Comparing Autonomy & Paternalism: Respect for Persons

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  • 0:00 Personhood
  • 1:09 Autonomy
  • 2:57 Paternalism
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The right to be seen as a person is something we all expect, but what exactly does this mean? In this lesson, explore the ideas of autonomy and paternalism and test your understanding with a brief quiz.


You are a person. I respect that. It may sound strange, but actually this very basic statement is something that people have put a lot of thought into. Do we respect all people as people? Today, the de facto answer is 'yes,' often followed by 'duh,' but unfortunately, that wasn't always the case across history. People had to fight for the right to be recognized as individual, rational, capable people, and actually, it wasn't until after World War II that the first internationally recognized treatise on human rights was established.

That document was the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948. The basic premise of this is that the personhood, recognition as a rational individual, of all people must be equally respected. No one person is more a person than any other person. Guess it's no surprise, then, that this debate can get pretty personal.


So you are a person. In the realms of philosophy, political science, social science, and really, any academic discipline dealing with people, this simple idea is referred to as autonomy, the capacity of an individual for self-determination. Basically, autonomy is just the belief that you, as an individual person, are capable of making your own decisions.

This sounds simple enough, but once you've established this basic truth, it quickly develops into the belief that you have a right to be autonomous, which, in turn, means that political systems must respect your personhood. And with that, goodbye slavery, goodbye non-representative government, goodbye oppression. At least, theoretically. But you can see why the idea of autonomy is so important.

That's autonomy at its most basic. If we want to be more specific, we can break that into personal autonomy, the capacity to choose your own actions; moral autonomy, the capacity to define your own morality; and political autonomy, the right to have your decisions respected within a political context. But at the end of the day, theories on autonomy always come back to the ability of the individual to make his or her own choices.

This idea is about as old as Western philosophy itself, with Plato and Aristotle arguing that the most fundamentally human part of the soul is the part that rationally makes individual decisions. In our modern world, the concept of autonomy is most often used when talking about human rights, just as with that Universal Declaration created by the UN in 1948.


If autonomy is the capacity for self-determination, then the opposite would be an inability to make your own decisions. There have been several ways to support the belief that some people aren't really capable of making their own decisions, but one of the most common is paternalism. This is an interference with another's autonomy based on the assumption that it is ultimately beneficial to that person.

In other words, I assume that I know what's in your best interest better than you do, because you are somehow unable to make that decision yourself. If you think this sounds suspiciously like a parent talking down to a child, well, that's the idea, and that's why it's called paternalism. One group essentially takes on the role of the parent, the other, the child.

This logic was often used to justify imperialism and colonialism under the assumption that Western people were more advanced than non-Western people. Empires would come into an area and tell everyone how to live, what religion to worship, and what jobs to work because, obviously, these primitive people are too stupid to know how much they secretly want to be like us. That was the mentality. Paternalism was a dangerous force because it infringed upon personal autonomy while defending it as morally right by saying that those people were better off by being told what to do.

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