Relative autonomy

Account of modern state found within recent Marxism employed by the Greek theorist Nicos Poulantzas (1936-1979).

States work within the limits set by the socio-economic structures within which they operate and which they function to sustain. Their autonomy is thus relative to this overall constraint.

Tom Bottomore, A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1991)


In the sociology of knowledge, a controversy over the boundaries of autonomy inhibited analysis of any concept beyond relative autonomy,[3] until a typology of autonomy was created and developed within science and technology studies. According to it, the institution of science’s existing autonomy is “reflexive autonomy”: actors and structures within the scientific field are able to translate or to reflect diverse themes presented by social and political fields, as well as influence them regarding the thematic choices on research projects.

Institutional autonomy

Institutional autonomy is having the capacities as a legislator to be able to implant and pursue official goals. Autonomous institutions are responsible for finding sufficient resources or modifying their plans, programs, courses, responsibilities, and services accordingly.[4] But in doing so, they must contend with any obstacles that can occur, such as social pressure against cut-backs or socioeconomic difficulties. From a legislator’s point of view, to increase institutional autonomy, conditions of self-management and institutional self-governance must be put in place. An increase in leadership and a redistribution of decision-making responsibilities would be beneficial to the research of resources.[5]

Institutional autonomy was often seen as a synonym for self-determination, and many governments feared that it would lead institutions to an irredentist or secessionist region. But autonomy should be seen as a solution to self-determination struggles. Self-determination is a movement toward independence, whereas autonomy is a way to accommodate the distinct regions/groups within a country. Institutional autonomy can diffuse conflicts regarding minorities and ethnic groups in a society. Allowing more autonomy to groups and institutions helps create diplomatic relationships between them and the central government.[6]


In governmental parlance, autonomy refers to self-governance. An example of an autonomous jurisdiction was the former United States governance of the Philippine Islands. The Philippine Autonomy Act of 1916 provided the framework for the creation of an autonomous government under which the Filipino people had broader domestic autonomy than previously, although it reserved certain privileges to the United States to protect its sovereign rights and interests.[7] Other examples include Kosovo (as the Socialist Autonomous Province of Kosovo) under the former Yugoslav government of Marshal Tito[8] and Puntland Autonomous Region within Federal Republic of Somalia.


Autonomy is a key concept that has a broad impact on different fields of philosophy. In metaphysical philosophy, the concept of autonomy is referenced in discussions about free will, fatalism, determinism, and agency. In How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time, philosopher Iain King developed an ‘Autonomy Principle’, which he defines as “Let people choose for themselves, unless we know their interests better than they can.”[9] King argues it is not enough to know someone else’s interests better than that person; their autonomy should only be infringed if that person is unable to know their own interests on a particular matter.[10] In moral philosophy, autonomy refers to subjecting oneself to objective moral law.[11]

According to Kant

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) defined autonomy by three themes regarding contemporary ethics. Firstly, autonomy as the right for one to make their own decisions excluding any interference from others. Secondly, autonomy as the capacity to make such decisions through one’s own independence of mind and after personal reflection. Thirdly, as an ideal way of living life autonomously. In summary, autonomy is the moral right one possesses, or the capacity we have in order to think and make decisions for oneself providing some degree of control or power over the events that unfold within one’s everyday life.[12]

The context in which Kant addresses autonomy is in regards to moral theory, asking both foundational and abstract questions. He believed that in order for there to be morality, there must be autonomy. He breaks down autonomy into two distinct components. “Auto” can be defined as the negative form of independence, or to be free in a negative sense. This is the aspect where decisions are made on your own. Whereas, “nomos” is the positive sense, a freedom or lawfulness, where you are choosing a law to follow. Kantian autonomy also provides a sense of rational autonomy, simply meaning one rationally possesses the motivation to govern their own life. Rational autonomy entails making your own decisions but it cannot be done solely in isolation. Cooperative rational interactions are required to both develop and exercise our ability to live in a world with others.

Kant argued that morality presupposes this autonomy (German: Autonomie) in moral agents, since moral requirements are expressed in categorical imperatives. An imperative is categorical if it issues a valid command independent of personal desires or interests that would provide a reason for obeying the command. It is hypothetical if the validity of its command, if the reason why one can be expected to obey it, is the fact that one desires or is interested in something further that obedience to the command would entail. “Don’t speed on the freeway if you don’t want to be stopped by the police” is a hypothetical imperative. “It is wrong to break the law, so don’t speed on the freeway” is a categorical imperative. The hypothetical command not to speed on the freeway is not valid for you if you do not care whether you are stopped by the police. The categorical command is valid for you either way. Autonomous moral agents can be expected to obey the command of a categorical imperative even if they lack a personal desire or interest in doing so. It remains an open question whether they will, however.

The Kantian concept of autonomy is often misconstrued, leaving out the important point about the autonomous agent’s self-subjection to the moral law. It is thought that autonomy is fully explained as the ability to obey a categorical command independently of a personal desire or interest in doing so—or worse, that autonomy is “obeying” a categorical command independently of a natural desire or interest; and that heteronomy, its opposite, is acting instead on personal motives of the kind referenced in hypothetical imperatives.

In his Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, Kant applied the concept of autonomy also to define the concept of personhood and human dignity. Autonomy, along with rationality, are seen by Kant as the two criteria for a meaningful life. Kant would consider a life lived without these not worth living; it would be a life of value equal to that of a plant or insect.[13] According to Kant autonomy is part of the reason that we hold others morally accountable for their actions. Human actions are morally praise- or blame-worthy in virtue of our autonomy. Non- autonomous beings such as plants or animals are not blameworthy due to their actions being non-autonomous.[13] Kant’s position on crime and punishment is influenced by his views on autonomy. Brainwashing or drugging criminals into being law-abiding citizens would be immoral as it would not be respecting their autonomy. Rehabilitation must be sought in a way that respects their autonomy and dignity as human beings.

2 thoughts on “Relative autonomy

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