What is autonomy and why does it matter?


In its simplest sense, autonomy is about a person’s ability to act on his or her own values and interests. Taken from ancient Greek, the word means ‘self-legislation’ or ‘self-governance.’ Modern political thought and bioethics often stress that individual autonomy should be promoted and respected. But it can be difficult to pin down exactly what autonomy means and why it matters.

Looked at psychologically, autonomy is made up of a set of skills and attitudes. Relevant skills include the ability to reason, to appreciate different points of view, and to debate with others. In order to do these things, the autonomous person must have a sense of self-worth and self-respect. Self-knowledge is also important, including a well-developed understanding of what matters to him or her.

Some social circumstances can help us be more autonomous, and others can undermine autonomy. To develop these abilities and attitudes, a person needs the opportunity to consider meaningful alternatives, both opportunities for action and ways of thinking about what matters. This depends on dialogue between persons: we often learn about ourselves through others’ responses; it is easier to reconsider our values when we hear other people’s reasons and encounter other ways of looking at the world.

By contrast, oppressive social attitudes, rigid social hierarchies and lack of meaningful choices make it harder to develop autonomy and to act on our own interests and values.

Why does autonomy matter to this project?

The aim of the I.Family study is to better understand the interactions between children and their environment, their health behaviours and their individual development. A key concern, then, is how children learn to make choices and how decision-making skills develop as children become adults. Especially when we think about health, people’s interests often conflict with the priorities of powerful commercial actors. We want our children to grow up with the capacities they need to choose well, to stand up for themselves, and to lead lives that are meaningful and worthwhile.

How can we support and enhance young people’s developing capacity for autonomy? Parents and educators obviously play an important role, and we need to ask how they can be supported and enabled. Companies have powerful motives to encourage children’s consumption. Unfortunately, their marketing often stimulates wants that go against children’s health and other interests. How we can help children become media-savvy, and how can companies be led to act more responsibly?

Reflecting its root meaning, autonomy is often considered to be an individual matter. In fact, it develops in our relations with others. Children are members of families, schools, and a wider society. All can play a role in encouraging children’s capacity to choose well for themselves. And all have a responsibility to challenge factors that undermine children’s autonomy.


Faye Tucker, I.Family researcher, University of Lancaster

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