The ideal of autonomy

Frank Furedi in Spiked:

Furedi_autoContemporary society has a paradoxical relationship with the ideals of human autonomy and self-determination. These concepts are rhetorically upheld as values that are fundamental to liberal democracy. Yet, in practice, the principle of autonomy is frequently dismissed as a myth or downsized into a relatively undistinguished second-order principal. Today, as in the past, autonomy is criticised from an elitist and paternalistic standpoint that insists that people lack the capacity, time, resources or opportunity required for self-determination. Critics of autonomy point to the power of the media, the influence of consumer society or the pervasiveness of ideologies to argue that ordinary people are far too overwhelmed by these forces to think for themselves and act in accordance with their interests. In one form or another, these illiberal arguments against autonomy have been directed at enlightened thinkers since the time of antiquity.

Human flourishing

The idea of autonomy is historically bound up with the quest to express and give meaning to human development and potential. Through the centuries, this search led to the crystallisation of the Enlightenment conception of personhood – the idea that personhood is accomplished through the exercise of personal agency and autonomy. Autonomy was understood as the expression of our personal, subjective, individual selves. Since the ancient Greeks, the development of the value of freedom was inextricably linked with the attempt to formulate an ideal of self-governance. Over the centuries, this quest for self-determination led to the conviction that human action and behaviour were not entirely determined by forces external to the individual. By the 18th century, an optimistic view of personhood became coupled with a moral outlook that claimed that the exercise of autonomy – of individuals making choices – was the precondition for the flourishing of humanity. The 18th-century Enlightenment regarded autonomy as an attribute of a person who engages with the world as an active, reasoning and conscious individual. The etymology of this word – autos (self) and nomos (rule or law) – conveys the meaning of self-rule. The term was first used in the Greek city states: According to one account, a ‘city had autonomia when its citizens made their own laws, as opposed to being under the control of some conquering power’.

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