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Since the Enlightenment, the concept of autonomy has implied the capacity for self-regulation, and as a corollary of this capacity, the right to self-determination. Although many early thinkers from both the East and the West espoused the idea of self-regulation in some form, including Tertullian (second and third centuries), Thomas Aquinas (thirteenth century) and the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu (sixth century BCE), it is generally associated with the development of Kantian philosophy and with the liberalism of the English philosophers John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) and John Locke (1632–1704), as well as the Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723–1790).
The most significant figure in the development of autonomy as a grounding concept of moral philosophy is undoubtedly Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), whose critical philosophy rests on the presumption that all human beings are rational beings and that reason is defined by the capacity for self-regulation. Reason, in Kant’s analysis, is a faculty that permits individuals to subject themselves to law, not merely because it is their desire to do so, but because moral law, as the product of reason rather than empirical deduction, has a quality of necessity that is independent of any question of ends and, hence, of the desires felt by individual subjects. A crucial aspect of Kant’s moral philosophy, one that was later developed by Karl Marx (1818–1883), was the notion that reason and desire could be opposed to one another, and indeed, that the autonomy of moral law implies the independence of reason from desire.
Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), who influenced him greatly, Kant felt that the implications of moral autonomy extended to the political realm: The development of individual capacities for self-regulation required freedom from restraint by those forces that might otherwise cultivate desire against reason. Accordingly, he is often interpreted as an advocate of limited government—though his conception of what constituted limited government should not be confused with that of the political liberals following Mill and Locke, or the Smithian economists.
Mill in particular shared with Kant a sense that the opposite of moral autonomy is “servile dependence.” Significantly, then, it was not society per se so much as the hierarchy of obligation and indebtedness that threatened the autonomy of the individual and his or her capacity to make free judgments. In the political realm, Mill’s theory implied that individuals exercise their freedoms in relation to other individuals, and it is this cooperation that provides the means by which consensual governments are constituted.
It fell to Adam Smith to explicate the processes by which individual freedom and the complex organization of society could be accommodated and sustained independently of any legislative authority. He theorized a natural tendency to “truck, barter, and exchange” as the ground of those processes by which the division of labor develops naturally. In the forms of economic liberalism that owe their debt to Smith, the idea of autonomy was thus closely linked to one of spontaneous self-order. And it was used to legitimate arguments against governmental intervention in markets and other forms of economic life.
Kant was never fully able to extend the formalism of his own argument to all persons (he withheld the faculty of reason from Africans and aboriginals, and he doubted the capacities of women or servants to exercise free judgment). Moreover, the formalism that was intrinsic to his argument also encouraged a conflation between the presumption of a universal faculty (reason) and the universal equality of all to exercise this faculty of judgment in the actual social sphere. Smith’s argument, like that of the liberal political economists who followed him, presumed that government exercises a more coercive and inhibiting influence on individuals than do other social forces, such as capital or organized labor. This presumption—that only states (through their legislative bodies) interfere with individual autonomy—has been one of the major objects of critique within radical political philosophy, from Marx forward. The crux of such critique has been a recognition of the complex social determinants of the very consciousness within which reason appears as a faculty, and a value as such. Even within liberal traditions, there is disagreement as to whether individual autonomy is better served by a government that regulates capital and other social institutions, or by one that allows corporations (including not only economic but also religious institutions) to be considered as individuals, and hence as entities whose regulation would constitute a violation of their rights.
Politically, the concept of autonomy no longer applies exclusively to the relationship between individuals and social institutions; it also describes the status of recognized minority communities within larger social contexts, and particularly state formations. In this case, autonomy is closely linked to the idea of a collective right to self-determination, and as such is provided for by the United Nations under the terms of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (adopted in 1966 and entered into force in 1976). This covenant not only provides for a right to self-determination, but also recognizes the right of “all peoples to freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources.” However, just as liberal theory is conflicted in its assertion of the rights of individuals while it insists that these rights cease to exist when they intrude upon the rights of another individual, the rights of “peoples” may conflict with the perceived prerogatives of states. This is especially likely when such states comprise several distinct ethnolinguistic communities, and when one or another community dominates numerically, economically, or historically through the exercise of force. The structure by which states “grant” autonomy to regions within their territorial jurisdiction expresses the ambivalence of this concept of autonomy.
- Kant, Emmanuel. 1998. Critique of Pure Reason. and ed. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Mill, John Stuart. 2002. The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill. Ed. J. B. Schneewing, with notes by Dale E. Miller. New York: Modern Library.
- Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1994. Discourse on Political Economy; and The Social Contract. Trans. Christopher Betts. Oxford, U.K., and New York: Oxford University Press.
- Schneewind, J. B. 1992. Autonomy, Obligation, and Virtue: An Overview of Kant’s Moral Philosophy. In The Cambridge Companion to Kant, ed. Paul Guyer, 309–341. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Smith, Adam. 1976. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Ed. W. B. Todd. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- United Nations. 1966. International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. http://www.unhchr.ch/html/ menu3/b/a_cescr.htm.
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