and, since individuals must both act and assume responsibility for their actions, little of value to be gained from, as McNaughton [p.57] puts it, "asserting that where there are many conflicting views there can be no correct answer". For the individual concerned to relate his sense of personal autonomy to a genuine quest for moral truth, the confident belief that, whilst truth may be difficult to discover, it nevertheless exists, remains a vital necessity.


Glover, Jonathan Causing Death and Saving Lives Penguin, 1977

Kant, Immanuel Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Ethics trans. T. K. Abbott, Longman, 1962

MacIntyre, Alasdair A Short History of Ethics Routledge, 1993

McNaughton, David Moral Vision: An Introduction to Ethics Blackwell, 1992