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AUTONOMY IN SOCIAL AND POLITICAL CONTEXT

ABSTRACT
The value of autonomy can be seen in its social and political context. The idea that our
decisions, if made autonomously, are to be respected and cannot be shrugged off, is a
valuable one. It concerns the legitimacy of our personal decisions in a social, political, and
legislative context. Autonomy is an individuals capacity for self-determination or selfgovernance. Beyond that, it is a much-contested concept that comes up in a number of
different arenas. For example, there is the folk concept of autonomy, which usually operates
as an inchoate desire for freedom in some area of ones life, and which may or may not be
connected with the agents idea of the moral good. This folk concept of autonomy blurs the
distinctions that philosophers draw among personal autonomy,moral autonomy, and political
autonomy. Moral autonomy, usually traced back to Kant, is the capacity to deliberate and to
give oneself the moral law, rather than merely heeding the injunctions of others. Personal
autonomy is the capacity to decide for one self and pursue a course of action in ones life,
often regardless of any particular moral content. Political autonomy is the property of having
ones decisions respected, honored, and heeded within a political context.
INTRODUCTION
The importance and nature of the value of autonomy is debated within political theory, but is
generally intertwined with the right to pursue ones interests without undue restriction.
Discussions about the value of autonomy concern the extent of this right, and how it can be
seen as compatible with social needs.
Kant described the protection of autonomy at the political level as encapsulated in the
principle of right: that each person had the right to any action that can coexist with the
freedom of every other person in accordance with universal law (Kant 1996, 387). Mills On
Liberty similarly defends the rights of individuals to pursue their own personal goals, and
emphasizes the need for being ones own person. On his view, this right prohibits
paternalism, or restrictions or interference with a person of mature age for his or her own
benefit. As Mill writes, The only part of the conduct of anyone for which he is amenable to
society is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his
independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual
is sovereign.

Non-interference is generally seen as key to political autonomy; Gerald Gaus specifies that
the fundamental liberal principle is that all interferences with action stand in need of
justification (Gaus 2005, 272). If any paternalistic interference is to be permitted, it is
generally restricted to cases where the agent is not deemed to be autonomous with respect to
a decision (see for example Dworkin 1972); autonomy serves as a bar to be reached in order
for an agents decisions to be protected (Christman 2004). The question is then how high the
bar ought to be set, and thus what individual actions count as autonomous for the purposes of
establishing social policy. Because of this, there is a strong connection between personal and
political autonomy.
Further, there is also a connection between political liberalism and content-neutral accounts
of autonomy which do not require any predetermined values for the agent to be recognized as
autonomous. As Christman and Anderson point out, content-neutral accounts of autonomy
accord with liberalisms model of accommodating pluralism in ways of life, values, and
traditions (Christman and Anderson 2005).
The framework of seeing the value of political autonomy in terms of protecting individual
choices and decisions, however, has been criticized by those who argue that it rests on an
inadequate model of the self.
AUTONOMY AND POLITICAL THEORY
Communitarians such as Michael Sandel criticize the model of the autonomous self implicit
in liberal political theory, arguing that it does not provide an adequate notion of the human
person as embedded within and shaped by societal values and commitments. Procedural
accounts of autonomous decision-making do not adequately recognize the way our relational
commitments shape us. We do not choose our values and commitments from the position of
already being autonomous individuals; in other words, the autonomous self does not exist
prior to the values and commitments that constitute the basis for its decisions. To deliberate in
the abstract from these values and commitments is to leave out the selfs very identity, and
that which gives meaning to the deliberation (Sandel 1998).
Feminist scholars have agreed with some of the communitarian criticism, but also caution
that the values and commitments that communitarians appeal to may not be ones that are in
line with feminist goals, in particular those values that concern the role and makeup of the
family (Okin 1989 and Weiss 1995).

Another criticism of the dominant model of autonomy within political theory is made by
Martha Fineman, who argues for the need to rethink the conceptions of autonomy that
undergird legal and governmental policies in order to better recognize our interdependence
and the dependence of all of us upon society (Fineman 2004, 28-30). While not drawing on
the philosophical literature on personal autonomy or relational autonomy, but rather drawing
upon sociological theories and accounts of legal and government policy, she traces the
historical and cultural associations of autonomy with individuality and masculinity, and
argues the need to see that real human flourishing includes dependency.
Recognizing the different levels of autonomy at play within the political sphere as a whole
can help to clarify what is at stake, and to avoid one-sided accounts of autonomy or the
autonomous self. Rainer Forst outlines five different conceptions of autonomy that can
combine into a multidimensional account (Forst 2005). The first is moral autonomy, in which
an agent can be considered autonomous as long as he or she acts on the basis of reasons that
take every other power equally into account and which are justifiable on the basis of
reciprocally and generally binding norms (Forst 2005, 230). Even though this is an
interpersonal norm, it is relevant to the political, argues Forst, because it promotes the mutual
respect needed for political liberty. Ethical autonomy concerns a persons desires in the quest
for the good life, in the context of the persons values, commitments, relationships, and
communities. Legal autonomy is thus the right not to be forced into a particular set of values
and commitments, and is neutral toward them. Political autonomy concerns the right to
participate in collective self-rule, exercised with the other members of the relevant
community. Finally, social autonomy concerns whether an agent has the means to be an equal
member of this community. Attending to social autonomy helps to demonstrate the
responsibility of members of the community to consider each others needs, and to evaluate
political and social structures in terms of whether they serve to promote the social autonomy
of all of the members. Forst argues that ultimately citizens are politically free to the extent to
which they, as freedom-grantors and freedom-users, are morally, ethically, legally, politically,
and socially autonomous members of a political community Rights and liberties therefore
have to be justified not only with respect to one conception of autonomy but with a complex
understanding of what it means to be an autonomous person (Forst 2005, 238).
Whether or not one agrees with this particular way of dividing the conceptions of autonomy,
or with the particular explanation of the details of any of the conceptions, Forsts account

highlights the way that understanding the contribution of autonomy to political theory
involves a multifaceted approach. It is of limited use to say that citizens are autonomous
because they have the right to vote, if their material needs are not met, or if they are not free
in their choice of values or ethical commitments. Taking ethical autonomy into consideration
can help to meet some of the concerns raised above by communitarian and feminist critics of
autonomy; meanwhile, taking legal autonomy into account alongside ethical autonomy can
help to provide the bulwark of protection against oppressive traditions that feminists are
concerned about.
This can also be related to the work done by Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen on the
capabilities approach to human rights, in which societies are called upon to ensure that all
human beings have the opportunity to develop certain capabilities; agents then have a choice
whether or not to develop them (see for example Sen 1999 and Nussbaum 2006). The kind of
political autonomy granted to subjects, then, depends on their ability to cultivate these
various capabilities within a given society.
AUTONOMY AND BIOETHICS
In applied ethics, such as bioethics, autonomy is a key value. It is appealed to by both sides of
a number of debates, such as the right to free speech in hate speech versus the right to be free
from hate speech (Mackenzie and Stoljar 2000, 4). There is a lack of consensus, however, on
how autonomy ought to be used: how much rationality it requires, whether it merely involves
the negative right against interference or whether it involves positive duties of moral
reflection and self-legislation.
Autonomy has long been an important principle within biomedical ethics. For example, in the
Belmont report, published in 1979 in the United States, which articulates guidelines for
experimentation on human subjects, the protection of subjects autonomy is enshrined in the
principle of respect for persons. One of the three key principles of the Report, it states that
participants in trials ought to be treated as autonomous, and those with diminished autonomy
(due to cognitive or other disabilities or illnesses) are entitled to protection. The way this
principle is to be applied takes shape in the form of informed consent, as the Report presumes
that this is the best way to protect autonomy.
One of the standard textbooks in biomedical ethics, Principles of Biomedical Ethics by Tom
L. Beauchamp and James F. Childress, defends four principles for ethical decision-making, of

which respect for autonomy is the first, even though it is not intended to override other
moral considerations. The principle can be seen as both a negative and a positive obligation.
The negative obligation for health care professionals is that patients autonomous decisions
should not be constrained by others. The positive obligation calls for respectful treatment in
disclosing information and fostering autonomous decision-making (Beauchamp and
Childress 2001, 64).
Beauchamp and Childress accept that a patient can autonomously choose to be guided by
religious, traditional, or community norms and values. While they acknowledge that it can be
difficult to negotiate diverse values and beliefs in sharing information necessary for decisionmaking, this does not excuse a failure to respect a patients autonomous decision: respect for
autonomy is not a mere ideal in health care; it is a professional obligation. Autonomous
choice is a right, not a duty of patients (Beauchamp and Childress 2001, 63).
Autonomy is also important within the disability rights movement. Within the disability
rights movement, the slogan, Nothing about us without us is a call for autonomy or selfdetermination (see Charlton 1998). It goes beyond merely rejecting having decisions made
for people with disabilities by others, but also speaks to the desire for empowerment and
recognition as being agents capable of self-determination.
The relational approach to autonomy has become popular in the spheres of health care ethics
and disability theory. The language of relational autonomy has been helpful in reframing the
dichotomy between strict independence and dependence and providing a way of framing the
relationship between a person with a disability and his or her caretaker or guardian. It has
also been argued that a relational approach to patient autonomy provides a better model of the
decision-making process.
Criticisms of a rationalistic and individualistic ideal of autonomy and the development of the
idea of relational autonomy have been taken up within the mainstream of biomedical ethics.
In response to criticism that early editions of their textbook on biomedical ethics had not paid
adequate heed to intimate relationships and the social dimensions of patient autonomy,
Beauchamp and Childress emphasize that they aim to construct a conception of respect for
autonomy that is not excessively individualistic (neglecting the social nature of individuals
and the impact of individual choices and actions on others), not excessively focused on
reason (neglecting the emotions), and not unduly legalistic (highlighting legal rights and
downplaying social practices) (Beauchamp and Childress, 2001, 57).

Their account of autonomy, however, has still been criticized by Anne Donchin as being a
weak concept of relational autonomy (Donchin 2000). While they do not deny that selves
are developed within a context of community and human relationships, agents are still
assumed to have consciously chosen their beliefs and values and to be capable of detaching
themselves from relationships at will (Donchin 2000, 238). A strong concept of relational
autonomy, on the other hand, holds that there is a social component built into the very
meaning of autonomy, and that autonomy involves a dynamic balance among
interdependent people tied to overlapping projects (Donchin 2000, 239). The autonomous
self is one continually remaking itself in response to relationships that are seldom static,
and which exists fundamentally in relation to others (Donchin 2000, 239). Donchin argues
that it is the strong concept of relational autonomy that offers the most helpful account of
decision-making in health care.
AUTONOMY IN INDIA
It can be said that in India the evolution of state autonomy has been the evolution of
federalism. In the ancient period, the kingdoms or empires that ruled over the Indian
subcontinent practiced policy of non-intervention in local affairs because the people of the
subcontinent had and still have a lot of natural and cultural diversities. The disintegration of
the Mauryas and the Mughals is partly attributed to the fact that monarchs like Jehangir and
Aurangzeb tried to impose common codes of behaviour that offended many of their subjects.
Hence after the Revolt of 1857, when the British decided to leave the Indian Princes alone
and withdrew their interventionist measures like Doctrine of Lapse, the British Government
initiated the federal system in India. During the British era, state autonomy began as
devolution of power from the Center and culminated in a federation under the Government of
India Act, 1935. Under the British rule, the state autonomy enjoyed by the Indian provinces
was limited in nature. But after independence, it has undergone a sea change. Same is true of
Indian Federalism. In 1950s, federalism in India was marked by the creation of significant
institutions of inter-governmental co-operation such as the National Development Council in
1952. The reorganization of States in India by the States Reorganisation Act, 1956 highlights
the fact that in 1950s, the States asserted their linguistic identities. From 1960s to 1980s, the
policies of centralization damaged the federal spirit of the country. The period witnessed the
rise of many strong regional parties that voiced their demand for state autonomy through
different committees and conferences as discussed already. In the late 1980s, multi party
system began in India and federalism shifted from Centre-dominated federalism to a give and

take federalism wherein the Centre and the States were more interdependent than
independent. The establishment of Inter State Council in 1990 manifested the spirit of cooperative federalism. The creation of three new States in 2000 and inclusion of Bodo, Dogri,
Maithili and Santhali in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution by the Constitution (NinetySecond Amendment) Act, 2003 clearly reveal that the Indian federalism aims to satisfy the
regional, ethnic and tribal identities. In India, Federalism is a living faith to manage the
diversities. Federalism is a continuous process and the more complex the nature of
diversities, the more there would be the need for flexibility and experimentation. The fear that
demands of autonomy by States and by regions within the States may lead to disintegration of
the country need not be exaggerated. In order to restore a balance between the federating
States and the Centre, it is important that we should move from large administratively
unmanageable, politically troublesome and economically imbalanced though linguistically
homogeneous States to a more rational re-organisation of States based on the tenents of
techno-economic viability, socio-cultural homogeneity, political and administrative
manageability. Thus one can say that the quantum of autonomy which a particular State or a
region within a State needs is to be measured not in terms of theory but in terms of the
imperatives of a States internal stability and nation-building process.
CONCLUSION
There is debate over whether autonomy needs to be representative of a kind of authentic or
true self. This debate is often connected to whether the autonomy theorist believes that an
authentic or true self exists. In fact, conceptions of autonomy are often connected to
conceptions of the nature of the self and its constitution. Theorists who hold a socially
constituted view of the self will have a different idea of autonomy (sometimes even denying
its existence altogether) than theorists who think that there can be some sort of core true
self, or that selves as agents can be considered in abstraction from relational and social
commitments and contexts.
Finally, autonomy has been criticized as being a bad ideal, for promoting a pernicious model
of human individuality that overlooks the importance of social relationships and dependency.
Responses to these criticisms have come in various forms, but for the most part philosophers
of autonomy have striven to express the compatibility of the social aspects of human action
within their conceptions of self-determination, arguing that there need not necessarily be an

antagonism between social and relational ties, and our ability to decide our own course of
action.

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