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As Autonomy ( ancient Greek αὐτονομία autonomía , autonomy ',' independence 'from αὐτός autós even' and νόμος nómos Law ') refers to the state of self-determination , independence ( sovereignty ), self-management or decision-making and freedom of action . Its opposite is heteronomy .

In idealistic philosophy it is the ability to understand oneself as the essence of freedom and to act out of this freedom. The existence of autonomy in ethics is also used as a criterion according to which individuals can be assigned ethical rights.


Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola , in his work On Human Dignity, depicts autonomy as a special, God-given gift of humans that distinguishes them from animals. He describes that when God created all creatures on earth, he was the last to create man, that is, a being who could judge his creation. Because he had already distributed all special abilities, God placed man in the middle of the world and let him as the only one of all creatures participate in all abilities, so that man as a personal being can seek his place in the world for himself.

An understanding of autonomy, as outlined by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, was fundamental for the philosophical current of personalism , but is no longer considered to be contemporary in today's discussion that grants some animals autonomy and derives rights from it.

Immanuel Kant

A classic philosopher of autonomy is Immanuel Kant , who presents autonomy in ethics as the determination of the moral will by reason alone .

“Autonomy of the will is the quality of the will, whereby it is a law for itself (independent of all the quality of the objects of will). The principle of autonomy is therefore: to choose not otherwise than in such a way that the maxims of his choice are included in the same will as a general law. "

- Foundation for the Metaphysics of Morals II: The autonomy of the will as the supreme principle of morality

Kant's ethical doctrine of autonomy is directed against eudaemonism (happiness as the goal of all striving), but above all against the Catholic moral doctrine of his time, which at that time almost exclusively subordinated the moral will to foreign laws (i.e. heteronomy ). Kant's position was closer to the Protestant ethics of the time, according to which the “good Christian” acts morally solely on the basis of his belief in God. However, Kant was concerned with the establishment of a cross-denominational and interreligious ethic of reason.

“The autonomy of the will is the sole principle of all moral laws and the duties according to them [...]. So the moral law does not express anything else than the autonomy of pure practical reason, i. i. freedom, and this is itself the formal condition of all maxims under which they alone can agree with the highest practical laws. "

According to Kant, the real possibility of autonomy depends on overcoming given forms of dependence and external determination, even if these seem to offer a certain security. In this sense, Kant demands an answer to the question: What is Enlightenment? the courage of each to use his own understanding.

The philosophical concept of autonomy was largely shaped by Kant's moral philosophy during and since the Enlightenment . Autonomy is defined as the possibility and task of man to determine himself as a being capable of freedom and reason and to act accordingly out of freedom according to the categorical imperative .

Even Theodor W. Adorno uses the concept of autonomy in the sense of Kantian ethics: "The only true force against the principle of Auschwitz would be autonomy, if I may use the Kantian expression: the power to reflect, to self-determination, for non-participation. "

Research autonomy

History of ideas

The classical philologist and philosopher Karl-Martin Dietz identifies a historical origin of autonomy in the dispute between the Greeks and the Persians, especially in view of the achievements of Themistocles . “ Herodotus already asserts: Free people only obey the laws. And these laws are the same for everyone. The Orientals, on the other hand, are subject to the changing whims of their rulers. For that reason alone, they cannot think and act for themselves. ”Originally only related to the polis and the state, the autonomy of individuals contained the germ of the from now on pioneering inner freedom . The oldest expression of autonomia in relation to a person is found in Sophocles Antigone : Antigone was punished. "Their sacrilege consisted in living autonomously , individually, according to a self-imposed maxim."


An autonomous or vegetative nervous system is a part of the central and peripheral nervous system that was originally separated from a functional point of view and which, as a counterpart and partner of the animal nervous system, cannot or can only partially be determined by the will. Such a conscious influence on the vegetative system is only possible with the help of special techniques such as autogenic training or the Wim Hof method (see also the following section on psychology ). The controls carried out by the autonomic nervous system are switching processes that take place on the basis of a simple reflex arc and therefore relieve higher (animal) centers of the nervous system.

Medical ethics

Autonomy is one of the four principles of medical ethics according to Beauchamp and Childress , along with beneficence (care), non-maleficiency (avoiding harm) and justice .


Psychology considers the tension between external determination ( heteronomy ) and self-determination (autonomy), whereby developmental psychology addresses the development of the child who builds an "early bond" to (at least) one adult person in order to grow into a person who can make autonomous decisions Planning and shaping your own life.

For a socially involved person, partial external determination does not fundamentally contradict autonomy. One example is that of an orchestra in which various musicians contribute as part of the whole. A pronounced self-determination can even cause problems if it is understood as social isolation .

Building on developmental psychology, personality psychology considers the tension between autonomy and attachment. Then there are two basic human impulses that expose the personality to a permanent conflict between closeness and distance. The depth psychological causes and effects of these two opposing human strivings (psychological antinomy ) on the personality were examined in detail by the psychoanalyst Fritz Riemann in his classic Basic Forms of Fear (1961). According to this, both basic needs can be experienced as fearful by the individual on the basis of earlier experiences. Riemann names the fear of becoming oneself ("self-rotation") as decisive for an excessive need for attachment. In contrast, the fear of self-giving (dependence) leads to a strong expression of the striving for autonomy. Corresponding one-sidedness has a decisive influence on the personality structure and can also be found in psychological typologies.

In the self-determination theory (SDT) established by Deci and Ryan (2000, 2008 ), the term autonomy occupies a central position. From the point of view of this theory, autonomy, along with competence and social integration, are among the three universal basic psychological needs that are important for the quality of behavior and the associated well-being. These basic needs have emerged as the mechanisms with which the individual can best adapt to the requirements of his social and physical environment in the course of human evolution. The need for autonomy describes the tendency, deeply rooted in the organism, to self-regulate one's own actions and the coherence of its behavioral goals.

In self-determination theory, a concept of motivation is used to describe behavior, which not only has the strength of motivation as a parameter, but also the degree of autonomy, which is also understood as a continuum. This ranges from externally regulated behavior, for example through external rewards or coercion, through only limited internalized regulation, for example by avoiding feelings of guilt or fear, to autonomous motivation, in which the behavior is fully integrated into the self-esteem. Compared to externally regulated behavior with the same level of motivation, autonomously regulated behavior is characterized by greater efficiency, especially with regard to problem-solving behavior and perseverance, greater well-being and better ability to integrate into one's own self.


Max Weber gives the following sociological determination:

"Autonomy means that the order of the association is not set by outsiders , as is the case with heteronomy, but enjoyed by the association by virtue of its quality (regardless of how it is otherwise)."

The sociology takes up the theme of autonomy in the context of dissociation in the working world again. The distinction between autonomous full-time employees and the unemployed limited to a granted remaining partial autonomy requires a renewal of the views on the concept of autonomy in societies, taking into account the individual and group perspectives.

Autonomy is a key concept for understanding a normative constitution as well as the institutional functioning of modernity as a social formation. On the one hand, this means that, in contrast to earlier epochs, modernity is inconceivable without the claim that subjects can live their lives independently. On the other hand, modern institutions are functionally dependent on subjects meeting their requirements of their own free will.


The ultimate goal of upbringing and socialization is to enable adolescents to emancipate them from those who are educating them, so that they can lead a life of independence and freedom. This goal does not necessarily have to be achieved. Rather, the educational process can be structured in such a way that it (largely) misses the target. P. Köck and H. Ott emphasize that the “autonomous upbringing” strives for the “independence of the child from social influences”. The only function of the educator is to keep "negative environmental influences" away from the child. The latter is a narrow view of the facts when you consider that first of all, the autonomy vis-à-vis parents must be achieved.

  • A young adult's lack of autonomy may be due to a (previous) relationship problem with the carer.
  • It can also be due to the situational context that fundamentally hinders or prevents autonomy. This could also include social constraints or restrictions (economic situation, emergency situation, etc.). The (psychological) pressure of the situation on the individual can make autonomy difficult or impossible.
  • A lack of skills (of the educated person) can also lead to autonomy not being wanted or not strived for. (For example, dependence on carers may be more comfortable than independence, which demands the last intellectual and emotional reserves.)

Social and political assumption of responsibility is linked to the fact that the members of a social group or society have the opportunity to act autonomously.

For these reasons, educational processes constantly raise the question of which educational methods can be used to promote the formation of an autonomous personality. This must be one of the central questions of the people involved in the educational process.

There is broad agreement that, in education, methods that are too rigid are unsuitable, although the devil is in the details: How much guidance is necessary in educational processes? How much steering can be implemented in terms of autonomy? How much independence (autonomy) is z. B. possible and acceptable in groups?

On the other hand, it is also clear that extreme control and lack of independence in upbringing create dependencies that prevent the development of autonomy.

Ultimately, autonomy in the sense of pedagogy can only be achieved or achieved by those who want or want it. In this respect, the individual's own dynamics (developmental psychology and R. Oerter, L. Montada, 2002) play an important role in achieving autonomy. A child or adolescent without a clear idea of ​​autonomy will find it difficult to emancipate themselves from their parents.

Even the most responsible educator has an ambivalent relationship to the autonomy of the pupil, since the factual autonomy of the adolescent can be assessed emotionally as a loss and rationally as a danger to the child, quite apart from the risks that arise from the first experiences with autonomy for the child or to the young people (see: Ambiguity ).

Reproductive medicine

In the context of reproductive medicine , the term “reproductive autonomy” stands for the ability of women to make self-determined decisions about their own reproduction , such as pregnancy and childbirth . Anyone who takes the position of reproductive autonomy in the bioethical discussion about the possibilities of reproductive medicine is opposing legislative or ethical claims to control or regulate human reproductive behavior.

See also


  • Theodor W. Adorno : Education to come of age. Suhrkamp Taschenbuch 11, Frankfurt am Main 1971, ISBN 3-518-06511-4 .
  • Volker Gerhardt: Self-determination. The principle of individuality, Reclam-Verlag, Stuttgart 1999.
  • Maxi Berger: work, self-confidence and self-determination at Hegel. Series Hegel-Jahrbuch / Sonderband 1, Akademie Verlag, Berlin 2012, ISBN 978-3-05-006036-1 .
  • Cord-Friedrich Berghahn: The risk of autonomy. Studies on Karl Philipp Moritz, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Heinrich Gentz, Friedrich Gilly and Ludwig Tieck. Universitätsverlag Winter, Heidelberg 2012, ISBN 978-3-8253-5988-1 .
  • Cornelius Castoriadis : Autonomy or Barbarism. (Selected Writings Volume 1). Verlag Edition AV, Lich / Hessen 2006, ISBN 3-936049-67-X .
  • Edward L. Deci, Richard M. Ryan: Self-Determination Theory: A Macrotheory of Human Motivation, Development, and Health . In: Canadian Psychology. 49: 182-185 (2008).
  • Karl-Martin Dietz : The discovery of autonomy among the Greeks . (PDF) In: Forum Classicum. 4/2013 pp. 256–262.
  • Immanuel Kant : Foundation for the Metaphysics of Morals. Verlag tredition /, Hamburg 2012, ISBN 978-3-8424-1344-3 .
  • Peter Köck, Hanns Ott: Dictionary for education and instruction. 6th edition, Auer Verlag, Donauwörth 1997, ISBN 3-403-02455-5 .
  • Rolf Oerter, Leo Montada: Developmental Psychology. 5th edition, Beltz PVU Verlag, Weinheim / Basel / Berlin 2002, ISBN 3-621-27479-0 .
  • Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: On human dignity. 4th edition, Zurich 1996, ISBN 3-7175-8124-4 .
  • Fritz Riemann : Basic Forms of Fear . Reinhardt, Munich 2011, ISBN 978-3-497-03749-0 .
  • Wiebke Schrader: The experiment of autonomy. Studies on a Comte and Marx criticism. Amnstersamm 1977.

Web links

Wiktionary: Autonomy  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: Self-determination  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Martin Balluch : Right to autonomy instead of duty to minimize suffering - criticism of consequentialism and pathocentrism. ( Memento of August 13, 2007 in the Internet Archive ) 2007.
  2. Immanuel Kant: Foundation for the Metaphysics of Morals . Hamburg 2012, p. 60.
  3. ^ Theodor W. Adorno: Education to the age of maturity. Suhrkamp Taschenbuch 11, Frankfurt am Main 1971, p. 93.
  4. ^ Karl-Martin Dietz : The discovery of autonomy among the Greeks. In: Forum Classicum 4/2013, p. 256 ( The discovery of autonomy among the Greeks , PDF).
  5. Dietz: The discovery of autonomy among the Greeks.
  6. a b Norbert Boss (Ed.): Roche Lexicon Medicine . 2nd Edition. Hoffmann-La Roche AG and Urban & Schwarzenberg, Munich 1987, ISBN 3-541-13191-8 , online edition
    (a) p. 1770 Lemma “vegetative nervous system” = synonymous with lemma “autonomous nervous system”,
    (b) p. 143 on Lemma "autogenic training"
  7. Tom L. Beauchamp, James F. Childress: Principles of Biomedical Ethics. 6th edition. Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 0-19-533570-8 .
  8. L. Ahnert: Early binding. Munich 2004.
  9. Günter Burkart (ed.): The expansion of the confessional culture - new forms of self-thematization? 2006, ISBN 3-531-14759-5 , pp. 27 .
  10. ^ Edward L. Deci, & Richard M. Ryan (2000): The "What" and "Why" of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior . In: Psychological Inquiry 11 (4), 227-268.
    Edward L. Deci, & Richard M. Ryan (2008): Self-Determination Theory: A Macrotheory of Human Motivation, Development, and Health . In: Canadian Psychology 49, 182-185.
  11. Max Weber In: Economy and Society. Part 1, chap. 1, § 12.
  12. Jens Luedtke: Unemployed: The limits of autonomy. ( Memento from October 1, 2006 in the Internet Archive ) (PDF; 333 kB) abstract
  13. Ulf Bohmann, Stefanie Börner, Diana Lindner, Jörg Oberthür, André Stiegler (eds.): Practices of self-determination. Between subjective demands and institutional function requirements . Springer VS, Wiesbaden 2018, ISBN 978-3-658-14987-1 .
  14. At the moment the reflexes dominate . , Interview by Saskia Blatakes with Andrea Büchler. In: Wiener Zeitung , May 12, 2018.
  15. See more closely: Andrea Büchler : Reproductive Autonomy and Self-Determination: Dimensions, Extent and Limits at the Beginning of Human Life . Helbing Lichtenhahn Verlag, Basel 2017, ISBN 978-3-7190-3959-2 .