autonomy [Gr.,=self-rule], in a political sense, limited self-government, short of independence, of a political state or, more frequently, of a subdivision. The term is also used for other self-governing units, such as a parish, a corporation, or a religious sect. A test of autonomy is the recognition that the group may make the rules governing its internal affairs. Political autonomy is frequently based on cultural and ethnic differences. Autonomy within empires has frequently been a prelude to independence, as in the case of the evolution of the British Empire into the Commonwealth of Nations, containing both autonomous and completely sovereign states. Autonomy as in the former Soviet "autonomous" republics and regions in Russia, providing local control over cultural and economic affairs, often is perceived as inadequate by nationalists, who sometimes have demanded independence, as in Chechnya. The same has proven true in Slovakia, and provides impetus for terrorism by Basque, Corsican, and Welsh extremists.

Autonomy (Greek: Auto-Nomos - nomos meaning "law": one who gives oneself his/her own law) is the right to self-government. Autonomy is a concept found in moral, political, and bioethical philosophy. Within these contexts, it refers to the capacity of a rational individual to make an informed, uncoerced decision. In moral and political philosophy, autonomy is often used as the basis for determining moral responsibility for one's actions. One of the best known philosophical theories of autonomy was developed by Kant. In medicine, respect for the autonomy of patients is an important goal for doctors and other health-care professionals, though it can conflict with a competing ethical principle, beneficence. Politically, it is also used to refer to the self-governing of a people.


In politics, autonomy refers to self-governance. In the past few decades, a large movement of Autonomism has emerged amongst the anti-capitalist Left, merging with pieces of Marxism, social democracy, Anarchism, the Inclusive Democracy project, and the Anti-Globalization Movement.


The word autonomy has several usages in philosophical contexts. In ethics, autonomy refers to a person's capacity for self-determination in the context of moral choices. Kant argued that autonomy is demonstrated by a person who decides on a course of action out of respect for moral duty. That is, an autonomous person acts morally solely for the sake of doing "good", independently of other incentives. In Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, Kant applied this concept to create a definition of personhood. He suggested that such compliance with moral law creates the essence of human dignity. In metaphysical philosophy, the concept of autonomy is referenced in discussions about free will, fatalism, determinism, and agency.


In the theology of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) there is a debate over free will vs. predestination; which is ultimately a debate about "autonomy". If there is free will, mankind is a society of autonomous beings, at least as far as their time on Earth is concerned. The debate concerns how much of a person's actions are dependent upon his own will, and how much is determined beforehand by God.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church when a church body is given "autonomy" it is permitted to rule itself internally, but still remains nominally subject to the mother church to which it belongs. An autonomous church is permitted to elect its own primate, but the primate must be consecrated by the Patriarch of the mother church.


In a medical context, respect for a patient's autonomy is considered a fundamental ethical principle. This belief is the central premise of the concept of informed consent. This idea, while considered essential to today's practice of medicine, was developed in the last 50 years. According to Beauchamp and Childress (in Principles of Biomedical Ethics), the Nuremberg trials detailed accounts of horrifyingly exploitative medical "experiments." These incidences prompted calls for safeguards in medical research. In the 1940s, the phrase "informed consent" appeared but didn't become widely used until the 1970s. Initially, discussions about informed consent focused almost exclusively on research subjects, but eventually has come to apply to the conventional physician-patient relationship as well. The seven elements of informed consent (as defined by Beauchamp) include threshold elements (Competence and Voluntariness), information elements (Disclosure, Recommendation, and Understanding) and consent elements (Decision and Authorization.).

Restrictions on autonomy

Autonomy can be, and usually is to one extent or another, waived to another authority, such as by agreeing to follow governing laws. The actions available to an autonomous unit can be restricted by a more powerful authority, such as when a cattleman sets a fence around his herd, or a court sentences a criminal to prison. The decisions of an autonomous unit can be coerced, and its actions forced. Autonomy can be restricted through the aspect of the ability to act, as in the case of a newborn or through the aspect of the ability to decide as in the case of a person in a coma.

Space systems

Autonomy is an increasing feature of space systems with two objectives

  • Mandatory for new functions:

e.g. several spacecrafts in formation flight adjust their relative positions so that interferometric measurements with wide basis can be performed

  • Cost reduction:

e.g. failure detection and recovery by spacecraft system without ground station involvement reduces Up-/Downlink useage and reduces operational costs on ground.

Various uses

  • In computing, an autonomous peripheral is one that can be used with the computer turned off
  • Within self-determination theory in psychology, autonomy refers to 'autonomy support versus control', "hypothesizing that autonomy-supportive social contexts tend to facilitate self-determined motivation, healthy development, and optimal functioning."
  • In mathematical analysis, an autonomous ordinary differential equation is time-independent.
  • In linguistics, an autonomous language is one which is independent of other languages, for example has a standard, grammar books, dictionaries, literature etc.
  • In robotics "autonomy means independence of control. This characterization implies that autonomy is a property of the relation between two agents, in the case of robotics, of the relations between the designer and the autonomous robot. Self-sufficiency, situatedness, learning or development, and evolution increase an agent’s degree of autonomy.", according to Rolf Pfeifer.
  • In economics, autonomous consumption is consumption expenditure when income levels are zero, making spending autonomous to income.

See also

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